Ancient Tragic Events


The Persians is probably the oldest surviving dramatic text in the world; the few earlier works we have in dialogue form, like the ancient Egyptian dialogue of a man with his ka or spiritual self, were almost certainly not meant to be staged. We know, in contrast, when The Persians was first produced, and we know the events of its time to which it refers—events in which its author was personally involved. What we don’t know, really, is the how and why of its staging. Sensing its undeniable greatness—it was probably the third greatest play, after Ghosts and Long Day’s Journey, to be viewable in New York in June—doesn’t lessen its perplexity. What did Aeschylus, who fought the Persians at the battle of Marathon, mean in inviting fifth-century Athenian theatergoers to watch their recently defeated enemy’s home front spiral down from the arrogance of power to the misery of defeat?

First, maybe there’s a documentary side to it, the post-war amphitheater equivalent of a TV docudrama. When he has the Persian elders, in chorus, enumerate the names and virtues of their commanders, Aeschylus sounds like a chronicler; when he brings a messenger on to describe the destruction of the fleet at Salamis, as Peter Levi notes in the Pelican History of Greek Literature, “he sounds like an eyewitness.” If Aeschylus wasn’t there himself to see the fleet crash and burn, as he certainly wasn’t in Persepolis to witness the lamentations of Queen Atossa and the self-abasement of her defeated son, Xerxes, we can assume that he did exactly the kind of research the scriptwriter of any docudrama would do. And he got it right enough for his script to have been preserved and celebrated through the centuries, to have one New York production now and another (at the Pearl) on the roster for next fall. With due allowance for his form, no questions have been raised about his historical creds.

But watching the enemy’s misery over its defeat is an ambiguous pastime for the period just after a war. This isn’t like the post-World War II movies that cropped up about the final goings-on in Hitler’s bunker, which was an area of speculation until all the facts and eyewitnesses were sorted out. The Persians react predictably. They’re shocked, then upset, then devastated; they plead with the gods for mercy, bewail their defeated state, mourn their dead. Even a Greek naval vet with a “Salamis” oak leaf cluster on his chiton might have found it all familiar stuff. Maybe, as some cynical commentators have suggested, the whole thing is a sneer, a mocking victory celebration: “Watch them haughty Persians whimper and run!” To the Greeks, the Persians were a people of idleness, languor, and unexampled luxury; one can imagine that the original production’s costumes, music, diction, movement, were all made as exotic and un-Athenian as possible. Think Hollywood Orientalia. Think it in the context of a post-Civil War Fourth of July picnic, circa 1880, say in Galena, Illinois (Grant’s birthplace), with a rousing community sing of “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.” The Hellespont isn’t exactly the Mason-Dixon line, but you see what I mean. It’s not impossible.

Condescension, though, is as unlikely a motivating factor for a full-scale theatrical event as just-the-facts. What’s most likely is that both were mixed with something else. Unlike our contemporary newscasters, so determined to prove that Saddam Hussein’s first name is the same as that of a city near Gomorrah, the Greeks, like most premodern cultures, believed that to praise their enemies’ strength and prowess, at least in public, was to enhance their own. I suppose you could say that the fairy-tale “weapons of mass destruction” currently appearing and vanishing, like a Méliès effect, in reports from Iraq are our contemporary equivalent of that choric salute to the Persian commanders, the difference being that Aeschylus was probably more accurate. The more valor and destructive power the enemy possesses, the more honor is attached to defeating them. The resplendence of the Persians’ woe—the height of their fall, the depth of their grief—is itself a kind of pro-Greek propaganda.

At the same time, of course, it’s a warning, a cautionary tale, as Athenian tragedy always was to some degree. This is what the gods do, even to the most powerful. Use your power more wisely, and maybe they will do it to you a little less. This is a mainstream thought. Aeschylus was a moderate, not a “challenging” or “radical” poet like Euripides, who, during the Peloponnesian War, reacted to the sack of Miletus (the Athenian equivalent of My Lai) by writing The Trojan Women, a scene of conquest in which there is no honor at all, except in the dignity of the lamenting victims, and the Greeks are actively humiliated by Menelaus’s forgiveness of that weapon of mass destruction, Helen. That far, Aeschylus was not prepared to go; in his text the warning exists by implication, not by direct accusation or even analogy. It’s the reason, most likely, for the play’s in-depth presentation of defeat: The more empathy we feel, the more the implication hits home.

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.

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.