Letter from Delphi

On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson, an American plantation owner who would go on to become the third president of the United States, helped launch the Declaration of Independence, one of the most important documents of modern times. This declaration 229 years ago spoke of such notions as the preservation of life and liberty, and the equality of men. It also unearthed a concept not invoked since the golden age of the ancient Greeks. Plato said then the whole purpose of living together in a city and establishing laws pivoted on improving the lives and souls of all citizens and to strive for their happiness. Happiness means different things to different people, of course. And today, modern political rhetoric rarely delves into happiness. For lessons on it, we look to the past. Euripides’ Hecuba saw it as bloody vengeance of the «eye for an eye» variety. On Saturday, I saw the British actress Vanessa Redgrave in Delphi performing in «Hecuba» as the queen who loses everything in a senseless war but stays strong and focused on the greater good. Tony Harrison directed the tragedy in a fiercely composed manner. The new play shows the past in modern terms. The military in the play is clearly displayed as representing the United States and the United Kingdom, the main players in the Iraq war. The Greek forces are called the coalition. Hecuba herself looks like she could have come from a country in South Asia, where the Americans and the British have waged war. «Would President Bush weep for Vanessa Redgrave’s Hecuba if he could be tricked into attending a performance?» Harrison wrote in an article last year. «I wonder what the American president would say if the Royal Shakespeare Company asked him to write a preface to my version of ‘Hecuba’ to coincide with its visit to the Kennedy Center in Washington,» Harrison wrote. Redgrave is internationally known for her pacifist leanings and one knows what kind of messages to expect from her. And Harrison is not the first director to have discovered in ancient Greek tragedies a metaphor for our times. Robert McNamara heads the Scena Theater in Washington D.C., a group which has a long and fruitful relationship with Greek tragedies and modern work by playwright Iakovos Kambanellis. Scena is currently showing a modern version of «The Persians» by Aeschylus. Here, playwright Robert Auletta shifts the action from Persia to modern-day Iraq. It’s an appropriate metaphor for today. President Bush last Tuesday asked the American public to back his Iraq policy. He asked Americans to fly the country’s flag over the US Independence Day holiday to show support for troops. Bush declared that the war is worth sacrifice and «the proper response is not retreat.» Those lines could have come from an ancient writer. Euripides’ Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter for the war. But President Bush would never kill his own children in the name of war. Euripides wrote «Iphigenia at Aulis,» a play which takes a cynical and satirical look at the actions of public figures when he was losing faith in political leaders and their inability to extricate themselves from an interminable war. Yet in our modern – Greek – times we can, thank God, recognize the gap between politicians who talk in moral absolutes and the normal folks who sense that life is far more complicated than these sound bites. In «Hecuba,» where the sacrificial lamb was Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena, the complacent hypocrisy with which leaders justify cruelty in the name of military or political necessity is one of the dominant themes of this tragedy, in which Queen Hecuba and the other Trojan women are held in a POW camp on a desolate beach. However, ancient drama is – also? mainly? – high politics. This year, the European Cultural Center of Delphi is commemorating Pericles, a blue blood who was also one the most raucously democratic politicians in history. A man with a populist appeal, Pericles advised his citizens during the first few years of the Peloponnesian War to follow what looked like a passive defensive strategy – remaining within the city’s walls when the Spartans came to burn their crops and putting Athenians’ faith in their supremacy at sea. The Periclean strategy died with the man himself in 429 BC. Pericles died in a plague that, within three years, killed a quarter of the city’s population.

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