Highway Ulysses

Article excerpt

ABOUT THE PLAYWRIGHT Rinde Eckert is a critically renowned composer, writer, director, singer, actor and movement artist, celebrated for his remarkably flexible and inventive singing voice and electric physical presence. He conceives, creates, composes, writes and performs in opera/new music theatre productions that tour throughout the United States and in Europe and Asia. In addition to Highway Ulysses, recent work includes the Obie-winning, two-person opera And God Created Great Whales, produced by the Foundry Theatre; a solo performance play An Idiot Divine, produced by the Culture Project in New York; a U.S. tour, with Paul Dresher, in the one-person opera Ravenshead; and his direction of the Chinese opera Cai Wenji for the Asia Society. Mr. Eckert will debut a new touring production in fall 2005.

ABOUT THE PLAY Highway Ulysses premiered at American Repertory Theatre (Robert Woodruff, artistic director; Robert J. Orchard, executive director) on March 1, 2003, in Cambridge, Mass. The production was directed by Robert Woodruff, with set and costume design by David Zinn, lighting design by David Weiner, sound design by David Remedios, movement by Doug Elkins, music direction by Peter Foley; stage management by M. Pat Hodge and dramaturgy by Ryan McKittrick. Music was performed by Peter Foley and the Empty House Cooperative: Chris Brokaw, David Curry and Jonah Sacks. The production featured Heather Benton, Nora Cole, Thomas Derrah, Rinde Eckert, Will LeBow, Karen MacDonald, Dana Marks and Michael Potts.


SELLAR: Highway Ulysses is a vision of Homer's Odyssey in contemporary America. What drew you to the myth?

ECKERT: Robert Woodruff, the new artistic director of the American Repertory Theatre, called me up about a year and a half ago to propose a project based on a song cycle recorded on my CD Story In/Story Out. It's about a man hitchhiking across the U.S., and because this was a kind of spiritual journey, the word "odyssey" had come up in our discussions. As soon as the word had been uttered, I ran off and reread Homer. One thing led to another, and I decided that I was more interested in pursuing an updated Odyssey.

I had also read an essay by Joseph Campbell, who sees the Odyssey as a story of a war veteran's progressive re-acclimation to society. The idea of the returning veteran sparked something in me. Then I came across a book by Jonathan Shay called Achilles in Vietnam--a very interesting use of the Iliad to illustrate the perils facing the hardened, shell-shocked, returning veteran in the context of post-traumatic stress disorder. I became increasingly interested in the problem of getting back one's sense of civilization--confidence in government and social structures--so you can abandon the defensive stances necessary for survival in war.

At the same time, I was troubled by some aspects of Homer's text that are often ignored by people who see it as a series of "civilizing gestures." After the Phoecians hear his tale, they return Odysseus to Ithaca, his politically insecure homeland, after a 20-year absence. But then Odysseus engages in mass slaughter: Taking advantage of the fact that he's incognito and presumed dead, Odysseus delivers himself of all of his potential enemies. It's a purely political, pragmatic, Machiavellian move. Throughout the piece, Odysseus lies to get whatever he needs for the moment. There's no change in his attitude after returning home. Shay describes how the war veteran will never recapture his innocence, and that's something really interesting to contemplate: You are never going to be the same, even though you have a picture in your head of the innocent person you were.

Do you see him as a tragic "hero," then?

I don't see him as a hero. I see him as a modern man, emblematic of an amorality I associate with modern pragmatic politics. I'm not sure how to judge that, except to say that the 20th century is full of examples of such pragmatism put to the most egregious uses. …