October 24, 2017 - Cornell University

Okay, let's get this out of the way.

YES, I was tickled immensely by the idea of performing The Odyssey in Ithaca (which, as you probably know, is the name of Odysseus' island home).

YES, I brought it up every chance I got and YES I made a bad joke before my performance at Cornell University, which went something like this: 

"In July I performed The Odyssey in Troy... alaBAMA, and now, three months later, I'm performing it in Ithaca... new YORK... so I beat Odysseus's Troy to Ithaca time by... 9 YEARS and 9 MONTHS!"

(A mixture of groans and laughter*)

(*Okay, mostly groans)

Whew.  

Bad jokes aside, performing in Ithaca was a good chance for me to reflect on the concept of "home" and its place in odysseys: both Homer's and my own.

One of the reasons The Odyssey was my favorite text as an undergrad was that I studied it in four different classes: Classical Myth, Ancient Lit in Trans, Greek, and Comp Lit.

Mix these varied and rich courses with Mary Zimmerman's staging of The Odyssey at The Goodman in 1999 and the release of Oh Brother Where Art Thou in 2000 and by 2001 you get someone (me, that is) inspired and equipped to go about creating his own interpretation.  

Throughout all this exposure to The Odyssey, two themes interested me the most: Home and identity. 

And really, home is part and parcel to identity.

For an Ancient Greek warrior king like Odysseus, home didn't just symbolize who he was: his role as King of Ithaca constituted his entire identity.  Being kept away from home therefore deprived him of being a whole person (another reason becoming "Nobody" in Polyphemus' cave is so appropriate - and frankly, while we're discussing it, that pun is every bit as groan-worthy as my Troy-Ithaca humor).

I suspect, though, that Odysseus' relationship to home was more complex and nuanced than could be solved by his return and reclamation of his proper role as King. I believe there is a constant tension between the identity he derives from being out on the sea as a wanderer/explorer/polytropos searcher, and the desire to be home and embrace his societally proper identity.  

This tension is what makes him interesting to me and this portrayal of the struggle between different strains of identity (home vs individual experience) strikes me as relevant, real, timeless, and wherein lies the enduring true genius of The Odyssey as a story:
we're all in a continual struggle to piece together our identities as some mixture of our home(s) and our experiences.

So back to Ithaca (New York).

It was a gorgeous fall day and I strolled the campus with my professor contact, Mike Fontaine.  He showed me several vistas overlooking Cayuga Lake.  We adjourned to the performance space, a beautiful newer auditorium with excellent acoustics.

The crowd filled in and I was off.  I could hear my consonants echo just so slightly around the room, which I love.  

The performance was over and the discussion began and went great.  Several students stuck around after to ask additional questions, always a good sign.  

Mike and I went to dinner and had a great time with a wide ranging conversation.  We shared stories and made plans for further collaborations.  

And then I was back in my hotel room, still buzzing from how well this show at an Ivy League school went and already thinking about the next day's show in Syracuse.  

Here's where I get the tension of Odysseus' journey home: I was simultaneously electric and alive with the experience of the show, excited to do it again the next day... and also missing my Chicago home, my wife, my dog and cat... my Ithaca.

The road and The Odyssey have become my identity AND (not BUT) my heart still lies at home.  

AND I'm okay with navigating those two pieces as so many, including Odysseus, have done. 

Now that I've played Ithaca, can anyone spare an oar?

1 comment

  • Luby Kiriakidi
    Luby Kiriakidi
    Hi Joe! I'm a student at Cornell and a Paideia Institute alum. I'm sorry I missed your show in Ithaca - I had fencing practice that I could not miss- but I heard it went well. I hope to see your performance in the near future! And I appreciate your Troy-Ithaca joke. There's something fascinating about groan-worthy jokes and puns and our attachment to them. It might not be so awful after all. Best, Luby Kiriakidi

    Hi Joe!
    I'm a student at Cornell and a Paideia Institute alum. I'm sorry I missed your show in Ithaca - I had fencing practice that I could not miss- but I heard it went well. I hope to see your performance in the near future! And I appreciate your Troy-Ithaca joke. There's something fascinating about groan-worthy jokes and puns and our attachment to them. It might not be so awful after all.
    Best,
    Luby Kiriakidi

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