Pinned high on a gigantic metal wheel, Aeschylus’ ragged Prometheus has, for the past eighty minutes, been spitting out toxic denunciations of all-mighty Zeus and his dictates. Hermes himself just arrived with the Big Chief’s final ultimatum, only to be met with more curses and maledictions from the unrepentant Giver-of-Fire. Finally, Prometheus pauses and looks out, seeing in the far distance the glow of Zeus’ destructive bolt on its way toward him like a heat-seeking missile. Lower down on the steel armature, the flock of women who have gathered in solidarity with the Titan make tremulous little cries and flutter like birds. The air above the amphitheatre thickens with expectant dread as the music rises toward a dissonant crest, the lights dying away.
Aeschylus’s uncompromising monumentality reminds me always of Richard Serra, whose sculptures wrench us into a state of empathy with expressive slabs of steel. In Prometheus Bound nothing much really happens up on stage; all the “action” is in our minds as we resist like bucking horses our underlying compassion for the defiant wretch tacked up there against the cliff. Inexorably, we are drawn by our own natures into a solidarity that undermines our customary submission to the dictates of necessity, and Aeschylus is enough of a prick to insist that we take this pill without sugar coating – “give up hope of results,” as the Tibetans might put it. Finally, there’s something onomatopoetic (big word, I know) about Prometheus, Bound in how Aeschylus’s play carries us up a steep incline to the edge of a dark gulf and throws us off – the form of the play, in other words, reiterates the cliff-ness that also anchors its central image.
Preston’s great achievement here is to insist on all this, and to bring it to life with forceful precision. He’s aided in this objective by his fine cast (particularly Ron Cephas Jones in the lead), by Efren Delgadillo’s gorgeous wheel, by Musical Director Ellen Reid and by the accomplished jazz composer Vinny Golia, who performs with the same inventive restraint he brought to Preston’s Macbeth. Finally, translator Joel Agee has, to my ear anyway, captured the formal perfection and rhetorical sophistication of Aeschylus’ dramatic poem in a mode of effortless clarity. Working together, this creative ensemble delivers a production full of resonance with our place and time; the pleasure comes in seeing forces that typically shape us from the shadows dragged into the light, where they may be appreciated as aesthetic objects.
Prometheus’s indictment of Zeus is actually quite subtle. Rather than denying Zeus’s power, he simply insists on viewing Zeus as himself subject to the impermanence common to all created entities. Born to Cronus, and already the father of other gods (Dionysus, for example), Zeus is a historical being, Prometheus insists; immortal or not, his position at the pinnacle of divine power will come to an end. Throughout the text, Prometheus invokes techne – the Greek word for craft, practical knowledge, the understanding of material assemblages that allows us to take them apart and then re-purpose them in skillful ways. Opposed to this form of understanding is the notion that when parts come together they fuse into new wholes defined by an inviolable unity that is stable and inert. This stable unity, in turn, relates to an abstract ideal that exists in some transcendent realm, a realm from which we can derive the categorical imperatives that define proper behavior, and even the concrete laws that must be enforced by police and judges and guided missiles. While only the very wisest among us can really comprehend these ideal forms, there is something the rest of us can do…which is very simply to obey.
Aeschylus’s tragic vision comes as a welcome relief from our endless cultural obsequiousness. With each snarling screed, Cephas Jones’s Prometheus counteracts the narrative toxins forced down our throats at the local Cineplex, where each month the hero of some new Marvel franchise draws on extra-special powers to meet some extra-special threat to the consumerist perfection we have been trained to view as our given right. These comic book values, juvenile and dangerously proto-fascistic in their alluring triumphalism, have seeped into our political discourse along channels greased by the investment of billions of dollars by right wing ideologues (the Koch brothers, typically). Through the genius of a well-funded “perception management” industry, our imaginations have been colonized by doctrines of self-righteous greed and resentful hatred which every spiritual tradition in human history has denounced as the sound evil makes when it speaks.
I found the heartfelt applause at the close of the play oddly inspiring, suggesting that Preston and his fine company have managed to transform Aeschylus’s masterpiece from a venerable chestnut into a production that speaks with force and clarity about issues confronting us today. The temptation is to encase such works of art in a sarcophagi of dull abstraction by calling them “timeless.” But Preston’s Prometheus, Bound speaks to us so viscerally precisely because, in the age of Occupy Wall Street, our relations are being distorted by the same material forces and processes that gave rise to tragic drama in the first place, two and a half millennia ago. I’m referring here to the birth in Athens of metal coinage and the money-based exchange economy it brought to life. Anthropologists of money — David Graeber, for example – are now underscoring how this development conferred on certain individuals a terrifying new power over their fellow citizens. The Athenians in particular were struggling against the political figure associated with these developments: the tyrant. Graeber, one of the founders of Occupy, has written an important book Debt: the First 5000 Years shedding light on how this contest is encoded in the cultural DNA of the West, the source at once of Athens’ cultural dynamism, and of the potent artistic forms that express clear-sighted alarm about the implications of that dynamism on psychological as well as social levels.
Looking around me at the people – most of them my age or older – who had made the trip to the Palisades on this balmy night, I felt certain that the overwhelming majority of them had experienced a steadily increasing sense of alarm over the past three decades at the markers we are being dragged past. And, along with that alarm, comes perhaps a steadily increasing miasma of confusion and paralysis, a nagging sense that some action is called for, but what could it be? Four decades ago, when productions like Richard Schechner’s Dionysus 69 underscored for this generation in its youth the relevance of Greek tragic drama, everything was falling apart. Today the problem is, rather, excessive unity and hierarchy – Zeus on steroids. Instead of disintegration and social chaos, endemic resignation is our problem – resignation specifically to a regime of values everyone knows is, not just indefensible on moral grounds, but also suicidal. And, as if all political structures had crumbled along with state socialism in the rubble of the Berlin Wall, we are told that, in Margaret Thatcher’s resonant phrase, there is no alternative. No alternative, they say, to our pre-schools awash in the blood of children gunned down by NRA maniacs armed with semi-automatic weapons. No alternative, they tells us, to an economic system in which our lives are reduced to endless rounds of anxiety and servitude for the benefit of a tiny, self-elected elite. No alternative, we are told, to a foreign policy based on brutality and death from the skies in the form of armed drones. No alternative to the burning of the hydrocarbons that are altering the basic chemistry of the plane in ways that guarantee massive suffering in the immediate future.
The defenders of the status quo seem to have all the answers on their side, whereas we have only questions – and how can questions ever compete with answers when the point is decisive action? Also, the more the world of facts undermines the utopian image of the beneficent market solving all our problems, the more certain those who defend this storybook world become, and the more emphatically they promote, in their certainty, more of the same. Cephas Jones’s Prometheus, pinned to his steel cliff, is having none of any of that, and his insolent defiance in the face of the pure might of Zeus is bracing. Such defiance turns us to face a cliff of not-knowing, where, with some courage, we may locate the collective responsiveness we need to co-create a new way forward without violence. This is the cliff of the open question, the source of difference, creativity and multiplicity – the open space without coordinates out of which the new always arises.
Prometheus Bound kicks off Radar L.A., An International Festival of Contemporary Theater, The Festival is also the opening event of REDCAT’s 10th Anniversary Season as CalArts’ downtown center for contemporary arts.
The second edition of the festival features 18 different productions at the forefront of the contemporary performing arts, from leading artists from the U.S., Los Angeles, and across the world. Included will be performances by Janie Geiser and Erik Ehn: Clouded Sulphur, Los Angeles Poverty Department and Wunderbaum: Hospital, and Lemi Ponifasio/MAU: Stones in Her Mouth