Prometheus Incarnations

JAN 11, 2011

Sarah Bookin-Weiner on contemporary adaptions in performance.

Prometheus Bound poses massive staging issues. The story features a man chained to a rock—the protagonist cannot move for almost the entire show.

Like its title figure, contemporary productions of Prometheus Bound have struggled. While many scholars praise the literary merits of Aeschylus’s play, theater critics have attacked Prometheus Bound in performance for its lack of dramatic action. To be fair, this problematic play poses massive staging issues. The story features a man chained to a rock – the protagonist cannot move for almost the entire show. Yet the challenges of staging, lack of dramatic action onstage, and storytelling style continue to inspire the play’s translators, directors, and performers.

In 1967, poet Robert Lowell’s translation and adaptation attracted attention when it premiered at Yale, directed by Jonathan Miller. Robert Brustein, who was Yale Repertory’s artistic director at that time and who went on to found the A.R.T., wrote that it was, “A thoroughly modernized version of an ancient play, with contemporary resonances echoing all forms of tyranny (including America’s treatment of the Vietnamese), but a version that nevertheless maintained a certain historical distance.” Lowell described his own poetic prose adaptation as an “imitation” since it suggested the original rather than directly translated it. He recognized Prometheus Bound as one of the most “undramatic” Greek classical tragedies, but also thought it “probably the most lyrical.” Lowell reflected, “I think my own concerns and worries and those of the times seep in. Using prose instead of verse, I was free to tone down the poetic eloquence.”

Brustein sheds light on the production’s success, pointing out that, “Prometheus Bound is the ultimate static play, and if you’re going to be true to it, you have to accept the fact that it is a drama of religious ideas, not of action. The way to engage the audience is through dynamic acting.” Gifted actors Kenneth Haigh as Prometheus and Irene Worth as Io gave memorable performances. Critics said that the play and Lowell were made for one another, but the staging could not solve the story’s lack of action. Set in a seventeenth-century castle-keep, critics disliked the breathtaking yet incongruous scenery. While they found the first half riveting, many thought that the second half dwindled and Lowell’s slightly different ending fell flat.

Aeschylus wrote a Prometheus trilogy, but only fragments remain of the other two plays. In 1980, French director André Engel and dramaturg Bernard Pautrat addressed the problems this ancient tragedy presents to modern artists and audiences by adapting the larger Prometheus trilogy, using fragments from the lost Prometheus the Fire Bringer. Arriving at an open field at sunrise, the audience approached a burning building. Firemen and policemen directed cars to safe areas while sirens and smoke ignited spectators’ fear and alarm. As the audience drew closer, they saw Prometheus. He stood on the roof of an abandoned house, threatening to set it on fire. A police car arrived with Prometheus’s father, who begged with his son via megaphone to come down from the roof without setting the house ablaze. Sounds of an approaching helicopter blaring the music of Wagner announced the arrival of Mercury and his Star-Trek-clad assistants. The production ended with the police taking Prometheus into custody.

In 2005 the Sound Theatre of London added as much flair as possible to Prometheus Bound in a production directed and translated by James Kerr. A ten-woman chorus, wearing sexy, black slips, wandered around the theater. The Prometheus of acclaimed actor David Oyelowo struggled heroically against his fate, clanging and fighting against his chains. Kerr’s production emphasized the individual’s power to defy oppression. In 2007, the production transferred to the Aquila Theatre in NYC. Performed at the height of the Bush years, the play’s portrayal of resistance to tyranny served as an eerie reminder of the aggressive use of power.

Over the years, Prometheus Bound’s greatest difficulty has also become its greatest attraction for talented directors and translators. Coupled with its timeless representation of tyrannical resistance, this drama continues to attract creative minds hoping to surmount its challenge of stasis. Because the difficulty of this play lies in its inaction, only a staging will truly tell whether or not adaptation techniques and changes aid in dramatizing the play for a modern audience. A.R.T. Artistic Director Diane Paulus, an artist known for the dynamic physical life in her work, will bring the energy and rebelliousness of a rock concert to her production of Prometheus Bound at the A.R.T. this spring. By staging this show at the A.R.T.’s club theater OBERON, Paulus will create an environment that provides constant motion.

Sara Bookin-Weiner is a second-year dramaturgy student at the A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University.


Emmanuel Avellanet, Ashley Flanagan, Celina Carvajal, Gavin Creel, and Jo Lampert in Prometheus Bound.

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