Prometheus Bound: An Approach for the Modern Stage*

by a University of Warwick undergraduate student

Ancient plays deserve to be treated in the same spirit of thought and action in which they were created.[1]

When we want to be creative, in this case interpreting a script and a 'prompt book' to make a hypothetical staging, a text can be most useful when it has a unique connection with the real world. A respect, even an awe, can be established for the text so that it is metaphorically sacred: a driving force behind the staging. No text is taken more seriously than a sacred text. No audience is involved more than an audience witnessing a sacred event. One special quality of Prometheus Bound is that it is the first and only remaining part of a trilogy. We have a legitimate opportunity to create answers to the questions raised. But we cannot do this if we try to repeat history. Theorising about the material conditions of the past, and indeed constructing the 'prompt book', helps us to understand the text in the original conditions of staging, and how we have to respect the past, even in a drastically modem interpretation.

Aeschylus' text was literally sacred for its original audiences in that it formed part of the religious festivities at the Festival of Dionysos. It addressed fundamental issues of the time, issues which were used to construct and debate the worldview of Classical Greece. As mythos it was history, a history that was--as it is today--not the same as 'the past' but a pliable text written in the present and therefore in the present. Aeschylus himself created his text through the creative use of a pliable myth. In Nietzsche and the Spirit of Tragedy, May even goes as far as stating that this is an example of Aeschylus' "will to power":

The interesting point is that Justice should have been placed alongside Zeus and his unparalleled (but not unlimited) power, for this indicates that Aeschylus thus breaks with Tradition to the significant extent of advocating, not recompense alone, but a sort of recompense that is felt to be fitting. Aeschylus himself requires Justice as a universal power and boldly casts his own dice, along with the gods. This then is the will to power of Aeschylus, just coming into view at the time of The Persians and fully developed in Prometheus Bound. Aeschylus is his own Prometheus ... his power is self contained and self proclaimed. He does not suppose that it will be ratified by the powers that be. It is this gulf between the yearning of Aeschylus and the nature of things that makes him pre-eminently tragic.[2]

As Prometheus Bound has been passed on through history, many creative minds have been willing to take it on as a paradigm for their own tempestuous worlds, among them Coleridge, Shelley, Goethe and Nietzsche. In many ways the world we live in today is only one generation removed from those Romantic thinkers. Yet one of the most remarkable changes that has accelerated rapidly this century is the loss of a general faith in the possibility of an essential code of belief. At least in the First World, we live in an age of mass global culture. Technification is used as a means to the end of commercial success, and like myth itself is a form of power that can challenge or reinforce authority.

The long history of the interpretation of the Prometheus Bound is almost the history of mirror. Romantics, liberals and socialists, gazing into these disturbing depths, have found there an Aeschylean justification of Romantics, liberalism, and socialism, respectively. Authoritarians on the contrary, from the mediaeval Byzantines onwards, have emphasised with approval the crushing punishment ultimately accorded to rebel against the Supreme Authority.[3]

So how can the performance of Prometheus Bound be 'special' or even 'sacred' for the culture in which we live? To my mind, the magic of this text is its unusual dramatic form and the several timeless issues that are addressed. To try to recreate the conditions of ancient drama might make the staging signify an academic stunt and or a bizarre archaism, with audiences looking out for convincing costumes and Classical oratory. Our 'promt book' is not, of course, directly concerned with the worldview we have today.

Paradoxically, it might be necessary to bring the drama into the present in order to emphasise the interesting aspects of form and content that Aeschylus himself intended. I have opted for an adaptation by a contemporary Irish poet, Tom Paulin. In his Seize the Fire - A Version of Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound [4] the creative aspect of translation is emphasised over the academic. Although each passage appears in the same order as the original (so entrances and exits can stay the same with a few exceptions that I will discuss), in his poetry he uses contemporary language and even refers (albeit obliquely) to contemporary events. But the dramatic intention of Aeschylus is not lost. Paulin's text can be read as closer to its prototype because both Aeschylus and Paulin practice a poetic 'Theatre of Ideas', which I will discuss shortly. There is nothing inherently more suitable about modem adaptations per se. We have to be careful not to "fall prey to the influence of interpreters like Aristophanes who have ideological reasons for presenting Aeschylus as the exponent of their own political views"[5]. In 1982 the Canadian dramatist George Ryga released a version which is to my mind not a version at all but a completely different play[6]. It has several dramatic flaws -including unintended overstatement- whitewashed over with the mystique of ancient Europe. The highly politicised Ryga has used Aeschylus as a springboard for an ideology he wants to express; as an observant craftsman Paulin has engaged himself with the original text to make a drama for contemporary audiences that is still poetic.

The form of the original text is special, and we should recognise and utilise this rather than try to dress it up or hide it. Academics have tended to agree that Aeschylus ignores certain dramatic conventions. Firstly in terms of plot, there is little progression. In many effective narratives, often now quite conventional texts, an initial structure or order is rearranged so that by the conclusion there is either a new order or a chaos. Although this does happen in Prometheus, the change is so sudden that it is difficult to locate a progression of action and change with either reasonable causes or expected effects pulling the drama onwards. Secondly in terms of character, there is little implied depth. The characters appear as essences, caricatures or archetypes, with a deliberate two-dimensionality which, also deliberately, resists progression that would have been made possible by the hint of a separate, inner identity that we might see in Hamlet or Macbeth.

...before the crude conclusion is drawn (as it often has been) that nothing happens between the prologue and the finale, we ought to recall that we are in the presence not of Shakespeare or Webster or Euripides, but of Aeschylus... He habitually treats a given physical event as merely the visible manifestation of a vast complex of ideas and moral forces, which sometimes... extend to the very boundaries of the Universe... the apparently staccato episodes of the Prometheus Bound present a steady and harmonious progression of ideas.[7]

These observations are extremely pertinent to the structuring of the performance in the theatre of today. Modernist creativity has shown many examples of an attempt to resist such conventions of form. The avant-garde cabarets of Montmartre appeared as extremely entertaining "staccato episodes". Samuel Beckett, who has been heralded over and over again as a genius of Modernism, has his 'Winnie' of Happy Days delivering her monologue while stuck up to her waist, and then her neck, in earth -so similar to our Prometheus. Tadeusz Kantor also "treats a given physical event as merely the visible manifestation of a vast complex of ideas and moral forces". In many ways Surrealist art and film, and the TV commercials and fashion photography it has influenced, also follows this tradition. This is the tradition of a 'Theatre of Ideas', where a focus on concepts, rather than a focus on plot and character, establishes form. This 'Theatre of Ideas' is understandable when we look at homogeneous Greek society that required mass attendance at a theatre that served a function of public life. Scully even states that in Prometheus Bound there is "...a war between brute force and unbending knowledge" and "a coherent development of ideas rather than of actions."[8] This is relevant to staging now. Progress in the form of technification has made our society ever more homogeneous; the changes in speed of movement, and the nature of space (cities, ciberspace) ensure that now "It's a small world", as was ancient Athens. In short, this staging would use concepts rather than sequence for its structure, and would therefore attribute itself to the tradition it follows.

The first time Prometheus speaks, he convokes the titanic ideas that will dominate our staging. It is necessary to learn from the academics that the first part of Prometheus' speech is unprecedented in the metre of Greek drama. The original text of Aeschylus provides us with entrances and exits and the manner of delivery. This is, according to Scully, because the text falls into three main types: (1) Unaccompanied speech with iambic lines of roughly six feet each. (2) Chanting speech and song named parakataloge, this accompanied with music (3) Song with music. Prometheus starts with normal/life-like speech, and refers to the essential elements of the ancient world - earth, air, fire and water. It then goes into verse: Prometheus' lament of suffering. Then it returns to speech again, as Prometheus foresees the future and the fact that he must endure his condition. Then the chorus interrupts him so that he moves on into song. Paulin has made careful note of these observations, as I will now discuss.

In terms of staging, the translator and director can treat this moment as the creation of the microcosmic world of the stage. In the Old Testament creation story, it tells us that "In the beginning was the word, and the word was made flesh". As Prometheus utters the words "earth, air, flre and water" the elements of staging should come into life. The lights should move to a 'general cover' from a single dim light cast on the rock. The amplified sound system could be used for the first time. But most significantly, the actor playing Prometheus could check the working order of his most exciting theatrical device -the audience itself. So in the Paulin version, when he says "I call on you\ on the pure and the slimy,\ ... I call on you as witnesses\ to my first millennium as Zeus's prisoner"[9] he would subtly direct his attention to the audience, as if he senses a ghostly presence but cannot actually see anyone. As a reference to the common man or woman, the phrase "light on the greased eel and the greyhound" might be interchangeable for American audiences with "light on the hot dog and ball game". Eating jellied eels and racing greyhounds is a cliche of Cockney life, and may have similar working class connotations in many other communities such as that of Paulin's Belfast. He is addressing the people of the world (as represented by the audience) because it is from him, according to the myth past down to us from Aeschylus and his predecessors, that they have been given so much.

During the performance, the question whether this gift is for better or for worse is a debate that has to be established quickly in the audience's mind -both to fulfil an opportunity (or agenda) provided by the text and to keep them involved in the draina. I would establish this by carefully looking at the way in which the characters are played. The audience have to be very quickly presented with the contrast between the dangers and benefits of fire -as well as the ideas which it stands for such as progress, rebellion and power. The long Io-episode between the odes is the most intense point at which the issue of the use and abuse of power is discussed. First of all we see a godly figure in a way that we today are not used to seeing God - as an abuser of humanity, less still an abuser of sexuality and sex itself.

The deeply disturbing nature of this image is intensified still by the massive space that is referred to i.e. the imaginative boundaries of the theatrical space burst outwards. In Aeschylus, we are invited to imagine Io wandering in turn from her father's palace at Argos, to this space in the Caucasus, to the Far East, to Ethiopia and down from the source of the Nile to its Delta. In Seize the Fire there is a similar call on the powers of imagination, this time trying to understand a woman who has been afflicted with having to constantly entertain others to the point of exhaustion. She appears to us as an object made to satisfy others' desire, and this is exactly how I would construct her - in order to create an "expose rather than an endorsement" of misogyny. I would take great care not to let her come across neither as weak nor an essentialist man-hater. Paulin's language also alludes to a concept that has become known as the gaze which has an effect on characterisation:

For I'm the cow girl, Io,
who's watched,
watched the whole time by an audience of men's eyes.

I just want to get rid
of this invisible sting -
it's a stiff scream
in a dark cinema
and my body's shaped, cut, stabbed, slit,
according to its every whim. [10]

Prometheus, ever standing up against authority, would be warm in his approach to Io. This would be a warmth enables him to reveal his all-important secret because of his intimacy with her. It is not that he is sentimental or even sympathetic, it is just that he rejects the essentialism that Zeus symbolises. Prometheus must suffer at his hands too, although he insists that Io has a way out because she can make life-choices and he cannot. Existential choices can only be made by a mortal. Therefore what we are presented with in Prometheus is an unstable compound of the (mortal) suffering of an immortal prophet. This is a timeless vision of a benign, possibly Christian, god. Because the metaphysical entities are all described and off stage, characterisation alone cannot be relied upon to illustrate them. So here I want to move on to the next element of staging: the use of machinery.

I greatly respect the Canadian director and acotor Robert Lepage for his use of mediated images. To my mind he has brought the shaky experiments in video art of the 70s and 80s into the mainstream. His most recent work is Elsinore, a version of Hamlet that was performed at the National Theatre, used cameras and projected live imagery extensively. The sheer size of an image of a human being on a projected screen gave the effect of a non-human, titanic figure that dwarfed actors who were in the flesh. This mechanism is perfect for illustrating power relationships as well as "fantastic scenes conjured in the imagination". Many writers have already drawn attention to the abuse of power we call propaganda, and the medium of film that we are used to seeing it in connection with. Prometheus Bound has already been seen as "...a study of tyranny in action, and its effects on victims and agents alike, which has no parallel at all in ancient literature, and foreshadows the methods of twentieth century totalitarianism"[11]. In a modernised staging it makes sense to draw attention to, and even use, mediated images. When we are told that Zeus has objectified Io forcefully, an image connoting sexual assault or pornography could flash up the screen for a moment. When we hear that he planned to wipe the human race and replace it with another, images of nuclear war of global pollution could be used. Zeus himself could be personified by a media mogul, looking at us over his shoulder when we hear that "there was always some historian handling the press"[12]. Ultimately, images of the many forms of the abuse of power would be edited together with a live camera on Prometheus himself.

As Paulin's 'Violence' tells us, Prometheus is tied to a post. It appears that he is a political offender that the regime wants to break. He may be beaten and bloodied, but he is still defiant. It would be quite easy to fall into the trap of constructing him as a victim and a hero, which may not have been Aeschylus' intention if we take into account pre-Christian Greek ethics. As a revolutionary, he actually uses ideology and power, and should not be exempt from the list of forces which dominate us. He too is capable of propaganda, in the form of "phrases of the type 'release from sorrows', 'freedom from agony', 'end of toils' recur like a leitmotif in the extant Prometheus Bound"[13], a leitmotif that exhibits Prometheus'power of language. To counterpoint his power then, images could be used to show his other side so eloquently concealed by his language; the side of progress that brought us total war, unemployment and mass drug abuse.

The mediated images would have to complement the set and props. Paulin describes "An empty place, wet rock, shale. A cliff, below it a line of metal posts cemented into bare rock". Having a projection screen amidst this might seem bizarre. But didn't the first studio theatre, or proseenium stage, or skene seem bizarre? The real question here is how to put the screen into the space so that the audience will accept it, how ever bizarre and anti-naturalistic it will seem when fast-cut images start appearing. The solution I have come up with is to entice the audience into accepting it by use the screen at first to contribute to the naturalism. By combining images and stage properties to give the effect of "wet rock, shale" at the start of the performance there would be the similar effect to two-dimensional painted flats combined with three-dimesional stage properties, a convention that is at least two hundred years old. But what we have here is the ability to change the flats at high speed, even to create surreal projections of the imagination of characters.

If the magic of projected light images is not to steal the drama, cameras must frequently be live and trained on the actors. In this environment Paulin's reference to "An empty place" should be taken seriously. Any more clutter than actors in space, and "a line of metal posts" at most, would be a mess. The words, after all, should still be the greatest asset of this performance. At the moment studio theatres, 'black box spaces' are very common, but would not blend well with the physicality of our'prompt book' unless they are 'thrusv stages such as The Other Place in Stratford. This would be the perfect venue, firstly because it is a Greek theatre in miniature, and secondly because of its relatively experimental programme, often of ancient.

Costumes are included in the need for stage minimalism. I wouldn't mind having Prometheus almost naked except for a few rags - although in the circumstances there could be too many similarities to Jesus Christ. The merits of making or eliminating this question would have to be weighed up in the rehearsal process, which would also involve the use of theoretical writings on the subject. Oceanos' entrance (p.21 in Paulin) would firstly be in the "bubble" of the screen, until he does "shoot to the surface", and appears on stage. He would not be riding the beast of the original, and is costume would imply that is slightly removed from the world of media and the use of mass power. In the context of this Irish translation, he could be dressed as the Universal Irish Poet - perhaps a lover of country life, and a deliberate cliche of it, in a cap and a tweed jacket. As daughters of Oceanos, the chorus would not be his biological offspring but his reverie. So it would make total sense when they ask Prometheus (p. I I in Paulin) "But who is there here?", because there is nobody with him except embodiments of ideas. An effective metatheatrical irony would be that the audience is there with him.

Masks would be used for Violence and Power, blending Greek roots with the fact that they are virtually automatons. The mask of Power was ugly, and is referred to as such in the original text. This is also true of Io's mask, which has homs on it, and could be blended with a gaudy party mask, only to be taken off to reveal a bruised face. The other actors would need to use their faces to portray the characteristics I have intended. In drawing this essay to its conclusion, I want to draw on a thought by Raymond Williams, which, looking back, is what I have hoped to practice in my hypothetical staging:

What for us is a source (in one way rightly, for here Furopean drama was bom) was for the Greeks a fulfilment: a mature form touching at every point of mature culture... there has been no re-creation and in effect no reproduction of Greek tragedy, and this is not really surprising. For its uniqueness is genuine, and in important ways not transferable. Fate, Necessity and the nature of the Gods were not systematised by the Greeks themselves: it is a culture marked by an extraordinary network of beliefs connected to institutions, practices and feelings, but not by the systematic and abstract doctrines we would now call a theology or a tragic philosophy.[14]

Many contemporary playwrights use the theatre as a forum for societal self- examination much as did the ancient Greeks. Salvation, even in Seize the Fire, is no longer a metaphysical issue for the vast majority of us. It may be that the writers are falling prey to the very thing that has power over them: secularisation of myth itself, or at the very least the change in what is sacred to us, from the metaphysical or abstract to the obvious and material. So rather than being 'saved' by say, the aspiration to a Myth of Beauty, the Myth of the Nation or the Myth of the Hero as we so often have been by narratives over the past sixty or seventy years, drama could be used as an attempt to save us from the secularised construction of myth itself: A Theatre of Ideas that fights essentialism.


*This article is derived from a 1997 undergraduate term essay by the author for a course on 'Ancient Stage on the Modern Stage' taught by Sallie Goetsch at the University of Warwick.

1. Goetsch, Sallie Playing Against the Text taken from The Drama Review 38, 3 1994: p.93

2. May, K. M. Nietzsche and the Spirit if Tragedy, Macmillan 1990: pp.34-35

3. Scully & Herington Prometheus Bound, Oxford University Press 1975: p. II

4. Paulin, Tom Seize the Fire - A Version qf Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, Faber & Faber 1990

5. Goetsch, Sallie Playing Against the Text, taken from The Drama Review 38, 3 1994: p 76

6. Ryga, George Prometheus Bound, Touchstone Press 1982

7. Scully & Herington Prometheus Bound, Oxford University Press 1975: p.9

8. Scully & Herington Prometheus Bound, Oxford University Press 1975: p. 11

9. Paulin, Tom Seize the Fire - A Version of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, Faber & Faber 1990: p.9

10. lbid: p.35-37

11. Scully & Herington Prometheus Bound, Oxford University Press 1975: p.20, 12

12. Paulin, Tom Seize the Fire - A Version of Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, Faber & Faber 1990: p.29

13. Scully & Herington Prometheus Bound, Oxford University Press 1975: p. 17

14. Williams, Raymond Modern Tragedy, Chato and Windus 1966: p.17


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