April 2004

Aeschylus's Persians--Lessons for Today?

If true wit consists, as Madame de Staël famously observed, "in recognizing the resemblance among things which differ and the difference between things which are alike," foolishness may consist in recognizing superficial similarities while ignoring fundamental differences. A case in point is the political lessons that may be drawn between Aeschylus's Persians and the United States' involvement in the Iraq war. Over the past year, that war prompted two New York theater groups to mount separate productions, barely six months apart, of this rarely performed classic Greek drama, the earliest that has come down to us.

According to an article on the first of the productions in question--at Tony Randall's National Actors Theatre in New York City last June--the "new 'Persians' offer[ed] insight on new imperialism" The Villager, June 18-24, 2003). In an interview, Ellen McLaughlin, who came up with the hasty new adaptation staged by the NAT, reported that she was "commissioned [by Randall] to do it very, very quickly when the war started," because it was, in her words, "his response to a crisis in American diplomacy." The play, she added, "warns us of the perils of conquest and imperialism."

In the production I saw earlier this year, by the Pearl Theatre Company, no such explicit analogy was drawn--to its credit, the Pearl consistently seeks to interpret plays in relation to their original historical context, rather than impose a contemporary viewpoint on the material. Yet, during a talk with the audience following the performance, the director, Shepard Sobel, tentatively alluded to similarities between the situation in Aeschylus's drama (about the tragic folly of young Xerxes's attempt to extend the vast empire of his great father, Darius, by marching upon and conquering the less powerful Greek city-states) and the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq last year.

After viewing and subsequently reading the play, however, I was convinced that the purported similarities, though striking, were superficial. Nonetheless, I was willing to consider that I might have missed something, since my knowledge of ancient Greek history and culture is admittedly quite limited. So I appealed to classical scholar Victor Davis Hanson for a more informed view. He confirmed my impression of the fundamental difference between the situation in Persians and the present war in Iraq: "The Persians were autocrats trying to impose autocracy on free autonomous city-states," he replied, "[whereas] whatever one thinks of the [Iraq] war, the U. S. is a constitutional republic that overthrew a dictatorship and [aims to create a democracy in its place]. So other than strong versus weak I think the roles are in fact reversed and not applicable."

In that light, the passage from Aeschylus that may be most relevant to the present situation is the following proclamation by the Chorus (in the fine translation by Janet Lembke and C. J. Herrington staged by the Pearl):

No longer will tongues in vassal mouths be kept under guard
for people are freed,
set loose to bark freedom
now that dominion's yoke is snapped.

--Michelle Marder Kamhi