honor, vengeance, and war: a review of "Host and Guest"

In the modern imagination, civilization’s antithesis is enemy tribes, intensely concerned for honor and vengeance, perpetuating endless cycles of physical violence.  A civilized world means peace and global friendship, with the doings of state courts and state prisons being of little relevance or salience to most persons.  Synetic Theater’s Host and Guest, adapted from Georgian poet Vazha Pshavela’s epic poem, takes this latter sensibility back to a stark, mythical world of the former.

The opening scene of Host and Guest occurs “deep in the forests of the Caucasus Mountains.” Two hunters stalk an antlered prey on a dark set.  The hunters are from rival, enemy tribes — one Muslim, one Christian.  Discovering each other, they aim their guns at each other in a beautifully symmetric pose.  Then they cautiously lower their guns, mysteriously infused with some recognition of each other’s humanity.  However, before their society can develop any further, they are both shot by unseen others.

The play’s main section elaborates on the opening scene’s template.  Zviadauri (Ben Cunis), from the Christian Khevsuri tribe, and Joqola (Dan Istrate), from the Muslim Kisti tribe, are hunting in the forest.  Zviadauri discovers Joqola dressing the antlered prey that he had also been hunting.  They mysteriously become friends, sharing the prey.  Joqola, inexplicably not recognizing Zviadauri, invites Zviadauri to his home. Recognition, tribal conflict, and disaster subsequently ensues.

The acting in the play is superb.  Dan Istrate as Joqola covers an enormous range of attitudes and emotions.  He shows responsibility of a host, loyalty to his tribe, friendship with a fellow hunter, and an ability to say convincingly, “do whatever you want with him when he leaves my house.”  As Aghaza, Joqola’s wife, Irina Tsikurishvili provides an emotionally powerful center for the play, despite some wooden lines (one log was roughly “if I weren’t a woman, I would kill you!”).  Irakli Kavsadze is a massive, menacing presence as Musa, a village elder.  The stormy mountain forest that the ensemble creates is one of those memorable vision-movements particularly characteristic of Synetic Theater.  The major battle, enacted with shifting viewpoints, is a dramatic masterpiece.

That battle and other fight scenes, however, incongruously seem to represent modern ideas of war and fighting. An endless cycle of tribal violence necessarily includes limits that make violence not apocalyptic but sustainable.  In early seventh-century Kent, King Æthelberht issued laws describing in detail compensation for wounds.  Among these laws:

45. If an ear is gashed, compensate with 6 shillings.
50. He who shatters a chinbone will pay 20 shillings.
53. He who stabs through an arm shall compensate with 6 shillings.[1]

Njáls saga, a thirteenth-century Icelandic epic describing a series of blood feuds, shows acute calculation in the midst of violence:

“Let us follow them up now,” says Kolskegg “and take thou thy bow and arrows, and thou wilt come within bowshot of Thorgeir Starkad’s son.”

Then Gunnar sang a song:

“Reaver of rich river-treasure,
Plundered will our purses be,
Though to-day we wound no other
Warriors wight in play of spears
Aye, if I for all these sailors
Lowly lying, fines must pay —
This is why I hold my hand,
Hearken, brother dear, to me.”_

“Our purses will be emptied,” says Gunnar, “by the time that these are atoned for who now lie here dead.” [2]

Gunnar, looking forward, recognizes that he incurs a cost for each of the enemy he kills. In a different, violent encounter in the Njáls saga, another character proposes a battle plan based on a similar calculation:

when you have slain out of their band about as many as I think ye will be able to pay blood-fines for, and yet keep your priesthoods and abodes, then I will run up with all my men and part you. Then ye shall promise to do as I bid you, and stop the battle, if I on my part do what I have now promised. [3]

Today’s terrorism is violence with an abstractly imagined context of injury and vengeance.  The form of war that rose to global prominence in the twentieth century is total war seeking annihilation or unconditional surrender.  Both these forms of violence are much different from endless cycles of tribal violence.  Host and Guest might have shown this important historical truth, rather than obscured it.

Synetic Theater’s production of Host and Guest emphasizes an ideal of sympathetic friendship.  Human nature includes an important capacity to make sense of the presence of another human being.  In English arts and literature, human sympathy and friendship began to be a prominent imaginative basis for society late in the eighteenth century.  Vazha Pshavela’s Host and Guest was written in Georgian in 1893.  I don’t know the extent to which it emphasized a similar ideal, which tends to be associated with Romanticism.  But with its opening and closing framing scenes, and in its balancing of the aspects of Joqola and Zviadauri’s relationship, Synetic Theater’s Host and Guest gives much weight to sympathetic friendship.  Too much, it seems to me. In a play that explores the origins of social order, sympathetic friendship offers an appealing ideal.  But if not dramatically well-balanced, it provides a dulling escape from the drama.

Synetic Theater’s Host and Guest is well-worth seeing. It’s not Synetic Theater at its best.  But the great acting, inspired choreography, moving music, and important concerns of this play more than repay attending.

* * *

Synetic Theater’s Host and Guest, directed by Paata Tsikurishvili, showing at the Rosslyn Spectrum through Nov. 9, 2008.


[1] Translation from William Ian Miller (2006), Eye for an Eye (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press) p. 114.

[2] For insightful discussion of this passage, see Miller (2006), Ch. 8.  The Njal’s Saga text is from the translation of George W. DaSent (1861), Ch. 71.

[3] Njal’s Saga, trans. DaSent (1861), Ch. 138.

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