Remaking a myth for modern times

Vast cooling towers silhouetted against the rising sun exhale steam over the spoil heap of a coal mine in Yorkshire. A cattle truck manned by Kratos (Force) and Bia (Violence) pulls away, while the eerily amplified sound of a miner’s diseased lungs struggling to breathe plays on the soundtrack. The opening scenes of Tony Harrison’s extraordinary film poem «Prometheus» evoke themes that run through this work and indeed through the poet’s entire oeuvre. Power and its minions, fire as a force for destruction and creation, the soon-to-be abandoned mines and the men who make their living toiling in them are recurring elements in a story that goes back to Aeschylus’ «Prometheus Bound» and forward to landmark moments in 20th century history. «I’ve always tried to relate the great things I discovered in Greek with my own background,» Harrison told the audience after a screening of «Prometheus» at the Trianon cinema last Sunday. «I take a Greek myth and drop it into the world I know and see how much they can speak to each other.» In Aeschylus’ play, the hero champions mankind, whom Zeus wants to destroy and remold in more servile form. This chimes with what he described as «a tradition in English literature of identifying Prometheus as the champion of the lower world against the upper world of the gods.» His film traces the fate of a defiant elderly miner, played by Walter Swallow, who voices opposition — in verse – to established power. A countercommentary, also in verse, comes from Hermes, played by Michael Feast, as Zeus’ cynical, contemptuous upper-class sidekick. The miner’s grandson (Jonathan Waistnidge) is reading about Prometheus for school; the boy’s mother (Fern Smith) suffers the fate of Io, being turned into a cow and slaughtered in an almost unwatchable parallel to Nazi genocide. A group of miners are melted down in a furnace and made into a huge gold statue of Prometheus that crosses Europe on the back of a truck, stopping at the sites of 20th century conflagrations, such as Dresden and Auschwitz, before reaching Elefsina, their route intersecting with the sea voyage of the Oceanids, women from the local fish factory, transmuted into mythical beings drifting on a barge. And that’s just the outline. Though coal miners who saw the film in Sheffield felt it to be an elegy for socialism defeated by a Tory government that forced the closure of British mines and ushered in an era of unemployment and poverty that still bedevils former mining communities, the film ranges further. Striking images and verse narrative link myth and history, past and present, class struggle and the battle between men and gods, in a myth for modern times. «Prometheus» was screened as part of a series of events held during Harrison’s brief visit to Athens as the guest of the British Council. During the week he also gave a poetry reading at the Ionian Center in Plaka and met with literature students at Athens University.

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