Posted in History, Media

They’re Reading Greek Tragedy Online – Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound

With a full performance of Elektra being done on the 22nd August, I’m going to be leaving my write up for that till then, so this week I’m going to be taking a look at Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. If you haven’t seen me say so already, it was this show, and the subsequent write up I wanted to do, that finally got me to start this blog, so I’ve had a really good time writing this one up, I’ll stop rambling and get on with it now though.

Back in September 2013, in the first lesson of my AS Classical Civilisations class, we were given a piece of homework to pick a Greek play and write something about it, at least 500 words, limit of 1000, and we had a week to do it. I chose Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, and with possibly the vaguest homework question I have ever received, I chose to write on the topic of ‘Why?’. Why is Hephaestus there, why is Io there, and why is Zeus portrayed in such a tyrannical light? With it being nearly 7 years ago, I unfortunately can’t find a copy of the essay I wrote, but in light of some of the discussion that took place on July 1st’s episode of Reading Greek Tragedy Online, I would like to delve back into that issue of ‘why?’, though maybe in a slightly less formal manner than back then.

The way I went about dissecting this was by looking at the history of the characters in question and what their individual stories represent. Neither Hephaestus or Io belong in this story, so what does their inclusion signify? Surely that significance has to be in their own stories and the mythology those characters bring to mind.

Hephaestus 

Hephaestus is a difficult character to dissect within ancient Greek literature. With his persona ranging from the jovial ‘mummy, daddy, look what i’m doing and stop arguing’ at the beginning of the Iliad to the much more serious, resentful depiction we get of him within the play there isn’t much consistency within the characterisation. That consistency is seen within the mythology though. He has been punished by the gods himself and is able to sympathise with Prometheus over his plight, but because of this experience he also knows that to disobey the orders he’s been given would be to receive more punishment at their hands. He represents fearful descent and begrudging obedience. Hephaestus knows what will befall him, causing him to follow through with his orders, in contrast to Prometheus who despite knowing what would happen, gave fire to humanity and will take his punishment willingly because he knows it will end in time. 

Io

Depending on how you read the juxtaposition within the play, you can see many ‘reasons’ for Io to be included: The contrast of the punishment of men and women; the contrast of the punishment of divinities and mortals; and much like Hephaestus, the contrast in the psychological effects knowledge can have on a person. It’s not just juxtaposition Io provides though, as Evvy very succinctly put it: ‘Io is chased to the ends of the earth and Prometheus is bound and unmoving, and in this moment there is a meeting point between the two which is suffering’. The empathy and sympathy Io has for Prometheus as she finds him gives the audience a relatable anchor within the play and being the only human character, she represents humanity and it’s suffering, empathy and sympathy as a whole. Following on from the theme of ‘knowledge’ that runs deep throughout this play, when Io finds out what her future holds, the suffering and horror not only her, but her descendants will face, she is distraught and questioning why she doesn’t just end it now, but if she does so Prometheus’ suffering will never end. 

  • Hephaestus follows his orders through fear of knowing what will happen if he doesn’t
  • Io is distraught in her knowledge but chooses to live through her suffering because she knows another’s suffering won’t end if she doesn’t 
  • Prometheus goes against the gods and gives fire to humanity, knowing the future he will face because he knows his suffering will one day come to an end

The final question then, is why is Zeus depicted in such a tyrannical light? When looked at in line with the political climate of 5th century Athens, this becomes clear. Throughout the play Prometheus makes repeated use of political, anti-authoritarian language, at one point even calling Zeus a tyrant. Prometheus Bound was written in 430 bc, about 30 years after Ephialties’ contribution to the development of Athenian Democracy set down by his predecessors Solon and Cliesthenes and the anti-authoritarian language is likely an echo of that move to democracy from the tyrannical, oligarchic rule they had previously. With that being said though, the Peloponnesian War had just started, and it’s possible, though not necessarily provable, that Aeschylus saw the direction the war would go and was warning against the inevitable collapse back into oligarchic rule that takes place towards the end of the century in the closing years of the war. 

The one question I’ve never been able to answer though, despite revisiting this several times since my first encounter with the play, is what’s worse, knowing or not knowing? Would Io have been better off in ignorance of what the future held for her, or does the knowledge give her the strength to survive? Does the knowledge Prometheus has ever actually help him, or is it only ever the cause of distrust, pain and confrontation? I’ve argued both sides over the years, and I still can’t figure out what side of the line I fall on, and in all honesty, watching the performance of this play has actually made things less clear in that regard.. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. 

I once again want to say thank you to The Centre of Hellenic Studies, Out of Chaos Theatre, and Joel Christensen, as well as this episode’s guest, Joshua Billings – Another great performance from everyone involved and a very interesting discussion with so much more covered than what I touched on today. 

Posted in History, Media

They’re Reading Greek Tragedy Online – The Chorus – Part II

Reading Greek Tragedy Online – The Chorus – Part II

Hi! Welcome back to part two of my write up of last week’s special episode of Reading Greek Tragedy Online – The Chorus. You can find part one here, the brain was working in peculiar ways. In light of Saturday’s discussion on a different approach we can use to study and understand choral passages in GreekTragedy, I’m going to attempt to do a slightly more in depth look at the performances from last week’s show. I have no idea how this is going to go, this is coming from a year studying Theatre Studies and a lifetime obsession with Musicals so here we go!

Performance 1) Parados – Sophocles’ Antigone

Performed by Betinna

This is the only performance from the show done in Ancient Greek, and although it is a single voice, rather than a full chorus, it gives us an idea of what a traditional performance of this may have sounded like. The juxtaposition of imagery between the beauty of nature, against that of the army marching to war is echoed beautifully within the accompanying music, going from a flowing legato melody to a more regimental, rigid, staccato accompaniment. Even without the translation though, listening to the flow of the lyrics weaving through the melody tells a story in itself. A performance is more than just the lyrics, and I think this is demonstrated well here, and highlights the need to look at these passages outside of a traditionally ‘classics’ approach, the performance adds so much to the passage that just isn’t easily visible through an academic lens.

Performance 2) Parados – Aeschylus’ Oresteia (Agamemnon)

Performed by Evvy, Paul and Hannah

This performance of the Parados from Agamemnon is great, though is arguably a much more ‘modern’ approach. The use of both the closeups and background of the camera shot for Paul and Hannah was a genius way to break out of the ‘middle ground’ that zoom promotes and helped add to the tense atmosphere they created. Not only did they succeed in creating that tense, on edge atmosphere, they did so while making it feel  a very intimate, as if they were sharing all this gossip specifically with me, which is something Zoom can be great for –  when performing to a single focal point (the camera) rather than to a whole audience, you can create an awesome feeling of eye contact and direct conversation that these three did really well.

The ‘gossiping’ feeling that this performance evoked lends itself well to the massive info dump we’re given. Not only is this the set up to the play itself, but also the trilogy as a whole, and the chorus, (Evvy, Paul and Hannah in this instance) are trying to tell the audience everything they need to know as quickly as possible before they get caught gossiping, and this is brilliantly demonstrated by the covering of the camera for the last few lines of the scene, it’s almost as if they’re trying to hide [me] from the character entering so they don’t find out they’ve been gossiping and was a great little trick and something I wouldn’t have considered doing. 

Performance 3) Ode to Man – Sophocles’ Antigone

Performed by Sara

So I said in part one that you can’t always translate the use of plosive and sibilant consonants, alliteration and the like so can’t always analyse texts in the way we would in the original Greek – this is one where I’m happy to admit that’s not the case, here, and the ‘percussive sounds’ that Sara speaks about after the performance are there in the original greek too. The use of those sibilant consonants is played on really well by Sara, the use of the choral voice layering is a fantastic way to approach this – although there is only one person on screen, you get a sense of there being a crowd, or the rest of the chorus being there with the techniques used. As Joel said, hitting the nail on the head, it makes for a very menacing performance that highlights the duality of fear, being both terrifying, and terrified, a sentiment echoed in the text itself. 

This style of performance, though granted I always assumed a full chorus rather than a single voice with choral voice layering, is how I have always imagined this passage being performed and would love a chance to play around with staging, costume and lighting with a full chorus, working along the same lines as what Sara did for us here, there are so many different ways even this style of performance can be approached, the opportunities really are endless, though I’ll get back to that at the end.

Performance 4) 5th Stasimon – Euripides’ Medea

Performed by Evvy and Hannah

Medea is possibly my favourite Greek Tragedy and the Chorus is a lot of the reason behind that, even though it was completely glossed over when we studied it. Because of the complexity of the Chorus and their attitudes throughout the play, I find it very difficult to comment on individual choral passages without looking at the play as a whole. The 5th Stasimon highlights many of the issues faced within greek theatre though, the main thing being that pretty much all of the ‘action’ happens off stage, as is the case here. 

This was ‘staged’ extremely simply, and it worked really well. As much as at this point in the play the visual focus is on the chorus, the action itself is happening off stage, so nothing fancy needs to be happening visually, it allows the audience the time to imagine what the action looks like without it being present before them. The audience are in exactly the same position as the chorus as neither of them can do anything to stop these events unfolding, they are just static witnesses wishing they had done something when they had the chance.  The static nature of performance on Zoom echoes this really well as well, because there is that physical separation when the window pops up and we can hear the children shouting. 

Performance 5) 5th Stasimon – Sophocles’ Antigone

Performed by Betinna

I came out of this with questions more than anything, the main one ‘Would the audience have known the lyrics to the hymns to the gods often found within Greek Tragedies?’ And without that answer I really don’t know what I can say about this piece, other than the importance of instrument choice and how it can change depending on the feel you’re going for, and the media format you’re using. This is another stunning performance from Betinna and I absolutely loved it. If the hymns within Greek Tragedies are hymns the audience would have known then I completely get their use – everyone sings along to disney films and musicals, because we know the lyrics and it adds a sense of inclusion to the performance. Religion is always going to be part of the reason these hymns are included, especially to Dionysus, but there could have also been that ‘everyone join in’ aspect to it as well, at the end of the day these plays were meant to be performed and watched, and I think sometimes we can forget that when diving into the analysis of these plays. 

Performance 6) Binding Song – Aeschylus’ Eumenides

Performed by Lynn

I don’t even know where to start when analysing this performance, I have absolutely no experience in this style of vocal performance and there is no way I would be able to do this whilst doing the performance justice. What this performance did highlight for me though is something Anna said earlier in the show – although we say these performances would have been ‘sung’ it wouldn’t have always been what a modern audience would perceive as music, but more of a vocal performance, something Lynn did phenomenally – she managed to bring a depth of emotion to the passage that, having now seen this performance, should have been glaringly obvious. 

In Conclusion…

I just want to finish this up by saying that if this very brief analysis has shown me anything, it’s how vastly diverse choral passages in Greek Tragedy are, and the many, many ways we can stage these performances to bring better insight to modern audiences. I watched this TED talk the other day about Greek Mythology and how through reinvention, each story can find relevance in today’s world and can be understandable and relatable to a modern audience. Through approaching these plays from a slightly different perspective, like CHS and Out of Chaos Theatre have been doing over the last few months, we can take them from the pedestal of elitism Classics often finds itself upon and make these amazing works of literature into something everyone can understand and enjoy. 

Again, massive thanks to CHS, Out Of Chaos, Betinna, and Joel. Now time for dinner before tonight’s show!