‘The Persians’ Recounts the Toll of War at Salamis: By KEN BULLOCK

Special to the Planet
Tuesday September 21, 2004

Upstage at the Aurora Theatre is a massive, offset portal of dark wood, monumental as though made of stone, through which the audience can see a sky with clouds that brighten as night seems to fall over the empire in Ellen McLaughlin’s version of Aeschylus’ tragedy, The Persians. 

Noted by the adapter as the earliest “full-length play in the Western canon,” The Persians is also “the only surviving Greek play that treats a contemporary theme”—that of the Greek victory over the Persian imperial army and navy at Salamis (481 B. C.). A decade before, Aeschylus had fought the Persians as a foot soldier at Marathon, where his brother died in combat.  

McLaughlin’s version was commissioned by Tony Randall’s National Actors’ Theater in March 2003 as a response to the invasion of Iraq—though Randall had wanted to stage the tragedy 12 years before. But McLaughlin specifically warns against “artificial parallels.” 

Four men in simple modern costumes that indicate their roles—the program lists them as State (Christopher Herold), Chairman (Owen Murphy), General (Paul Santiago), and Justice (Lawrence Thoo)—enter and array themselves as chorus: a chorus speaking to one another, sometimes in unison, of the great dust cloud they watch as the army moves west, of other signs of departure: “Here a curtain is pulled back and a face appears in the window [a mother’s face] . . . once again he is not there . . . she can’t stop looking for him . . . she has come to know him in his absence much better . . . so many people, but none of them him.” 

The cloud vanishes—“there is only silence. And so we wait.” 

Telling of the mass of soldiery “out of every corner of the empire,” they recount the diversity and exoticism of imperial force (accompanied by a string bass solo). And their syncopated belief: “What can’t such an army do? Nothing; nothing.” 

Queen Atossa (Lura Dolas) appears, widow of Darius, who led the Persians to Marathon—and mother of Xerxes, who leads them again towards Greece. “I don't know why I’m here. Perhaps you can tell me. But I had to get away—the mirrors were staring at each other so when I passed between them . . . too many of us, of me . . . through the palace alone, echoing and reflecting myself. There is not enough of me for so much grandeur.” 

She recounts dreams: Xerxes bucked from his chariot by a horse; a falcon tearing an eagle to pieces (accompanied by the elongated sound of strings). “Where is this Athens? . . . A vast distance . . . where the sun dies.” 

(McLaughlin’s lines are eloquent, bringing over something of the genuine irony of tragedy into English—that unspoken pause of meaning, far from the “artificial parallels” that pass for irony in today’s media.)  

A Herald appears, torn, bloody: “I am the last, the only survivor”—who has come halfway across the world to tell of disaster. “I hear it still . . . the cries of the men as they fell into the unforgiving darkness . . . and no-one to save them; men I couldn’t save, men I never knew; I'll never know.” And of the agony of the long retreat and those who survived: “Only a handful of us came through all of that, and we cannot look at each other.” Michael Wiles, slowly staggering about the stage, delivering this difficult, long, gut-wrenching speech, acquits it well. 

The chorus decries Xerxes, who the Herald said has survived, comparing him derogatorily with Darius. There’s something of the “chorus of humbugs” from Dallam Simpson’s version of Aeschylus’ The Agamemnon in the slippery way this chorus turns on their master, changing fluidly with the mood. A tympani accompanies their list of his sacrileges—the famous flogging of the waters of the Hellespont when a bridge of boats was broken. 

The Queen re-enters twice more: Her entrances in progressive mourning mark the dramatic shifts of mood. And Lura Dolas carries herself well; one of the old definitions of tragedy is the downfall of the mighty, and she shows us both terms of that. 

She performs two ironic welcomings—to her dead husband, Darius (Charles Shaw Robinson), in the first, one of the most affecting ghost scenes in our dramatic literature—and to her very young, defeated, castigated and self-deprecating son Xerxes (Craig W. Marker), who seeks expiation, kisses the Persian soil and asks, “Lead me home.” To the ascending sounds of strings and gongs, at first seemingly contradictory to the somber mood (Chris Houston’s incidental scoring is fine), the last lines are spare; the chorus doesn’t have the last word.  

Directed by Barbara Oliver, founder and—until recently—artistic director of Aurora, this is a sensitive production. But it’s still overshadowed to some degree by the difficulty of any presentation of tragedy today in English: the lack of a parallel—not in content, but in the liturgical power of the original—makes even eloquent translations seem like echoes of—or gestures towards—the rhetoric of the original alone. Sometimes this is represented by a Shakespearean or Scriptural idiom, or an unctuous mix of sanctimony. That’s far from the case here. But maybe the only substitute is through the bolder verse adaptations by poets—Ezra Pound’s Sophocles (which has indications for music that have a parallel with Aurora's use of it) and H. D.’s Euripides come to mind, or Witter Bynner’s Iphigenia for Isadora Duncan. 

A classics scholar friend told me The Persians was an anomaly for Aeschylus in that its Greek is much simpler than the ornate idiom in his other extant plays. I mentioned this to another spectator who had just read the original and praised McLaughlin’s adaptation for fidelity. 

“That’s in part due to its topical nature, events only a decade or so old everybody knew firsthand. Can you imagine an American playwright putting on a play about World War II seen through the eyes of the Nazis?” Then we both smiled wryly and said in unison, like the chorus, “Only Mel Brooks.”