"Shock & Awe" Hits Close To Home

On a cold wet night in April, an odd mixture of well-to-do seniors and scholarly youngsters gathered at the 92nd Street Y to witness a live dramatic reading of Gilgamesh, civilization’s oldest epic poem.  The text, as adapted for the stage, retains just as much relevance to the modern crusade of humanity as it once held for our ancestors.  They too relied on a written record of their myths to forever preserve the glory of their acquired knowledge and cultural heritage in physical artifact.  Accompanied by meditative interludes of Middle Eastern singing, violin, drums, and other audio effects, the nine stage actors employed their professional vocal skills and character personifications to further augment this classic tale of friendship, loss, and self-discovery.

            Gilgamesh is the half-god-half-man king of the holy city of Uruk whose ability to reason and command is matched only by his pride and hedonistic desire.  Through twist of fate, he encounters “just a man” named Enkidu who challenges Gilgamesh’s divine birthright with his own fearless and humble mortality.  The two fight out their differences, find themselves evenly matched, and consequently become close friends.  Drunk with the delight of this new companionship, Gilgamesh proposes that together they should travel to the distant forest of tall cedars and battle Humbaba, the “evil” spirit guardian of the trees.  This is all so that they may build a better gate for Uruk.  Despite Enkidu’s protests that the present gate is more than adequate for the people’s needs, they fulfill Gilgamesh’s dream and defeat Humbaba.  However, due to the irresponsible nature of their actions, the gods punish Gilgamesh by killing Enkidu, his one true counterpart in the world.  Gilgamesh, unable to bear the pain alone, then embarks on a journey in search of the “first man who walked the path,” hoping that such a soul might alleviate his sorrow and provide him with direction for the future.  What follows contains the heart of the narrative as Gilgamesh wanders lost across barren landscapes, enduring many trials.

            One of the more interesting notes in the program concerns the origin of the clay tablets on which the poem was originally inscribed: “Thousands of such tablets are buried in hundreds of sites throughout the vast area which is now Iraq, and archaeologists who specialize in this area (ancient Sumer, Akkadia and Babylon) have been in agony during the years since ‘shock and awe’ started churning the ground of this cultural seed bed into smithereens.”  The fact that this statement with its obvious political implications was made to be read by all those in attendance, not to forget the inherent moral lessons of the story itself, supports a strong revolutionary ideal where the written and spoken word is able to interact with an audience.   This highly purposeful aesthetic serves to remind us of the tragic price of violence and war as they not only erase the innocence of our present but also erode the nostalgic verdure of our past.

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