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Odysseus: Hero, Trickster, or Colonizer?

The McGill Classics Play has been giving Montreal university students a unique educational experience since 2011. It aims to foster cultural exchanges within the Montreal community around ancient Greek and Latin texts by presenting them in all-new, student-driven English versions. This week, we sat down with directors E. Weiser and Audrey Michel as well as actors Thea S. and Gabrielle Gaston to discuss the thought process behind this year’s play, Ithacan Idol Presents: The Odyssey. The production was performed during the first two weeks of February, and a portion of its revenues were donated to the Montreal Native Women’s Shelter and the Action LGBTQIA+ avec les Immigrantes et Refugiées.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

Frida Sofía Morales Mora and Eliana Freelund for The McGill Daily (MD): What exactly are the goals of the McGill Classics Play? How did this whole thing start?

E. Weiser (EW): The McGill Classics play was started by Professor Lynn Kozak back in 2011 with the goal of integrating theatre back into classics. Theatre was a huge part of classical literary tradition, so this was a way to revitalize that. It’s also our goal to make the plays we put on accessible to a general public which might not have as much knowledge about these stories.

Audrey Michel (AM): We’ve also seen a bit of a shift in the past two years in how the McGill Classics Play operates. We’re encouraged to put our own creative spin on these stories rather than just directly translate what’s on the page to the stage. You can definitely see this with our play this year – it’s very different from the original text!

MD: What was the reasoning behind choosing this particular story? Why is Homer’s Odyssey still relevant in 2023?

AM: As E. mentions in our program, we are both haunted by Odysseus. We wanted to give space for many different areas of interpretation. This all came as a response to a very personal reckoning with the text.

EW: The themes of the Odyssey come back again and again in popular culture. Odysseus’s archetype as the wily trickster, the clever man who can escape from any situation – this trope comes back all the time. It’s the same thing with the idea of the Odyssean voyage home. These themes are ongoing and are constantly being reinterpreted in modern media.

MD: The form of this particular play is very unique and comedic! What made you choose a gameshow format? Why Ithacan Idol?

EW: We have a policy that everyone who wants to get involved in the McGill Classics Play can get involved. This usually means that we have to be pretty strategic in how we structure things, though, in order to make sure that everyone gets the chance to shine. So, we just thought, why not go camp?

AM: The concept of the game show is actually not irrelevant to the Odyssey. It goes straight back to the ancient tradition of presenting these stories during events such as festivals, where everyone puts their own twist on a given story and competes against one another to determine who has the best version.

EW: And in a way the contestants in our play are recreating the contest of the bow in the Odyssey, where the competitors compete to see who can get Penelope’s attention.

MD: In your program you define the ancient Greek term polytropos – to have many (poly-) manners or ways (-tropos). How is this concept relevant to your play?

AM: That term is basically an encapsulation of why we are haunted by Odysseus. It comes from the first line of the Odyssey: “Tell me, Muse, about the polytropos man.” It calls into question the idea of identity itself. In the text, this refers to Odysseus’s identity as a husband, as a father, and as a former soldier. This also applies on a metaliterary level: Is Odysseus a criminal? Is he a refugee? Is he someone we should sympathize with? There are just so many layers and so many variables.

MD: When we saw the play, both of us agreed that the Polyphemus scene depicting colonial violence was both incredibly moving and very difficult to watch. Can you explain the thought process behind writing this scene?

EW: When you think of this scene more simply, it’s basically this: someone rolls off onto your island, eats your shit, attacks you, and then  leaves. The thing is, in the Odyssey we get the version told by Odysseus, where Polyphemus is not painted in a good light simply because he doesn’t understand Greek customs and traditions. Polyphemus is othered – he is one-eyed, he doesn’t speak “proper” Greek, he isn’t familiar with Greek hospitality customs (xenia). According to Odysseus’s version of the story, that gives him permission to invade Polyphemus’s home. This is the part in the Odyssey, especially from a modern perspective, where you see the biggest pitfall of the hero. Because he is not a hero in this scene; he is just a colonizer.

AM: It’s important to recognize that colonization was going on during antiquity. Of course it looked very different, but it’s important that we talk about this now, especially because these narratives were used to justify later colonization. During this time, people were trying to define what it meant to be Greek. And to Odysseus, it seems that to be Greek is to not be what he would have considered “barbarian.” The tension in this scene is essentially, “you don’t look like us, you don’t respect my customs, you don’t speak like us.” 

EW: The part in our play where Polyphemus is holding his lamb and laments to the audience is taken directly from the text. So you have this painting of him as a devastated farmer who just lost his pet. And then you cut to Odysseus boasting over the fact that he’s just taken Polyphemus’ most prized lamb.

AM: In a way, it’s just twisting what he’s really known for the most – his trickster nature – and turning it into cruelty.

MD: How did the actors portraying Odysseus and Polyphemus feel when acting out this scene? It must have been very difficult emotionally. 

Thea S. (TS): Portraying Polyphemus required a lot of vulnerability on my part. As a Lebanese person, as a person of colour, as a person whose country is constantly affected by external forces, this scene really helped me rethink the struggles my country has to deal with. Here it’s a different framing: there are different characters, different forces, but the elements are still there. The part where Polyphemus gets scared and asks “who are you?” and “what did you say your name was?” really affected me. He gets defensive; he tries to defend himself. Peoples who have been colonized are often depicted as weaker, and the narrative is often that they were colonized because they were unable to fight back. I think it’s important to remember that that’s an unfair way to perceive these events in history. Nothing about colonization should ever be justified. This narrative of the weaker versus the stronger – it’s not real. It’s an illusion created by the oppressors. 

Gabrielle Gaston (GG): I had a difficult time acting in this scene in a different way. I’m playing a colonizer; I’m playing a villain. And at the same time I am fully aware of my positionality in this scene – as a white person, as a settler. I’m aware of the power dynamics that are in place, not only the privilege that I have in my day to day life in Canada, but also the power dynamics in the scene. I’m not only older than Thea, but I am a white person, and she is a person of colour. I know that she is in a more vulnerable state here, and there are a lot of really intense moments in that scene. I really wanted to make sure that we established a relationship of trust while working on the play together so that she could be as comfortable as possible. I wanted her to be able to tell me when something was too much. The most important thing to me was that she would feel safe.

MD: We are currently in the middle of Black History Month. Was there a conscious decision to put on the play during this month? How is the content of the play relevant to Black history?

GG: Although it wasn’t a conscious decision to put on the play during Black History Month, I think that the content is very much relevant to Black history. The way that E. and Audrey wrote and directed the play, specifically with the scene depicting colonial violence, speaks to the ongoing effects of colonization. In a play that is so campy, we were told that that scene had to be completely sober. It was very important for us to convey the weight of that scene – this is not something that’s over; it’s something that is still going on. Antiquity is effectively the foundation of Western civilization. It’s important to note that these traditions carry on, even though, as Audrey said, colonization looked different back then. These stories, these traditions, these narratives – they’ve shaped so much of Western culture. The transatlantic slave trade, the colonization of the African continent – these things have been catastrophically traumatic on a generational level. And whether or not Odysseus really existed, the idea of him – the idea of this OG colonizer figure in Odysseus has persisted throughout Western culture. The themes of domination and colonization in the Odyssey still exist to this day – and their effects can still be felt among Black people and on the African continent. I think it’s important to shift the narrative of how stories of colonization are told, to a place where the white person isn’t the hero. 

EW: Classics have historically been used to justify white supremacy. It’s incredibly important to not perpetuate that narrative. We don’t need another Odysseus-the-hero narrative – it was time to tell a different story.

TS: The medium of storytelling is really powerful. For the liberation of the oppressed, it is vital to keep the stories of the victims alive. It’s important for the truth to be heard – it’s necessary for justice, and it’s necessary for healing to start.

MD: The play remains open-ended as to who exactly Odysseus was. What does Odysseus mean to each of you?

EW: For me, Odysseus is all of these interpretations at once. You can’t distill the connotations his name has down to a single source.

AM: I think Odysseus is a question about who I want to be. His story about wandering, looking for home, looking for belonging – it resonates with all of us. But this story also asks us, what are you going to do in that situation? How do you want to be remembered, how are you going to treat people?

GG: To me, Odysseus is more of a concept than a real person. He’s kind of transcended being a real man because of the many ways he’s been interpreted and how they build off of each other. 

TS: I think Odysseus is very much a multi-faceted character. As Gab said, he really is more of a concept than a person. There are so many perspectives on his character, but I think it’s important not to get lost in one or two interpretations. Instead, we should look at every aspect of him in a way that leaves room for critical thinking and for nuance. 

If you are interested in being a part of McGill Classics Play, proposals for its 2024 production are currently being held. For further information, contact