Prometheus Bound: a riveting production

Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound
directed and produced by Martin Boyne
performed by the Classics Drama Group
13-16 November, 1996
Trent University
Peterborough, Ontario

Reviewed by Kevin Whetter
Queen's University

Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, performed from 13-16 November 1996, was the fourth production by Trent University's Classics Drama Group and the first non-Euripidean effort for director Martin Boyne and his group of players composed of undergraduates in the Classics programme (1). Their unusual acting-space, the Pit at Lady Eaton College, with its 'theatre in the square', has been described elsewhere (2), and I shall not repeat that here except to comment that the large ceiling-to-floor concrete fireplace in the SW became a most impressive crag and backdrop for the enchained Prometheus, and to a compelling and successful production of this unusual play.

The binding of Prometheus at the beginning of the drama is done by candlelight, with three great effects. First, since the actors' physical attributes and expressions are rendered vague at best in the minimal light, we are reminded of the lack of facial expression--or at least of the fluidity of facial expression which we take for granted in the modern theatre-- in the ancient Greek theatre. In the Classics Drama Group's Prometheus, although the actors did not wear stylised masks, the relative darkness of the scene put the emphasis on the words of the text, on the fact that the primary expression in the original production lay in the poetry of the text--a useful reminder to a modern audience.

Second, faced with the small light and the many shadows resulting from the candles, we are reminded, certainly at the end of the play, of the 'shadiness' of Zeus' actions. The difficulty of seeing exactly what occurs on stage, together with the binding of Prometheus at the ends of the earth, suggests that Zeus would prefer to hide his actions from as many people, and gods, as possible--note that he will hide Prometheus at the play's end as deeply as he can. The dimness of the opening lighting raises uneasiness in our minds, especially as by line 120 the actors have been on stage long enough to warrant better lighting. As the scene progressed, I for one felt that the time had come to see the action, and yet this dimness was the very point. Hence the third great effect of the candles is that they serve as a physical reminder of Prometheus' gift to mankind. That we wait almost to the point of feeling uncomfortable about the relative lack of light helps the audience truly to appreciate that gift.

As the only mortal in this drama ultimately about the fate of humanity, Io has a crucial scene: it is the spectacle of her suffering which both strengthens Prometheus' anger toward Zeus and also sets him on the path to his fate as he becomes less self-pitying and more defiant and resigned. This important role was played superbly by Jennifer Mann in her best performance yet. Sporting a pair of horns to remind us of her bovine transformation, a transformation which some of the audience will not appreciate until her subsequent explanatory speech, her Io was a convincingly frantic victim of Zeus' lack of compassion.

Martin Boyne's excellent direction of the scene had Io in a constant state of desperate panic, running and darting about the 'stage' to escape the torments of the gadfly. One got the impression that Jenn's Io truly was being chased; even when she stopped, if only to get her breath, she constantly flitted her head and eyes in search of her tormentor. Not only did it emphasize Io's sufferings and help the audience understand why and how her spectacle so moves and strengthens Prometheus, but it also brought movement to the scene. In a play where the protagonist is chained immobile, where all the action centres around that immobile figure, the action of necessity becomes 'flat' as the characters who come to speak to Prometheus tend to adopt his static pose themselves. This was certainly true of Hephaistos, whose hammering the impressive chains was done in the dim candlelight, and Ocean, both of whom remained stationary themselves when speaking with the bound Titan. Thus Io's frantic and at times violent movements brought a much-needed activity to the scene, as she used every inch of the set in her unending attempt to avoid the gadfly.
While much of the success of the Io-scene depends on the staging and on Io's performance, the rest of the effect lies with Prometheus, and here too the production was excellent. As difficult as it must be to convey complete outrage and pity when chained in immobility, Becky Morgan as Prometheus did just that. Especially good was her simultaneous attempt to protect Io from the knowledge of the length of her sufferings to come and to accede to her request to know the future. Also striking was the change of attitude that the Io-scene brought about in Morgan's Prometheus, from self-pitying and even defeatist victim to angry, self-controlled and defiant rebel, one worthy of the tragic situation. We saw in Prometheus' concern for Io the pity and care that led the Titan to save humanity by his gift of fire in the first place. In this scene and in the play as a whole Becky Morgan gave us a Prometheus patiens roused again to defiance by the plight of Io.

The chorus is certainly the hardest element of the ancient theatre to produce and the most difficult for the modern audience to understand. Modern productions of classical plays often rise and fall on their handling of the chorus. Each of the productions by the Classics Drama Group has taken a different tack with its chorus; here, mainly for reasons of space, the twelve daughters of Ocean were reduced to two who functioned as a third character rather than a peripheral entity. Their manner of speaking was impressive, often finishing each other's sentences in a cadence sung rather than spoken. Much has been written about the comparatively small role of the chorus in Prometheus (3), but seeing it staged revealed that this 'small' role was in fact quite a large part of the action.

Last year's production of Medea ended on a note of high drama with the powerful confrontation between Jason and Medea. This year's Prometheus finished with a similarly effective confrontation, a defiant Prometheus against the lackey of Zeus. Amy Gowan's Hermes was in supreme control, immaculately togged out in dark suit with short, slicked hair, the personification of the junior bureaucrat. The scene in fact struck an unintended local note with Hermes' line to Prometheus, '... better than good common sense' (v. 1035). The new right-wing government in Ontario had been elected on a platform of a Common Sense Revolution; Hermes came across perfectly as the slick bureaucrat en route to a cost-cutting cabinet meeting at Queen's Park (the Ontario Provincial Legislature). The confident arrogance of Hermes, the defiance of Prometheus, the physical intervention of the chorus as they threw themselves between the aggressive Hermes and his immobile antagonist, plus Prometheus' invocation of the gathering elements ensured that this production ended with quite a punch.

The closing night performance was graced once again by the presence of Professor and Mrs D.J. Conacher. Desmond Conacher is Canada's leading authority on Greek tragedy and long-time friend to Classics at Trent. They both pronounced themselves well-pleased with the production.
In short, this was an impressive production of Prometheus which showed that this perhaps most static and text-dependent of plays is also an effective and succesful drama in performance. If 'to make wail and lament / for one's ill fortune, when one will win a tear from the audience, / is well worthwhile' (vv. 637-9), this production was, for both cast and audience, indeed 'well worthwhile'. One looks forward to their next venture, a production of Euripides' Hecuba in March.

(1) I am much indepted to I.C. Storey for his help in establishing an Aeschylean bibliography. There has been much recent discussion of the authorship of Prometheus, the 'new orthodoxy' being that the play is by someone other than Aeschylus. For arguments against see M. Griffiths, The Authenticity of Prometheus Bound, (Cambridge 1977) who has been followed by M.L. West, Studies in Aeschylus, (Stuttgart 1990) and A.H. Sommerstein, Aeschylean Tragedy, (Bari 1996) 321-27; for the other side see J. Herington, The Authorship of the 'Prometheus Bound', (Austin 1970) and D.J. Conacher, Prometheus Bound: a literary commentary, (Toronto 1980) 141-74. Watching this production certainly left this reviewer with the impression that he was watching Aeschylus.
(2) I.C. Storey, 'Tragedy in the Pit', Didaskalia 3.1
(3) See for example Griffiths [n. 1] 123-36.
Kevin Whetter
Queen's University