Ancient Tragic Events

The Oldest Surviving Play Speaks, but Can It Still Sing?

Still, empathy is a reserved and modest feeling, more suitable for a reflective time than for a crisis-ridden moment like the one we're in. As a text, The Persians offers clarity, but not urgency, which is one reason the production Ethan McSweeney has staged for the National Actors Theatre seems, despite a lot of strong and lucid acting, somewhat staid, distant, and finally unmoving. Probably, 2,500 years ago, the play's complex blend of fact, gloating, honor, and warning hit the Athenians right where they lived; as a metaphor for another war and a much different later civilization, it needs some extra travel assistance. Or maybe not. The Greeks had ways of enlivening their plays, with a set of theatrical conventions that we've mostly discarded, like masks (with built-in amplifiers) and the doubling of a minimal number of actors in the principal roles. Most of all, Greek tragedy had music, out of the spirit of which, Nietzsche said, it was born. Though not Broadwayish in its attitude, the Greek chorus was the equivalent of a Broadway chorus, a singing and dancing band; the word for the stage they occupied, orkestra, means a dancefloor.

Much of the history of 20th-century music theater has been devoted to the effort to make Greek tragedy sing or dance again: Strauss's Elektra, Milhaud's Les Choéphores, Stravinsky's Oedipus. Eric Bentley wrote that seeing Martha Graham's Night Journey made him realize for the first time what the Greeks had meant by a chorus. But Graham's visceral poetry of body and sound, thrilling as it was (and is again), removed the intellectual substance that the Greeks had bound up in tragedy's verbal component; something similar was true for the brilliant Serban-Swados collaborations at La MaMa, and for Mnouchkine's Oresteia. These were all unforgettable experiences in the theater, leaving my memory packed with moments at which living artists reached tragedy's shattering power. Closest of all, perhaps, was Lee Breuer and Bob Telson's Gospel at Colonus, which used an existing choral unit, the conventions of an existing ritual, and an easy-access vernacular musical style, to animate an ancient Greek text. At one point in The Persians, the chorus of elders, reeling from the news of disaster, softly begins to chant its lamentations, to Michael Roth's percussive underscoring. The chant fades, but its brief presence made me feel the same prickling at the back of my neck as I had, decades ago, when the J.D. Steele quartet, in Gospel at Colonus, started in on Telson's setting of the great choral ode from Antigone.

That was literally spine-tingling; The Persians, despite McSweeney's valiant attempt to reach the same grandeur through noble speech, does not get beyond the momentary prickle. Roberta Maxwell's vibrant, haunted, Queen Atossa comes close, though; and Len Cariou, as the ghost of her husband Darius, finds a cunning, modern route to grandeur, by registering as more naturalistic and lower-key than the chorus around him, making death seem more normal than their grandiose, slightly factitious life. This is smart maneuvering, and strong casting, on McSweeney's part: Maxwell and Cariou are among the many North American actors who know, as their more elocutionary English counterparts often don't, that a whole human being must stand behind a big phrase for it to carry weight; the words alone will not do the trick.

Roberta Maxwell and Len Cariou in The Persians: through the enemies' eyes
photo: Carol Rosegg
Roberta Maxwell and Len Cariou in The Persians: through the enemies' eyes


The Persians
By Aeschylus
Adapted by Ellen McLaughlin
Schimmel Center, Pace University
1 Pace Plaza

But neither will the speaker's commitment, for Greek tragedy is more than speech. In order for it to live, we need a convention in which speech and song and dance combine as an everyday thing. Some will say we have that already, but the musical theater as we have it is fundamentally not the same thing, dedicated as it is to consumer diversion; making it "dark" or forcing it to deal with "issues" is largely just a different form of diversion, especially at Broadway prices. It is not a way of extending the theater to the whole populace as a realm of public concern. That would require a civic theater, of a kind for which our essentially commercial civilization has yet to find room.

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