Saturday, September 24, 2011

Aeschylus' The Persians

This was the first of the ancient Greek plays reviewed by Professor Meineck in his lecture that I previosuly blogged about. It has the unique distinction of being the earliest surviving play we have from anywhere in the world. Aeschylus wrote this play about a real historical event: the Battle of Salamis, which he was a veteran of and during which the Persian army was soundly defeated. The play seems to me to have 3 themes which played off of each other: the folly of exceeding mortal limits, which the Persians did in attempting "to throw slavery's yoke firm on the Greeks"; the courage and resoluteness of the "Sons of Greece" to "fight for all [they] have!"; the tragedy of war as far as loss of human life, which in this battle meant that "Persia's flower is gone, cut down".

Although I am far from being anything near a classicist, I did find much to enjoy about this particular play. It could be that it was based on a real historical event and I enjoy history a lot, although how it was told in the play is nothing like what would be acceptable as "real history" by modern scholars. Parts of it were boring and dragged on, this is a very different and long-dead culture one must remember so some of the context is lost to me. This particular translation certainly helped as some of the prose seemed to be charged with emotion that brought the events to life in my mind. Here's an example, with a messenger sorrofully telling the news of the near-total loss of the Persian invasion fleet:

Then the Greek ships, seizing their chance,
swept in circling and struck and overturned
our hulls,
and saltwater vanished before our eyes -
shipwrecks filled it, and drifting corpses.

Shores and reefs filled up with our dead
and every able ship under Persia's command
broke order,
scrambling to escape.

We might have been tuna or netted fish,
for they kept on, spearing and gutting us
with splintered oars and bits of wreckage,
while moaning and screams drowned out
the sea noise till
Night's black face closed it all in.
(Lines 682-697)

I'm not usually one who enjoys poetry much, but the raw emotion conveyed in these words was palpable. It rather surprised me when I read this to have such a reaction. I felt like I could actually see the wrecked hulks of the Persian ships with the bodies of their dead floating in the sea, at least as if I was watching a movie about the battle instead of just reading a play. And it continued, for look at what happened to the island garrison the Persian had left near the site of the sea battle:

After some god had
handed the Greeks the glory in the seafight,
that same day they fenced their bodies in bronze armor
and leapt from their ships
and cordoned off
the island so completely that our men milled
not knowing where to turn
while stones battered at them
and arrows twanging from the bowstrings
hit home killing them.
It ended
when the Greeks gave one great howl
and charged, chopping meat
till every living man was butchered.
(Lines 736-750)

Powerful stuff.

Look, I am by no means an expert at this but this is a play that even a novice such as myself was able to find meaning to. Yes, some of it bored me to no end and I have no desire to see the play performed live (the chorus still looks hokey even in this translation), but there is still something there to enjoy and take from this play. I know nothing about all the different translations of this play, but I can tell you that this particular one was excellent and however "authentic" it may or may not be it certainly made this ancient play accessible to an amateur like me. I cannot say the same about any other translation, so if you are looking to read this give this one a try. I highly recommend it.