Friday, October 17, 2008

Notes from the first Sunday Series event, by Julia Loving.

The Persians and History

Over 80 people gathered in the Main Stage theatre on Sunday afternoon, October 5th to hear a discussion on the background of current production of The Persians—how the play frames history and how history frames the play. Rosaria Munson, Chair of the Department of Classics and Lee Devin, dramaturg, resident company member, and author led an informative and engaging discussion. Dr. Munson, who has written two books and several articles on Herodotus first gave a presentation on the historical context of the play. She said that McLaughlin’s adaptation was very much in the spirit of what the Greek tragedians were doing when they adapted myths to the stage. However, what is unusual about The Persians is that it is based on an actual event—The Battle of Salamis—that happened only eight years prior to the presentation of Aeschylus’ play in 472 BC. Only two other ancient Greek plays that we know of deal with historic subjects. In all three cases, the plays have to do with the confrontation of a Greek city state with foreign invaders.

In 490 BC, the Persian king Darius and his army suffered a terrible defeat at Marathon at the hands of the Athenians. Ten years later, his son Xerxes again sent an army to defeat Athens with the goal of conquering all of Greece and making it part of the Persian Empire. This expedition lasted two years, from 481-479 BC. The Greeks’ astounding victory at the Battle of Salamis was the turning point of the war and the beginning of the ascendancy of Athenian democracy and Western civilization.

Aeschylus and his brother had fought in the Battle of Marathon where his brother died. What is so unusual about the play The Persians is that it is told from the perspective of the defeated Persians, not the victorious Athenians. What would the reaction of the Athenian audience have been to this. Most scholars believe that Aeschylus’ Persians allowed the Athenians to empathize with the defeated Persians. Dr. Munson pointed out that this was very much the tact that Ellen McLaughlin had taken in her adaptation. Her version is not triumphalist but full of compassion.

Dr. Munson said that there is also a much more cynical and less charitable view of how to understand The Persians. It is Edward Said (died 2003), Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, who called The Persians the first “orientalist” document produced by the West. The Greeks, once they had overcome their surprise at their victory over the Persians, reflected on this achievement and came up with several explanations. They theorized that the Persians were punished by the Gods for their hubris.

But, from this viewpoint, there was also another reason for the Persians’ defeat—the Greeks were superior because they were free men, constitutionally governed, relatively poor and therefore hardy, unlike the rich, soft, pampered Persians. Aeschylus’ Persians thus portrayed a polarity between East and West, which would have obliterated any sympathy the Greeks might have felt for the Persians. This is embodied in the play by the example of the two horses in Queen Atossa’s dream—in Aeschylus’ original, they are two women—representing this polarity. Asia is submissive while Europe struggles against the constraints of the bridle. There are also many references to the luxury of the Persians’ lifestyle and to their subservience to their rulers.

Dr. Munson believes that the play speaks to a combination of these aspects. She does not find it jingoistic and instead very nuanced. She said that its subtlety and portrayal of East/West polarity makes modern rewritings of the play particularly interesting.

McLaughlin’s adaptation was commissioned in 2003 just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq by Tony Randall, National Actors Theatre artistic director. Says Munson, “It completely confuses the polarity between East and West.” American viewers who would more readily identify themselves with the Greek ideals of democracy and freedom, instead “find themselves identified in no uncertain terms with an oppressive and Orientalist East.” She added that she found it extremely disturbing that we are “almost denied permission” to identify with the Athenians.

But for Aeschylus’ play to work at all with his Athenian audience, the Athenians had to feel that they were on the right side, that even while they empathized with the suffering of the Persians, the Gods and Justice were on their side.

Lee Devin pointed out that it was a testament to McLaughlin’s fine writing. Instead of offering a “simplistic, moralistic, and contemporarily fashionable” viewpoint, she “simply opens the door” to this really interesting and complex set of ideas. We can’t clearly differentiate between “us” and “them.” The play is about choices made and consequences suffered expressed in language. In other words, “it is going to be the use of language to do stuff.” Having the play situated in Susa where the Persians who were left behind await word of their army—their husbands, fathers, and sons—waging war in distant Greece. Aeschylus and McLaughlin in her adaptation let us experience the Persians’ personal suffering and psychic anguish.

One audience member said that he found it hard to accept that one goal of the play was to make the Greeks empathize with the Persians. Instead, he felt that the play would make the Athenian audience feel great pride in the suffering that their victory had caused to their enemy. He pointed out that war was part of life and not seen as a terrible thing. It was a way to acquire wealth, expand empire, and ensure security. The Athenians went on to create their own empire and were in their own way “casually brutal to those they conquered.”

Another audience member said that he was very moved by the fact that the Persians admitted their part in the tragedy, that it was their hubris that had brought them down. This could serve as a warning to the Athenians that they should not feel too much pride because they too could suffer defeat.

Dr. Munson emphasized that the play is a representation of the Greek imagination of how the Persians responded to their defeat in the Battle of Salamis. This is Greek discourse placed in the mouth of actors. Like the other great Greek tragedies, Aeschylus’ play speaks to us across 2,500 years with startling immediacy. Greek literature has sustained its power. The Greeks were articulate, aware, and analytical. “Everything is expressed,” said Munson. These qualities are not lost in McLaughlin’s remarkable adaptation.