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Prometheus at Yale

Prometheus Bound

derived from Aeschylus by Robert Lowell, directed by Jonathan Miller

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 his theatrical pattern; but the modern producer is unlikely to have trained dancers and singers at his disposal, and therefore usually shies away from a play so dependent on the lyrical.

LOWELL CANDIDLY tells us in his program note how this play struck him, and what he proposed to do with it:

Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound is probably the most lyrical of the Greek classical tragedies. It is also the most undramatic—one man, a sort of demigod at that, chained to a rock, orated to, and orating at, a sequence of embodied apparitions. In translation the poetry seems lofty and dead, and the characters statues. Something living somehow burns through even the worst translation. I took one of the dullest I could find. Almost never was there any possibility or temptation to steal a phrase. Yet I kept the structure, either roughly rendering or improvising on each speech. Half my lines are not in the original. But nothing is modernized. There are no tanks or cigarette lighters. No contemporary statesman is parodied. Yet 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, and shove in any thought that occurred to me and seemed to fit. My hope was for some marriage between the old play and a new one—an unbinding of Prometheus for us.

Lowell explained to Elenore Lester, who interviewed him for the Times, that it was the “undramatic quality,” or “blessed freedom from plot,” that attracted him to the play. With the drama out of the way, the poetry dead, and the characters statues, what was the “something living” he felt “burning through”? It was something in the character, or the notion, of Prometheus: something quite unlike the humanitarian-utopian-revolutionary fervor that Shelley felt there. It is not possible to say exactly what does burn in Lowell’s Prometheus, for he reports his state of mind in various inconsistent ways, but I offer the following as at least one indication of the humid heat within him:

FIRST VOICE:

…Tell us, if there’s no harm in telling, why you are here and what you have done.

PROMETHEUS:

I have done many things…What brought me here? Everything I am brought me here. The good old days. They were never good. We come from a snake wrapped around a mud-egg. We have struggled to where we are by living through a succession of tyrannies. Each ended when the cruel wisdom of the serpent had been broken by the formless mud, each ended when a son cut off his father’s balls.

I can’t quite visualize wisdom being “broken” by mud, nor can I see just how the mud managed to slice off the old man’s (or the serpent’s?) balls. I think we may assume, however, that the mud is on our side, for it is against the notorious Father Figure, and it would be wrong to ask for any more exact meaning than that. In Aeschylus’s play the tyranny of Zeus already has theological, political, and familial connotations, and Lowell, as he shoved in the thoughts that occurred to him and let his own worries seep in, accumulated a great many more mutually contradictory meanings for “Zeus.” That god thus becomes the all-purpose tyrant, the very “him” or “them” that the all-protesting non-hero of our paranoiac time needs, to take the blame for his undeserved sufferings. It was probably the possibility of using Aeschylus’s figures in this way that first attracted Peter Brook—who is, of course, a leader of the New Theater—to the Prometheus Bound.

But even with this very up-to-date inspiration, and even with drama rejected as old-fashioned, the problem of filling two stage hours with words of some sort remains. The passage quoted above may serve as a sample of the prose with which Lowell replaces Aeschylus’s varied verse forms. It does very well as an expression of Prometheus’s portentous and purposeless resentment; but a little of it goes a long way, and unfortunately the chorus (three polite, sedentary ladies who replace the singing and dancing Daughters of Ocean) speak the same kind of hesitant, deflated language. Their gentle efforts, repeated with little change all evening, to persuade their hero to show a little prudence, do very little to mitigate the monotony of tone and rhythm.

The production, however, does a great deal to enliven the evening, especially at first. The setting, towering up until it is lost to sight, with two chains as big as ship’s cables hanging all the way down to the floor, is magnificent in itself, like one of Piranesi’s vast gloomy ruins. When Hephaestus, Force, and Power drag Prometheus on in semi-darkness—the lame Hephaestus with a huge rattling chain making an imaginative silhouette of terror—and surround Prometheus, presumably to fetter him, while he yells in agony, we are ready to believe that something awe-inspiring is in store for us. The suspense leaks away only gradually; but eventually Miller’s scheme of staging begins to seem arbitrary, confusing, and finally boring. He explains in his program note that to avoid “empty classicism” he “had to look for some special dislocation that would release me from the woozy generality of the obvious method and free the actors from the awkward boredom of the mechanical constraints indicated by the stage directions.” The “stage directions” call for a mountain crag to which Prometheus is chained. Miller substitutes “a shattered seventeenth-century castle keep” where Prometheus may wander freely. The chains on the benches and hanging from on high may be understood as “symbolic,” or perhaps merely decorative. The only trouble is that both Aeschylus and Lowell call for their hero to be chained, and the chains and high rock are so basic to the original theatrical conception that it proved impossible to cut all reference to them, so that when they come into the dialogue we gradually lose our bearings. What, we wonder, is everybody talking about? Where is Prometheus supposed to be—on a mountain top in the wind and sun we keep hearing about, or in the dungeon we see before us? Or perhaps such questions of naïve make-believe should not bother us in the case of so generalized a victim of so unimaginable a tyrant.

WHEN THE LIGHTS come up after the opening bit one gradually notices a crimson streak on Prometheus’s seventeenth-century pants, from the crotch all the way down the inner side of one thigh. Having learned from the semen-stained pants of the Priapic lunatic in Brook’s Marat/Sade to examine that garment for important clues, I concluded (after checking with friends during intermission) that Hephaestus and the boys had been castrating Prometheus, instead of fettering him, when we heard the yelling. But I still don’t know what one is supposed to deduce from that. Is the castration purely decorative? Or is it another symbol, like the unused chains, of Zeus’s tyrannical ways? I can’t believe that Miller wanted us to think that Prometheus had already been reduced to the placidity of a spayed house-cat. Mr. Haigh certainly doesn’t act him that way: his Prometheus in these first scenes shows no sign of demoralization, he looks able and eager to knock God’s block off.

Walter Kerr thought that the production depended mostly on the superb acting of Kenneth Haigh and Irene Worth, and even at the risk of getting the party alignments into a still worse tangle, I must heartily agree with him. There could not have been a better choice for Prometheus than Haigh, who acted the original Angry Young Man, Jimmy Porter, in Look Back in Anger. We may not be able to tell from the script just what Prometheus is angry about, any more than we can be sure just what disturbs Jimmy Porter, but Haigh’s concentrated figure, filled with scorn and steely defiance, persuades us during most of the first part that his passion must be significant somehow. Miss Worth’s acting has a similar theatrical power all on its own. Her Io—young, distracted, Ophelia-like—can touch us, whether we can figure out her relevance to the rest of the story or not.

I MUST ALSO REPORT that the Io story, at least the most striking matter, her rape by Zeus, her metamorphosis into a heifer, and her torment by Argus and the swarms of flies, seems to have inspired Lowell more intimately than most of the rest of the play. The episode as a whole is terribly long-winded (at least twice as long as it is in Aeschylus), but one might extract from it a prose poem on birth, copulation, and death as the unlucky I knew them—a poem with much more imaginative coherence than is usual in this work. The imagery is all related to the cow yard: mammalian liquids, inarticulate bovine helplessness, flies and other insects—Zeus as lover turns out to be rather buglike—and especially mud. Io is placed in the mud for all her important experiences, and when she dies (as Prometheus tells her), she will drown in mud. When she hears that final bad news, after about twelve pages of the unmitigated douleurs in store for her, she “rushes screaming off the stage,” and no wonder. No wonder, either, that the sympathetic ladies of the chorus are moved to congratulate Prometheus on his eloquence: “While you were talking we could almost see her living through her death,” says the Second Voice, and the Third Voice adds thoughtfully, “We were living through our own.” This may seem a bit ludicrous in this brief summary, but it is not intended that way by the author or director and Mr. Haigh and Miss Worth manage to put it over as impressive.

After Io’s flight there is one more episode, that of Hermes, who comes, like Oceanus in the beginning of the play, to urge Prometheus to make terms. In Aeschylus this scene is a climax in the Prometheus-Zeus struggle, but that would hardly do for a non-hero. This Prometheus rather fades out at the end, in inarticulate prophecies of the triumph of mud, or of entropy, or perhaps of the death of God which has been disturbing some churches recently:

God then will be the only creature, free to be both motionless and alive, a mirror freed at last from all reflection. And yet he will not be free. God will feel the withdrawal of the creatures, see his own death there, and know that he himself must die before our suffering can end.

This is pretty tenuous, even for Prometheus.

I don’t think that the true aficionado of the “theater of the irrational” would be at all troubled by the willful elimination of form, meaning, and style that troubles me in this show: The attitude, or passion, of unspecified but ubiquitous resentment would, I suppose, suffice to authenticate the work and guarantee its profundity. The most advanced cults in the arts, whose pull affects a great many highly gifted artists just now, are as compulsive and all-sufficient and unassailable as any other new religion: credo quia absurdum est. Hence the confusion I mentioned at the outset, which overtakes me when I try to discuss the show.

Fortunately there are lots of other ways of approaching the Greeks, even in our time: Cocteau’s, Sartre’s, Anouilh’s, and, very recently, Robert Fitzgerald’s, among others. The works of those authors represent a wide spectrum, from the boldest “adaptation” to the closest approximation of the original; all are alive in our time, and all have form, meaning, and style. I mention them because they make the theology of the avant-garde less obsessive and help one to see the Yale Prometheus in perspective.

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