An epic twist on classical radio

Instead of the latest update on Elian Gonzales during WNUR’s Saturday newshour, the campus radio station will broadcast the similarly heart-wrenching story of … Andromache?

The tale of the Greek wife who begs her husband, Hector, not to go to battle will be one of the first stories read on air beginning 8 a.m. Saturday as professors and students in the classics department tackle the epic 15,693-line poem for 21 straight hours.

“Then Hector looks down at his little son and the son cries because it’s such a big helmet,” Classics Prof. Robert Wallace sighed, previewing the broadcast. “So Hector takes his helmet off and holds his son in his arms and says, ‘My hope is only in you, that you will become as great a warrior as me.'”

Because Homer was an oral poet, Wallace said he and other classics professors wanted to experience the work the way it was intended.

“Probably in antiquity, we guess, it was performed for eight hours at a time for three days,” he said. “But we thought that, for the intensity of the experience, we would read it straight through.”

Wallace and other classics professors encouraged their students to sign up for half-hour reading shifts for the event. But because everyone will read at a different pace, the readers will not know ahead of time which passage they will read.

Given a Charles Dickens novel, that would pose no problem. But with names like Antilochus and Tlepolemus, pronunciation could prove to be a challenge without a run-through.

“Greek names and things may get a little garbled, but c’est la vie,” Wallace said.

Pronunciation won’t be the only thing spicing up the tale.

Wallace said he plans to have “Homeric mead and honey wine” by his side.

Although the readers will use minimal dramatic sound effects, Wallace said the scenes are packed with enough action and emotion to keep any listener’s attention.

“There are some books that are very beautiful,” he said. “Some that even bring tears to my eyes. I often weep when I read Homer, because it’s so beautiful. So I’m going to try to read a very ugly bit that won’t make me cry.”

Prof. Daniel Garrison, who has taught “The Iliad” for more than 30 years, plans to bring his sabre to rattle during the frequent battle scenes.

“I’m a longtime student and enthusiast of Homer,” Garrison said. “This would definitely be a sad thing to miss.”

After some discussion, the professors chose the “Iliad” over Homer’s other none-too-concise work “The Odyssey.” But if Saturday’s marathon is a success, Wallace said he will consider reading the other epic next year.

“‘The Odyssey’ is more fun in a way, but ‘The Iliad’ really has this majestic grandeur,” Wallace said. “And we felt that if we’re going to do it, we should really do it with this supreme text, not the softer, more charming ‘Odyssey.'”

Sean Benjamin — member of a Chicago improv troupe, the Neo-Futurists, and performer in “Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind” — will also tackle a share of the poem on air. As a program assistant in the classics department, he helped organize the event.

Whether the show proves a hit with Homer’s radio-listening fan base is irrelevant to the performers, who are sure to have enough fun to rival a Dionysian orgy.

“We’re really doing it for the majesty of the experience and it’s a day that we will never forget,” Wallace said. “Everybody will become very close to a particular piece of ‘The Iliad,’ so we just thought it would be a fun thing to try.”