Last Friday, I went down to southern California with my family to attend a production of The Persians at the Getty Villa in Malibu. This Greek tragedy by Athenian playwright Aeschylus presents a dramatic interpretation of the suffering and sorrow of the Persians, after the Greeks crushed them in a decisive naval battle at Salamis in 480 BC.
Because I had read the play before and had written a paper about it for a class, I already knew that there was much to be gleaned from the dense, complex imagery of Aeschylus. For this post, though, I’d like to focus on the unique aspects of this particular performance: details that can only emerge from an actual dramatic production.
Representing the royal Persian palace at Susa was the Villa itself, adorned with enormous golden-orange curtains. My mom pointed out that these giant pieces of fabric resembled the sails of ships. Although these curtains were not used as actual ships, it is still thought-provoking to compare the Persian palace to a ship. It brings to mind the “ship of state” metaphor seen in other Greek tragedies and Plato’s Republic, in which a nation is compared to a ship and its ruler to the helmsman.
In the context of The Persians, we might consider Xerxes, a rash and overly arrogant ruler, as a helmsman failing to control his ship of state. This metaphor is especially fitting when it is literally a battle at sea which destroys the Persian Empire. Historically, the Persian Empire was not destroyed as a result of the battle, but that is how Aeschylus presents it.
The Battle of Salamis remained in our minds from the beginning, foreshadowing the horrific destruction to come. As the Chorus emerged from the palace, the sound of waves played in the background, even though the Persian palace at Susa is nowhere near the sea.
The Chorus stood there in anxious silence for a long time, occasionally letting out an anguished cry of fear. Some of them swayed back and forth, as if hypnotized by the rolling of the waves. It was as if they were imagining the sea in their minds and already suspected that it would be a source of sorrow. The Chorus would later compare the size of the Persian military force to the endless sea: surely an uneasy connection, given what the sea seems to symbolize.
This introduction sequence with all its sea imagery was interesting, but it took a bit too long for my taste: they really should have been getting things started.
The Persian councilors of the Chorus all wore modern clothes, the men in suits and the women in dresses. You might expect them to wear grand costumes, fitting with imperial Persian splendor, but rather than wearing the clothes of the ancient elite, they wore the clothes of the modern elite: today’s bankers and politicians.
So, the lessons of this play transcend time and place. If the arrogance of the Persians in this play destroyed them, perhaps it is also true that the excesses of some modern-day bankers have brought about much financial destruction.
There remained a subtle hint of extra grandeur, a dash of the dramatic: golden patterns and symbols were woven into the corners of each Chorus member’s outfit. But it was the costume of Xerxes’ mother that went above and beyond: she wore a brilliant golden dress featuring a massive piece of fabric that trailed behind her wherever she went.
As she moved around the stage, I could not help but feel concerned that she might trip on her own costume or cause another actor to fall down. Perhaps that was the point, for this play suggests that the excessive weight of one’s wealth can “trip you up” and bring about your own destruction. Indeed, after the news of Salamis, she abandons the golden dress and wore a simpler black outfit, symbolizing the failure of Persian wealth.
Now, something interesting to consider: when the queen first entered, she was carrying an enormous broken head of a statue upon her golden fabric trail. The head was left on the stage for the whole performance. The actors made no reference to it, leaving it vague as to what it was supposed to represent.
I imagined it to be symbolic of the weight pressing upon the queen, that is, the concern and worry going through her mind as she thought about what might be happening to her son. Further, the image of a head separated from its body is foreboding, suggesting a gruesome death or terrible destruction. So the queen’s fears specifically involve death and destruction, pointing forward to the horrific account of the battle at Salamis and representing the collapse of the empire afterwards.
Another aspect which I never considered before seeing this play in performance was how the Chorus reacted when King Xerxes returned. The Chorus members did lament the terrible destruction of the army with him, but then, they surrounded him in a circle and accused him of abandoning–and thereby causing the deaths of–the empire’s great warriors and leaders. In text, these statements could be taken merely as a recounting of the Persians’ losses, but in performance, they take on a new dimension, one of deep anger against Xerxes for his failures in leadership.
At the start of the play, the Chorus members put their hands together and moved in a swirling circle. They chanted ancient Greek words, which I as a student of the language vaguely recognized as the first lines of the play in Greek, but a jumble of unfamiliar sounds to everyone else. We began in a world different than that of Aeschylus: the distant past of ancient Greece and Persia seemed strange to us, but slowly, we were drawn in, as the actors transitioned to English.
So, the effect of this was to emphasize that Aeschylus was writing in another time and place, in another language, but also that the play remains accessible to modern audiences. Interestingly, the same technique was used when the messenger recounted the battle song of the Greek sailors at Salamis, reminding us that the Greeks and Persians spoke different languages and had different cultures, an idea glossed over in the text of the play.
At the end of the play, the lamenting Xerxes and Chorus gradually switched back to Greek, leaving us with the very same words spoken in 472 BC, at the Athenian festival of Dionysus in which Aeschylus won first place. And so, though most can only understand the play in English translation, the words of the ancient remain as alive as ever.