translation commissioned by BBC Radio 3
Among the cast of the Radio 3 production:
John Justin: Xerxes
Mary Morris: Queen Mother
Patrick Wymark: Messenger
Donald Wolfit: Ghost of Darius
Music: John Beckett.
Directed by Richard Imison.
ΝΗΣΟΣ ΤΙΣ ΕΣΤΙ ΠΡΟΣΘΕ ΣΑΛΑΜΙΝΟΣ ΤΟΠΩΝ
The ‘Messenger’ sets the scene for his account of the carnage at Salamis.
He is by convention understood as a survivor of the battle. Tradition has it that Aeschylus himself fought in it. Members of the audience certainly had.
‘There is a certain island facing Salamis, [harsh], unharbourly…’
The Persian tyrant Xerxes has led a colossal military and naval force (legend put it at a million men) in an invasion of Greece. His nightmare-ridden mother waits for his return. The angry ghost of his father, king before him, foretells disaster, a punishment for Xerxes’ acts of god-offending arrogance. All that returns is one messenger, with an appalling account of the slaughter and the Persians’ defeat. Last comes Xerxes himself, humiliated and alone.
A statuesque and oratorio-like old play, not the earliest Greek Tragedy we have, but very nearly. The account of the battle would seem to be authentic, for Aeschylus we are told had fought in it himself. But the play is remarkable for more than that. It doesn’t deal, (as Athenian tragedy soon came exclusively to deal), with mythical or legendary figures; it puts onstage real characters and events, from a recent conflict which most of the original audience will have experienced themselves. Yet the story is told from the point of view of the defeated enemy. This enemy may be suffering for their arrogance, and very likely the audience will have needed and enjoyed that spectacle: but what the soldier-poet is portraying, and with compassion, is not the audience’s victory at all, but the pain and sorrow of the vanquished. Could our contemporary theatre have dared that? After the Falklands War, say? The Gulf War? Or a play about the suffering of the defeated Taleban? Or whoever the next vanquished will be?
My first attempt at translation of Greek Tragedy, and done very much in the mode of the translations we had used as cribs at school - the Greek blank verse rendered into rhythmic rhetorical prose, the choral odes into late-Victorian poetic English with complex metre- and rhyme-schemes out of Swinburne via Gilbert Murray. The scholarship is serious and thorough, but the translation is unpublished and were well to remain so.