Νῦν ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀγών: now you fight for everything. These words, from the messenger's description of the battle of Salamis, spoken by the Greeks as their ships are about to engage the Persians are, according to Simon Goldhill's pre-play lecture at the KIngs College London Greek Play, the motive and reason for the Greek victory.
I attended the play, and the lectures beforehand by Professor Goldhill, who holds the chair in Greek Languages and Culture at Cambridge, and Dr Lindsay Allen, Lecturer in Greek and Near Eastern History at Kings College London. Professor Goldhill said the play was the foundation text of western attitudes to the east and discussed it from a Greek perspective, while Dr Allen took the Persian point of view, illustrating her talk with images of Persian antiquities, including Darius's tomb at Persepolis, not Susa where Aeschylus set the action of the Persians.
Not much happens on stage in the play: the Persians, represented by the Queen Mother Atossa and a chorus of regents, and referring to themselves as barbarians, learn of the catastrophic defeats of Xerxes' armies in Greece from a messenger. Atossa invokes the ghost of her dead husband and father of Xerxes, the dead king Darius who appears to bemoan the defeats and prophesy further ones. At the end, the ragged Xerxes himself returns, amid much crying of 'οἱοιοῖ’, woe. It was, as Professor Goldhill pointed out, brave of Aeschylus to show this, for it turns the audience's pride in a Greek triumph to ‘pity and fear’. For 1500 years, he said, the play was not shown. Yet in the past five years, there have been at least twenty productions, including that of Peter Sellars.
The theatre was full, and not only with sixth-formers studying the play for A level. The production leaned towards the traditional but was effective and we applauded the cast generously at the end. Darius in particular, had considerable stage presence and, if I read the biographies in the programme, not all the cast are reading Greek itself, so their sensitive and accurate recitation of the lines was a considerable achievement. The Greenwood Theatre is not the most well-appointed in London, but I found a seat next to a broken one, which gave me plenty of leg room.
ἰὼ ἰώ, Περσὶς αἶα δύσβατος.
ἰὴ ἰὴ τρισκάλμοισιν,
ἰὴ ἰή, βάρισιν ὀλόμενοι.
πέμψω τοί σε δυσθρόοις γόοις.