Ancient drama about war speaks to our time

By FREDERICK M. WINSHIP  |  June 27, 2003 at 7:00 AM
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NEW YORK, June 27 (UPI) -- You can hear the audience at a performance of Aeschylus' 2,500-year-old play, "The Persians," draw in its communal breath when one of the characters speaks movingly of the terrible consequences of a superpower making war just because "it was a thing we could do."

"It seemed so clear - our fate was to rule," says one of the counselors to King Xerxes of Persia after his defeat by the Greeks in a naval battle at Salamis. "That's what I thought at the time, but perhaps we were merely deafened for years by the din of our own empire building, the shouts of battle, the clanging of swords, the cries of victory."

A lyric new translation by Ellen McLaughlin of the earliest surviving play in Western literature is a revelation to playgoers battered by the current debate over whether the United States was justified in invading Iraq earlier this year. How could a play written in 472 B.C. seem so timely that it can set off alarm bells for audiences in 2003 A.D.?

The New York theater is indebted to Tony Randall's National Actors Theater for bringing Aeschylus' masterpiece to the boards at this particular moment of national concern in a severely simple but overwhelmingly effective production at Pace University's Schimmel Center for the Arts. Aeschylus had fought twice against Persia's imperial arrogance and knew what he was writing about.

A veteran of the first Persian war led by King Darius I that ended in Greek victory at Marathon as well as the second war led by Darius' son, Xerxes, the playwright wrote "The Persians" only a few years after Xerxes led his troops across the Hellespont to annihilation by the Athenians. It is the only eyewitness account that has come down to us of this historic defeat of greatest empire of the ancient world.

Aeschylus chose to tell the story from the Persian viewpoint, setting the play at the royal court in the Persian capital of Susa, where Xerxes' mother, Queen Attosa, awaits the triumphant return of the Persian troops from Greece. A messenger in the person of a military herald delivers the shattering news of Xerxes' defeat, and Xerxes himself returns to confirm the rout of his forces.

The reaction of the Queen and the royal counselors is a human one.

At first they blame themselves, then realize that the unworthy Xerxes and the gods were really to blame, and nothing is left to them but a life spent propitiating the wrath of their capricious deities. The same counselor that spoke so bravely of waging war ruefully recalls "all those years we spent jubilant, seeing the trifling, cowering world from the height of our shining saddles, brawling our might across the earth as we forged an empire."

"I never questioned," he admits. "Surely we were doing the right thing because it was the thing we could do."

Giving the most outstanding performance in this production directed by Ethan McSweeny is Brennan Brown, the bloodied herald who is the messenger of bad news.

Brown is given a long and splendidly poetic descriptive account of the Persian defeat and delivers it so harrowingly that he has the audience hanging on his awful words. The weepy account given by the devastated Xerxes, adequately played by Michael Stuhlbarg, is dramatically weak by contrast.

Some fine acting is also turned in by the veteran Broadway actor Len Cariou, who takes the role of Darius' ghost summoned from his grave by the tragic outcome of his son's attempt at vengeance for his own defeat by the Greeks, and by the seven counselors to the king - Jon DeVries, Ed Dixon, Herb Foster, Michael Potts, Henry Stram, Henry Strozier, and Charles Turner.

Roberta Maxwell -- an actress of proven versatility on stage, screen, and television -- is miscast as Attosa. She does not have the stature or charisma required of a regally bored queen haunted, as she says, by her own "useless importance" but still willing to put on a good act in front of her inferiors. She does, however, convey a convincing tenderness in her ghostly reunion with her husand.

Michael Roth has provided an original score played by a cellist and two percussionists that is particularly efficacious in heightening the drama by means of a musical counterpoint to the dialogue. A few primitive chairs set in the red sand of Persia against a background of tilted mirrors make up James Noone's set design, and Jess Goldstein has provided Near Eastern robes worn over modern dress as costumes.

The National Actors Theater, now in its 12th season, has provided Broadway with some of its most successful revivals of plays by Berthold Brecht, Neil Simon, Arthur Miller, Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, G. B. Shaw, Clifford Odets, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, William Shakespeare, and many other leading playwrights. It has now settled into a new home at Pace University in downtown Manhattan near City Hall.

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