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

"And, of course, after Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire [about 330 B.C.], the influence of Greek culture, including theater, had a much wider penetration into the Persian heartlands." But, Floor acknowledges, "we are very badly informed about that aspect of cultural exchange between the two civilizations."

That's an unfortunate historical blind spot because "The Persians" is a cultural fountainhead in the history of tensions that simmer, to this day, in our confrontation with Iran. "As early as Aeschylus's play 'The Persians,' " argued Edward Said in the beginning of his signature book, "Orientalism," the East was being reduced to a mere symbol for the intellectual convenience of the West. "What matters here is that Asia speaks through and by virtue of the European imagination, which is depicted as victorious over Asia, that hostile 'other' world beyond the seas."

If one takes Said seriously -- and it's not always easy -- "The Persians" isn't just an early document in the history of a long conflict; it raises a fundamental question about tragedy itself. Is it always exploitative? When, through empathy with the suffering, we imagine ourselves in their place, do we somehow displace them? The problem has vexed earnest readers over the more than quarter-century since the book was first published.

Said is right, however, in his sense that this is a thoroughly Greek play. Some scholars have suggested that when first staged, in 472 B.C. (only eight years after Salamis), it may have been a spectacle of exotica, with "Persian" costumes and manners on display. But everything else is purely Greek, from the central moral point -- it is a tale of hubris , or pride -- to its implicit argument against tyrannical societies and their susceptibility to corruption, decay and discord. Even the gods invoked by the Persians are Greek.

But although some would argue that this is, as Said might say, a kind of moral myopia -- the Greeks can only imagine the Persians as Greek -- others argue that it is inherently flattering. James Romm, author of "Herodotus," writes that "The Persians" is remarkable because it argues that "the struggle between Greece and Persia had been a quarrel not only of moral equals but of sisters ."

And to buttress that argument he cites one of the most powerful speeches in the play, Atossa's Dream, in which the mother of Xerxes imagines Greece and Persia as equal in beauty, like sisters, but vastly different in temperament when yoked together, like horses. One accepts the bridle and obeys, but the other, the Greek, won't submit. In one stroke, the playwright suggests both equality and a difference so fundamental that the best solution is to keep the two peoples separate, or unyoked.

Not quite 150 years after Aeschylus put this warning into the dream of a Persian queen, Alexander the Great conquered Persia and yoked Greek to Persian in a new, short-lived fantasy of government across cultural divides. It is with Alexander that we begin to get more clues about how the Persians might have responded to Aeschylus. Peter Chelkowski, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at New York University, points out that the ancient Persians were no less adept at recasting the other in their likeness, which they did, especially in the case of Alexander, or Iskander, as he was known.

In the great Persian national epic, the Book of Kings, Alexander is presented as the legitimate and eldest son of the Persian emperor Darius. It happens this way: Philip, the putative "Greek" father of Alexander, sends his daughter as tribute to the Persian king, who finds her breath offensive, but impregnates her and sends her home, where she gives birth to Alexander, or Iskander -- conqueror or lost heir -- depending on your perspective.

"Nobody likes to be conquered, and the Persians are nationalistic," Chelkowski says. "So Iskander went back to Persia and the throne belongs to him."

Karimi-Hakkak says this sort of canny rearrangement of meaning was frequent when ideas, or the interpretation of events, were processed across the Greek-Persian divide. Where the Greeks saw a story about sons killing fathers, for example, the Persians might tell a tale about fathers killing sons. Or a story about conquest becomes a story about restoring the legitimate bloodline to the throne.

Although ancient Greek drama has been performed in contemporary Iran -- especially when censorship, under the Shah, for instance, has limited the production of new drama -- it's unlikely "The Persians" would be read as an ennobling tribute to Athenian large mindedness.

"Modern Persians suffered many defeats, but they would not like to make that a topic of literature," says Karimi-Hakkak. But that doesn't mean that through a new round of cultural inversions it couldn't capture the Persian imagination. Shia Islam, the predominant religion of Iran, takes the martyrdom of the prophet Muhammad's grandson as a defining narrative of collective suffering. A powerful sense of loss suffuses the religion, just as a powerful sense of loss defines Persian history, back to the days of Aeschylus. Taken together, religious and historical suffering might suggest the outlines for a contemporary interpretation of the play that conflates the Islamic present with the ancient past.

And would that do any less violence to Aeschylus than the suggestion, popular recently and manifest in McLaughlin's new performing version, that this is an antiwar play? McLaughlin's script was commissioned by Tony Randall for his National Actors Studio just as the war in Iraq started. McLaughlin has taken immense liberties with the text, adding, editing and interpolating, even inventing a scene in which Xerxes is comforted by his mother. She indulges in the sentimentality of antiwar literature, the youth of the victims, the arrogance of the leaders.

At a preview last week, knowing glances and titters were exchanged in the audience when her text hammered away at the idea that Xerxes is an undeserving, arrogant, incompetent scion on his father -- a scene that Maureen Dowd might have written about the Bush clan. Words like "barbarian," casually thrown around in other versions, have disappeared from her text. And McLaughlin explicitly echoes the great antiwar poet Wilfred Owen when the herald says that he has seen war, and "the pity of it."

So, yes, this can be an antiwar play, if you try hard enough.

"The Greeks imagine their own Persians and the Persians imagine their own Greeks," says Karimi-Hakkak.

And we imagine something entirely our own.

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