A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 118: Death, the Imperative — An Iliad at Shakespeare and Company

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Michael F. Toomey. Photo by John Dolan
Michael F. Toomey. Photo by John Dolan

Why must we kill? Why pay people large sums of money to hurt each other in the ring? And what about the flip side? After great Hector is killed and dragged for days around the city, he is restored physically by a deity, but remains dead. From this there comes serenity, expectancy we experience only those few times in our lives when our heroes die.

And what is glory? Is killing glory? Is winning glory? Tina Packer writes in her fine book, Women of Will, that the only way the warring factions in Romeo and Juliet’s story could be placated was by youthful deaths. Death, the imperative.  Does Achilles achieve some kind of glory killing Hector? Or is he simply avenging the loss of Patroclus? I am trying to say that there is a force that death emanates. The most moving act in An Iliad at Shakespeare and Company on Saturday was the pleading done by old Priam, begging for his son’s body to be no further mutilated. Wonderfully, the god/man Achilles says yes. We then hear that Hector’s body, for days dragged, is restored in some way, physically, but with a deep spirituality coming from it. The play becomes quiet. It is much like the gentle aria at the end of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion which intimates a resurrection, but only intimates. In the case of Hector we don’t see a resurrection, only a few days to bury the hero properly, the pyre changing to ashes. But in those days there comes a rest, a rest from death’s imperative.

Michael F. Toomey told the story in an almost gentle way, reaching a kind of fury only in his last catalogue of wars, and then subsiding. There was a relaxation in his way that spoke to the serenity that follows horror. The most poignant part of the story we only hear narrated, when Andromache’s son must be thrown over the parapet. This terrible moment is depicted stunningly in the first part of Berlioz’s The Trojans, where the boy and his mother have their separation forever whispered by a clarinet, which fades away into silence while the actors on stage become pantomime artists. Never a word is sung. This again shows to me that there is some quotient of serenity in a heroic death. The death becomes almost an accomplishment, a performance completed, an energy too great to be contained, or even sounded. Toomey’s performance had this.

Gregory Boover’s sounds greatly enhanced the story-telling. Never intrusive, he remained always a major player. This was really a tour-de-force for Michael Toomey, and his gentleness was the most truthful thing of all.

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