October 19, 2006


Gilgamesh: A Verse Play. Poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa. Concept and dramaturgy by Chad Garcia. Wesleyan University Press. $22.95.

     The world’s oldest known narrative, Gilgamesh is a magnificent story of gods, men and god-men, of friendship and triumph and death and despair, of the search for immortality and the consequences of finding it.  It is also a tale whose story of a great flood drowning all humans, except one favored couple and the animals they saved, is eerily parallel to the biblical tale of Noah’s ark.  This 4,000-year-old epic is storytelling on the grandest possible scale.

     Gilgamesh: A Verse Play is, in contrast, modest in scope and in accomplishment.  It chooses only selected episodes from the epic, focusing attention on the friendship of Gilgamesh and the wild man, Enkidu, and what happens when that friendship is sundered by Enkidu’s death.  In its structure, it brings an intimacy to the story that is out of keeping with the tale itself, but it also brings dramatic cohesion to a work that, in its original form, sprawls – albeit magnificently.

     This play will be enjoyed most by those who like Yusef Komunyakaa’s language and the choice ways he turns phrases, as when half-god Gilgamesh – in his arrogance, early in the tale – speaks with his mother, Ninsun:

Ninsun: You used to venture/ to the edge of the woods/ and return with the most/ wounded bouquets.

Gilgamesh: A king does not pick flowers/ especially a king who is part god.

     Komunyakaa and his collaborator, Chad Garcia, retain one of the heroic deeds done by Gilgamesh and Enkidu after the two find each other and fight to a standstill: they attack and destroy the monstrous forest guardian, Humbaba.  But the other major deed of the two heroes, their killing of the Bull of the Gods, is omitted, presumably to keep the focus tight.  The bull attacks in the first place because Gilgamesh has refused to become the consort of the goddess of love, and it could certainly be argued that the introduction of that element would complicate this play unnecessarily.  Still, the omission will be obvious and disappointing to those familiar with the story.

     Komunyakaa and Garcia use three choruses to help move the action ahead and provide linking material, and the approach works well.  They allow Gilgamesh a soliloquy after Enkidu’s death, in which the line “And I sit here” is repeated again and again, like a death-bell tolling – to fine effect.  And they retain some of the fascinating characters of the original, such as the temple priestess who literally seduces Enkidu to leave the wild; the mountain guards, Scorpion Man and Scorpion Woman; and Siduri, “a barmaid/ at the brink, between/ worlds,” who helps the hero on his quest for eternal life.  They also retain, although without its original wry humor, the story of Gilgamesh’s failure, when the herb of eternal renewal that he finds is eaten by a snake, which from that time is eternally renewed by shedding its skin.  This is a respectful adaptation, its free verse free-flowing, but it is an adaptation without grandeur.  It does, however, approach pathos from time to time, as when Gilgamesh, defeated in his quest and back home with Ninsun, hears her say, “Sometimes we learn the music/ of our hearts too late.”  And he replies, “But it would be worse/ if we never learned it.”  This is not Gilgamesh the epic, but it is a worthy variant of the story.

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