According to a story in the Sunday Times, the group that produced Robert Lowell’s Prometheus Bound at the Yale School of Drama had expected to evoke the enthusiasm only of the embattled cognoscenti, so that when Walter Kerr reviewed it with enthusiasm they were surprised and not entirely pleased. What becomes of one’s Promethean defiance when the Zeus of the entertainment industry comes in person to offer his accolades? The occasion is thus full of confusion, though happy confusion. Moreover, it happily indicates that the School of Drama, under its new Dean, Robert Brustein, has adopted a new and more interesting policy. To judge by the talents that were brought together for this show, Mr. Brustein has a knack (like the late Diaghilev and Lincoln Kirstein) for assembling the right artists—which augurs well for the future of the school.
But when I came to think over my impressions of the show itself, and to study Lowell’s script, I began to suffer confusion of a less happy kind. I’m afraid that to interpret the show with confidence and accept it with the proper seriousness, not to say reverence, one would have to be an aficionado of the New Theater, and I am not. However, both the author and the director, Jonathan Miller, have explained their intentions in program notes, and I’ve been guided by them in reporting my impressions of their results.
The starting point of the enterprise was Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, which Peter Brook suggested to Robert Lowell (again according to the Times). Aeschylus’s play is one part of a trilogy, the rest of which is lost, so we can’t be sure just how Prometheus’s theft of fire for mankind, and the resulting feud with Zeus, was interpreted by Aeschylus. The experts are, I think, pretty generally agreed that the lost end of the trilogy must have been analogous to the Eumenides, which concludes the feuds of the Oresteia trilogy not by wiping out either Orestes or the Furies but by putting each in his proper place. But the play as we have it presents only one situation: the chained and defiant Prometheus arguing with Oceanus and then Hermes, who try in vain to persuade him to yield to superior force. The complicated events before and after this scene—Chronos’s dethronement of Uranus; Zeus’s dethronement of Chronos with the aid of Prometheus; the ultimate freeing of Prometheus by Heracles, which Prometheus, the foreknower, sees in advance—are merely recounted at appropriate places during Prometheus’s disputes with his antagonists. Aeschylus, of course, plotted his mythic material as he did in order to bring out the sheer narrative values, and at the same time to bring out, gradually, the meanings he saw in it. The dialogues alternate with long passages in varied lyric rhythms, to be danced and sung by a chorus of “Daughters of Ocean.” Aeschylus was a renowned choreographer, and the chorus was an essential element in …