The earth all furrowed up by fingernails

I’m reading straight through Grene and Lattimore’s edition of the complete Greek tragedies. I intend to write on this blog about each tragedy as I read it.

The oldest extant tragedy, and the first in Grene and Lattimore’s collection, is The Persians, by Aeschylus.

It’s notable, though, not just for priority and antiquity. It’s also the only tragedy we possess which was written about an event from its author’s lifetime. Mostly the tragedies are about remote stories from the iron age, stories whose provenance is as ancient as the story of Troy recounted in the Iliad. (Indeed, one of the lost works of Homer was about the family of Oedipus, who inspired dozens of tragedies.) The Persians, though, is about the defeat of the Persian king Xerxes’ navy at Salamis, which spelled doom for his ill-fated campaign to add the Greek city states to his empire. The same campaign included the famous land battle of Thermopylae (known to you, perhaps, from the film 300).

Aeschylus fought in this war—in fact, he took part in the victory at Salamis. You might think that surely a great victory like this isn’t the matter for a tragedy—and you’d be right! Neither Aeschylus nor the Athenian audience who were regaled by the first performance would have found the Battle of Salamis particularly tragic. Which is why Aeschylus made the decision to set his play in the Persian court.

He probably hadn’t been there. He gets it pretty wildly wrong in lots of ways. But he has fun with it: there’s Atossa, the famous queen of Darius and mother of Xerxes. There’s a visit from a ghost (good ol’ Darius himself, who was the leader of the first unsuccessful Persian campaign against Greece), and then poor Xerxes creeps in, with tattered clothing and woe-is-me speeches.

So maybe The Persians throws a spanner in the theory about Greek tragedy which makes it out to be universally edifying. I’m not saying these plays aren’t noble art. (I wouldn’t be honoring them with my full attention if I didn’t respect them.) But I think we tend to attribute a weight of seriousness and moral purpose into ancient things in general that’s often out of whack with their original function. At any rate The Persians surely provoked as much schadenfreude as it did catharsis in its original audience! I’d be willing to bet a few Athenian wits made a cat-call or two when Xerxes came wailing on stage.

But as for me, I was bored. I’ve got to be real with you: I hated almost every moment of The Persians. Primarily I hated it because nothing happens. Or nothing that makes a difference. People worry the campaign has failed; a messenger says the campaign has failed; people mourn that the campaign has failed; a ghost mourns that the campaign has failed; Xerxes mourns that the campaign has failed. I get it. The campaign has failed.

But I don’t think the static nature of the plot entirely explains my ennui. After all, my favorite Greek tragedy of all time, Prometheus Bound, which I just wrote about for Open Letters Monthly (and which I will therefore be skipping when I come to it in this blog series), also boasts a grand total of zero plot twists. Yet I find it dramatic, utterly riveting.

The problem is that there’s nothing in The Persians to compensate for its plotlessness. The language is pretty pedestrian as far as I could tell, far short of the brilliant imagery Aeschylus creates in his Agamemnon, for example. The psychology of the characters wasn’t particularly rich. The events of the play (or lack thereof) give rise to no particularly profound thoughts or arguments. It’s just one woe-is-me exclamation after another. Some of the things that Athenians liked about the play when it was first performed were the singing, dancing, and backdrops. So we’re in the position of reading a musical without the music. No wonder I was bored.

Well, there’s one exception. Exactly one speech, right in the middle of the play, enthralled me. It marked a precious few seconds of pleasure in half an hour of otherwise unmitigated torture. And predictably a ghost delivered the lines I liked.

Is the ghost of Darius the first ghost in dramatic literature? He may be. Peak-ghost was probably the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, or the ghost of Hamlet’s dad. But Darius, formerly the Great King, is their distinguished literary ancestor.

This is what he says when he appears, and I love it:

O faithful followers, companions
of my youth! O Persian counselors!
What burden is burdening the city, and why
is the earth groaning and beaten, all furrowed up
by fingernails? Anxiously, I saw my wife
beside my tomb, and graciously received
her offerings; and you lament now, standing
at my tomb, with cries for resurrection
calling piteously. Ascent is not so easy.
The cthonic deities more readily
receive than give; but I, a potentate
among them, came. Be quick, that I be un-
reproached for being late. What recent woe
weight now so heavily upon the Persians?

What do I like about this monologue? So many things!

First, I just thrill with the horror of this image: “the earth groaning and beaten, all furrowed up by fingernails.” Holy shit that’s good. And I can’t help but extrapolate from that image to picture the dead, down below the earth, wondering what’s going on as they see how the earth is furrowed, like fishes speculating about a hurricane by watching waves from the depths.

Second, I love the whole theme in Greek literature of the living visiting the dead and the dead visiting the living. I wrote about the obvious line between Homer, Virgil, and Dante on the matter of the trip to Hades; here’s the other side of the coin, the trip up from Hades. I think haunting is easier than trespassing, though; it happens more often; and apparently your rank in life can make things even easier for you, because Darius implies he was able to crawl up from Hades because he’s a potentate down there too.

On the other hand—third—whenever the Greeks talk about death, they keep things real. It’s the end, dust to dust, for them. Better to be a nobody on earth than a somebody in the afterlife, as Achilles—I paraphrase—tells Odysseus. So despite Darius’s potentate-status down below, he still acts like a nervous kid, asking people to be quick so the “cthonic deities” don’t “reproach” him for staying out too late. Touch of humor there. I love it.

Those are the main things I like about Darius’ speech. Was it enough to redeem the half-hour of boredom I spent with the godawful repetitive rest of The Persians? Nope. But it’s a consolation.

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