'The Persians' as Antiwar Allegory: Has Blood-Soaked Greek Tragedy Gotten an Extreme Makeover?

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By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 9, 2006

Aeschylus's "The Persians," the oldest extant Greek tragedy, is so spare it seems like yesterday's minimalism. Almost nothing happens. An old queen of Persia gathers with some trusted Persian elders, and they fret about the fate of rash young Xerxes, who has launched a war against the vastly outnumbered Greeks. Then a herald arrives and shatters everything. Anxiety is replaced by the certainty of doom. Xerxes has lost. "One blow has overthrown your happy pride," reads a translation published in the 1960s. "The flower of all your youth is fallen."

The remaining three-quarters of this slightly more than 1,000-line drama is a parade of mourning, recrimination, self-laceration and despair. The Persian defeat, at the naval battle of Salamis, is described in agonizing detail, bodies everywhere, swirling in the sea and washing ashore in a flood of gore. Although Xerxes took war to Greece, the play leaves a powerful sense of desolation in the Persian homeland. "Now all Asia, desolate, void, sighs lament," reads a famously fussy and old-fashioned translation by Seth G. Benardete. Things are so bad that the usual rules of the cosmos are broken, and Xerxes' father, Darius, comes back from the dead to chastise his son. But Xerxes has already internalized the parental abuse, and the play ends with a chorus of grief and self-loathing.

"The Persians," which opens tomorrow at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is read in two distinctly different ways.

Is it an extraordinary act of empathy and compassion on the part of the victorious Greeks?

"No other tragedian," writes Benardete, "has ever dared to go so far in sympathizing with his country's foe."

Or is it a victory lap, and perhaps the greatest display of schadenfreude in the history of drama?

The answers to those questions determine another fundamental, and more contemporary, issue: Should "The Persians" be played as an antiwar play, as it has been in recent years?

If, as Philip Vellacott wrote in the introduction to his 1961 translation, the play is "an entertainment for victors such as Shakespeare provided in King Henry V," all of its graphic imagery becomes a disturbing exercise in the pornography of war.

But if, as Ellen McLaughlin (who prepared the performing version used in the current production) said in a 2003 interview with the New York newspaper the Villager, it is "one of the most remarkable acts of compassionate imagination in all drama," then it may well be a harrowing warning about the carnage of battle.

It would be helpful to put this issue to the ancient Persians themselves, given that they would presumably be sensitive to the subject. But if anyone ever asked them their thoughts on Aeschylus, the answer hasn't been recorded. Even the larger question of what the ancient Persians knew of ancient Greek drama is opaque, say historians and scholars.

"If they did know anything, we don't know that they knew," says Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, founding director of the Center for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland. Some scholars assume that there may well have been a presence of Greek drama within Persia, within Greek communities living there, and especially during periods when it was under the control of Greece. But they can't say much.

"We know, let's say, that Greek plays were performed about 300 B.C., a bit later than [Aeschylus]," says Willem Floor, author of "The History of Theater in Iran."


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