When I first approached Robert Auletta’s new version of Aeschylus’ The Persians, I thought the concept had great merit. Sellars’s decision to contemporize the play, relocating the action to modern-day Baghdad in the aftermath of Desert Storm, seemed to have justification, even merit. After all, Aeschylus’ tragedy, an audacious work which describes how Athens defeated the invading Persian host at the Battle of Salamis, but from the point of view of the vanquished Persian enemy, is seldom produced or even read these days. How many modern theatregoers, moreover, can identify the Battle of Salamis, let alone name its victor or the century in which it took place? A post-Desert Storm setting might bring the drama to vivid life.
As an evening in the theatre, certainly, the production had excitement; more than two intermissionless hours flew by with scarcely a dull moment. Some of the casting decisions had a breathtaking rightness: Howie Seago, a deaf actor, was an inspired choice to play the ghost of Darius, his enraged signing creating a perfect complement to the character’s otherworldly presence, and Javanese court dancer Martinus Miroto played the role of the messenger with true elegance.
Yet my one reservation about Sellars’s overriding directorial concept for the production festered and grew as the performance progressed. These two wars are far more different than they are alike. Persia in the early fifth century was a vast empire, controlling all Asia west of the Indus, which had invaded a gallant little city-state. It was a ruthless act of aggression, which was turned back in one of the most famous David-and-Goliath victories in history. To liken the devastation wrought by American-led allies in Desert Storm to tiny Athens defending its homeland seemed far beyond the greatest possible stretch.
Auletta and Sellars’s solution to the problem is equivalent to artistic Reaganism: Deny there’s a problem, reinvent facts to suit your purpose, and then declare victory. In this ahistorical fantasia which bears Aeschylus’ name, we have preposterous references to Athens as “the greatest power in the world.” Aeschylus’ noble tragedy, complex in tone, becomes a shrill, unimaginative exercise in boilerplate anti-Americanism.
Parenthetically, let me note that I have not the slightest objection to relocating classical drama in space and time; I opposed the excessive firepower used in Desert Storm by the Allied war machine (why do I have to say this?); and on many occasions I have greatly admired Peter Sellars’s stagecraft.
Yet stagecraft, however provocative or well achieved, is worth little unless it serves a coherent artistic vision, which this Persians lacked. Where was the refreshing evenhandedness of the director’s inventive production of Nixon in China? Where the wit and humanity of his “Trump Tower” Figaro? The theatrical hubris of this production indicated to me that Sellars himself has entered into a state of imperial detachment approaching the Nixonian.
The most depressing aspect of the production was the director’s conscious abandonment of the stage as an artistic medium. In his program note, Sellars declares, “One of the reasons, possibly, for theatre to continue to exist in our technological age is as a kind of alternative public information system,” as if the production were intended to rectify the sort of disinformation that was parceled out by the Pentagon during Desert Storm. What a bleak, anti-aesthetic vision of the theatre’s mission at the century’s end, to make of the world stage a high-priced Village Voice with costumes and good lighting! And how transparently disingenuous: Does anyone believe that the audience for a Peter Sellars production of Aeschylus is a hotbed of fervent believers in Pentagon briefings?
Just as disturbing was the director’s twisting of history to suit his own ends. Sellars’s program note contains this patent untruth: “The Greeks stunningly defeated the Persians and enslaved them.” (Is Sellars thinking of Alexander the Great, conqueror of Persia, who was born a hundred years after the death of Aeschylus? Even so, the word “enslaved” is hardly applicable.) This error could only be unimportant to one who believes that it was all such a long time ago that it doesn’t really matter. Desert Storm matters because it happened to us, this argument suggests; the Battle of Salamis happened to a hunch of dead Greeks, so who cares about facts. A dismaying suspicion presents itself: that the play’s creators are seeking to validate their own political opinions with the cachet of Aeschylus’ name.
Leave Aeschylus out of it
Whereas Thomas Bowdler “improved” Shakespeare by excising sentiments he deemed incompatible with contemporary morality, thus superimposing his own beliefs, Auletta and Sellars are putting their political convictions–hundreds of dreary, prosy lines of them–into the mouths of Aeschylus’ characters. The sin of bowdlerization is not in perverting the text Aeschylus’ tragedy, to be found on the shelves of every good library in the world, is indestructible but rather in retaining the name of the mutilated author. We should be able to judge Auletta and Sellars’s anti-American rant on its merits, and leave Aeschylus out of it.
Aeschylus’ tragedy is above all a deeply patriotic work celebrating the victory of a free people over a despotic invader. To drape the piece with the trappings of radical chic, to make Aeschylus a sort of Joan Baez in a toga, is as intellectually slippery as using the Bible to propagate right-wing social ideology.
Jamie James is an arts correspondent for The Times of London and a frequent contributor to the Sunday New York Times. His new book, The Music of the Spheres, a study of music and classical science, was published in May by Grove Press.