'The Persians' Goes Back to the Future

Is a New York staging of Aeschelus' play The Persians by the National Theater of Greece meant to be a critique of the war in Iraq? Many observers see it that way. Aeschelus fought in the Persian Wars, and tells the story from the perspective of the defeated Persians.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

The Persians is the oldest surviving Greek tragedy. Written by Aeschylus in 472 B.C., it is the first known play based not on myth but on historical fact, the defeat of the Persian Army at the Battle of Salamis. This past week the National Theatre of Greece performed the play at the City Center in New York. As NPR's Margot Adler reports, at times the play can seem contemporary.

MARGOT ADLER: The Persians is not a typical Greek tragedy. You could say it's the first docudrama. Although we think of Aeschylus as a playwright and poet, the only words on his tombstone describe him as a soldier who fought the Persians at the Battle of Marathon. And he may have even fought at Salamis, although it is uncertain. Aeschylus's play, The Persians, is structurally very simple. There is a chorus made up of old Persian noblemen who are running the country while the king, Xerxes, is away at battle.

(Soundbite of The Persians performance)

ADLER: They describe the great forces that have assembled. Xerxes' mother, the queen, describes ominous dreams in which her son falls. When a messenger brings word of the defeat of the Persians, the queen brings offerings to the grave of her late husband, King Darius, who materializes and warns the Persians to never fight the Greeks again. Xerxes returns, laments, and is taken to task by his own subjects.

Evangeline Morphos, who teaches theater and film at Columbia University, says the extraordinary thing about The Persians is it's about a war, but told in the voice of the defeated enemy.

Professor EVANGELINE MORPHOS (Columbia University): Aeschylus was writing eight years after the war. Most of the members of the audience were veterans of the war. And one of the things that he's presenting is essentially that this is a tragedy that hit everybody, even your enemies. And the Greeks were victorious, correctly convinced, I think, that this was a just war - the Persians started it - and yet he's still looking at the human toll.

ADLER: Lydia Koniordou, who directs The Persians and also plays the queen, says the entire theater company was taken to where the Battle of Salamis took place.

Ms. LYDIA KONIORDOU (Director, Actor): And we went to the throne of Xerxes. The area is called still the Throne, up in Mount Aegaleos, where he saw his little boats being sunk into the straits. You felt this deserted area. You feel that something tremendous has happened there. It is a very eerie kind of feeling.

ADLER: Koniordou says this production strikes a middle ground between historical and modern, and has some very unusual features, particularly what she calls the crack, or the break, a term which has a certain similarity to breakdancing, but isn't quite that.

(Soundbite of The Persians performance)

ADLER: It is a way to portray, in gestures and movement and sound, the warning signs a civilization ignores at its peril. Whether it's new facts, a bad dream, an omen, the breaks or cracks, says Koniordou, is a kind of theatrical code or key.

Ms. KONIORDOU: Both for the movement of these old men, and the way this crack breaks their bodies into pieces when they hear the bad news, and also in the staging, and also the way we act, we perform.

ADLER: And it does sometimes seem as if the chorus is almost dancing in jerky, yet elegant, movements.

On one level, The Persians is a play about the strengths and resilience of democracy. The Greeks are better fighters because they rule themselves. It's not a simple anti-war play. The Persians are arrogant, the very image of power and war, but they are still seen as human, tragic figures.

Katherina Boura(ph), the counsel general of Greece in New York, says the main theme of the play is the arrogance and defeat of aggressors.

Ms. KATHERINA BOURA (Greek Counsel General): There is another theme, and this is the contrast between democracy and autocracy. The tone in the whole play is one of respect and compassion for the defeated Persian enemy.

ADLER: A number of journalists and critics have seen the play as a critique of President George Bush and the war in Iraq. But Koniordou says that's too simplistic a view. There is a message that any civilization can be blind to its own arrogance and overreach. The issues are global now, she says, but the play makes one more aware...

Ms. KONIORDOU: Of the possibility of them becoming like Xerxes or like these old men facing this great disaster, too late to change because they haven't heard the warnings. So these are signs, these are signals that also our civilization gives us and we still deny. And we say, Oh, it's, you know, exaggerations of the press. And, oh, it's not going to happen. Or we're going to be dead when it happens, so who cares.

ADLER: The Persians, she says, makes one more conscience of the need to take responsibility in a democracy.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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