Gilgamesh: Yusuf Komunyakaa

Back in 1998, I saw a theatrical production of Gilgamesh at the Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham. I have been trying to find out which production it was but to no avail. Meanwhile, I continue to enjoy every version of Gilgamesh I can find.


Yusuf Komunyakaa’s verse play boils with the jagged wisdom of this ancient tale. It moves quickly and I wonder what a live audience would make of it but if you know the story, you will appreciate both its liberties and its language.

Of the Flood we feel men’s terror:

Lost children searched for weeping mothers. Men cursed the names of their fathers as the rain dug their graves.

Such gloomy lyricism is impressive throughout.

I like that Ishtar kills Enkidu in Humbaba’s forest and that Gilgamesh straightaway leaves Enkidu’s dead body on his quest to find Utnapishtim, returning only then – – in seeming failure – – to bring his friend’s sadly un-animated corpse back to Uruk.

Komunyakaa captures the pathos of Gilgamesh and knows well how to cleverly develop the original. For example, Siduri’s plea in the Babylonian for Gilgamesh to enjoy dancing and the embrace of his wife is made concrete: she and Gilgamesh dance and make love. Here, at the tavern at the edge of the sea, is where one feels Gilgamesh should end his journey. Instead he goes home, a hero of sorts at last, begging the temple harlot (whom he calls Siduri):

Teach me how to live without a name. Teach me how to be a king. Teach me how to die a man.