by Emily Popp, Rhodes College
Walking up to the stage I know that in a matter of seconds I will have taken on an entirely absurd character and my scene partner and I will be fully engaged in some sort of conflict. But as my mouth begins to open, I have no idea what I am going to say. Neither does my scene partner, and so the heavy excitement of the unrehearsed hangs in the room. When reading The Odyssey during the first semester of my Humanities course, The Search for Values in the Light of Western History and Religion, I was able to relate to Homer's Odysseus as a fellow improvisational actor. As an improv actor I approach the scene as a blank slate, and I expect not to know what to say until I have already started speaking. My job becomes to thwart these obstacles, creating an entertaining scene that appears much more effortless than it is. In the same sense, it is Odysseus's job to improvise; Odysseus receives his namesake as a result of his journey, not reaching his destination. As frustrating as it can be for myself and Odysseus to not always reaching our destinations after thwarting disaster, we have still successfully fulfilled our namesakes as either the "man of twists and turns" or college member of an improvisational troupe. After reading The Odyssey I was able to look at improvisation, and in turn, the performing arts, in a new light. Through Odysseus' tribulations it becomes clear to me that in a show, it is inevitable that often characters will remain undeveloped, scenes will never be finished, and conflicts never resolved. I hang on to the hope that I will grow as an actor upon the completion of each unrehearsed scene, not far from the way that Odysseus clings to the memory of Penelope. From the study of Homer's epic The Odyssey it has become clear to me that that by focusing on my journey I also can reach my Ithaca.
Performers are expected to be sharp-witted, quick to react, and resilient. The "foxy, ingenious" Odysseus possesses all the traits of an actor. (Ody. XVII 323) As an actor who does not use a script, I also must be fox-like in order to deceive the audience. In actuality, I know what I am going to say only seconds before I say it. If an audience member were to freeze the action mid-scene and ask me how it ends, I would have to respond with, "I have absolutely no idea." When Odysseus enters the cave of Polyphemus with his men, he expects adventure but he conjures up the plan of blinding the Cyclops and escaping by tying his men to the under bellies of the giant sheep instantaneously. "Deception" has such a negative, dishonest connotation to most, but Homer deals with deception in a much kinder light. When reading The Odyssey it was refreshing to see that cunning wit and trickery could at times be considered an art rather than an offense. One of Odysseus's most memorable performances of deception is when he returns to Ithaca disguised as a disheveled beggar. Refusing to immediately reveal himself, he gathers information from his swineherd, Eumaeus, while also testing the man's loyalty, as Eumaeus remains hospitable to Odysseus even when he thinks him to be a lowly vagrant, offering him shelter and a meal. Shedding his rough disguise as a beggar, Odysseus also costumes himself as that of an attractive, infinitely charming man who speaks softly and kindly to the young Nausicaa when he washes up on her shore. Odysseus floods her with compliments, poetically describing her as, "a young slip of a palm-tree springing into the light," and in doing so, falls quickly into her good graces. (Ody. VI 194-95) With each performance, Odysseus finds himself closer to his wife and son. Homer treats these forms of trickery as instrumental to the advancement of Odysseus' journey, rather than immoral. He applauds Odysseus's ability to draw from an amalgam of characters, dressing himself in whatever personality is appropriate, moving forward towards in his journey and goal.
When reading The Odyssey I was not only struck by the glorification of deception through Odysseus's role as an improvisational actor, but also by the appreciation and power of the performing arts as a broad genre. An especially poignant scene depicts Demodocus, the blind bard, singing to the disguised Odysseus of Troy, and the personal acclaim that Odysseus gained and the men that he lost. These lyrics dissolve Odysseus to tears, underscoring the power of the performing arts, and giving it yet another dimension. As with improvisational theater, it is not nearly as linear as it may appear. There is much more than simply deception; rather, the bard's song has the ability to reduce a man to tears who has sustained so much adversity rarely losing his equilibrium. Performance is not simply a means of manipulation, but rather a means of calling on the emotions, and deeply felt pity and sadness for the losses during war that only the song can evoke.
Homer recognizes performance as intricate and multi-layered, but also illustrated in The Odyssey is an especial emphasis on the actual process as opposed to what appears to the audience, or those on the receiving end of the performance, in the case of Odysseus. Shocked at the disguised Odysseus's plan to attack Penelope's suitors, Eumaeus exclaims, "You must be hell-bent on destruction, on the spot,/ if you're keen to mingle with that mob of suitors…" (Ody. XV 364-65). What appears absurd in theory falls together seamlessly in reality. The idea of entertaining a crowd anxious to laugh without any rehearsed script sounds implausible and ripe for failure, but it is not until the execution that things fall into place. Odysseus's kind swineherd is proved wrong as Odysseus successfully ambushes all of Penelope's suitors. Odysseus' performance possesses a much more serious, darker undertone towards the end of the epic poem. During the bloody slaughter of the suitors Homer describes Odysseus as the, "battle-master" who "kept on glaring, seething" (Ody. XXII 64). This is far from the reserved, humble beggar or the man who gently spoke to Nausicaa. Quite the contrary, the word "seething" evokes an image of a blood thirsty animal. Again, all of these costumes that Odysseus wears so well contribute to completing his goal, advancing his journey.
Through reading The Odyssey it is clear to me that throughout all his performances Odysseus reaches beyond the tangible. It is not simply his land and crown he wishes to regain, but more importantly he desperately wants to return to the comfort that his wife, Penelope, and his son provide him. When performing, whether it is an improvised scene or a written, rehearsed, full-length play my goal as an actor is not to finish the show with roaring applause, but rather to make a personal advancement to my skill that is not tangible. A crown can be worn and laughter can be heard, and so these are both temporarily satisfying, but it is the steps forward in the evolution of the journey that is most valuable to all performers, Odysseus and myself included. Although our ultimate goal may not immediately be met, as actors, through taking on different characters we are able to thwart our own potential disasters. Fuming and bent on destruction, Odysseus is able to defeat Penelope's suitors. As an improvisational actor, I thwart disaster by finding a creative way to end a scene that may have lost focus and is dragging. All of this must happen quickly, without time for vacillation. If Odysseus were to hesitate during the slaughter of the suitors he could have given his enemies time to piece together his plan, and then revolt. If I were to pause longer than a moment in between lines the energy of the scene would quickly slip away. Perhaps Odysseus's greatest strength as an actor is his ability to rise above uncertainty. Odysseus is constantly unaware of exactly what challenge awaits him next, whether it is avoiding the tempting Island of the Sirens, escaping the goddess Circe, or outwitting Polyphemus, the Cyclops. Body, voice and mind must work simultaneously and so the importance of trusting one's instincts is underscored.
With each blunder, slip up, or hesitation I make I take a step forward. When the show ends and the curtain falls, it does not open again to reveal my Ithaca. After Odysseus escapes Circe's island, or blinds the Cyclops he does not reach his homeland. A successful performance does not mean meeting the ultimate goal. If Odysseus were to consider himself a failure every time he encountered an adventure and circumvented danger but did not reach Ithaca he would have never been reunited with his faithful wife and son. Odysseus like all improvisational actors is, "a man of twists and turns/ driven time and again off course" (Ody. I 1-2). But it is the twists and turns that create the epic and the twists and turns that fill an audience. It is comforting to know that like Odysseus, if I focus on the process and not expect immediate long-term gratification, I also can be the "wanderer of home at last" (Ody. XIII 351).
Fagles, Robert. Trans. The Odyssey. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1996.