Prometheus Bound is a Greek tragedy that comes from the days of classical Athens, over 2000 years ago, yet somehow it is amazingly modern and contemporary in the issues that it raises. About a week ago, I attended a performance of Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa near Malibu, and it wonderfully conveyed the full meaning of the myth in a refreshing simple and modern style. The American audience of today immediately grasps that the themes discussed by Aeschylus (the playwright to whom Prometheus Bound is traditionally attributed; scholars now dispute the authorship of the play) are still relevant, perhaps more so than ever.
In the character of Prometheus, the Titan imprisoned for stealing fire from the gods and granting it to humanity, we find an echo of the modern political dissenter or whistleblower. In Zeus, the all-powerful ruler who uses his power to remove, destroy, and silence opposition, we find a hint of today’s authoritarian rulers.
We find ourselves dealing with the ancient and modern questions of how much power a ruler should have and of what we must do to counter the improper abuse of authority. When Zeus threatens Prometheus with horrific violence to uncover some secret knowledge that may threaten his status as Olympian king of the gods, we might even be reminded of modern political controversies, such as the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” to acquire information.
One key moment that stood out to me is when Prometheus’ friends warn him not to speak so openly in defiance of all-seeing, all-powerful Zeus, for the tyrannical king of the gods would inflict further harm upon Prometheus to punish his loose tongue. In our world today of government surveillance, the democratic principle of free speech is often placed in danger.
Despite the threat of violence and retaliation, Prometheus still speaks his mind, constantly pointing out the cruel and unjust actions of Zeus. To speak out in this way is to defy those who would abuse political power, and this principle is what Prometheus stubbornly defends throughout the play. As it must have during the time of radical Athenian democracy in which it was written, this play still speaks to the democratic spirit of today, advocating defiance towards tyrannical authority.
I have had much experience reading and studying Greek tragedies, considering their themes, their connections to Athenian democratic ideals, and reflecting on the common ground between ancient Greece and our world today, but in all that time, I was forced to rely only on text, printed on paper.
With this new production of Prometheus Bound, I was finally given an opportunity to actually see one of these ancient stories unfold before my eyes in an authentic theatrical environment. The reason I use the word “authentic” is because the play was performed in a lovely Greek-style amphitheatre, just like those that tragedies were performed in thousands of years ago.
Adding to that the beautiful Roman architecture of the Getty Villa building itself and the warm, Mediterranean weather of Southern California, it was as if we had entered the world of the ancients; I could almost imagine that we were in Athens during one of the ancient drama festivals or perhaps being entertained at the house of some rich Roman aristocrat.
The production itself, though, was carried out in a uniquely modern style that acted as a interesting juxtaposition against the thoroughly classical backdrop. The centerpiece of the performance was an enormous metal wheel; during the day, it masquerades as a strange work of modern art, but at night, it becomes the cliff to which Prometheus is bound as punishment for defying Zeus.
For the entire play, the actor Ron Cephas Jones, who plays Prometheus, must stand on a small platform attached to the wheel. High up in the air, he remains almost completely immobile. This was certainly an impressive feat, considering that he must perform primarily with his voice and facial expression, rather than movements or hand gestures. With just the power of his voice, he perfectly conveyed the suffering, the anger, and the stubborn defiance of the imprisoned Titan.
If Prometheus is marked by immobility, the Chorus—a convention essential for any Greek tragedy—is marked by a significant amount of movement. In the story, they are said to be flying around, hovering above Prometheus’ cliff, and so, they run around the stage and dance, making all kinds of wild movements to represent the flow of the wind. At times, they even climb up the metal wheel to join Prometheus.
What is interesting is that their costumes do not represent the archaic origin of the play, but rather, they are quite modern: each wearing a sailor’s cap (probably because they are daughters of Okeanos/Ocean), the members of the Chorus are equipped with metal chains used for rock-climbing (these are actually used when they climb up onto the wheel, probably for safety reasons) and dark, baggy pants. The entire color scheme resembled the uniforms of Army rangers, completing the rugged feel of the costume. Hermes, the messenger of Zeus, interestingly wears the dark navy blue uniform of an airline pilot. Everything about the costuming spoke to a simple and modern design sense.
As I watched the performance, I found that the metal wheel acted quite well as a representation of the play’s themes. Its stark and imposing appearance served as a wonderful reminder of Zeus’ power and authority—and how he abuses his power in imprisoning, torturing, and threatening political dissenters.
During the play, we learn that Prometheus possesses a secret knowledge that may one day destroy Zeus, and as the play finishes, Zeus through his messenger threatens to send a cataclysm that will collapse the cliff and send Prometheus crashing down unless he reveals this knowledge. Prometheus refuses to submit to Zeus’ tyranny and the Chorus, now sympathetic to his cause, stays with our protagonist, even as the cataclysm occurs and they all go falling into the dark.
However, the circular nature of wheel reminds us that what goes around comes around, and so Zeus, who acts with force and violence against Prometheus, may himself fall one day, thus completing the loop.
When Prometheus meets Io, the maiden desired by Zeus but transformed into a cow by Hera, Zeus’ wife, as a form of vengeance, our Titan protagonist finds in her another “victim”—albeit indirect—of Zeus. He feels sympathy for her and foretells that a descendant of Io’s son by Zeus will someday release him from his chains.
The platform that Prometheus stands on is able to move at the direction of a lever or crank, which is useful for moments of dramatic symbolism: when he gives his predictions, the platform moves in a circular pattern, as if to match the cyclical nature of time and to show how events that occur now can someday “swing back”, creating ripple effects far into the future.
Let me just speak briefly about a few other aspects of the experience. It is possible to eat dinner at the Getty Villa before the play; you choose from a variety of items from the café or you can even purchase an entire Mediterranean meal experience, complete with wine, for $35/$70 (depending on what you choose), I feel that it might be most enjoyable to eat at one of the local restaurants in Malibu, which is what I did, to receive the complete experience of visiting a seaside town in Southern California.
The Getty Villa staff was very professional and helpful. They provided an escort to help bring me to the handicap accessible spaces for wheelchairs in the front row. At the same time, I very much respected how they honored the integrity of the performance by keeping all guests out of the stage area, even before the play began. During the play, you cannot get up and walk in front of the stage area, even to use the restroom; you must instead take the long way around. It might be an inconvenience, but it actually limits the possibility of distracting the other audience members.
Each seat is provided with a cushion, so audience members do not need to sit directly upon the hard stone of the amphitheatre—definitely a plus on the comfort side of things. It may be necessary to bring a light sweater, but the weather never became uncomfortable.
I very much enjoyed this entire experience, and I would highly recommend it to anyone, particularly those interested in the culture of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This is a truly compelling production that not only captures the wonderful universality of Greek tragedy but represents it in a uniquely modern way. It shows that Prometheus Bound is not simply an old tale from long ago, but a deeply human drama that still, even after 2000 years, is able to bring about a powerful impact upon the audience of today, for it raises issues and asks questions that are applicable to all times. It is safe to say that Prometheus Bound is a story that stands the test of time.
The play starts at 8:00 PM and goes for about 90 minutes. It is not quite long enough to require an intermission. It will be shown on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at the outdoor theatre of the Getty Villa until September 28. Tickets are $42, with a price of $38 for students and seniors. Based on a translation by Joel Agee, this version of Prometheus Bound is directed by Travis Preston and produced by CalArts Center for New Performance in association with Trans Arts. For more information, please visit the Getty website.