In a six-day livestream the Oklahoma Contemporary and the Kirkpatrick Foundation have brought together 24 musicians, actors, artists, and public officials to read Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. The oral presentation of Homer’s epic poem is a digital recreation of collective listening and considers what it means to find home in an era in which the world is home-bound.
In Wilson’s own words, “The Odyssey emerged from an oral folk poetry tradition in archaic Greece, and it’s a joy to see the poem’s performative roots being honored in 21st century fashion with this virtual live performance.”
In a final conversation about the performance, Armenian-American actor Raffi Barsoumian reflects on his reading of book 17 of The Odyssey. Barsoumian was born in Beirut and moved to California with his family as a young child. He has performed in many classical Shakespeare plays, such as Pericles (The Public Theater), King Lear, Troilus and Cressida, Henry V (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) and As You Like It (Actor’s Shakespeare Company), and held roles in The Vampire Diaries, Shameless, and The Code.
LARA SCHOORL: In other conversations I have talked about these readings in anticipation of them; you just finished reading your part of this series half an hour ago. I’m very excited to hear about the experience looking back. How was it?
RAFFI BARSOUMIAN: I thought it went well. I didn’t see the audience there so it was hard to tell what the direct response was, but I think it went well. I enjoyed it a lot.
How does it feel to read live to a virtual audience that is invisible, located on their computers and possibly thousands of miles away from you. It seems very different from your experience of performing on stage but perhaps more similar to acting for a television show.
Zoom has, as of recently, been a kind of practice; doing readings and knowing that there’s people on the other end listening. This one felt more like a live performance because you know they are broadcasting it live, and people are receiving it in the moment. But, it remains a faith-based exercise.
Although widely diverse, it seems as though every reader has a connection to The Odyssey, through its form, presentation, translation, influence or adaptions. Could you talk about your classical background and how or if that influenced your reading tonight?
I like Shakespeare plays and have pursued working on Shakespeare plays and working with Shakespeare companies. That has formed the bulk of my experience of familiarizing myself with classical texts — learning how to read them, understand them and perform them over the years. That’s how my experience and facility with classical texts has developed. Jeremiah Davis, the artistic director of Oklahoma Contemporary, actually reached out to me about this marathon reading after seeing me in a production of Macbeth.
Another thing that comes to mind is that Emily Wilson has done this translation in blank verse which is so impressive. Shakespeare’s plays are in blank verse, so looking and seeing this translation of The Odyssey written in this standard classical English form, from my eye anyway, it is immediately recognizable. As I was reading Wilson’s text, I was thinking if I could apply any rules from the Shakespeare world to this. Her language is obviously a lot more contemporary sounding, which I think is a service she’s done for the text. It feels and reads in my experience very much more modern. There was a little bit of that from my practice that I was drawing from while preparing for tonight’s reading.
Within our personal speech we all have our own language, yet I am not sure that we are all aware of the various registers of language that we use and when we use them. I think that you, and others who use and perform with their voices professionally will be more aware of that. Akin, perhaps, to how people were more aware of that during Homer’s time when most communication was spoken instead of written.
We are living through a pandemic; we are robbed of live performance. We cannot go to the theater. It is interesting how the online space is trying to fill that void. Although, it is in a way, taking us back, because the visual is so limited. You are looking at someone’s living room, and someone is just sitting there, so it does revert to an other world aural experience. I was thinking about that particularly. It is almost like a radio play because you sit and listen, we’re not dramatizing it. It has an interesting quality. I have this feeling that cinema and television are more and more moving us away from oral transmission, and that visual storytelling is more the medium of our day. So it is very interesting to tap back into that oral culture with this reading of The Odyssey.
Do you think that The Odyssey has gained or can gain new meaning in this moment?
Sure, we are in a moment right now where we are trying to tap back into what we know, what used to be us, knowing we cannot go back to before the pandemic. Maybe a little like Odysseus trying to get back home. But yes, I imagine it must. There is a reason these classical texts live on and partially that may be because their narratives tap into some elemental truth about us and so every new context in every new era reflects something from these texts. It would be a good question for the people who have listened to the whole arc and see what they drew from it. You know, unless you are very young most of us have had some contact with the text or the story. I have not seen the text since high school but it lives there, I remember episodes. One thing I remembered before getting back into the book that really stuck with me was the moment when Odysseus comes back home, it is his dog who remembers him. That always stayed with me, it was such a sad, poignant moment. Coincidentally, this moment happens in the book I was assigned to read.
What was also interesting is that there was a part in my section in which they talk about being a slave. It says something like “you have to listen to the word of your master or they’ll reproach you.” There is this one line: “Zeus halves our value on the day that makes us slaves.” The story is dealing with a culture where people are born into servitude and others are lords. That is sort of a given, but it is hard to read that in an American context today. How do you hold that?
Yes even to speak some of those words now, we don’t. They were so trivial but carry so much weight now. As we are implementing change today, I has also proven pertinent to reevaluate our language.