In 2009, Jenny Lewis was commissioned to write a one and a half hour verse play, After Gilgamesh, for the inaugural programme of Pegasus Theatre‘s new, £7 million Heritage Lottery funded theatre, which opened in September 2010. The play will include extraordinary dance sequences, powerful choral music from the Afropean Choir using lines from the original epic, humour, drama and poetry. Jenny says: “Our aim is to explore the relevance and topicality of one of literature’s oldest epics and discover how its themes about the irresponsibility of leaders, the abuse of power, the fear of death and the human need for love and permanence have remained a constant for more than four thousand years.”
Before writing the play, Jenny set out the background of the Gilgamesh story as follows:
The Pegasus play will explore the ancient Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, which was first written down around 2,500 BCE in ancient Iraq and had been told orally much earlier. The most complete version existing today is preserved on twelve clay tablets in the library collection of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (7th century BCE).
Gilgamesh is two-thirds god and one-third human. He is an arrogant, ruthless and violent tyrant who makes life hell for his subjects. The citizens of Uruk finally call on the gods for help. Aruru, the goddess who created humanity, realizes that Gilgamesh is suffering from hubris, believing he is a god and lacking respect for his people.
In order to force Gilgamesh to understand his human side and accept it, Aruru creates someone to be a friend to Gilgamesh – the wild man, Enkidu. The two have many adventures including killing Humbaba, the giant who guards the Forest of Cedars and slaying the Bull of Heaven. When Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh sets out on a search for eternal life and is directed to Uta-napishti, the only survivor of the great Deluge (similar to Noah in the Flood story). Eventually Gilgamesh accepts that he will have to die and is advised by Siduri, the Tavern Keeper to enjoy the good things in life while he can. She says:
cherish the little child that holds your hand,
and make your wife happy in your embrace;
The play will interweave storylines and action from the ancient and recent past in Iraq, exploring themes about the responsibility of kings and leaders, the criminality of war, civilisation versus nature, the search for immortality and fame and the importance of friendship. The story will be told by a range of characters including the gods, goddesses and ordinary citizens of Uruk and modern soldiers who have fought in Iraq and their families.
Jenny Lewis says “The crossing over of ancient and modern timeframes is reminiscent of my first verse play with Pegasus, When I Became an Amazon (published 1996, Iron Press). It seems to be a technique that I naturally gravitate toward as a way of exploring big, humanitarian issues.”
Read Jenny Lewis’s article about verse drama (including two poems from After Gilgamesh) in World Literature Today.