Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Greek Play Seminar: "The Persians"

So, I read “The Persians” by Aeschylus, written in 472 B.C. Although Aeschylus wrote it for Greek audiences, the play is set in Persia, specifically the ancient city of Susa, which is now in modern-day Iran.

A couple of Persian elders are milling about near King Darius’s tomb. Darius’ son, Xerxes, the new king, has gathered up every Persian guy who can walk to go attack the Greeks. Xerxes was still mad at the Greeks cuz they beat his dad at the Battle of Marathon, so off they went.

Well, they'd left a while ago, and the Persian elders are feeling anxious, so they decide to gather at Darius’ tomb and serve as the Chorus for this play,

To pass the time, they chant a long roll call of all the mighty warriors who went to Greece. Xerxes had gotten the bright idea of tying ships together to bridge the Hellespont, a narrow strait dividing Greece and Persia. This way, he could march his big army right over to Greece:

“The narrow Hellespont’s vex’d waves disdain,
His proud neck taught to wear the chain.”

Queen Atossa then turns up, widow of Darius and mother of Xerxes. She’s a nervous wreck after two dreams predicting Persia’s defeat. (Her first dream, about two women harnessed to Xerxes’ chariot, was disturbing even without all the symbolism.) What are the Greeks like, she asks the chorus.

Pretty darn tough, the chorus responds. “Slaves to no lord, they own no kingly power.”

Suddenly a messenger appears, looking all freaked out. “Woe to the land of Persia!” he cries.

Persian dead are lying in heaps on the Greek islands, the messenger continues. More lie on the bottom of the Aegean. Xerxes is alive, and returning, but most of the Persian host is dead, and in case they don’t believe him, the messenger starts listing every dead chieftan he can think of.

Yes, yes, yes, Atossa says, I’m sorry about Arabus and Artames and our buddy Lilaeus, but WHAT HAPPENED?

It was a dirty, rotten trick, the messenger answered. Some Greek guy turned up at the Persian ships and said the Greeks planned to sneak away in the night. Xerxes immediately arranged all his ships around the area to prevent this and waited for morning.

But the Greeks didn’t flee. They popped up the next morning and started shouting:

“Advance, ye sons of Greece, from thralldom save
Your country, save your wives, your children save,
The temples of your gods, the sacred tomb
Where rest your honour’d ancestors; this day
The common cause of all demands your valour.”

Then the Greeks attacked. Persia’s ships were so badly placed they couldn’t maneuver properly and were defeated.

Then the messenger runs off, leaving everyone horror-stricken. What to do now? Atossa ponders her situation. Since the Chorus is obviously useless, she can only ask her dead husband, Darius, for advice. They’re probably placing bets down in Hades on Persia’s continued survival. Maybe they’ve got some inside dope. Bring Darius up from the dead, she tells the Chorus, which they accomplish with surprising efficiency.

Darius arrives and he’s mad as hell (no pun intended). “With what new ill doth Persia groan?” he asks.

Atossa spills the beans and Darius says, well, what can Xerxes expect if he insists on bridging the Hellespont? Neptune is all mad at him now – “Presumptuous … vain mortal!”

Well, it’s not all Xerxes’ fault, says devoted mother Atossa. He fell in with some bad company. They made him do it. But what should Persia do now?

Leave the Greeks alone, Darius snarls. And clean up a little, Atossa, you look a mess. Put on your best dress for Xerxes and treat him nicely. Then Darius vanishes in the puff of brimstone.

Atossa runs off to dig through her closet, leaving the Chorus to wail for a good three pages until Xerxes makes a surprise appearance.

Since Darius didn’t tell them to be nice, the Chorus guys don’t hesitate to pour as much guilt on Xerxes as possible:

“Asia sinking on her knee, O king,
Oppress’d, with griefs oppress’d, bends to the earth.”

You stink Xerxes, sings the chorus, you’re a rotten, stinky king. Where are all your friends? Oh yeah, they’re, um, “sunk and smeared with gore.” Relentlessly they chant name after name of the tortured dead.

I’m sorry, Xerxes says, really. Look at my clothes – I ripped them all up and I really liked this shirt. You know, this is all so great, let’s all go to my house and we can moan some more. I hear Mom has a new dress:

“Lead to my house, and wail the fate of Persia.”

This sounds good to the Chorus, and they exit singing:

“The haughty arms of Greece with conquest bless’d,
And Persia’s withered force confounded,
Dash’d on the dreary beach her heroes slain,
Or whelm’d them in the darken’d main.”


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