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Welcome to Penelope

by Artistic Director Martha Lavey

We’re thrilled to present Enda Walsh’s Penelope as the second play in our season, “Dispatches from the Homefront.” Penelope uses as its referent Homer’s great epic, The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’ return home after the Trojan War. Homer’s poem is an anchoring text in the canon of Western literature and has served as a pretext for many subsequent works of literature because of the way in which its robust narrative provides an archetypal structure for the hero’s journey and return. Homer is examining the moment after the war: what is exacted of the victors? The Greeks, having defeated Troy, celebrate madly, forgetting what they owe the gods who steered their victory. The Odyssey details the ten-year trial that their hubris visits upon them, using the Greek captain, Odysseus, as the signature hero. War exacts a terrible price on the victors and vanquished alike, and the gods must be served for their role in steering the victors to triumph. The Odyssey can be read as the story of the warrior’s return to society and the trials required to restore the cosmic order in the wake of human conflict and destruction. Enda Walsh adopts an oblique angle on the story of Odysseus. Where The Odyssey focuses on the story of the hero, Penelope concentrates on the minor players of the epic. Walsh’s focus on these common men cooperates with the larger project of modernity: the chronicle of the hero dethroned. Absent gods, absent royalty, the suitors—minor players in Homer’s epic—take center stage in the story of our time. Walsh’s characters, four men spanning in age from 30s to 60s, have lived in an emptied out swimming pool on Odysseus’ estate for ten years. Human decline is registered in the progression from the 30-year-old Burns to the 60-year-old Fitz. As Dunne, our 50-year-old character (he, in the “autumn” of his life) says: “Death I can do but the journey towards death, the long walk.... The thievery of Autumn when we are robbed of Summer sunshine and led further into the depression of the dying year....” (to which Burns, our youngest character, replies, “Fuck it, I need a drink!”). When we recognize that Walsh is representing the human journey through life—and, importantly, the male journey—in these four men and associating them with the four seasons, we begin to understand the strange and eloquent choice to place them in an emptied swimming pool. Using Walsh’s implied seasonal metaphor, the men live in a world fit only for one season of a man’s life: the season of the swimming pool is summer. The environment is, in this declension, a world created by and for Quinn—the man of the summer. If the contest for Penelope’s favor is conducted as a competition among the men, Quinn is the man in power. For Quinn, to love is to conquer and violence is inevitable. As he says, “Each person we meet is there to be beaten down and knocked into place. It’s subtle at first; otherwise it’s all a bit aggressive and a little too obvious for us men of the world. But idle chit-chat is there to be won, friendships are there to be used, love is a fucking weapon.” Burns opens the play washing the blood of his dead friend, Murray, from the sides of the swimming pool. Murray was driven to suicide by the taunts of Quinn and his death haunts Burns throughout. In his final plea to Penelope, Burns invokes the memory of his friendship with Murray as a hopeful sign of his own capacity to love: “It didn’t seem possible for trust to exist on this island, for friendship to form; but we’re talking without deceit, we’re speaking of other things other than the game we’re playing. And if I have a liking and a love for this one person, perhaps I have a capacity to love other things.” The play is a profound meditation on the dueling forces of love and war. The tangle of these impulses in Penelope is played out in the seduction of Penelope and the competition among the men. By contextualizing this struggle among these fully human, infinitely fallible and limited men within the great heroic epic of The Odyssey, Walsh invites us to question the progress of history. What have we learned from our history of war and our habit of violence? The Odyssey shows us the arduous journey that is required of the warrior to return home, to make himself available to the love of his wife and son. Does our culture value the warrior and the conquest over the bonds of affiliation and love? What have we learned? Penelope is a wild ride. It is wickedly funny, irreverent and vaudevillian, and, beautifully poetic and deeply serious. Walsh is interrogating our lust for victory and the price we pay for dominance. In this, he echoes Homer’s inquiry: What cost war? What victory love?