Theatre Editor Ali Arief speaks on the legacy of the Greek Play The Persians.
I felt a certain kind of peace when I would enter my Classical Civilisation class.
My teacher was an enigmatic man, who took immense pleasure in teaching ancient history, dramatically reading us The Odyssey and The Aeneid in a way that was akin to a performance. We, as his class, would hang onto his every word, absorbing and imagining what is like to be a part of those Greek and Roman mythologies, laughing and discussing animatedly on the misadventures of the Gods and their heroes.
My passion for History shone its brightest when I was in those classes. After our AS year had finished and we had proceeded onto A2, we were no longer reading Homer and Virgil, but had instead moved onto the literal history of the Greeks, with a focus placed on the literary minds of the time.
As the term was ending, our teacher announced that we would be studying The Persians by Aeschylus, a lively play that is based in historical fact, rather than a fictional work of heroes and Gods. We can see this play as a form of Greek propaganda, detailing the defeat that the Persians had suffered to the Greek army at the battle of Salamis.
This play has stuck with me ever since I first studied it. The structure of Greek plays is a thing of which I find fascinating, as the absence of a single narrator presents the play as an all-encompassing experience, involving the audience and uniting them through the role of the Chorus who comment on the situations that the characters find themselves in which is reminiscent of the role of malcontent, however they are body of which the audience can emphasise with, being involved with the story but not taking up a central role.
In The Persians, we see a heavy political commentary involving the debate around Greek democracy and absolute monarchy, a discourse that has lasted for centuries. This play shows us the aftermath of the battle, showing us the desolation in which the Persians find themselves in.
Aeschylus is quick to portray the Persian society in a negative light, using the word ‘barbaric’ to describe Persian society and culture, the Persians themselves referring to their own people with this word. What has stuck with me so fervently is this ancient example of xenophobia, promoting democracy as forward-thinking and progressive, and the other society as regressive and backwards, rhetoric which is still used today.
The play serves to champion Athenian democracy as a sacrosanct, a clap on the back for the Greeks who have fought this war for dominance. He presents the Persians as opulent, over-emotional, and slaves to their desires, attitudes of which would have been abhorrent to the platonic democratic Athenians at the time.
From a religious standpoint, this play is also fascinating. Aeschylus was a member of the Athens major dramatic competition named the festival of Great Dionysia; a festival put on to honour the Greek God Dionysus. Every piece of theatre performed at this festival as an offering to the divine, the act of putting on a performance was seen as ritualistic religious act to gain the God’s favour, with two others plays that was based in mythology, these plays being Phineas and Prometheus Pyrkaeus.
In putting on The Persians, Aeschylus was offering this piece of propaganda to the divine, perhaps to gain the God’s favour so that the Athenians would win more battles and succeed in war.
The Persian King Xerxes is a character who captured my attention with earnest. Xerxes, often known as the Mad King, is deep in grief. After losing the battle against the Athenians, he returns from war broken and losing his mind, with his kingdom at significant risk. Aeschylus is sympathetic in this portrayal, showing us the humanity and horrors in war.
Though this piece is propaganda, it is a tragedy, and the play is deeply sad, showing not only the grief of the war but also the grief of losing a parent as the Persian King Darius becomes back from the dead to shock of the Queen Atossa.
The Chorus is keen to emphasise this grief, with audible sobs in the background in the Persian court. As stated, the Chorus seem to be with the audience, being on the periphery of the play, involved but on the side-lines. Perhaps Aeschylus was inviting his audience to grieve with the Persians, wanting to emphasise that although they had won a triumphant victory against the Persians, grieving with their loses would do well for the Athenians.
The play could also serve as a warning against arrogance and hubris, a lesson to the Athenians that though they have been victorious, the Gods would punish hubris and cockiness if needed, and it wouldn’t be gentle.
It sets a humiliating scene, one that is sombre and quiet. The Athenian audience would have not been in celebration when this play would’ve been performed.
It’s fascinating to see the legacy of this play. It serves as a very ancient example of democratic propoganda and xenophobia, whilst also critiquing war and grief. Every single theme in this play are subjects of which we are still facing in today’s world.
This play serves as a tragic work of art.