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An explosion of classic Greek anti-war plays in America November 5, 2006

Posted by grhomeboy in Hellenic Light Americas.

It’s pure fantasy. Unless you lived in Greece in the fifth century B.C. when Aeschylus, the father of Western drama, wrote “The Persians,” the first known tragedy in the West. As a 35-year-old, Aeschylus fought against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C.; a decade later, he was at Salamis for the decisive battle that forever changed the destiny of Europe.

Aeschylus believed that humans “suffer into truth” that our greatness emerges from severe tests. Theater scholar Roberto D. Pomo, of California State University Sacramento, asserts that the battle-tested Aeschylus wrote his tragedies to “exorcise his own demons, to understand human frailty. The only way he could do that beyond the battlefield was through his writings on war and suffering. He truly understood suffering.”

Greece and the world failed to learn the lessons of ancient drama.  War still dominates our headlines 2,400 years later. It’s easy enough to find unnerving parallels between our wars and our leaders with those of the ancient world.

All of which may explain the extraordinary resurgence of Greek plays nationally and, especially, locally. Since Desert Storm and through the current world conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, San Diego’s theaters, from the Old Globe to the tiny Sixth @ Penn, have offered as many Greek dramas as any city in the country.

San Diego artists and their audiences repeatedly return to Aeschylus, an admiral, Sophocles, also a warrior, Euripides, the original anti-war protester and Aristophanes, a conservative comedian who despaired at carnage of the Peloponnesian War.

Doug Lay, who has directed several Greek dramas in San Diego and has more in the works, notably Euripides’ “The Bacchae” at Sixth @ Penn later this month, says he “can’t get over how relevant these plays are to our society. So many of the lines seem to be ‘sound bites’ from the evening news. Audiences tell me that.”

The Athenians, who invented democracy, from demos, the free male populace over 18, voted on whether to go to war, every year. Usually, they voted with their pocketbooks, as war was “good business” especially for the lower class or nautikos ochlos “sailor rabble” who made a fair living manning the oars of the great triremes.

Not surprisingly, amid our own wars we look to them for solace and perhaps guidance, however unheeded. Brian Vickers, a Cambridge don who writes extensively about Greek literature, notes that “few works of any language or any period have presented violence, weakness, and destruction either so vividly or with such compassion for the sufferer, hatred for the oppressor” as does Greek drama. Drama is contingent upon conflict, the clash of protagonists and antagonists, and nowhere among human endeavors is conflict more pronounced than in wartime.

“Unfortunately,” says Marianne MacDonald, a UCSD theater professor and prolific translator of Greek drama, “it is not in humanity’s nature to be pacifists. With the rise of personal property, violence has become a way of life.”

She cites such modern films as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in which a bone becomes a weapon and the comedy, “The Gods Must Be Crazy” where a coke bottle incites a skirmish, as contemporary works that reflect the Greek masters’ views on humanity’s predilection for self-destruction.

Unlike modern filmmakers, such as Steven Spielberg and Clint Eastwood, who portray battlefield slaughter on Omaha Beach or at Iwo Jima with stomach-turning reality, the Greeks avoided violence on stage. They understood that the imagination is capable of creating even more gruesome visions in our mind’s eyes.

Ultimately, the Greeks were more interested in the carnage of the soul than that on the battlefield. Aeschylus traced humanity’s movement from barbarism to civility in his trilogy, “The Orestia” a future project for Lay. From accounts of the slaughter of Troy in Part I “The Agamemnon”, to the debilitating effects of guilt in Part II “The Libation Bearers”, through the gloriously uplifting conclusion “The Eumenides”, in which man and gods create the courts of justice, Aeschylus shows humans at their very worst and, thankfully, at their best.

Whereas Aeschylus examined the cosmic implications of war, his successor, Sophocles, wrote tragedies focused on the dilemma of the individual trapped by external and internal forces. His Ajax is the prototype of the victim of “post traumatic stress syndrome,” also known as “battle fatigue.”

Sophocles taught us how to speak truth to power. In “Antigone” Oedipus’ defiant daughter mourns the body of her dead brother during Thebe’s civil war. She defies King Creon’s edict that, in the interest of the homeland’s security, the traitorous brother may not be buried. Committed to natural, rather than civil, law, Antigone defies the stubborn Creon, asserting that she was “born for love, not for hate.” Her unflinching resolve leads to her death, even as Creon’s actions precipitate the death of his son and wife.

The third of Athens’ tragic playwrights, Euripides, is the most modern of the Greek dramatists. His plays are cynical, ironic, bitter, more Brecht than Sophocles, who in Aristotle’s words “shows men better than they are.” Euripides’ tragicomedies showed men and gods “as they are”: venal, petty, vengeful, folly-bound.

Currently, McDonald is refining her translation of Euripides’ “The Bacchae” perhaps the most violent play in the Greek canon, for the Sixth @ Penn production. “It’s a play about religious intolerance in which the god Dionysus wages a religious war to wreak vengeance for a slight to his reputation,” she said. The vengeful god drives a mother, Agave, and her frenzied companions to dismember her son, Pentheus.

McDonald sees parallels between the destructive Dionysus and modern political and military leaders who “sway their people to vote for war to save face.” Nothing is sweeter for the aggressor, she says, “than holding your hand over the dead body of your enemy.”

Euripides’ most somber play, “The Trojan Women” was a response to a massacre at Melos during the Peloponnesian War. There, men, women, and children “fell before the spears of Greece.” The tragedy remains Euripides’ indictment of Athenian brutality. Perhaps more than any Greek play, “The Trojan Women” most reflects our concern with modern atrocities and remains central to any discussion of the Geneva Conventions.

Another Melos-inspired play rivals “The Trojan Women” as our most-produced anti-war play. It is not a tragedy, but the finest example of Athenian comedy: Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata”. It’s that famously ribald play in which the women of Athens and Sparta join forces for a sex strike to force their men to end the 30-year war between their cities. In their democracy, the Greeks could laugh at the absurdity of war, as well as tremble at its horror.

A wealthy landowner or “knight”, Aristophanes was conservative in his political views, yet the war against Sparta so disillusioned him that he wrote two other anti-war comedies. “The Acharnians” shows the consequences of one man’s decision to declare personal peace with Sparta; he’s tormented by his peers because he tries to “cut and run.” In “Peace” the goddess of peace is incarcerated by warmongers.

Each of Aristophanes’ anti-war comedies ends with a joyful celebration, song, dance, feasting, sexual ecstasy, to celebrate the return of peace. Alas, such triumphs occurred only on stage at the Theatre of Dionysus in the shadow of the Acropolis. History wrote quite another ending for the Athenians.

The tragedies also usually ended on a note of hope. “We’ve come through the worst,” the plays seemed to say, “and we’ll learn from this; we’ll be better for having endured the suffering in our midst.” In theory, the plays provided a catharsis, or “spiritual cleansing,” for audiences. But in practice . . . ?

If the Greek plays are truly tragic, their collective tragedy is that the lessons they teach were simultaneously so well known, and so little heeded, in ancient Athens. And today.

Fixated on the classics > The procession of Greek and Roman classics continues, with these productions and readings recently scheduled:

“The Bacchae” by Euripides, translated by Marianne McDonald, directed by Douglas Lay. Opens at Sixth @ Penn Theatre in Hillcrest November 24, runs through December 17; (619) 688-9210 or http://www.sixthatpenn.com/

“Phaedra” by Seneca, a reading by Dakin Matthews’ Antaeus Theatre, for three performances November 17 and 18. At the Getty Villa Auditorium, Malibu; (310) 440-7300 or www.getty.edu.

“Peace” by Arisophanes, a reading directed by Celeste Innocenti, with a “multicultural company of local actors, dancers and musicians,” December 18 at New World Stage, 917 Ninth Ave., downtown; (619) 374-6894.

“The Oresteia” by Aeschylus, translated by Marianne McDonald and J. Michael Walton and compressed into one full-evening play, directed by Douglas Lay. At Sixth @ Penn Theatre, May-June 2007.

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