38: The Persians

28 Apr

I’ve decided I should read some classics to balance all the contemporary or relatively recent plays I’ve been reading. And, if you’re reading classics, why not go back to the oldest surviving play known to us? Aeschylus’ play The Persians was first produced in 472 BCE.


(The version I read was the Penguin edition, translated by Phillip Vellacott.)

I’m interested in the fact that almost 2,500 years ago a playwright was writing about a recent battle from the perspective of his enemy: The Persians. While the Athenians won this battle, The Persians doesn’t glorify their conquest, instead focussing on the bitterness of defeat and the numbers lost to the Persians.

The plays uses a chorus and four characters (one of whom is a ghost). It tells the tale of the Persians’ tragic loss in battle against the Hellenes (the Greeks) when the young Persian king Xerxes sets out to take Athens.

MESSENGER: Then every ship we had broke rank and rowed for life.
The Hellenes seized fragments of wrecks and broken oars
And hacked and stabbed at our men swimming in the sea
As fishermen kill tunnies or some netted haul.
The whole sea was one din of shrieks and dying groans,
Till night and darkness hid the scene. If I should speak
For ten days and ten nights, I could not tell you all
That day’s agony. But know this: never before
In one day died so vast a company of men.

Most of the play’s drama is told, rather than shown. But the descriptions are vivid and fresh, even after all these centuries.

Publisher: Penguin Books

Cast: 2M, 1F + Messenger and Chorus (any number and gender)

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