Letter from Epidaurus

Greek mythology and Aeschylus were not kind to those who played with fire. Take Prometheus, who lost his liver. Aeschylus’ «Prometheus Bound,» one of the oldest plays in history, is probably the most lyrical yet undramatic of the Greek classical tragedies: one hero chained to a rock, orated at and orating to a sequence of embodied apparitions. Prometheus, the central character, spends most of the play in standing position, bound hand, foot and waist to a large rock formation in the remotest region of the earth. He’s being punished by Zeus, king of the gods, for helping humans by giving them the gift of fire. The situation presents a unique challenge for the actor playing Prometheus. Costas Kazakos, who last weekend played the central character, spent virtually the whole play standing, bound arms, legs and waist to a metal rock formation, his face the appalling white of an actor from a classical Japanese No play. He was also the director – a dual role not always successful, as this case proved. Yet the veteran actor was the uncontested star at the fourth-century BC Theater of Epidaurus with its shell-shaped 55-tier auditorium, which seats 12,000 but was not full to capacity. The play, full of bizarre characters (a Titan, a speaking cow, the virgin daughter of Inachus king of Argos magnificently played by Filareti Komninou, an Ocean, and a Chorus of the daughters of the Sea) was produced by the Regional Municipal Theater of Larissa. «Here we have reached the remotest region in earth»; with those words, Power (kratos) and Violence (via) drag in Prometheus to the edge of wasteland desolation as the tragedy opens. Hephaestos will shackle him to a rock. Prometheus stole fire and gave it to the human race. For this he was bound to a rock and punished for centuries. Sure, he was a god from the old order. The Titans had now all been overthrown by a group of young upstarts, the Olympians, the ancient Greek gods as we still know them today. In the new order, Zeus stood as chief god. In those times, wood and fire were the main energy source. Atomic energy had yet to be discovered. Naturally, the new gods intended to control fire – that is, until Prometheus stole it from them, causing great problems, and not only in terms of the religious and ethical philosophy of that time. The economy and sources of strategic power were, then as now, the primary goal. Once again, as I have done so often, I will not refrain from drawing parallels between the ancient event and any modern counterpart. In an age like ours, in which a globe-threatening energy crisis is dealt with through chilling realpolitik rather than accepted as evidence of the tragic nature of our existence, as Aeschylus’ play highlights, the primary goal, uncontroversially, cannot be other than to control the immense energy reserves of the Persian Gulf region, Iraq included. Furthermore, the latest manifestation of China’s increasing demand for energy – which has seen its state-owned oil companies attempt to acquire major assets even in North America – might be another way to indicate the path from discord to reconciliation, in a way similar to the philosophical progression in Aeschylus’ «Oresteia,» or even to the Prometheus trilogy. Scholars insist that «Prometheus Bound» may be related to «Prometheus Freed,» a play now lost. In that, Mother Earth convinced Prometheus to yield to Zeus and accept his place in the new Olympian world order. So, what if one changes Prometheus to China and Zeus to the USA? Anyway, as already mentioned «Prometheus Freed» is lost, and so is also the moral of a trilogy which no doubt propagated coexistence with Zeus himself abandoning the use of force and opening negotiations with Prometheus. And as the one-time «axis of evil» is forgotten and multilateral talks between Olympus and the mortals seem promising, there is hope for peace in the play. Some authorities still think that «Prometheus Bound» and «Prometheus Freed» formed a two-play sequence, moving from chaos to order. Sure enough, that was a long, long time before Iran restarted its program to convert uranium for peaceful use, as it says, and even before negotiators in Iraq failed once more to draft a new constitution. All the same, even in our «Prometheus Bound» (this occurs in lines 316 to 328) the god of the sea, Oceanus, counsels, just out of fear, Prometheus to follow the path that he himself is following: obey, and obey submissively!   Another renowned modern-day personality who led the efforts to capture the awesome fire of the sun for his country was the American Prometheus, charismatic physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the «father of the atomic bomb» as he is known even today. His achievement makes him a man to whom historians and artists are continually drawn. Just as with our good old Prometheus. Since «time in its aging course teaches all things,» as Prometheus exclaims in line 981, Aeschylus holds up a mirror which reflects us as well: half-tamed creatures whose moral task it is to hold in balance the strength and the violence within.

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