From a reader comes the welcome request for notes on how to play an authentic Telemachus in a school drama.
Telemachus (Tel-EH-muh-kuss) is the only son of Odysseus, the great warrior and traveler and hero of Homer's Odyssey. Those folks who consider this poem mostly to be about Cyclopes, Sirens, and Circe might be surprised to find out that much less than half of the work is devoted to Odysseus' wanderings. Much more concerns the situation in Ithaca, Odysseus' home, where Telemachus has grown up fatherless.
Ten years of the Trojan war plus ten more years not knowing where his father is has made Telemachus into a 21-year old with issues.
Books (Chapters) One through Five of the Odyssey deal with these issues, and they are the best starting point for any consideration of the young man's character.
(By coincidence I had just been listening to Stanley Lombardo's reading of these parts of the Odyssey this past weekend-- on the way to and from the beach for Memorial Day.)
What an amazing way to begin an adventure story:
ATTENTION! the hero is detained on the island of the goddess Calypso, so there will be a delay in the telling of the adventure. Instead, we have the story of the understudy of the hero, who will be played by Telemachus.
Telemachus lives in his father's house with his mother Penelope and a large group of older (but still young) man who want to marry Penelope. Telemachus is frustrated and angry that these suitors will not leave his house and he cannot make them. He is an only child of an only child (Odysseus) and has no male relatives to help him. His grandfather Laertes has withdrawn from the house to grieve over Odysseus.
What will Telemachus do?
Homer gives Telemachus a number of juicy speeches in the early books, laced with a strong dose of despair. Telemachus has taken to heart the "negative thinking" of the Greeks-- that one must endure the sad things that the gods give humans:
This, no doubt, was once a perfect house
Wealthy and fine, when its master was still home.
But the gods frowned and changed all that
When they whisked him off the face of the earth.
I wouldn't grieve for him so much if he were dead,
Gone down with his comrades in the town of Troy,
Or died in his friend's arms after winding up the war.
The entire Greek army would have buried him then,
And great honor would have passed on to his son.
But now the whirlwinds have snatched him away
Without a trace. He's vanished, gone, and left me
Pain and sorrow.
(Lombardo, page 8)
There's also a little dose of adolescent self-pity in there, too.
But like all great heroes and heroes-to-be, Telemachus attracts the attention of Athena, who sets him on his own journey to find news of his father and mature into the kind of man who will be able to help Odysseus rid the house of the suitors on Odysseus' return.
Disguised as the wise old man Mentor, she tells him,
...You've got to stop
Acting like a child. You've outgrown that now...
You have to be aggressive, strong-- look at how big
and well-built you are-- so you will leave a good name.
(Lombardo, page 10)
Telemachus has his own mini-Odyssey in Books One through Five of the Odyssey. He becomes much more confident in these books as he spends time with older men (Nestor, Menelaus) and a new friend of his age (Nestor's son Peisistratus). Then in Book Sixteen he is reunited with his father and shows that he has changed from a frustrated, whiny adolescent into a confident warrior worthy of his father's name.
The character of Telemachus is therefore very contemporary, very relevant to our lives today. Many teens today lack strong fathers, and in order to come into their own as males they need a strong male community around them. It's easy to find inspiration for playing Telemachus-- look around at friends, or inside oneself.
One last note: I find it consistently amazing that Athena-- a female-- has control over the development of Telemachus. Yes, she's a goddess, so she is going to have a different role from ordinary women. And she is unusually "masculine" in her character and not sexually active, so not traditionally female. But the change of a boy into a man is supposed to be the province of men, and the ancient Greeks were a strongly patriarchal society. Is Athena the exception that proves the rule? Or was there something else going on under the surface that defies easy explanation?