Homer Hesiod Hymns Tragedy Remythologizing Tools Blackboard Info
"Whose Line Is It, Anyway?"
An Introduction to Homeric Composition
 
  In the 1920s and 30s, Milman Parry made arguably the greatest contribution to Classical scholarship in the 20th Century. Parry suggested that the Iliad and Odyssey began as traditional, oral works. The crux of Parry's argument was the highly repetitive and formulaic language that underlies the entire poem. Albert Lord, a student of Parry's, suggested that the formulaic and schematized language resulted directly from the nature of the text's delivery. The Homeric poet, Lord argued, composed the poem as he performed it. In other words, the Homeric poet did not memorize and repeat a fixed sequence of events; instead, the poet created each performance spontaneously by weaving together a series of modular components.
  This fusion of composition and performance may seem somewhat alien to the modern reader; indeed, creation and delivery are generally two distinct phases of modern music, speeches, and broadcasts. The British comedy "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" provides an environment in which spontaneous composition and performance fuse together into a single activity. At the end of each show, the performers must come up with an impromptu song, based on a topic from the audience. A careful comparison between the Homeric bard and the "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" performer provides us with some insight as to how the Homeric bard conquered the seemingly monumental task of spontaneously creating works such as the Iliad and Odyssey.
  As mentioned above, modular composition, that is, a method of assembling a large story from smaller set-pieces, was the method of choice for the Homeric poet,Stiles and Slattery from Whose Line Is It Anyway and, as it happens, the same is true for the modern comedians on "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" Though these performers are worlds and millennia apart, both need modular composition to perform two essential (but very different) tasks: First, each needs a way to produce a skeleton of their work; that is, a formal but highly flexible framework around which he creates his story. Second, both need a way to flesh out this skeleton into individual, rhythmically congruent lines. For the modern comedian, words must fit into the rhythm of a song chosen at random; the Homeric poet had to fit his lines into the tight constraints of ancient poetic meter.
  Whether the subject is Odysseus' meeting with Eumaeus or inflatable pigs, "themes" are the basic unit of content the performer uses to mold the skeleton of his performance. For the Homeric poet, themes covered the events and narratives most common in epic. Preparations for battles, scenes of greeting and hospitality, festivals, and assemblies of commanders, for example, are just a few of the basic themes the bard could string together to form larger sequences, and ultimately the entire work. The modern comedian's collection of themes probably includes guidelines to simple forms of humor, such as irony, plays-on-words, and sexual innuendo.
  In both cases, the themes act mainly as an interface for the performer; that is, the themes provide him with a basic outline, while letting the performer fill in the specifics. This is crucial to the concept of modular composition. The performer can extend these abstract themes to cover the specifics of any situation. For example, an ancient bard could create a festival scene with the Greeks, Trojans, or any other race with equal ease; a comedian on "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" can create an ironic song, whether the subject is Bill Clinton or Star Wars.
  Themes, then, help the performer create a coherent whole, but do not give him an actual implementation. He needs another set of tools, namely formulas, to render the themes into words. Following Parry, a formula is "a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given idea" (Parry, 272). The performer uses formulas, then, to cast the themes into lines. Perhaps the most obvious examples in Homeric text are the epithets of the gods and heroes. An epithet is a tag-line consistently attached to a given character, such as "Flashing-eyed Athena" and "Rosy-fingered Dawn" (for Lombardo's preference in treating these epithets, see Murnaghan, "Introduction," in Homer, Odyssey, p. lvi) The modern contestant also relies on formulas to compose his work. For example, the performers certainly have formulas for rhyming sentences. Memorization of a fixed set of rhyming words would severely limit his range of topics; moreover, it would be nearly impossible to create sentences ending with just these words. Instead, he has several formulas for producing rhyming sentences. On a recent re-run, comedian Ryan Stiles (my personal favorite) composed three rhyming couplets by ending the first line of each couplet with "is impeached," "is repeated," and "is defeated," respectively. (The subject was Monica Lewinsky. You can imagine where this went.) The formula, in this case, calls for every other line to end in symmetric verb forms.
  Another important feature of formulas, according to Parry and other experts, is their "economy." Homeric language has very few formulas that have the same meter and express similar ideas, and Albert Lord's research showed that the poet often expressed similar ideas in identical patterns. More importantly, economy and modularity are not mutually exclusive properties. If the poet exchanged one formula for another, he changed the meaning as a consequence. In other words, the poet often had one and only one unique arrangement of formulas to express an essential idea. Though both Homeric poets and "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" singers can cover an almost infinite number of themes with relatively small number of formulas, both have limited ability to express similar themes in different wording. The result is highly formulaic language for Homeric poems and "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" songs.
  In much the same way, ancient singers of Homeric epics and modern contestants on "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?" need themes and formulas to spontaneously compose and perform their songs. The highly formulaic and repetitive language of both works results not from lack of creativity, but is a watermark of their oral nature. For both performers, the modularity of their modes of expression gives the seemingly magical ability to sing on almost any given subject without formal preparation.
 
Songs From "Whose Line Is It, Anyway?"
  Greg Proops, Colin Mochrie, Ryan Stiles and Tony Slattery on College Exams: WindowsMedia / RealPlayer
  John Sweeney, Geoff Steen, Paul Merton and Tony Slattery on Vegetables: WindowsMedia / RealPlayer
 
Sources / Further Reading:
  Clark, Matthew. Out of Line. New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1997.
  Lord, Albert. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960.
  Nagy, Gregory. Homeric Questions. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.
  Parry, Adam, ed. The Making of Homeric Verse. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
Timeline of Relevant Events
gutter splint
gutter splint
PLACE HOLDER FOR COUNTER
gutter splint