It would be an interesting book, the history of the one-person show. One can safely surmise that the tradition was around long before Homer, but The Iliad was probably the first really successful solo show ever performed, and without a doubt the longest running.
Homer’s got at least 1000 years on Shakespeare, and at least twice that on Ruth Draper. The Iliad was so successful that he couldn’t help but knock out a sequel, The Odyssey, and tour the greater Greek Diaspora with that solo show as well.
The reason Homer created these oral traditions is anybody’s guess. Some scholars in tweed jackets with arm patches hypothesize that he was trying to preserve history before the written word had become as accessible as it was during the Classical Age (5th and 4th century BC, for those who are counting). Homer was a product of the Archaic Age, (8th to 6th centuries BC).
Others think that it was a way of educating the masses. By couching ethical guidance in a dramatic framework, as well as important cultural traditions, one could hold an audience’s attention, and better yet, cultivate and preserve it.
But it’s my thesis that Homer originated the one-person show for a very different reason. The oldest one in the proverbial book, and no, it wasn’t to get laid, though he probably did pretty well with the ladies, or little boys, as history would have it. The real oldest reason is that most of the time, working with other people sucks.
I imagine, at first, Homer had gathered a group of friends together for a rehearsal of The Iliad, and at that early meeting, when he was telling each person wht their lines would be, there was immediate confusion over what exactly dactylic hexameter was. In addition, the guy playing Agamemnon was hung over from last night’s libations to Dionysus, the woman playing Helen had already slept with three other cast members, and the kid playing Telemachus was pissed he had to wait for the end of the sequel to get some meaty scenes.
Homer hit a wine bar, sucked down a few skins of fresh pressed grape juice, gnawed a dozen or so Kalamata olives, and after spitting out the pits, said “F this, I’ll do all the parts myself.”
He workshopped the piece on a large flat rock on the Island of Chios, it’s rumored, and the show eventually opened to rave reviews. His agent had notes, some of which are still extant on papyrus fragments. The first was that an eight-hour story was not exactly commercial. It would work better as a mini-series with a cliff hanger season finale.
He also told him that you can’t have all the leads die at the end cause it’s depressing. “Keep one of them alive, Odysseus probably, since he is the wiley, and get him back home to his wife and kid… And for gods sakes, end it up!”
The rest of the fragments have been lost, but certain extant words remain: “merchandizing” is one, and we can safely assume there were anatomically correct action figures for all the main characters sold after performances: Ajax, Paris, Menelaus, The Cyclops and Lotus Eaters, et al.
The agent eventually dropped Homer. The real action was unfolding in Athens, where multiple thespians were playing out stories, instead of just one. It was clearly where the medium was going. Soon, one-person shows would be a thing of the past. But how wrong he was, as most agents are, about all of it, especially the material’s commercial potential.
As an aside– whenever someone tells you that your artistic venture is not “commercial enough” ask them, in all sincerity, this question: “If I had 10 million dollars for advertising would it be?” If they hesitate for even a second, knee them in the balls. Then say with smiling confidence, that your venture is plenty commercial. “It’s as commercial as the commercials and advertising I am going to buy say it is.”
Say, for example, your show is about a guy who is trying to get back home after a war, but can’t for the life of himself stop island hopping. Doesn’t sound particularly interesting, really. Not particularly commercial. But if you backed that production with an all-encompassing media blitz, one that basically told people it was a must-see via television, radio and the interwebs– or in the case of Golden Age Greece, banner ads hung from the Parthenon– then you would probably have a hit.
People might not understand a single word of it. But they would be able to say they saw it at which cocktail parties they were attending. And others who had not seen it, but had been besieged by the multiplatform, hyper colorized, overly pull-quoted adverts, would feel inadequate, and left out, and rush to the theater to be part of the sensation.
It’s a tradition as old as the ages, really.