An Ancient and Modern Tale

June 1, 2007

Neal Bell started writing plays in the late 1960s, so it's no surprise his plays address the human condition in times of turmoil. In his latest work, however, he has reached back in history—to 2700 B.C.E.—to examine our contemporary world.

"In troubled times, theater can be a great public forum," says Bell, an award-winning playwright and professor of the practice in the theater-studies department. His new play, Shadow of Himself, draws from an ancient work, The Epic of Gilgamesh.

Bell's play premiered in Duke's Sheafer Theater this spring. It uses Gilgamesh, an epic poem that tells the story of the king of Uruk in Babylonia, as a springboard to examine current issues.

Thirty years ago, when he first read the poem, Bell recalls that he "was fascinated at its relevance."

"At the beginning of recorded history, humans were wrestling with the same issues that challenge us now. Our ability to delude ourselves goes all the way back. What makes the parallel even more insistent is that the story takes place in the same area of the world where we currently find ourselves wrestling—in modern-day Iraq."

While the play is based on an ancient tale, Shadow of Himself is sprinkled with modern references such as singles bars, speed dating, root canals, and blow-dryers. The juxtaposition of contemporary references with an old story provides surprise and humor.

Shadow of Himself was directed by Jody McAuliffe, a professor of the practice in theater studies.