A Damned God In Chains

JAN 11, 2011

Author and lyricist Steven Sater (whose credits include Spring Awakening) on why Prometheus Bound resonates today

“Here, at last: the very end of the earth,
the Scythian plain, where no mortal sets foot…”

So it is, in the opening words of his Prometheus Bound, the Ancient Greek poet Aeschylus gives us our setting. The pitiless demigod Force declares where we are, as he drags the Titan, Prometheus, to the uttermost limit of the earth – which is also to say, the nowhere-land of the heart. For Aeschylus’ setting is at once physical and metaphysical. It is as if Force, and his henchman Violence, have dragged us onto King Lear’s heath, where “the bleak winds ruffle…and there’s scarce a bush.” As if they have deposited us on that world’s-end county road, where Beckett’s clowns have “no lack of void,” only a lone tree to try and hang themselves from.

As Prometheus is nailed to remote and steep-cliffed rock, as he hangs alone above desolate waste, his trial is so great, he becomes its icon. His is the trial that the soul undergoes in the hands of force.

In the first year of Hitler’s War, writing on The Iliad, the French philosophe Simone Weil defined “force” as the center not only of that incomparable poem, but of all human history. Force, she wrote, is what turns a human being into a thing. In the presence of force, that which once housed a soul becomes a corpse.

No one, Simone Weil wrote, can resist the remorseless law of force. It turns to stone the souls of those who suffer under it and also those who enforce it. So great is its violent might, she argues, that even the Son of God, made flesh, was bowed and marked by it, and cried out for release in the agony of Gethsemane.

And yet, nailed in “chains unyielding and unbreakable,” Prometheus cries, “No.” No, he will not keep silent. No, he will not be overcome. Unlike Jesus, this wounded god knows no benevolent Father, only an unjust usurper of the highest throne, whom he himself helped seat there. And this proud son of Gaia will never bend and sue that “tyrant of the gods” for release from torment.

Why does unhappy Prometheus suffer “as if for a crime?” Because he bestowed fire, and understanding, on humankind. As he rails against a lawless leader who has betrayed him, Prometheus’ cry is the cry of conscience, the cry of the prisoner who will not yield.

What is the cost of maintaining a conscience? What is the price paid for crying out against a despot—for subverting genocide and showing only compassion for “those born- to-die?” For bestowing language and number on “wordless children?” These are the questions that Aeschylus, the father of Western drama, asks us to ponder.

Twenty-five hundred years after this tragedy was first performed, it remains astonishing that the play was ever staged at all, for this towering work is perhaps the most searing indictment of tyranny ever written. And it was written, and staged before the entire body politic of Athens, at the rose-fingered dawn of Western democracy.

Learned commentators tend to explain this amazement away. They argue that, in the balmy days of his newly democratic city-state, Aeschylus was merely demonizing the old monarchy. But no playwright writes about a problem already solved. Surely, the former war general sensed, as Socrates did, the potential threat inherent within a democratic system: when we permit public opinion to determine policy, we have all but set our government in the arbitrary claw of the tyrant “beast” called society. For daring to give this truth dramatic life, the same Athens which gave Socrates hemlock to drink, tried and convicted Aeschylus as a heretic and exiled him.

What a writer they dishonored. With his restless innovation to the structure of Attic tragedy, Aeschylus set, absolutely, the template for every drama written since. Moreover, he gave us, in Prometheus, the world’s first great dramatic character – our theater’s first tragic hero.

That pure voice of conscience has not dimmed with time. Revered by poets, playwrights, and novelists through the ages for his defiant stance against the almighty, Prometheus has served as both Classical hero and Romantic martyr – the source and inspiration for characters huge and diverse such as Milton’s Satan, Goethe’s Faust, Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Ibsen’s Brand and Master Builder. A god who suffers at the hands of God, Prometheus is The Great Naysayer. The proud rebel voice – the rock voice, if you will – against injustice.

Derided by critics steeped in Aristotelian formulae, the true dramatic action of Prometheus Bound is sublime. It embodies the truth of inaction – the Gandhian power of standing alone. Of saying no. Of defeating one’s enemy by mastering one’s own soul – and never acknowledging the legitimacy of anyone to rule over it.

The briefest perusal of Aeschylus’ source material reveals how informed was the playwright’s art. Hesiod’s Prometheus is a trickster, who filches fire, by a ruse, from a just and discerning Zeus. Aeschylus creates, whole-cloth, the fierce, unyielding character of his dissenting Titan. And, there is no precedent in Homer for the savage, willful King of the Immortals Aeschylus gives us. The agon between a solitary prisoner and an absent, vengeful god is entirely the playwright’s invention.
Like a master of postmodern drama, Aeschylus chooses to begin his story neither at the start, nor in the thick of, rich “dramatic” events. He sweeps aside both the war of the Titans, which set Zeus on the throne, and also Zeus’ betrayal of his fellow gods after that coup d’état. Aeschylus doesn’t show us even Prometheus’ theft of fire. Rather, this revolutionary poet begins his tragedy of stillness after all that is done – as a rebel god is locked away, in solitary confinement, and we enter the drama of the prisoner’s mind.

Over the course of that drama, the snubbed hero grows only the more baleful. Only the more convinced of his rightness. He refuses out of hand a plea bargain to “release him from pain.” Moved by the plight of Io, a mortal maiden raped by Zeus, Prometheus shows compassion for the humans once more. Against his better wisdom, he betrays the fact of his secret, the only weapon he holds to free himself from his humiliating chains. Finally, the injured hero cries out so loudly, and refuses so resolutely to collude with authority, that Zeus cleaves the earth with “thunder and black fire” and buries Prometheus within it. In the play’s final words, the grieved rebel wails: “Look how unjustly I suffer.”

This is a play about resistance. About the power of a tortured individual to stand alone against evil. An evil, here, named God. And this, perhaps, is the most shocking tenet of this most radical drama. “Not just, not God,” reasons Milton’s Satan. “Not just, but God,” cries Aeschylus’ Prometheus. Like Job, the martyred Prometheus cries that God has tricked him, and refuses ever to submit. Unlike Job, he finds no consolation, for the righteousness of the Almighty never is revealed to him, nor is his suffering ever transcended. Prometheus forbears only by conviction, that one day his torment must end.

Resonant through the ages, timely as ever, Aeschylus’ tale ultimately celebrates the negation of force by the power of mind. It is a tale about the power of faith, or “Fore-thought,” to overcome a universe of death – by refusing, ever, to submit to it. In a tyrant’s cosmos, the ancient tragedian tells us, the true titan stakes his life on his own soul’s sense of justice.

Steven Sater is the author and lyricist of Prometheus Bound. His previous work includes the Tony Award winning Spring Awakening.

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