This week on Arts Magazine, Michael Hogge is happy to have members of the Gorilla Theatre Productions company in the studio to chat about their 19th annual Greek theatre production, held in traditional style on the steps of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. This summer’s offering is The Persians by Aeschylus.
About the play (from Gorilla Theatre Productions website):
“Aeschylus’ The Persians is unique among Greek tragedies in two ways – it is the oldest surviving Greek tragedy (original performance was in 472 BC) and is the only surviving Greek tragedy based on historical events, rather than the stories of the heroes of the late Bronze Age. The events described in the play were recent history for the Greek audience. The story told in the play is that of Xerxes’ failed invasion of Greece in 480-479 BC. Many of the members of the audience would have taken part in the combined Greek defense against the Persians. Aeschylus himself was a veteran of the earlier Athenian victory over Persian invaders at Marathon (490 BC) and he must have known many of the prominent Athenians at the battles of Salamis and Plataea (479 BC). The long description of the Persian defeat in the naval battle at Salamis seems to derive from eyewitness accounts to the action. Though the work is “based on real events,” this is not a work of history. Aeschylus’ play was a tragedy and was originally performed as the second of four plays by Aeschylus put into competition at the City Dionysia of 472. The other plays, Phineus, Glaucus at Potniae, and Prometheus Pyrkaeus, none of which survive, all dealt with mythological matters. A common theme of Aeschylus might be best described in words Martin Luther King, Jr. used – “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In the Persians, we see that – the Greeks are very much the underdog in the conflict with a Persian Empire, which in 480 BC covered all of modern-day Iran, Iraq and Turkey. But the Greeks, defending their homeland, are in the right, and the aggressor state Persia is in the wrong. In addition, the wealthy and powerful Persians made what seemed to Greeks a common, but tragic, mistake – they assumed that such wealth and power as they had made them invulnerable. For a Greek, such an assumption is folly, and Greek tragedy is full of kings who thought themselves totally safe, only to find out just how vulnerable they are. That said, Aeschylus did not use the play to demonize the Persian foe. Rather he used the play to celebrate the Greek victory and the Athenian part in it, and to paint the Persian king, Xerxes, as a tragic hero, a man who thought he was safe to do as he wished in the world. As the earliest surviving tragedy (Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes of 467 is the next oldest), this play might be seen as something akin to an oratorio, with a lot of emphasis on the chorus, with occasional solo arias given to the principals. It is not a play with a lot of action, but it is a play of great poetic power. So sit back and let the poetry wash over you. And as you listen, notice how Aeschylus turns a work “based on real events,” and creates something universal. The 300 started the war. This is the end.”