The Persians – Western literature’s oldest surviving play, and the only Greek classic we know of that’s based on contemporary history, not mythology or legend – is a punch in the gut. At a time when the fate of global civilization is quavering and Americans feel their grip on the world slipping, the story of an empire’s epic and bloody collapse is almost hard to watch in its furious and unflinching clarity.
The play, written by Aeschylus in approximately 472 BCE, tells the story of the Persian army’s “unimaginable” defeat at Athens in the Battle of Saramis, considered by many historians to be the single most significant battle of human history. The Persians, who vastly outnumbered the Greeks and boasted a navy fleet far newer and more muscular, were vanquished, their massive force decimated. But The Persians is not a triumphal rally. The entire play is set at the court of the Persian Queen Atossa, anxiously awaiting the return of her son Xerxes the King and his giant army from the fight. When a lone foot solider breathlessly arrives and relates in gory detail the catastrophic battle, the kingdom is plunged into darkness, the Queen wails and goes into mourning and an entire civilization – represented by a chorus of men – deals with what is to come.
Marti Gobel as the Queen is remarkable in her portrayal of a soul tormented by “her own useless importance.” She is a striking, haunting presence on stage, and her scenes with the ghost of her dead husband Darius (Jeffrey Baumgartner) and her defeated son Xerxes (Travis Knight) are amazingly moving. Costuming by Holly Payne is simple and evocative, and Jennifer Rupp’s choreography gives the movement of the play a subtle and graceful poetry that mirrors the beauty of McLaughlin’s verse.
The hubris of a society “deafened by empire building,” the machismo of war and the ruthlessness and oblivion of time, history and death all resonate in The Persians. Says the ghost king Darius, “death is long and without music.” This difficult, important play reminds us that our time here is short, and we must learn swiftly from the mistakes of the past. VS
The Persians runs through November 3. 414-291-7800 or www.r-t-w.com