Play: An Iliad for Our Generation (Act I) The Society August 30, 2012 Poetry 1 Comment In this refashioned version of Homer’s Iliad, the mystical hero Achilles clashes with the doubting King Agamemnon over a woman, throwing the fate of the Trojan War, and more, into jeopardy. [Featured image of Sabin Howard’s sculpture “Apollo”.] By Evan Mantyk ACT I SCENE I On the shores of Hellespont, the Achaean King Agamemnon enters looking troubled. He sees bodies on the ground and inspects them. AGAMEMNON Dying. Dead. Dreadful disease. How it kills with such ease. What strange circumstance is life? Gone by chance not by knife. Enter Nestor and Patroclus. They bow. NESTOR and PATROCLUS Your lordship. AGAMEMNON Wise Nestor, Swift Patroclus. Thank the Gods you are here! I fear these ten years may have all been wasted. It may not be the Trojans who kill us but this infernal plague. NESTOR Yes, it is most unfortunate AGAMEMNON Look at them, they have fought bravely in battle only to die miserably like prisoners in some invisible cell. NESTOR My lord, if we may have your royal ear for a moment. AGAMEMNON You may. NESTOR The people have been saying that we have offended the Archer God Apollo. PATROCLUS His arrows, laced with the plague are cast into our camp, picking off— AGAMEMNON Aaaghhh. This is nonsense. Who said this? PATROCLUS Well, there is not one per se AGAMEMNON Have any of the heroes uttered this drivel? Nestor and Patroclus look at each other. AGAMEMNON Your silence gives it away. Probably the Supposed Half-God Achilles, I suspect. PATROCLUS They say he speaks with the Gods. AGAMEMNON Well I drink with the Gods. So what?! I can only take so much of this. Didn’t we sacrifice something or other for the Archer God, what was it, two days ago. A calf, or sheep or something. NESTOR Yes, two sheep, we did for each of the major gods. PATROCLUS Just to make sure we are covered. AGAMEMNON Then, what!? … What do Achaeans want from me? Sacrifice me? Nestor. Why have you gone all silent and pensive looking. I see wheels turning in your slightly daft mind. Like wheels on a chariot, carrying you further away from me. NESTOR It is the young Trojan woman Chryseis, your prize. AGAMEMNON Oh, not this. NESTOR Ten days ago to this day, did Chryses, father of Chryseis and priest of Apollo, not come here humbly and offer you a finely woven tapestry in exchange for her return, and you refused? AGAMEMNON Of course I did old man! We all got women. (Patroclus, you got one?) PATROCLUS (No.) AGAMEMNON Well the heroes got prizes. Me, Odysseus, Achilles, the two Ajaxes, Diomedes… Were none of them daughters of priests of some God or other. Come on! NESTOR I see… Agamemnon walks down center stage, talks to fourth wall, his back to Nestor and Patroclus. AGAMEMNON Nestor, we have to be down to earth, to really get things done, you know that. It’s like when you got here. I said “thank the Gods,” but I might as well have said “thank the odds.” I mean I didn’t specifically fetch you, and I was feeling particularly depressed by the decomposing bodies and what not, and there you came trotting along to my stretch of the beach. Was it arranged by the Gods? Probably just a coincidence; this beach is only so big after all and you were looking for me. It was bound to happen. But people don’t like to say “thank the odds,” they prefer something more grand: “thank the Gods” they say. And that’s usually fine. People fear Zeus and they should fear me just the same. Apollo enters unseen while Agamemnon talks and shoots an arrow into Patroclus’s stomach. AGAMEMNON You know what I mean? Patroclus grips his stomach and keels over into Nestor’s arms. NESTOR Patroclus. AGAMEMNON You see Nestor, I think Patroclus and the younger men get it. Is it really some invisible arrows at work? More likely I think it’s the heavy rains we just had. They flooded our sewage trenches and contaminated our drinking supply. A bit of bad luck. Move the sewage, give it a few weeks, we’ll be good as new. Ten years is a long time and damn it we deserve victory! We overcome the plague, then we clinch this thing once and for all. I’ve got a plan. I’ll tell the people Thunder God Zeus visited me in a dream and promised us victory. Then, we’ll storm Troy, take back the Beauty Helen, who was rightfully my brother’s, and burn the Walled City to the ground. The riches and glory will finally be ours. Apollo shoots an arrow into Nestor’s throat, he hacks and coughs and sits down on the ground, trying to talk through the cough. NESTOR I think—[cough]—we need to do something—[cough] AGAMEMNON Spit it out man. NESTOR —for Patroclus Agamemnon turns around. AGAMEMNON What? Nestor? Patroclus? ACT I SCENE II Achilles practices with his sword, Nestor enters coughing and looking sick. NESTOR Greetings—[cough]—Mighty Achilles ACHILLES Nestor, what ails you so? NESTOR I fear—[cough]—this damned plague will soon end my life like so—[cough]—like so many others. ACHILLES Sit down, here, drink some water. NESTOR I am not in half so bad a shape as Patroclus. He teeters —[cough]—between life and death. ACHILLES I was unaware. I’ll have him brought to me. He is a dear old friend. I’ll have my personal attendants see to his care. Briseis, take Epeigeus and Bathycles, and fetch Patroclus at once, treat him with the best herbs. NESTOR Briseis is a fine prize isn’t she? ACHILLES She is as good with herbs as she is lovely to look at. NESTOR Yes, indeed. ACHILLES But, tell of our king. NESTOR Yes, our king seems to have traded in the war against the Trojans—[cough]—with war against the Gods. ACHILLES Then he refuses to return Chryseis. He spits in the Archer God’s eye. NESTOR I fear it is so. ACHILLES How stupid this king is. Whatever is convenient, whatever is expedient, as long as it serves his end. And when it doesn’t, then he doesn’t care. And we are dragged along with his stupidity. NESTOR You speak—[cough]—as if you are already old and worn like me, young warrior. ACHILLES It’s like the waves of the sea out there. All the Achaeans together under their king are still but a tiny ripple, completely oblivious to the giant waves that are the gods; That control everything. NESTOR Yes, it is so. ACHILLES We should ride the waves, not crash against them. NESTOR And for those of us standing on the shore—[cough]—sipping the water and watching the waves? ACHILLES We are driven mad, Nestor, we are driven bitter and mad. NESTOR Do not worry so much—[cough]—Your life will be short like a twig thrown into a roaring fire, exhausted quickly. We’ll see how blind our king is. He’s called a meeting tomorrow at dawn. ACHILLES His plan? NESTOR An ungodly one no doubt. ACT I SCENE III Agamemnon addresses the crowd of heroes and Achaean troops. Nestor stands beside him. AGAMEMNON The plan is very simple. We create a new sewage area fifty yards to the south further away from the streams where most of us drink our water. Odysseus, you and your men will be in charge of digging holes. The two Ajaxes and their men are in charge of burning the existing bodies of those who have died from the plague. While all of the work is going on, Diomedes and his men will keep constant watch on the Trojans and will challenge any move they make in daylight… Agamemnon whispers to Nestor Why do they all look so uneasy? NESTOR [clears his throat], Perhaps—[coughs]—they wonder about Achilles and his men, my Lord. AGAMEMNON Yes, perhaps. Agamemnon outloud And, oh yes, Achilles and his men will clean out the shit holes! … It’s just a joke. Achilles stands ACHILLES My Lord, you sick animal, I must point out that you seemed to avoid the matter at hand. AGAMEMNON Ah, Achilles, the Half-God, what issue is it that you speak of? ACHILLES You must give Chryseis back to her father. Take his damn tapestry. Only then will the Archer God stop shooting our troops. AGAMEMNON Yes, yes, I’ve heard it before. (Seems slightly absurd.) If that is indeed the case however, then I shall indeed give Chryseis back to her father. Okay? Achilles sits back down. AGAMEMNON Of course, for me to give up my female prize that so many others already have, would not be fitting my position as king of the Achaeans. It would be a disgrace to Achaeans themselves. Rather than create some angst among our troops by selecting one out of my own fancy, it only makes sense that the prize of the one who was bold enough to make this suggestion be given to me. Achilles’ prize, the Fair-Skinned Briseis then should rightfully be mine. Do you consent to this plan Achilles? ACHILLES Are you serious? What idiotic reasoning busies your degenerate mind? Did we not come here because Paris of Troy stole Helen from your brother? Now you have stolen a different man’s woman and this man is a priest of Apollo, who is outraged by the injustice, just as you are outraged by Paris stealing Helen. That is the true situation. And that is why this plague has been brought upon us. But, now you seek to correct your wrong with stealing yet a different man’s woman? Shall we spend another ten years here before we realize that hypocrisy is cursed by the Gods? AGAMEMNON Achilles, my loyal subject, they call you half-god, but it should be half-odd, for you stray, like a rambling old man, from the matter at hand, as you say. I will give up Chryseis back to her father, the priest of Apollo and (supposedly) end Apollo’s arrows, I have said so in front of all the heroes here, but to make that happen you must give me Fair-Skinned Briseis. It is your choice now. If you believe in your elaborate (however dubious) explanation of your very particular interpretation of the Gods’ will then you will consent and end this matter. And meanwhile, we will also sort out this sewage issue. Agamemnon and Nestor go into tableau. Thetis appears and Apollo appears with his bow cocked and pointed toward the air, so that if it were shot it would rain an arrow down upon the Achaeans. ACHILLES Shall I kill this man right now? Sacrifice him like a cow? THETIS Take your hand off that hilt. Kill the King be crushed by guilt. ACHILLES Mother Thetis, my love for Briseis, My hate for this man are a perfect inverse. THETIS Then what is it my troubled son you want? For such massive sin will forever haunt, You would kill your king over this woman, Or because this great war you want to win? Entangled by emotions’ heavy mesh, Paralyzed by lust for fair-colored flesh. ACHILLES Can a man not love? Once the fire is set It must burn. If she’s away, he will fret. As sure as the sun will rise and warm earth And a man’s body will go cold with death, A man will fall in love with a woman, BUT, my issue with him transcends women He refuses to see the basic fallacy, Of stealing other men’s women for his fancy. Does that not touch the heart of this long war? Is that not the issue at its deepest core? THETIS Did you not steal Briseis for your fancy And practice the very same fallacy? ACHILLES Mother, what madness you spin around me, So I doubt everything I feel and see! The difference you and I know full well If I upset any god in heaven or hell By taking Briseis, then I’ll return her Of that fact I am absolutely sure, But how can I follow his childish will With my own sword I’d rather be killed. THETIS Every man, including you, must seek virtue, To strive toward what is noble and true, And if a man can see the gods, like you, Then that much higher are virtue’s dues, Paying them will be that much harder And virtue’s return is that much greater. Hush now, I have spoken, you must obey Swallow your anger now without delay. Achilles continues to look at Thetis, who no other mortal can see. Agamemnon and Nestor comes out of tableau. AGAMEMNON What are you looking at, man? You see a eagle or something? ACHILLES My lord, your will is my command. I shall have Briseis delivered to you at once. Apollo lowers his bow and exits, satisfied. AGAMEMNON Well, I’m glad you’ve come to your— ACHILLES But know this: my sword has gone blind with this injustice. It can no longer discern whether this enemy is over there in the walled city of Troy or here among us. I cannot return to battle until it becomes clear again. NESTOR My throat feels better already. ACT I SCENE IV Agamemnon wakes up in the middle of the night, rolls over and shakes Nestor. AGAMEMNON Nestor, Nestor, wake up. NESTOR Hm? Yes, what, what is it my lord? AGAMEMNON You know how tomorrow, I had planned to tell everyone that I had a dream that Thunder God Zeus had come to me. NESTOR Yes. AGAMEMNON And had told me that now was the time for all-out war and we could be victorious against the Trojans once and for all. NESTOR I remember you were mentioning something about— AGAMEMNON Just now, I actually dreamt it. That Zeus came and whispered into my ear that we would emerge victorious and now was the time to do it. NESTOR Well, the troops are strong now that Apollo’s arrows have stopped tormenting Achaeans. Sounds promising. AGAMEMNON Yes, it does. … You don’t think he was lying to me do you? ACT I SCENE V Agamemnon barks orders to his troops AGAMEMNON Achaeans ready for battle! Now is the moment, ordained by a dream from the Cloud Gather Zeus, that we take the Walled City Troy and put the head of Priam’s Most Beautiful Son Paris on my spear. We shall see him try to kiss my brother’s wife Helen then with his cold lifeless lips. Hey, you there, the ones who hang back. What are you, cowards? Do you want the Trojans to set fire to our ships tonight? Are you waiting to flee before they arrive, so you’re first ones back to the ships? Grab your spears, cowards! The chattering of your nervous teeth annoys me. At least die while standing firm, not fidgeting! Idomeneus! Are you not the first to get in line for food and drink, but you are the last to battle. Look alive man or you’ll be starving in Hades shortly. And who is that? The great Odysseus, aren’t you supposed to be one of the greatest heroes. Why do you move so slow? Did your legs fall asleep while you were kneeling smelling some pretty pink flowers on the— [speaking quietly to Odysseus] Oh … oh right … No, no, I don’t want to offend you … I’m just trying to get the troops’ spirits ready for battle— [loud again] Hey, you there, not too fast! Keep a steady pace, follow Odysseus here. Everyone should stay together, not too fast and not too slow to form a solid unit. That’s how our father’s fought and our fathers’ fathers fought! They were wise! ACT I SCENE VI Achilles and Patroclus, still recovering, sit together. Achilles strums his lyre. PATROCLUS Tell me, Achilles, who really is your mother? ACHILLES The Sea Goddess Thetis, of course, you should not that old friend. PATROCLUS Yes, they call her “Silver-Footed Nymph,” right, that’s what everyone says. We used to roam the hills of Phthia together, but, you know, I never remember seeing this silver-footed mother of yours. ACHILLES The Gods don’t casually show themselves to mortals. PATROCLUS Yes, of course. … You know what the King says? ACHILLES No, tell me, what does he say? PATROCLUS He says that your father Peleus impregnated some priestess who lived by the sea and he took you away when you were old enough to be away from your mother’s tit. ACHILLES Ha! Well, what do you believe? PATROCLUS Of course, I’m obliged to agree with my wise and benevolent host in whatever version of events he thinks is most accurate. ACHILLES Especially when he is caring for your health. PATROCLUS Especially when he is caring for my health… Sorry, I’m just trying to pass the time. To think, almost everyone has recovered accept for me and they are launching a full attack on Troy. Look at the dust in the distance rising up from the sea of troops charging forward. It’s a glorious sight. ACHILLES You’re lucky you didn’t die. Thank Briseis’s herbs for that. Listen, I’ll tell you something to pass the time then. You know, Gods can do whatever they want. Like my hand on this lyre. Human beings are fixed here on the earth like this. We think we can move around and accomplish so much, and we do have a lot of potential, but without that hand we aren’t really much at all. And so, a God can come along and pluck whatever melody he or she wants upon the lives of men. That God can play a war song, or a love song, a sad song or a happy song. So, you tell me that this one string here was a priestess who lived by the sea. Can I say that you are wrong? I can’t. But who gives a damn about a string!? The question is who plucked the string that began that gorgeous melody. Who was that musician? Was her name Thetis? Perhaps. PATROCLUS You are wise, my old friend. My mind feels like it’s been tied all up and now has been somehow undone. Tell me more. They say you can see the Gods. Is it true? ACHILLES Actually, everyone can see them. They just can’t distinguish them. The race of man is something like babies who have no idea what transpires above their heads. They see colors, they see shapes, they hear noises, but it all doesn’t quite make sense to them. It all seems disordered and confusing. It seems like chance has rescued them or condemned them and there is nothing they can do about it. PATROCLUS Except for you, you can see? ACHILLES Some priests can discern them, some can’t, some discern more, some discern less. Some simply sense things and don’t make out any images. They have no idea that they are communicating, but they actually are. PATROCLUS Interesting. You always were a bit strange. ACHILLES You know, those who discern the most are usually the greatest heroes. That’s my experience. For they are not quite as enamored with the desires and pursuits of this earthly world as your average man, or king for that matter. PATROCLUS Like Hercules. ACHILLES Yes, exactly. Also, you know Hector, that mighty Trojan, the brother of Paris? PATROCLUS Yes, the one who has killed so many of our fellow Achaeans. You think he speaks with the Gods? ACHILLES I am sure of it. ACT I SCENE VII Hector enters, he looks up at a statue of Apollo. HECTOR Oh Apollo. Great god in Olympus. How troubled I am. APOLLO Tell me your troubles and lighten your mind, See if a solution I can not find. HECTOR If only you could speak. Trojans want me to fight, to lead them to victory, but how can I? They do not even want to fight themselves. The Achaeans face them down now as I speak, splatter their blood. But in their minds you can read it as clear as day. They do not curse the Achaeans who want to conquer our city, they curse at my brother, Paris, who stole Helen from King Agamemnon’s brother and brought this war upon us. And that’s not all! Look there, weeping in her window is Helen. You can almost hear her whispering to herself: “I’m a whore, I’m a whore, I wish I never lived.” Disgusting. What, am I fighting for that? For that self-proclaimed “whore”? And Paris, the spoiled baby. I could be inspired to fight, but when I look at him just walking around carefree, dressed for leisure, I feel inspired to hide in my bed. Curse them all! APOLLO Hector, think of your father, King Priam, Who shepherded you like a baby lamb, And all the Trojans who truly love you, And would not take from you what’s not their due, Shall they all be butchered while you sit there Contemplating why you should fight or care, The war with the Achaeans was fated, And by divine events had been slated, If Helen were not stolen by Paris, Some other event would have brought you to this. HECTOR Perhaps the Achaeans would have simply laid siege to us, because they wanted our riches. Or one of my many other brothers would have killed Helen’s Achaean husband. Whatever, it is we are here. APOLLO Whether you live or you die, HECTOR Whether I live or I die, APOLLO Matters not and do not cry. HECTOR Matters not, I will not cry. APOLLO For to be a great man on earth, HECTOR For to be a great man on earth, APOLLO You must prove what you are worth, HECTOR I must prove what I am worth. You, crafty Archer God, your stone lips have spoken not a word, yet I feel I can hear you. Shivers run up my spine. Hector puts on his helmet and walks to battle, then stops. Paris, miserable, wretched brother. Grab your spear and shield! Troy will not fall while we are still alive! Come now. ACT I SCENE VIII Agamemnon and Nestor enter, fleeing the Trojans. Agamemnon is wounded. AGAMEMNON Well, what was the West flank like? NESTOR It is even worse there. Hector moves about, rallying all of them. Like a thunder cloud shooting black rain upon us. AGAMEMNON Yes, yes, I’ve seen it. Wait, stop here, we’ll be safe for the moment anyway. I am growing weak from this spear wound. NESTOR My Lord, let us make an offering to Achilles. Please. Give him what he wants. We need him and his legion more now than ever. If Hector, keeps pushing forward, our ships will be on fire by sundown. Achilles’ ships too. AGAMEMNON Wise Nestor, I think you are right for once about Achilles. (Or perhaps I am just feeling light headed from this wound.) Anyway, we’ll give him back Briseis, and more. Write this down. Twenty Trojan women, one of my beautiful daughters too. I’ll honor him by making him my son-in-law. Riches too. Everything he could imagine. Ten gold talents, ten—no twenty cauldrons, a dozen of the strongest horses. How could he refuse? NESTOR It’s the only way. AGAMEMNON Yes it— Agamemnon faints NESTOR My lord! ACT I SCENE IX Nestor reads a scroll to Achilles and Patroclus. NESTOR King Agamemnon will give you back Briseis, Twenty Trojan women, one of his beautiful daughters, making you his royal son-in-law, seven skilled women from Lesbos, ten gold talents, twenty cauldrons, and a dozen of the strongest horses. ACHILLES And if we refuse? NESTOR Then Hector will burn your ships as sure as he’ll burn our own. ACHILLES Shall we be bought? Patroclus, what do you make of this? PATROCLUS What are you talking about? This is not funny, Achilles. We must fight. I am under your command now, indebted for my life. Lead us against Hector and the Trojans. Before it’s too late. NESTOR Agamemnon is injured. PATROCLUS Fatally? NESTOR No, but he is not in the battle. The same for Odysseus and Diomedes. Only the two Ajaxes remain among the greatest heroes. ACHILLES What is that makes a hero truly unstoppable and great? NESTOR What is he talking about? PATROCLUS I don’t know. ACHILLES When he moves and takes flight into battle it is like the ocean wave crashing down, you cannot stop it, but neither can you buy it with women or with riches. PATROCLUS You’re mad. ACHILLES It is a thing of nature. NESTOR Young Achilles, regain your senses, please. Look at me. Have I not told you the story of how when I was very young man, I had helped capture and bring my father, Lord Neleus, a herd of animals, including many horses. Yet, when the day for battle against the Epeans came, he said I was not prepared for war yet, he took the horses away, and did not let me ride a single one. But, did I sit out and pout like you do now, Young Achilles? No, when Athena, Goddess of War, bid all of our men into battle, I could not sit back. So, what did I do? I ran on foot side-by-side with their horses. And it was I who got the first kill, getting my own horses and rejoining the battle. ACHILLES You tell a good story, old man. But this is different than a skirmish between you and the Epeans. I have already fought one hundred of those. The Gods told me long ago that my fate is tied to this war. I will die fighting before it is over. I shall forever be remembered and my name shall be a thing of glory, carried upon wings whenever anyone utters it. NESTOR Is that right, glorious Achilles? ACHILLES So, you see, I shirk no responsibility. This war is my entire life—or the rest of it anyway—and there is nothing to escape. I will return to combat when my sight on the battlefield has returned. Still I do not know if that man who commands our troops is friend or foe. Would a foe not offer gifts to his enemy if he could get what he wants from him? PATROCLUS Wise Nestor, obviously his vision is fine. He thinks he has cured the plague, by convincing the King to appease the priest Apollo. Tell him, that is not the case. NESTOR I feel I cannot reach him. PATROCLUS Achilles, do you not know that they moved the sewage area away from our drinking water?. Everyone knows that’s what really saved us. Not you or any God. NESTOR Son of Peleus, do you want some time to think it over? ACHILLES Well … No. NESTOR This is most unfortunate. END OF ACT I Related Post ‘Hope’ and Other Poetry by Neil Dachstadter Hope What task be done, you thought was not? 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