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Reflections on Phone Homer Mar 16, 2012

by Ariel

I can't even begin to track everything that was part of Michelle Ellsworth's Phone Homer. The attention to detail in the work was just absurd. I would gladly go back and watch it again just to explore every minute facet of the fake websites, Pandora stations (in a lovely nod to further Greek myth) and Google search results that were woven throughout the brilliantly executed techno-myth. 

Phone Homer assumes a basic knowledge of the Greek poet Homer's epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey. If you haven't a basic knowledge of the main characters and plots (Greeks and Trojans, Trojan war, macho contests, plague, etc), you might want to refresh a bit before seeing Phone Homer, if only to understand how different a portrayal Ellsworth's is. The stories are typically expressed through a focus on the men fighting the battles - Agamemnon, Menalaus, Paris, Hector, Priam, Odysseus, Achilles, etc. Ellsworth looks more closely at the female inhabitants of the Homerverse, namely Clytemnestra, Helen, and Penelope (respectively the wives of Agamemnon, Menelaus and Paris, and Odysseus) along with brief mentions of Briseis and Chryseis, the unwilling concubines of Achilles and Agamemnon. I've always felt that the heart of the Iliad lies with the women, from start (Helen's choice to run off with Paris) to finish (Clytemnestra's unceremonious revenge whacking of Agamemnon after his return from war). It was refreshing and reinforcing to see someone else hold this view so strongly and infuse it in her work. 

Clytemnestra is the focal point and is the only live-action character (except her daughter Elektra, who has no lines). Ellsworth plays all the other characters to hilarious effect through video, bouncing off herself as Clytemnestra onstage and the Skyped-in characters in realtime. It seems the piece is asking WWMCD? - what would modern Clytemnestra do? 

Imagine a 21st century woman left to fend for herself and her dominion while her husband, who sacrificed their other daughter for a fair wind, is off making war over her much prettier sister, taking multiple concubines and taking his sweet time for the whole thing. How would she respond? How would I respond? Would she be content to just take a lover and lie in wait for his return? With Phone Homer, you get a deeper examination of how a modern woman in the information age might react to a similar scenario. The constant self-help Googling. Online shopping and consumption as a coping mechanism. Pandora stations carefully calibrated to her current mood. Burger obsession and disordered eating. Facebook status updates reiterating how great everything is even when it isn't (apparently Clytemnestra isn't savvy enough to have the new Timeline yet, though I bet Helen has it). Bitch sessions over Skype with the pretty, slutty sister encouraging her to take a lover. Getting yelled at about faithfulness over Skype by Penelope, ancient equivalent to that one annoying friend who can't shut up about how much she looooves her boyfriend. How-to videos for dances appropriate for lament or for murder (showing Ellsworth's dance background beautifully with fits of ecstatic, spastic movement).

How did classic Clytemnestra ever survive 10 years of humiliation and war-wifedom without all the technology? Would she have gone even more nuts than the manic, dirt-smeared modern counterpart portrayed at the end of Phone Homer, or just... different nuts? 

Different versions of Greek mythology play out the destruction of Agamemnon in different ways. In some, Clytemnestra is the murderess, and how she achieves his death varies. In others, her lover Aegisthus does the deed. So what would modern Clytemnestra have done? Phone Homer shows you her decision to do it after all the techno-coping doesn't pan out in the end, but leaves it open for the audience to decide how she might have actually committed the act. In my head, she welcomed him home, ran him a nice hot bath, turned on the blowdryer and - oops! - tossed it in with him. A modern solution for a timeless problem.