I do a lot of my research on Wikipedia. As who doesn’t these days? It’s either a jumping off point for deeper research through the footnotes and linked pages (triggering a Wikipedia wormhole from which you emerge disheveled and wild-eyed hours later), or a one-stop-shop for rapidly familiarising yourself with an unknown thing. As an open-source encyclopedia editable by anyone, its reliability is often questioned. However, studies have shown it to be as reliable as its more official cousin, the Encyclopedia Britannica (these studies can be found on the Wikipedia page: “Reliability of Wikipedia”).
A Wikipedia entry is a patchwork of accretions and corrections; additions adhere like barnacles to a Wiki — flourishes and story details mushroom up and are felled again. One of the main threats to the reliability of Wikipedia, and one which the Encyclopedia Britannica isn’t prone to, is deliberate vandalism of articles. Unsurprisingly, this happens a lot in articles relating to political parties and personages. Wikipedia is both a democratic source of truth-telling, and a political battleground where anybody can make their voice heard – and where anybody’s voice can be rebutted.
According to Wikipedia, “The Aeneid (/ᵻˈniːɪd/; Latin: Aeneis [ae̯ˈneːɪs]) is a Latin epic poem, written by Virgil between 29 and 19 BC, that tells the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who travelled to Italy, where he became the ancestor of the Romans.” I read most of this page before speaking to Dan Colley, artistic director of Collapsing Horse theatre company. Collapsing Horse will present their version of the epic poem in this year’s Tiger Dublin Fringe festival.
“It’s like state poetry,” says Dan. “It was intended to be a sort of founding myth of this Roman empire. They’d been through a hundred years of civil war, and this guy Augustus, the Emperor, has ended up at the victorious end of it and was redefining his myth, and redefining the myth of his family and the myth of his state, so he commissioned Virgil to tell that story.”
Collapsing Horse’s telling of The Aeneid takes place in an alternative universe where people die twice — first when they die-die, and again when someone says their name for the last time (an idea inspired by David Eagleman’s short story Sum). In the intervening period, they live a sort of ghost-life, an existence whose richness and detail is dictated by the stories that are told about them. In this world, those with money and power get to live longer, and those who were important to the state get to live on indefinitely. The Collapsing Horse players are like special state speakers, “rhapsodes” as they’re called, who joyously and ritualistically tell and retell the story of The Aeneid, preserving the founding myth of their state.
“There are these people whose vocation it is to recreate the story of Aeneas [the lead character in The Aeneid] time and time again and keep it kosher, keep it right. They see themselves as interpreters, they’re not merely parrots. And they do acknowledge that over time the story can change and they’re great students of that. However, it doesn’t change fundamentally — it’s still a story about a man who was destined to found Rome and fled a burning Troy and faced lots of adversity along the way and founded this great place.”
With the year that’s in it (2016, that is), stories about founding myths and questions about who gets to tell those narratives seem particularly relevant. Not that Dan or Collapsing Horse has set out to make a specifically 2016-relevant piece.
“I think there are definite resonances with the centenary, although there’ll be no citizen army uniforms or tricolours or anything like that. I think that there are these strange contradictory opportunities for states to tell their own story; in our case it’s a strange contradiction whereby the prevailing establishment tell a story about a group of unpopular people, the minority people who overthrew the prevailing establishment, and there’s a strange sit there.”
Though the skeleton of the piece was decided by Dan beforehand, the company devised much of the meat collaboratively, a democratic inclusion of multiple voices that is more Wikipedia than Encyclopedia Britannica. The original text is, in part, a concatenation of existing stories and characters from Greek legend (Aeneas features in the The Iliad, according to Wikipedia). Not unlike Virgil, Collapsing Horse are appropriating an existing text for their own purposes. In their The Aeneid, Aeneas is “Aenín”, a female rhapsode who is the chief narrator in the retelling of the story – she ‘gets to hold the talking stick’, as Dan terms it. But Aenín goes against her divine duty by deciding to go against the prescribed narrative.
“One of my big references for Aenín is Bernadette Devlin. She was a civil rights campaigner from Derry. At 21, she was the youngest ever MP elected to the House of Commons. She was a thorn in the side — a constant agitator, unimpressed by status. She was there on Bloody Sunday, and she was denied the right to speak in the House of Commons the next day, despite the fact that there’s this rule that if there is a tragedy about which there’s an emergency debate in the Commons, anybody who’s present gets to speak, and she was denied that right to speak.”
The Wikipedia page on Devlin relates how she slapped Reginald Maudling, “the Home Secretary in the Conservative government, across the face when he stated in the House of Commons that the paratroopers had fired in self-defence on Bloody Sunday.” The Wikipedia page on Maudling relates that Devlin’s reason for the slapping was frustration at not being allowed to speak. In the case of Bloody Sunday, Bernadette Devlin was denied the right to hold the talking stick and therefore did not get to participate in the story-telling around Bloody Sunday (according to Wikipedia).
For Collapsing Horse, the set is always a crucial part of making a piece, and a necessary element of the devising process. In this latest production, Hanna Bowe (set and lighting) has scattered the stage with drifts of paper, the weight of all the previous translations, all the previous edits and additions and subtractions of the story surrounding the rhapsodes as they retell it – the detritus of an editing bonanza, each, “the anxieties of each generation… loaded” into the various translations and versions over time.
“We all have these myths, whether it’s the state or personal or family. I love this analogy of the map and the territory, where the map is necessarily leaving out almost everything except the thing that you want to show to tell the story — and that may be roads or topography or whatever — but every single atomic detail, every single quark, is not useful to us, it’s not comprehendible to us, in which case we need to find a level on which it makes sense, so that might be roads, or it might be a series of events which led to this… Stories are the speed at which truth happens.”
Collapsing Horse perform The Aeneid at Smock Alley Theatre from Wednesday 14th September to Saturday 24th September at 6.30pm each night, with the exception of Monday 19th September. There are also performances on Wednesday 21st and Saturday 24th September at 9pm. Tickets are €16 (€14 concessions available) from fringefest.com
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Photos: Ste Murray, The Derry Journal