For whom do the Chorus weep? A response to the Greek-Barbarian polarity in Aeschylus’ Persians by Thiasos Theatre Company.
Aeschylus’ Persians, set in the court at Sousa, represents the reaction of the Persians to the destruction of their fleet by the Greeks at the battle of Salamis. It was first produced at Athens in 472 BCE, eight years after the battle and while Xerxes still ruled the Persian Empire.
The play is charged with political significance and has a performance history which reflects the multitude of perspectives from which it can be viewed: as an expression of the David and Goliath theme—a small nation defeating a large aggressor, as an illustration of independence, or as a victory of civilization over barbarism.
Thiasos Theatre Company produced the play during 2006 and 2007 in St. Stephen’s Church in London, at the ancient theatres of Cyprus and in the gardens of New College in Oxford. Extracts were also performed at the J. Paul Getty Museum in 2007.
As famously elaborated by Edith Hall in her ‘Inventing the Barbarian’ (1989), Aeschylus constructs a picture of the Persians which, though partly based on the Athenians’ direct knowledge of their enemy, is also designed to express the radical difference between the Persians (as the inferior ‘other’) and the Athenians. Central to this otherness is the unrestrained emotion of the Persians’ collective lament and the portrayal of the Persians as effeminate, excessively luxury-loving and despotic—an antithesis to the characteristics of manliness, moderateness and equality valued by a so called ‘democratic’ Athens where, to quote from the messenger’s speech in Persians ...”each man is king of his own oar”. (379)
Then again the lament, so close to the Greek way of lamenting and so poignant, points to the possibility that patriotic feelings did not preclude sympathy for the enemy. To quote Casey Dué, “the Athenians had a particular appreciation...of the universality of wartime suffering to the extent that they could explore their own sorrows by experiencing that of their enemies.”
Thus, on the stage, the effete and despotic enemy was represented by a citizen chorus clad in Persian costume performing familiarly Greek heartbreaking songs of sorrow.
This apparent inconsistency has occasioned much discussion in the literature on the relationships of Greeks to the ‘other’. Helena Foley, for example, writes that while women, slaves and barbarians portrayed in Greek documents serve to “define less fully human alternatives” to the rational self-controlled males..., “at the same time, tragedy offers a dialogue in which women, slaves and barbarians ... are represented in a complex and powerful public performance”.
Froma Zeitlin, in Playing the Other (1996), famously argues that Greek tragedy explores masculine and civic structures through the feminine ‘interior’ worlds, and, more generally, through ‘otherness’, and that this exploration constitutes the essence of impersonation and therefore of theatricality.
Moreover, theatre productions have often resolved the inconsistency between patriotism and sympathy by inventing analogies to the Graeco-Persian conflict which invite the spectator to take sides. This has been achieved by emphasizing whichever characteristics accorded with the director’s sympathies and with the political climate of their times. For example, the Berliner Ensemble’s 1983 production portrayed Xerxes as a fascist Junta commander ruling over a court of western decadence, while Peter Sellars emphasized the lament of ancient Persia to express the suffering of modern Iraq when it was bombed by the west in 1993.
While one would not wish to limit the interpretative wealth of Greek tragedy, one feels that discussion of the Greek-Barbarian polarity has paid insufficient attention to the following:
1. The unique ability of the Greek chorus to represent its audience - the citizen body - while at the same time eschewing rigid characterization.
It should be remembered that the chorus of effeminate Persian elders in exotic dress is played by youths representative of the citizen body performing laments, songs and dances that, despite their oriental elements, are also characteristically Greek.
2. The inheritance from epic of sympathy for the enemy
For example, the same internal contradiction between celebrating and lamenting the destruction of the enemy in Aeschylus’ Persians, may also be found in Homer’s Iliad. The Iliad, a poem extolling the Greek hero, Achilles, ends with the lamenting of his Trojan enemy, Hector.
3. The evocation in tragedy of extra-theatrical death ritual both in (i) themes and imagery and also (ii) through the performance of gestures and music.
(i) Themes and Imagery.
Although no funeral as such takes place in Persians, the play strikingly embodies many thematic and structural features of extra-theatrical mourning in both the play’s imagery and its performance.
The imagery in Persians of the lamenting maternal earth, Asia , the cutting down of the flower of youth, the flower of the Persian land echoes images of fertility frequently also found in myths surrounding the death and resurrection of youths such as Hyakinthos and Adonis.
The conflated themes of the land of Persia emptied of its men, women longing for their absent husbands, and parents grieving for their children, find expression in erotically charged song combining themes of love, loss and longing (pothos). Communication between the living and the dead, a central feature of death ritual, occurs frequently in Persians in many guises: in the tomb offerings by the Queen to Darius, in the summoning (anakaleisthai) and raising of his ghost, and in the direct addresses by the chorus to the dead commanders of the Persian army.
(ii) Performance of gestures and music.
There are many literary and iconographic references to characteristic gestures of lamentation. Persians is a rich source of clues regarding the various gestures that might have been part of a choreography of grief.
Below, for example, are the following sung instructions shouted by Xerxes acting as the exarchos (leader) of the threnos (lament) at the end of the play:
1052-3: CHORUS: Ototototoi.
My groans will mix (oi) with blows that blacken flesh.
1054 And beat your breast and shout the Mysian lament
1056 And tear for me the white hair of your beards
1060 Now tear your clothing with your fingernails
1062 And pluck your hair and show your pity for the army.
Solid evidence for the existence of these practices outside the theatre is provided by Plutarch’s account of Solon’s sixth-century legislation which forbade laceration of the cheeks, singing of set dirges and lamentation at other people’s tombs. The ban was in force during Plutarch’s time and heated disapproval of the very gestures in Persians described above - the blows, the breast-beating and the rending of hair and garments - continued to be expressed five centuries later by the Church Fathers. Basil of Caesarea for instance, in the fourth century after the Christian Era, writes:
...neither men nor women should be permitted too much lamentation and mourning. They should show moderate distress... without moaning, wailing, tearing of clothes and grovelling in the dust...
Although little is known about the ancient Greek music of lamentation, sources are consistent in associating it with the East - with the shrill, high-pitched tone of the aulos and with the a minore metre known as the Ionic. Unsurprisingly in Persians there is an abundance of such ‘eastern’ characteristics, as also several explicit references to eastern laments such as the Mysian and the Mariandynian lament, and to harsh cries and shrill songs.
On the other hand, the antiphonal lament often has an eastern character independently of who performs it. In Homer, for example, it is performed by the Greek Ocean Nymphs and by the Muses and in several tragedies it is performed by choruses composed of Greeks.
Though somewhat far-fetched, one can see how ‘eastern’ attributes of ‘real life’ lamentation in Greece might have mutated through the ages into a dramatic chorus of Persians ready to weep for their historical defeat at Salamis.
4. Tragedy’s re-appropriation of forms from which it has emerged—for example, the antiphonal singing and refrain performed by two distinct groups of family and outsiders.
Margaret Alexiou, in her seminal work The Ritual Lament in Greek Tradition (1974 and 2002), suggests that in Homeric and pre-Homeric times there is a distinction in the performance of the lament between performance by kin and performance by outsiders. The relatively ordered threnos is sung by outsiders while the wilder goos is sung by closer kin. Alexiou then suggests that the professional threnos was the kind developed by lyric poets while the goos was reestablished as the kommos of tragedy (described by Aristotle as a tragic lament between chorus and actors).
The metrical symmetry between strophe and antistrophe that is typical of the choral odes, not just of Persians but of all classical tragedy, also shows a marked correspondence with the antiphonal singing of the lament.
Death ritual is tenaciously traditional and changes little over time. We can therefore assume that the lamenting choral songs, reinforced by familiar gestures, would have had strong emotional associations for the spectators even in the classical age. However, in our sources it is the insiders—the female kith and kin—and not the outsiders who are given to unrestrained lamentation. We might therefore ask how a (male) Athenian audience would respond to such relatively unrestrained lamentation: would the fifth-century Athenians have associated the Persians’ lament with the grief of their own wives and mothers, or would they have constructed it as alienatingly ‘barbarian’ and ‘effeminate’?
The unattainable answer, one suspects, is concealed in the fluidity of choral identity and in the versatility of the performance.
The following passage from Persians illustrates how the cohesion of the chorus as representatives of the polis often over-rides the Greek-Barbarian polarity:
Not for long now will the inhabitants of Asia
abide under Persian rule,
nor pay further tribute
under compulsion to the King,
nor shall they be his subjects,
prostrating themselves on the ground;
for the kingly power is destroyed.
Men will no longer curb their tongues;
for people are released to talk freely
when a strong yoke has been removed
And the soil of Ajax’s sea-washed island,
stained with gore, holds the remains of the Persians. (584-595).
This pair of verses (strophe and antistrophe) is sung almost immediately after the chorus have heard of the catastrophic defeat of their army and the deaths of their comrades. Actors today might be perplexed (as were the Thiasos actors) as to how the emotions expressed should be interpreted: are the Persian chorus bewailing this fate of impending freedom (as many commentators suggest) or are they as jubilant as an Athenian chorus of citizens might be at the removal of a ‘strong yoke’?
Attributing a consistent political outlook to the chorus of a fifth-century classical play as if they were real-life characters of the modern world would have been anachronistic. Our production therefore sought to preserve rather than to resolve ambiguities in Persians through a number of directorial choices:
a. the creation of a flexible choral identity which cuts across various polarities such as those between luxury and moderation and between democracy and despotism.
b. the setting of certain choral passages at the peak of the Persians’ despair to the falak singing of Tajikistan—a penetratingly powerful genre of singing which expresses separation and loss. The grief of separation from beloved comrades, husbands, sons and country and fighting and dying away from home was, I felt, the core emotion of the play and at the centre of our performance.
c. the performance by the chorus of Shi’a mourning gestures –violent expressions of grief.
Recurrent mourning gestures, themes and imagery may be identified not just in ancient literary and iconograpic sources but also in living traditions such as those of the Muslim Shi’a. As noted above, Greek funerary iconography depicts self-laceration, pulling hair, beating the breast and tearing garments. These gestures of grief are also widely performed throughout Shi’a Muslim cultures at Ashura ceremonies that commemorate Ali’s martyrdom at Karbala. Breast-beating, for example, is known as matam.
Furthermore, Solon’s and other condemnations of uncontrollable behaviour at funerals recalls frequent bans and condemnations by members of the Islamic clergy of extreme gestures of grief that involve cutting the scalp with razor blades or rhythmical self-beating with chains (zanjir zani).
During the preparation of our production we studied and observed these gestures during Ashura celebrations in Tehran and in several documentary films and photographs of Karbala ceremonies in Iraq, at Hezbollah parades in the Lebanon, and at funerals of young men killed during the violence in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
These gestures of violent grief were deliberately used by the actors when required by the text. It was thought they might evoke something of the ‘pity and terror’ of images familiar to modern television viewers.
The Thiasos chorus was played by both males and females, dressed in luxurious costumes from various parts of what was once the Persian Empire - such as present-day Uzbekistan.