Arts & Events

Aeschylus’s The Persians: Greek Tragedy at the Getty Villa

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday October 03, 2014 - 01:23:00 PM

Every September, the Getty Villa at Malibu presents an ancient play, usually Greek or Roman, at their outdoor amphitheatre built according to ancient proto-types. Over the last eight years I have seen three productions: Euripides’ Hippolytos in 2006, Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound in 2013, and Aeschylus’s The Persians, which I just saw on Saturday, September 27, 2014. The Persians happens to be the earliest Greek play for which we have the whole text; and in this tragic play we get hints of the early development of Greek tragedy arising, as Aristotle alleges, out of choral dithyrambs. In The Persians, singing takes up nearly half the story and echoes archaic performances in honor of Dionysus before the first actor stepped forth from the chorus. 

Aeschylus won first prize for The Persians in 472 at the Athenian festival of Dionysus. In this play, Aeschylus treats an event of recent historical fact – the Greek defeat of the Persians in the straits off the island of Salamis in 480 BC, only eight years before The Persians was produced. This crucial victory of the Greeks, which changed the course of history, is told by Aeschylus from the point of view of Persians at the royal court in Susa as they await news of the fate of their huge military expedition against the Greeks. When a messenger brings news of the Persians’ crushing defeat, the Persian Queen, mother of Xerxes, and her advisors wail with grief, lamenting the loss of so many sons, brothers and husbands. The utter devastation wrought by war is keenly felt in the grieving dirges of the Persians. 

At the Getty Villa, The Persians was produced by the SITI Company based in New York. Anne Bogart, one of the SITI Company’s founding members, directed The Persians, using a new translation by Aaron Poochigian. In an effort to evoke the choral beginnings of Greek drama, director Bogart had each of the major characters – Queen Atossa, the messenger, the ghost of Darius, and Xerxes – simply step forth from the chorus and deliver their solo lines, then melt back into the chorus. Thus, we can better appreciate that, in this play at least, the tragedy is a communal one rather than that of a single tragically flawed individual.  

Nonetheless, Aeschylus clearly rebukes Xerxes for hybris or overweening pride. The hybris of Xerxes, Aeschylus points out, is seen in his ordering the waters of the Hellespont to be lashed with metal chains when the waves interfere with Xerxes’ efforts to build a pontoon bridge across these narrow straits. This offense against Poseidon, as interpreted by Aeschylus, sets the Olympian gods against Xerxes and his Persian forces. Thus, the victory of the Greeks over the Persians is seen to be as much due to the retribution of the gods against the Persians as resulting from Greek military prowess. For Aeschylus, this is a highly moral and spiritual play rather than a celebration of Greek military victory.