November 15, 2017 - Francis W. Parker School, Chicago

The Odyssey is having a nice moment here at the end of 2017.  

Emily Wilson's new translation (the first by a woman) is in the news and getting rave reviews.

Daniel Mendelsohn's memoir/meditation on The Odyssey and his father is drawing notice and even Richard Thomas' Bob Dylan book places the figure of Odysseus front and center in understanding the modern mercurial troubadour.

All in all this bodes well for my 2018 calendar, which is already filling up nicely.

My last performance of 2017 was also my closest to home: I made the short drive to Francis W. Parker school in Chicago for the third year in a row to perform for the sophomore class.

Most of my early audiences were of the high school variety and there's still something very special to me in trying to help younger students access the magic of The Odyssey in a creative way: it really is at the core of why I wrote my piece.  

High school audiences also tend to be drawn to particular parts of the story: the famous adventures and monsters of course, but also questions of fidelity and morality, especially with respect to the double standards that play out around gender.  This is particularly relevant right now because Emily Wilson's translation so deftly addresses many of these issues.

So after I finished performing for a wonderfully quiet room of 15 year olds, sure enough, our discussion turned to this very place: Odysseus is unfaithful to Penelope while Penelope is expected to be faithful to Odysseus. What's up with that?

My standard answer starts with the idea that we are applying our modern morals to an ancient story.  For the ancient Greeks this would have probably not posed a moral dissonance at all (or at least a much smaller one): this was the way their patriarchal society was structured (fairly or, as we think now, not fairly, and oh by the way: might this possibly still be relevant today? Yes, yes, I think so).

After bringing up that angle I usually pivot to something that interests me more: the portrayal of Odysseus as both unfaithful to Penelope with Circe and Calypso but also at the same time as wanting to get home to her.  What strikes me about this is how real a portrait it is of human behavior.  We are all capable of wanting one thing (and truly and sincerely wanting it) and doing something that contradicts this idealized desire.  In fact, that's how most people behave is many facets of life, not just with respect to relationships.   This "realism" is something I find compelling throughout the entire Odyssey and it is my opinion that the portrayal of this human truth is the genius of the story.

I was also lucky enough to have a professor hip me to some of the quiet ways Penelope is empowered throughout the story, ways which would have likely been pretty radical for the Greek audience and society.  There is one (fairly out there) school of thought that even suggests that The Odyssey was written by a woman (whatever that means).

There's enough ambiguity in the text to allow that Penelope is in control of the entire set of circumstances that allows Odysseus to reveal himself and reclaim his true identity and is perhaps the intellectual equal (or superior) of the hero the Greeks considered the cleverest of all. I often think of the relationship between Skyler and Walter White in Breaking Bad as a child of the Penelope/Odysseus dynamic.

The point of this is to say: we can feel as if Penelope gets treated unfairly and subjected to a double standard but I don't think we should feel sorry for her.  She is an amazing and strong character particularly in light of the culture she inhabits.

The second song I wrote for her is near the end of the story and it captures the moment she tricks Odysseus into completely reveling that he is indeed who he says he is. It's a remarkable moment in both style and substance and the one in which she shows herself the equal or better of Odysseus.  To make the connection between the two, I use the same music I used for a weary Odysseus after he struggled ashore in Phaeacia.  


I feel hope burning inside
I feel your heart alive in me
Oh live in me like I live in you
Live in me like I live in you

Are you the man to whom I wed?
Are you the man who built this bed?
I have no choice but to test your heart
So for tonight we'll sleep apart

This is often my favorite song to sing.  The not-so-veiled sexual allusion of "live in me" (he's been gone 20 years fear chrissakes!), the merging of the two similar characters into one... and then the fact that in my version this song reduces Odysseus to his absolute barest and most desperate in response to Penelope's test.  I'm continually proud that I was able to write this song in this way when I wrote my piece as a much younger person.

Speaking of that! Yesterday was the 16th anniversary of the day (December 5, 2001) that I began working on my Odyssey and wrote most of the first four songs in nearly the same form in which I sing them today.

That's amazing.

What a great year of singing, thinking, and writing.  

Thanks to those who have kept up and read along: this has been a great addition to my project and it will no doubt continue next year and I push on in my journey to perform this thing in all 50 states.  I have at least two more booked for next year to get to 35 and a number more in the works... getting to 50 looks like it will take me right in the neighborhood of 20 years from composition to completion.

Gee, where have I heard of someone going on a 20 year journey? 

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