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Prometheus Bound

TinFish Theatre

By Justin Hayford

If I had to toss one classical Greek tragedy onto the theatrical scrap heap, it would be Prometheus Bound. Sure, it has great historical significance, not least because it’s one of only seven surviving plays by Aeschylus (who wrote more than ten times that number). After all, the guy essentially invented drama as we know it; from the fragmentary record of Greek tragedy we’ve inherited, it seems he was the first to realize that two actors could actually speak to each other in a scene without dancing or singing. He also witnessed monumental societal changes–in his lifetime representative democracy gave its first painful scream in the Western world–and Prometheus Bound stands as a seminal poetic record of humanity’s struggle to replace the rule of might with the rule of law.

But I say leave the script to the historians and academics and keep it out of the hands of directors. If you think nothing happens in Beckett’s dramas, you haven’t read this snoozefest. At the top of the play, Prometheus gets chained to a rock while Zeus’s goon Power and his unwilling handyman Hephaestus make big speeches. That’s the end of the action. Of course Prometheus is being punished for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to mankind–but more to the point for theatergoers, he can’t move or gesture for the rest of the play.

Still, he manages to condemn Zeus’s tyrannical will. While he’s stuck there, some friends stop by to express their condolences–Oceanus, god of the sea, and a chorus of his daughters. They make a lot of big speeches, and Prometheus condemns Zeus’s tyrannical will. Then crazy antlered Io wanders by, driven mad by Zeus and a relentless gadfly. For the rest of the afternoon, whenever Prometheus isn’t condemning Zeus’s tyrannical will, he’s foretelling every step of Io’s arduous journey back to sanity (first to Scythia with its wattled roofs, then to Chalybes, which will be on the left, and then…). Finally Hermes drops in, demanding that the prophetic Prometheus reveal the secret of an Olympian coup d’etat 13 generations away. Instead, Prometheus condemns Zeus’s tyrannical will.

Of course Aeschylus didn’t end things here. Prometheus Bound was the first of a trilogy that also included Prometheus Unbound and Prometheus the Fire-Bearer. Supposedly the three works progressed from pure stalemate in the first to some sort of rational compromise in the third. But since only Prometheus Bound has survived intact, we’re left with an hour or so of setup, background exposition, choral wringing of hands, and a big, unstageable gadfly.

I suppose there are ways to justify producing the play; after all, as critic George Thomson puts it, “the sufferings of the Aeschylean Prometheus appear as the sufferings of man himself.” In his TinFish Productions staging, director Dejan Avramovich tries to link the play to the ongoing horrors in the Balkans. “In the 1990’s we saw brute force and power overwhelm the tiny country of Yugoslavia and plunge its people in chaos destruction and senseless violence,” he writes in a program note. He’s placed his production “in this arena…in the hope that Aeschylus’s words may enlighten us as to where we have been so foolish as to let history once again repeat itself.”

Unfortunately they don’t enlighten us, primarily because Avramovich’s “adaption” consists of little beyond military costuming and an occasional folk song. If this is Yugoslavia, then who is this Prometheus character exhaustively listing all the skills and sciences he’s given to mankind? What does his extraordinary gift of prophecy have to do with ethnic conflict? Who are these choral soldiers with nothing to do all day but listen to Prometheus bemoan his lot? And why is every soldier so concerned about never marrying a god?

Avramovich’s attempt at a theatrical analogy for a politically and historically complicated conflict goes no further than Prometheus’s chains. In fact, he’s saddled himself with a work full of mythological allusions and pantheistic beliefs that make no sense given the contemporary stage world he’s set up. The entire production feels hopelessly out of joint–the classic symptom of update-itis. Trying to make the play relevant, he’s turned it opaque.

That opacity is enhanced by Avramovich’s disregard for the demands of Aeschylus’s poetry. As happens all too often in homegrown lyrical dramas, the director overlooks the text’s formality and pageantry and instead strives to churn up emotional turmoil in his actors. It’s as though he were staging a Sam Shepard play, as though he imagined that naturalistic acting suits a Titan chained to a cliff and a god riding a winged beast. His Prometheus–grimacing, moaning, hyperventilating, and staring into space in great consternation–renders eternal bondage indistinguishable from acute appendicitis. Like everyone else in the cast, Prometheus never genuinely needs to speak any of the words that issue from his lips. Meanwhile, as any child can see, Prometheus’s “painful, grievous tortures too pitiful to behold” are in fact loosely bound chains from which he could probably wriggle free with little or no effort.

In short, we can’t believe anything in this production, despite Avramovich’s ham-handed attempts to make us believe everything. And that’s a portentous omen for the company’s “Greek Fest,” which this play inaugurates. Let’s hope Athena drops by the theater and shines a little light on the project before TinFish attempts The Birds and Electra.