Monday, January 9, 2012
One of the cardinal rules that we learned in my college play-writing courses was to "show and not tell." You can, of course, have the "Robert Shaw talking about the sharks" monologue at some point, so long as you show the audience plenty of actual shark carnage through the rest of the show. The Greek tragedians seem to have had no such rule. While there is spectacle, it is often not where we would have put it. They talk about the fall of the gods, about the chaining of Prometheus, about the storms that are to batter Prometheus on his rock, and we meet a character who, in her future history, is going to turn into a cow (extra credit opportunity: I knew the story of Io and was totally confused over whether or not she was a cow in this play. I kept switching back and forth in my head as I read like the Ghost of Christmas Past.) None of these are shown onstage, but a guy does come riding in on a four-footed bird. It reminded me that while I was reading The Oresteia I thought, "I know the script has the murders take place offstage, but in my production they would sure as heck be in full bloody view of the audience!"
A point of interest about the play is that it was traditionally attributed to Aeschylus, but modern scholarship now has grave and serious doubts over the authorship. There have been arguments over the author's meter and line structure. One of the more compelling arguments, in my opinion, is over the discrepancy in the view of Zeus in The Oresteia and the view of Zeus in Prometheus Bound. My personal opinion is that the arguments are compelling enough to have me refer to it as "the author of Prometheus Bound" rather than Aeschylus. In any discussion of doubt of the authenticity of authorship of a piece of literature, I feel it is best to attempt to see through the arguments to the motivations of those arguing. That is why, for example, I feel compelled to agree with the doubt on the Pauline authorship of the Epistle to the Hebrews (most of those who make the argument would have nothing but gain from an actual apostolic author) while I reject outright the questioning of Shakespeare's authorship (an argument that has always struck me as conspicuously classist.)
I chose Edith Hamilton's translation. I think Hamilton's work will fill in most of what Robert Fagles didn't get around to translating for me as I read through the Greeks. Like Fagles, I would read anything Edith Hamilton had anything to do with and likely would have followed her off a cliff if called upon to do so. Edith Hamilton was one of the awesome, underrated figures in academic history, artfully building bridges from the common reader to the sublime (I almost went with "putting the ambrosia on a lower shelf," but feared it would sound like a back-handed compliment.)
As for the play itself, in spite of what I said above about action and spectacle, I think it is a wildly successful piece. There is so much heightened emotion and the speeches are so evocative that I feel it would be a delight for any actor to perform. The mythology is rich and potent. We are left with a universe in which a sovereign god who hates us knows that his days are numbered. Like Herod, Zeus' insecurity over the prophecy is leading him to effect the most atrocious outcomes on innocents. Most of the goodness and, indeed, humanness that we enjoy in our existence was a gift from a god who is now being tortured for having given that gift. Prometheus is clearly put forth as the protagonist and I was especially moved by his defiance in the face of threats and torture. Aware of his own immortality, he does not care how much torture is doled out on him so long as he is being true and virtuous. This seems to be the moral of the story from a distant culture which was convinced of the immortality of the soul. This is what it means to live as though that were true.