Barbara Popel of Apartment613 interviewed Jeff Wright, Ottawa professional storyteller and podcaster, about his upcoming performance in the Ottawa Storytellers’ Signature Series on November 21st at Arts Court Theatre. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: Jeff, the title of your story is Blame it on Zeus’ Thunderbolt: The REAL Origin Story of the Trojan War. What does Zeus have to do with the Trojan War? I thought the war started because a beautiful Greek queen named Helen ran off with a handsome young prince named Paris to his city of Troy. Then Helen’s husband started the war with Troy to reclaim her. Where does Zeus come into this?
Jeff Wright: You’re right. The Trojan War started because a prince named Paris ran off with a beautiful Greek woman named Helen. And then everybody got involved. But why did a Trojan prince named Paris find himself anywhere near a beautiful Greek woman named Helen? Well, the gods have problems and they thrust their problems onto us human beings, and we’re stuck doing damage control.
The title of the show is Blame it on Zeus’ Thunderbolt. (A bit more on Zeus’ thunderbolt in a moment.) What I’m trying to do in this show is look at the ridiculous, absurd, over the top, silly origin stories that happened with the gods before their problems percolated down to earth, into an event – the Trojan War.
What I’m trying to do in this show is look at the ridiculous, absurd, over the top, silly origin stories that happened with the gods before their problems percolated down to earth, into an event – the Trojan War.
Most Hollywood blockbuster movies start with a gorgeous young prince named Paris, usually played by eye candy like Orlando Bloom, meeting Helen. And then they turn it into a cheesy little love story that leads to a war. The movies tend to avoid telling the backstory of the gods. And I think it’s because it’s really difficult to do a good god on film. It just doesn’t look right. They look like human beings dressed up as guys in funny beards. They don’t work!
So my story is all the origin stories. By the end of my story, we’re about to start the Trojan War.
Why should folks in 2019 care about a Bronze Age Greek story that’s at least 2500 years old? Is this just for mythology buffs?
There are a lot of these stories embedded in our pop culture that are relevant today. During my live shows, folks are constantly having these “Aha!” moments – suddenly the penny drops and they see some connection to their own lives.
One obvious example is the Trojan horse. We can ask ourselves, why would intelligent Trojan leaders be so stupid as to tow this large wooden horse inside the walls of their otherwise perfectly fortified city? But why do intelligent modern business executives make similarly boneheaded decisions?
Here’s another example. On November 21, I’m going to talk about the birth of the hero Achilles. And the thing everybody knows about Achilles is …
…he had an Achilles’ heel.
Right! Poor Achilles’ mum, when he’s born, she hears this horrifying prophecy about her boy that he’s going to be a celebrated hero, the best bad-ass warrior in the history of the world. People will be telling his stories 3000 years later at dinner tables in the Glebe and things like that. It’s all in the prophecies! Well, except for the Glebe part. But the prophecies in Greek myths always come with a double edge sword. In exchange for everything behind curtain one, you get what’s behind curtain two. And in the case of Achilles, the prophecy is that he will die violently on the battlefield before his 30th birthday. Mum is pretty excited about the first half. Yay! My celebrity son! She’s not quite so excited about the second half. My son’s mortal, he’s going to be dead before he’s 30! So Mum sets out to avert the prophecy. But one thing you need to know about Greek myth – you cannot avert prophecy. In every Greek story, every play, every tragedy, some human being sets out: “Oh well, apparently this is going to happen. Let me find a workaround.” And they do their level best to find a workaround. But it never works out.
In Blame it on Zeus’ Thunderbolt, there are two humans who have children associated with prophecy. Achilles is one of them. The other, I will tell you about on November 21. Both parents set out and do their damnedest to protect their kid from the prophecy coming true. Both parents fail monumentally in their ability to do it. Mum tries to protect Achilles by dipping the lad into the River Styx. It’s essentially a magical river where the Bronze Age Greek gods used to bring their jewelry, weapons and chariots to get rustproofed. Anything you dipped into the River Sytx came out with a Krown Rust Proofing© treatment on it. Mum was so desperate to protect her little baby Achilles that she was the first person in history to try dipping a human being into the river. But she dipped Achilles into the magic river with interesting effects. We’ll leave the story of Achilles’ heel for the show.
The reason I’m so enthusiastic about the Greek myth is because these stories resonate, the pop culture references resonate, the stories resonate.
Besides, the show is just a lot of bawdy, irreverent good fun. You do not need to be a Homeric scholar or a classical mythologist to have an awful lot of fun. I mean, the story is premised on a problem with Zeus’ “thunderbolt”. So we’re obviously gonna do very adult fun storytelling.
Ah, I see. So we’re not talking about a meteorological thunderbolt.
Uh, no. Most of our Bronze Age epic mythological stories start as stories about Zeus procreating. And you’ve got to give Zeus credit – as a god, he was delightfully ecumenical. His tastes swung in all sorts of directions. So Zeus would start most mornings getting out of bed and deciding who would be that particular day’s recipient of, um, what should we call it, his divine spark, perhaps would be the best way of putting it. And then he’d cruise across the heavens looking for a candidate. It could be a boy, it could be a girl, it could be a god, it could be a demigod. If the rumours are true, it could even be a domestic animal. Zeus had an insatiable thunderbolt.
Later, we essentially sanitized it. If you go to museums, you’ll see Zeus standing there wielding a thunderbolt in his strong right hand. And that’s a modern sanitization of the original stories from the Bronze Age. Well, Zeus…his right hand was sometimes involved. The thunderbolt in question was a little bit further down than his waist. So my show starts when Zeus is confronted with a thunderbolt-y problem.
This sounds more than a little bit racy.
You can’t do a Greek myth without being racy. Well, you can – that’s the way it’s taught in Ontario high schools.
In that case, is your performance on November 21st suitable for children or for teenagers?
Well, I taught high school for years before I got into professional storytelling and podcasting. And I think teenagers should be given the straight goods in any topic. So my argument would be that mature teenagers will have a fine time. One of the things that I do in all of my live performances is tell these stories for adult audiences. But I also tell these stories on high school stages. I’ve found a way to talk about very adult themes and concepts without using any four-letter words. So if you’re trying to make a judgment call on what makes a story “adult”, there are lots of references to Zeus’ insatiable thunderbolt. I suppose if an audience member is young enough that they can’t decode that, then they’re still going to have a fine old time and just wonder why all the adults are laughing. But if you’re offended by conversations about thunderbolts, then this might not be the evening for you.
Most of us have never read Homer’s Iliad. It has a reputation as a pretty tough slog. Is there any risk that your audience is going to get a bit lost?
No risk at all. Yes, it’s a very tough slog. I think Homer’s Iliad falls into that same category of those works of literature that we put up on a pedestal, like Shakespeare’s. But Shakespeare was not writing his plays for a sophisticated audience of highbrows. He was writing his plays for the people that came in off the street and occasionally would throw tomatoes onto the stage if they were bored. So Shakespeare’s stories were written in the language of the time and were designed for the man or the woman on the street.
Same thing with Homer’s stories. They all came out of what scholars call “oral tradition”, which makes it sound very fancy, but the oral tradition was just some guy touring Greece trying to make a few bucks by telling stories…essentially doing what I’m doing in the 21st century, only I’m touring via podcast and by live shows. If I walk in and deliver a very dry, formal, sanctimonious version of Homeric stories, I’m not going to make very much money because nobody’s going to come to the show except for a couple of windy old classics professors.
So what storytellers now have to do is to actually look at these stories. And these are very earthy, bawdy, fun stories. They’re stories involving human beings with genuine human dilemmas, which really haven’t changed in the last 3000 years. So really all I’m trying to do is take them off of their pedestal. Still be true to the historical texts, but tell them in contemporary language as if they were modern folks having these things happen to them. And it works.
It’s going to be a fun night. You’re going to be laughing within five minutes and laughing right through to the end.
Thank you very much for an extremely entertaining interview.
Storyteller Jeff Wright performs Blame it on Zeus’ Thunderbolt: The REAL Origin Story of the Trojan War at Arts Court Theatre (2 Daly Ave) on Thursday November 21, 2019 as part of the Ottawa Storytellers’ Signature Series. The performance starts at 7:30pm and is about 90 minutes long, with an intermission. Tickets are available online for $18-22. Jeff Wright’s website is www.jeffwrightstoryteller.com.