Plot : News reaches the Persian court of their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Salamis where their army and navy have been decimated by the Athenians. My copy is the Penguin edition covering Aeschylus’ four surviving plays outside his Oresteian Trilogy, edited by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 9780140441123)
The first play reached in my list, The Persians is interesting in that it was written by an Athenian for an Athenian audience to celebrate their successful rout of the invading Persian forces eight years earlier, yet is based on the news reaching the Persians and describing in detail the overwhelming disaster from their point of view. Xerxes’ rashness in attacking the Athenians is seen as the downfall of the Persian Empire, opening the door for democracy to overtake their society’s rule by kingship. The battle is not glorified – indeed, the description of the horrors of violent death as well as starvation and drowning are quite graphic as would be expected to be spoken by the grief stricken Persians.
A very effective technique which may have instilled some sympathy for the defeated enemy, and does not take advantage of the chance to praise the Greek leaders and forces. Apparently the Athenian audience was so moved that they cried, and Aeschylus was fined by the Greek authorities.
It is believed that Aeschylus fought in the battle, or at the very least witnessed the battle directly, rather than relying on second hand reports, and the details provided convince me he was present and describes the battle in reality rather than imagined prose. The play also looks back at the other famous Persian battle at Marathon, and foretells their final demise at Plataea. Since Aeschylus wrote many plays as trilogies, I would assume that these other battles may have been the first and last of a trilogy.
I had read Aeschylus some time back and must have been underwhelmed at the time as I quickly forgot the plays. On re-reading The Persians I was pleasantly surprised how powerful this play was. Clearly reading the classics in order, and particularly taking the time to consider and blog my thoughts, is a great help for me in remembering and appreciating those titles I have read, and I have a record of my thoughts to go back to me when the mood strikes me.
Where is he whose nimble leap
Lightly clears the enclosing net?
Smooth Delusion’s flattering smile
Leads but where her trap is set;
There man pays his mortal debt
Doom has caught what death will keep. Chorus
While here, each Persian wife,
Longing for him she sped
Armed to the fierce campaign,
Sprinkling her empty bed
With tender tears in vain,
Weeps out her lonely life. Chorus
A very short play which I devoured quickly. Greek plays at this time featured only two main actors plus a speaking chorus, so I was watching how the actors would need to change parts and reappear as new characters. For example, the cast of this play has Xerxes (the King of Persia), his mother Queen Atossa, the ghost of his father King Darius and a messenger from the war as well as the ever-present Chorus. Looking at the order of speeches, Actor 1 would have to portray the Messenger and Darius while Actor 2 covered Atossa and possibly Xerxes. This then led to the question if female actors were banned from the stage in Ancient Greece as they were in later ages, as apparently they were.
Personal rating: 6/10.
Next : Seven against Thebes, again by Aeschylus.