Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Re-imagining Aeschylus

In the preface to his lyrical drama Hellas, Percy Shelley said the play is "so inartificial that I doubt whether, if recited on the Thespian wagon to an Athenian village at the Dionysiaca, it would have obtained the prize of the goat."

The reference is to the legend that a tragedy (which means "goat song" in Greek) was originally performed by the actor Thespis, who traveled about Greece in a cart. When Athens instituted Dionysian festivals, it is presumed that a goat was the prize for a first-place tragedy.

According to Shelley, "The only goat-song which I have yet attempted has, I confess, in spite of the unfavorable nature of the subject, received a greater and a more valuable portion of applause than I expected or than it deserved." One might assume this refers to Shelley's only tragedy, The Cenci, which deals with the unfavorable topic of incest. I suspect, however, that he is actually speaking of Prometheus Unbound, another "lyrical drama" that aims to recreate the lost sequel to Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus.

Hellas takes as its model another play by Aeschylus, The Persians. Shelley writes in his preface that in 1821, the year he wrote the piece, the Greek struggle against an Eastern despot was still ongoing. Thus, as he was dramatizing the Greek War of Independence, and not the Second Persian War depicted by Aeschylus, he could not show a defeated tyrant returning home from war. Instead, he chose to grant a vision of a triumphant future he believed must someday come to humanity, regardless of the outcome of the present war.

The parallels with The Persians of Aeschylus are striking, but so are the differences. Aeschylus has a messenger return to the East to tell of the Greek victory at Salamis. Shelley instead has the character of Hassan come to tell the Sultan Mahmud II of a Greek's defeat. However, he makes it clear that the military defeat of the Greeks at Wallachia was actually a moral victory. Shelley describes the scene this way:

          The band, intrenched in mounds of Turkish dead,
          Grew weak and few. — Then said the Pacha, 'Slaves,
          Render yourselves — they have abandoned you —
          What hope of refuge, or retreat, or aid?
          We grant your lives.' 'Grant that which is thine own!'
          Cried one, and fell upon his sword and died!

Just as Aeschylus brings on the ghost of Darius in The Persians, Shelley resurrects the spirit of Mahomet II, who conquered Constantinople in 1453. The phantom warns Mahmud that the empire awaiting him is not of the world of the living, but of the dead.

Death, it turns out, would soon come for Shelly, who died the following year, in 1822. The Shelley scholar James Bieri speculates in his biography of the poet that he composed Hellas from late August into November of 1821. Shelley drowned on July 8 the next year.

However, during his brief life, Shelley established a lasting legacy. According to Bieri, "Hellas rightfully has been considered the pre-eminent artistic work of the Panhellenic movement."