During this Edinburgh Festival, non-stop from 8th to 20th August, hundreds of volunteers read the whole Chilcot Report on the decision to go to war in Iraq. The event’s producer said:
“[The report] wasn’t expected to be read. The establishment didn’t expect anyone to read it. Rather like the Latin bible, it’s not for the public, it’s to be shelved away. And yet it has been read here.”
This idea really struck me. Somehow, through the act of performing it, reading it out loud, during a festival, the whole record of a bureaucratic exercise takes on an epic character. It becomes a story, with its heroes (perhaps) and villains (too many, it seems), and a story which we becomes ours to judge and to relive.
It reminded me of the ancient Greek tradition to recite whole epics during festivals, particularly the Iliad which, in its more poetic way, is equally a story of a very misguided war which took a lot longer than anticipated and caused a whole lot of misery all round, and for much longer than intended.
It, too, seems far too long to be performed in any sensible way, and yet, it was done, over and over, and sometimes, people still dare to embark on that venture nowadays. Last year, a performance of the whole epic (in translation) in London took 15 hours to perform. You can still catch it all online (until 21st September 2016). If you want to get a sense of what it would have been like in Greek, here are five mesmerising minutes in the original.
But can we really compare the report of an enquiry with the most sublime poetry? Of course, I am sure Lord Chilcot would not be upset to hear that his prose doesn’t really compare in quality. But the question is rather what it means to perform such a narrative (in whatever form!) for hours on end, and what readers and audiences get from it.
One aspect of reading the Chilcot report was, of course, bringing it out into the open – and making a point about the fact that it matters to all of us, that we should know about what happened. In the case of the Iliad, of course, it was a story everybody knew, and which would hold few surprises for most listeners. Many would know where exactly in the story the performance had got to if they arrived in the middle of the performance and heard a few lines. But I think there is a lot more to the Chilcot reading. Because if you just want to let people know about the content, reading it all aloud in a certain venue is not the best way of going about it. The performance does something different. It is a kind or reliving, participating, thinking ‘what if’, even if –or exactly because – we already know how the story ends (very much how ancient tragedy would have worked as well).
As Rupert Goold, the director of the Almeida Iliad project last year, put it in a tweet:
The Iliad, with all its heroics (see an infographic of heroic death tolls and graphic killings here), is still a complex investigation of war. Of course it tells us the stories of the great heroes, it has exciting fight scenes, explosive egos, and quite a few laughs. But it was almost certainly assembled from verses and whole passages which were accumulated and honed over centuries – with many, many people shaping specific episodes and verses over and over, modifying, adding, improving, long before the whole story was written down as one epic. Centuries of thoughts about war shaped the story – from jingoistic grand tales about incredible warrior feats to the many sadnesses, disappointments and deprivations of war, even among those who will (we know, although we don’t see a triumphant end in the epic), eventually win.
Like Chilcot’s painstaking investigation, the Iliad often homes in on what seems like tedious details, and those details are important. The battles may read like blood-and-guts action scenes in an 18-rated movie, but they also keep a tally of the names of the fallen – perhaps it’s partly trophy hunting for the heroes (armour is usually stripped from the dead, even in the thick of battle), but during the epic, the long list of the fallen (254 names, and many other deaths mentioned) leaves no doubt about the cost of war. And sometimes, there is a chance to stop for a while and contemplate the death of comparatively unimportant participants and their importance to their loved ones at home, e.g. Simoeisius or the sons of Phaenops (5.151-7).
“Now he (Diomedes) went after the two sons of Phaenops, Xanthus and Thoön, Full grown both, but Phaenops was stricken in sorrowful old age nor could breed another son to leave among his possessions. There he killed these two and took away the dear life from them both, leaving to their father lamentation and sorrowful affliction, since he was not to welcome them home from the fighting alive still, and remote kinsmen shared his possessions.”
Like parents of those fallen in war today, Phaenops may have asked why the Greeks went to war in the first place, and whether the outcome was worth it. And his story, and those of others, would make others think as well. Trying to give an answer can, arguably, become a frustratingly long story as well.
In ancient Greece, war was never far away, and when it happened, it was personal and close-up to many. Most free men, and many of the slaves, too, would have experienced action personally at some point in their lives. A re-telling of the war story, a repository of war experience from many angles, was always poignant. For most of us, today, war is a lot less personal, even if our own government decides to wreak havoc somewhere overseas, but, through TV screens, at the same time, war is never absent from our living rooms. How do we deal with that?
Perhaps we need a new war epic for our own time, to help us sort out our thoughts about wars, how they come about, and what horrible damage the leave behind – and especially, to make us think, through these stories, how we personally relate to those events. And I think such an epic ought to be big, and unwieldy, and full of many episodes, digressions and detours, looking at war from many different angles, from the jingoistic to the horrific and the desperately sad. Lord Chilcot does not quite strike me as the muse to inspire poetry to last, or the poet to channel centuries of war experience – but the idea of performing his collection of different perspectives, all 284 hours and 456 minutes or 2.6 million words of them, in their entirety, seems like an interesting reminder that sometimes, long stories need to be told, even though few, if any, will sit through the whole tale.