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World's oldest play, 'Persians,' has message for today

A bust of the Playwright Aeschylus, at the North Carolina Museum of Art
A bust of the Playwright Aeschylus, at the North Carolina Museum of Art
Alex Israel on Wikipedia Commons

Off-Ramp culture commentator Marc Haefele reviews Aeschylus' "Persians," in production this month at the Getty Villa.

It’s the world’s oldest known complete drama, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to mount.  Yet the SITI Company’s production of Aeschylus’  “Persians,” in a good new translation by Aaron Poochigian, worked magnificently at the Getty Villa’s Fleischman Theater Wednesday night. So much so that it often seemed like a message from 2,500 years ago to the 21st Century: "Indulging in pointless wars can destroy even the greatest nation."

What’s challenging about the play is its very sparseness. There are only four characters: Queen Atossa of Persia, played by Ellen Lauren; her husband’s ghost, played by Stephen Duff Webber; a messenger; and her son, King Xerxes of Persia. Plus an all-important chorus of courtiers. And all the play’s action is not only off stage, but has already occurred.

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So this is a drama of disclosure. Of discovery. Of history. And, as it turns out, a tragedy of overriding hubris, of the richest, most powerful man in the known world’s disastrously failed attempt to conquer the arrogant patchwork civilization known as Greece.

(Xerxes, a man with a plan.)

Lauren’s grandiloquent Queen Atossa is the central figure. Trailing and draped in cloth of gold,  she has been left home in the great palace of Susa with foreboding dreams and a handful of elderly courtiers to receive victorious news of her son’s triumph in the greatest invasion so far in European history. In a magnificent, striding performance, she at first unconsciously senses the disaster against her recollection of the high hopes of her son’s army.

The golden (gold is here the color of tragedy and despair) task force’s departure is described in loving detail by the queen and the chorus. But most of the men shall never return. The greatly outnumbered Greeks have killed them all, in one of history’s great military debacles. The messenger (Will Bond) tells the story. Only the great king has somehow survived, his clothes in tatters. Persia now lies defenseless to its enemies.

The play suggests how this happened in multiple versions. Atossa blames the falseness of the gods she’s prayed to for victory. When he finally returns at the play’s end, her egomaniacal son Xerxes blames plain bad luck. After all, he did everything according to plan.

But the ghost of his father, Darius — who, though dead, is the liveliest character in the play — sees more truthfully than any of the living. The defeat, he says, was a direct result of an overreaching mad desire to conquer, along with bad advice and stupid leadership. On furlough from Hades, Darius excoriates his self-righteous son and warmly embraces his wife in a moment of consolation and affection. Webber’s character mixes imperial mien with the kind of humanity that, you sense, made him a far greater ruler than his son.

The self-absorbed Xerxes, maniacally played by Gian Murray Gianino, has the last word. His is the more common humanity that never admits doing wrong or making mistakes, that blames all his disasters on dumb bad luck. Or the failings of others.

He will continue to reign badly over a declining, unhappy Persia because, in this absolutist ancient empire, his place as ruler is secure, no matter how badly he performs. The play’s deepest tragedy is this.

Playwright Aeschylus is usually given credit for portraying the 480-479 BC Greco-Persian War (in which he fought) in a manner sympathetic to the Persians. But he also flaunts absolute monarchy’s fatal flaws. I doubt that any visiting Persians would have appreciated the play’s sympathies in 472 BC. No Greeks appear in “Persians,” but triumphant Hellenistic ideals are subtly entwined into it, as when one Persian laments that, now that the Persians have been expunged from Greece, “People will be free to say whatever they can think of.”  

For history, that may have been the greatest victory of all.

"Persians," by Aeschylus, is at the The Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater at the Getty Villa. Directed by Anne Bogart, created and performed by SITI Company. Thursdays-Saturdays, through Sept. 27; 8 p.m.