Classics, perhaps more than any other academic discipline, is frequently subject to accusations of being irrelevant to modern society. This is an aspect of the discipline perpetuated by traditional, reductive perspectives that criticise acts, such as translation or reception, which would challenge the canonical status of a classical text. Increasingly, however, classicists have challenged such essentialist arguments through acts of reception that note the capacity of both ancient texts and iconic ancient figures to resonate with modern ideological struggles.
I recently had the opportunity to attend Greek Play, an annual production staged by King’s Classics department that provides audiences with the unique opportunity to experience Greek drama in the original ancient language. For 2017, this was a student production of Prometheus Bound at the Greenwood Theatre. This production was, in a sense, a New Beginning for the Greek Play itself, since it was the first time the play has been performed in its history of sixty-four years. Moreover, through the figure of Prometheus, it sought to challenge assumptions about the relevance of Classical literature to provide an enlightening analogue to current issues raised by world politics.
Prometheus Bound is, even by the standards of fifth-century Greek tragedy, highly unusual and provocative. Traditionally attributed to Aeschylus, although this is now contentious, the play follows the mythological vicissitudes of Prometheus, a titan and benefactor to mankind, in the wake of Zeus’ recent tyrannical assumption of power over the cosmos. Prometheus, who was once a supporter of Zeus, has not only stolen fire from the gods and given it to the human race but has also thwarted Zeus’ attempt to obliterate humankind. As a result, he is bound to a mountain in the Caucuses to await his punishment. Other than some technical issues where the English subtitles did not keep up with the actors’ dialogues, it was a very accomplished production. Particularly impressive was the performance from the lead role, Prometheus, who had an incredible command of ancient Greek and encouraged a sense of pathos without overacting.
However, it was not the performance itself that constituted the most thought-provoking aspect of the production, but rather, the short multimedia piece that immediately preceded it. Within this piece sound bites, footage, and images of the Nazi party, Donald Trump, along with other authoritarian governments were interspersed with pictures of classical artworks, such as the Artemision Zeus and a statue of Julius Caesar. The result was a somewhat jarring yet effective way of illustrating parallels between the autocratic tyranny of Zeus in Prometheus Bound with twentieth and twenty-first-century populist political figures.
There are many startling parallels between the fascist agenda of Nazi Germany and the rhetoric of both Trump’s campaign and his administration: ethnic stereotyping, the exploitation of xenophobic anxieties, and the idea of countering a perceived national decline that necessitates radical political change. Despite these concerning similarities, the issue is decidedly more complex and nuanced than perhaps the juxtaposition through the multimedia content at the beginning of this production suggests. With its lack of a sharper necessary context or justification, that choice seemed somewhat reductive.
Although the conveyed relevance between universal themes broached in Prometheus Bound with current world politics was, at times, problematic, it proved surprising just how relatable the topic of the play could be in other ways. The Chorus, a group of female nymphs, poignantly express anxieties about their potential sexual exploitation at the hands of autocrats like Zeus. This is distressingly relevant in the wake of a presidential election dogged by sexual controversy, and unresolved accusations of rape and violent sexual assault. Particularly since both men in question the then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and former president Bill Clinton allegedly abused their accusers by manipulating their respective positions of power. Still, not all parallels highlighted by this juxtaposition of the mythological past and political present were disheartening. The dissenting voice of Prometheus repeatedly states that power is impermanent and it is an uplifting reminder that leaders, however tyrannical, inevitably fall; there is always the hope of new beginnings and, with them, a better future.
Hannah Burke-Tomlinson is in the first year of a PhD in the Comparative Literature department at King’s College London. Her research is currently exploring themes of metapoetics and masculinity in Latin love elegy and English Romantic lyric, as well as studying the transcultural relationship between these two poetic movements.