Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Playing the "Persians" Card?

Antoni Cimolini, Director of the Stratford Festival, writes a column today in the Globe and Mail about theatre and democracy/theatre is democracy.

After extolling the virtues of Shakespeare, and recounting an anecdote about protesters at the festival echoeing the cries from their production of Coriolanus, Cimoloni trots out one of the more popular examples in our post 9/11 world: Aeschylus's The Persians.

Those early Greek plays weren't mindless distractions. They were tough. They examined issues of power and morality, and human beings' conduct in society.

I'll never forget seeing a production of The Persians in New York City about a year after Sept. 11. Written in the fifth century BC by the Greek dramatist Aeschylus, it's the oldest surviving play in history.

It's about the humiliating defeat of the mighty Persian army, led by King Xerxes, at the hands of the Greeks. Greece at that time was a minor power, and Persia was like the United States, so right away you can see the modern parallel.

Now this is a play written by a Greek, about a stunning Greek victory.You'd expect it to be a self-congratulatory celebration of that victory. But in fact, it's written empathetically from the point of view of the Persians. It shows the Persians, as worse and worse news comes in, being forced to examine their own arrogance and their own mistakes as a superpower. It also, of course, contains a warning to Aeschylus's fellow Greeks not to fall into the same trap.

People who saw this play in New York couldn't help seeing the parallels between what had happened to the Persians 2,500 years ago, and what had just happened to the U.S.

That's what intelligent, thoughtful theatre does:

Before advocates for the importance of the Greek theatre's compassion for their enemies use this vague example again, (or worse, before any more Artistic Directors jot out their performance notes, or choose this play for their next season,) at least check out an article by Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post about just these analogies. Kennicott wrote the article during a run of The Persians at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC.

Kennicott, talking to experts and reading various criticisms, finds scant evidence that Aeschylus was trying any sort of serious empathy. And what is more, he finds less evidence for justification of the play being revived as a modern anti-war play. Looking to the Shakespeare Theatre production he finds the translator taking great liberties to shoehorn the message:

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.

It seems Kennicott comes to the absolute opposite view as Cimoni.

1 comment:

Ashvattaman said...

I generally take exception to attempts to impose political interpretations on ancient lit. Cimoloni somewhat betrays his naivete regarding history by calling Persia a "superpower" in the first place, considering the term is so modern and so specific to the cold war. To draw comparisons to 9/11 is equally spurious. Now if a brave band of Republican Guardsmen had repulsed the entire American army as it crossed from Kuwait, there might be an analogy, except for the problematic issue of Iraq not exactly representing the Athenian ideal in terms of government.