An epic journey. Lyrical language. A devoted dog. These are a few recognizable elements from the famed poem, The Odyssey, which playwright Suzan-Lori Parks uses as loose source material for Father Comes Home From the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3). A staple of high school curricula for generations, The Odyssey is one of the best-known literary works in America. But despite its ubiquitous nature, much about the lengthy poem remains elusive. Scholars cannot determine when exactly The Odyssey was written—estimations range between the 12th and eighth centuries B.C.E. And while it is attributed to the mononymous Homer, no one knows whether the writer was a single person or multiple people, and to what extent the story was passed down orally before committed in writing.
The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus’ 10-year struggle to return home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, which itself lasted 10 years. During his long absence, his wife Penelope and son Telemachus fend off new suitors. Though the journey home should take only a few weeks, Odysseus meets obstacle after obstacle, and must use his wits to extricate himself from these difficult situations. Despite Odysseus’ notable physical strength, it is not his defining feature; rather, Homer emphasizes his cleverness over any other admirable quality.
Most likely, Homer expected his audience to know the ending of the story before they encountered his poem; he gives away elements of the story early in the text. Most scholars believe that Homer intended the text to be sung or chanted to musical accompaniment (as perhaps it already had been for centuries), but present-day Americans tend to encounter the work as a non-musical epic poem. Parks uses her own style of poetry in Father Comes Home From the Wars, influenced by jazz music, to tell her own story of a hero’s journey home. Like Homer’s work, the play is perhaps best understood when performed live with music. Featuring a chorus of enslaved people and a live musician, the play allows audiences to connect with the story of The Odyssey in a manner similar to the ancient Greeks’ interaction with this musical epic.