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Prometheus Bound: Upstart Gods, Politics, and Morality at the Beginning of Time

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In Partnership with The Getty Villa
The Getty Villa's annual outdoor theater performance is part of an innovative theater program that enhances the visitor's experience of the ancient world.

"Prometheus Bound," produced by CalArts' Center for New Performance (CNP), in association with Trans Arts, is the eighth annual outdoor theater production in the Getty Villa's Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, September 5-28, 2013.

By Shelby Brown

"Prometheus Bound," presented this September at the Getty Villa, is a fascinating and complicated play about a stubborn, indomitable, tyrant-hating older god with an irrational affection for humans. Furious at the ally who has disobeyed him by helping mortals, a young Zeus, newly king, punishes Prometheus by chaining and impaling him to a cliff at the ends of the earth -- represented in this production by a five-ton steel wheel. This is the first scene of "Prometheus Bound."

The play, and Prometheus as a tyrant-hater, was admired in antiquity, revisited by the learned in Latin in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and invigorated in English by John Milton in his late poems (starting with "Paradise Lost," 1664). Prometheus's opposition to authority particularly attracted radical writers and artists in the nineteenth century, while his support of human progress and his stand against oppression inspired more broadly.

For Karl Marx, Prometheus was an icon of capitalist oppression, for Freud, a symbol of subconscious conflicts. The play was a key text for the Shelleys, and Mary Shelley's 1818 "Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus," drew upon it in inventing both Victor and his monster. By indirect paths, the play's focus on human progress and technology led to science fiction, horror genres, and tales of artificial intelligence.

Prometheus Bound, by Jacob Jordaens, 1640. Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne. An eagle tears Prometheus's liver; this additional punishment is inflicted by Zeus in the sequel to "Prometheus Bound". | Photo: http://www.wikipaintings.org/

Back Story: Before Zeus Was King

The play is unusual among Greek tragedies in its focus not on human affairs, but on the aftermath of messy and treacherous power struggles of origin gods. The events of the play take place earlier in the history of the gods than those of any other surviving tragedy. In fact, "Prometheus Bound" takes us back nearly to the dawn of time, represented by the gods' emergence from Chaos, the void from which the world was formed. We are witness to the new primacy of the Olympian gods in an ancient, unstable age. The deities we know from Greek mythology began as violent upstarts.

The trickery and coups d'etat began with Zeus's grandfather, the first primal male, Sky. He locked some of his more monstrous children away inside Earth, offending her greatly. Kronos, a Titan, child of Sky and Earth, castrated his father with his mother's help, thus dethroning him. Since Kronos's downfall by his son was predicted, Kronos began swallowing his children as they were born. Cleverly, his wife Rhea tricked him into accepting a swaddled stone as her last baby, who was Zeus.

After Zeus grew up, he poisoned Kronos to make him vomit out the other children, who became the Olympian gods. After a protracted conflict between the Olympians and their parents' generation, Zeus prevailed as king, and -- after swallowing his own pregnant first wife to dodge the problem of angry offspring -- he made sure his later wife, Hera, could not impede her husband the way his mother and grandmother had opposed theirs.

Prometheus, a Titan whose name means "Forethinker," helped Zeus gain power. After Zeus became the new king, he hardened and demanded absolute obedience. Always capable of exacting harsh punishments, in "Prometheus Bound" Zeus is particularly cruel and tyrannical.

For reasons we never learn, Prometheus is exceptionally kind to weak humanity. He is credited in this play (and also by Hesiod, the only earlier -- 8th/7th century B.C. -- source about him) with giving humans fire. Even more importantly, here Prometheus describes how he taught us all the skills we need to be civilized and understand the gods. For sharing this forbidden knowledge, Prometheus must pay.

Hesiod tells us how the humans paid: all men, they were "gifted" by Zeus with the first beautiful, deceptive, luxury-loving woman.

The Action of the Play

The action of "Prometheus Bound" begins with the brutal chaining of the Titan to a high, desolate cliff at the far ends of the world. Early Greeks imagined themselves in the center of an earth encircled by ocean. The chorus of young, unmarried daughters of personified Ocean (Okeanids) hear the sounds of hammering and fly onstage in winged chariots. These Okeanids are fairly low-level on the immortal scale (closer here to mortals than to gods); we can probably picture them as between 14 and 16 years old.

They have their father's permission, as proper maidens must, although Prometheus is a relative, and married to one of their older sisters. While the young women are horrified at the Titan's plight, they also counsel him to be more reasonable. Their father Ocean eventually flies in, too, counsels more of the same, and is sent away. Prometheus refuses to be cajoled, threatened or tortured into submission, or even into a reasonable, diplomatic silence.

The arrival of Io, another young unmarried female, signals the heart of the play. Zeus forced Io's tearful father to drive her from home so he could "marry" (rape) her. To hide her from a jealous Hera, he disguised Io as a lovely white heifer, which Hera demanded as a gift. Powerless to pay back Zeus, able only to abuse his lovers, Hera now forces Io to wander over the entire world, goaded by the impossibly painful stings of a gadfly.

Prometheus, Io, and the chorus lament Zeus's behavior and Io's future torments. Prometheus describes her remaining journey and reveals that she will eventually bear a son who will free him. He reports that Zeus himself is in terrible danger from a new "marriage" that he cannot avert without Prometheus's help.

After Io departs, the young Okeanids lament bitterly and pray never to be the objects of Zeus's attention -- or that of any powerful god. Hermes arrives and orders Prometheus to explain his threats; otherwise, Zeus will destroy the cliff and bury him, then bring him back so Zeus's eagle can rip his flesh to shreds every day. Although Hermes advises the chorus to leave, they bravely stay with Prometheus as the earth convulses.

Black Figure kylix, about 550 B.C., attributed to Archesilas. Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Vatican City. On the right, an eagle attacks bound Prometheus. On the left, Atlas holds up the sky. | Photo: quapan/Flickr/Creative Commons License

The Ancient Context

Greeks in the fifth century B.C. would have known the story of Zeus's eagle, sent every day to devour Prometheus's liver, which constantly regenerated. Many scholars believe "Prometheus Bound" was the first play in either a tragic trilogy -- the traditional format in Aeschylus's lifetime at the Great Dionysia festival at Athens -- or a dilogy (two connected plays). The dramatic torture by the famous bird would have occurred in the second play, Prometheus Unbound, in which Heracles shoots the eagle and rescues the Titan. This play is preserved in fragments and later comments.

The name of another play, Prometheus Firebearer, survives. In it, Zeus may have resolved the ongoing conflict and permitted the gift of fire to mortals. Certainly, the two gods' eventual reconciliation happened in myth, and in real human terms Prometheus was worshipped in a cult associated with crafts requiring heat and flame.

At the Dionysia in the middle quarters of the fifth century B.C., an Athenian audience of perhaps 7,000 sat outdoors, during the daytime, in temporary wooden stands. Each of three tragedians produced three tragedies followed by an irreverent satyr play. Masked actors and chorus moved and danced in a simple earthen performance space. The chorus sang complex, formal poetry, and the actors spoke in rhythmical meter.

Dates for ancient innovations in theater architecture, scenery, and special effects are a bit hazy. Prometheus may have been chained to a scene of a cliff painted on cloth or wood and attached to the front of a rectangular scene building. Immortal visitors could climb up and appear on the roof, while a special crane could fly someone in on a winged cart. The chorus may simply have rolled in on chariots from the side passageways, while Ocean "flew" in. Ancient audiences listened to the poetry and exercised their imaginations, expecting less in the way of realistic flying machines and a cataclysmic final upheaval.

Why?

Why did Prometheus defy Zeus to help humans? What does it mean that Zeus is a tyrant, and that proper young women are key players?

A clue should lie in the author and rough date of the play, but these are debated today. Until the nineteenth century, it was accepted that "Prometheus Bound" was written by Aeschylus, an early Greek tragedian (lived about 525-456 B.C.) much admired for his noble lyrics and high tone. Since only six other plays by Aeschylus survive (out of perhaps 80), scholars' comparisons of style and technique across the seven plays invite different interpretations. One new discovery of a papyrus fragment could change our thinking, as has happened in the past.

Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus and Mirjana Jokovic as Io. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.

If the play was by Aeschylus, it fits in with the playwright's interest in politics and war. His play "The Persians" of 472 B.C. was based on the Battle of Salamis between the Greeks and Persians in 480. Aeschylus decried the hubris of a Persian king who drove his people into disastrous battle. Aeschylus himself fought at the Battle of Marathon against the Persians in 490 and probably at Salamis as well. He was, then, a veteran writing about his own direct opposition to an all-powerful ruler. Ancient references describe his epitaph, which praised his valor at Marathon without mentioning his fame as a tragedian.

This play survives because it was selected as a worthwhile, representative work by Aeschylus, and so was copied and recopied. Even if not by Aeschylus, whether written during his lifetime or after his death, "Prometheus Bound's" questioning of tyranny as a political practice would have made sense throughout the fifth century B.C. The Greeks could still imagine an external takeover by the Persian Great King. Athens and other independent Greek city states were working internally through iterations of proper leadership and meaningful democracy.

Sitting in the Outdoor Classical Theater, listening to this melodious translation, watching Prometheus interact from his cliff with a full chorus of Okeanids, the Getty Villa audience is brought closer to an ancient world. Despite Zeus's commands, Prometheus helps fragile humans and shows them how to live meaningful lives and interpret divine will. The companions who stand by him are young women, the most vulnerable -- in mortal and immortal societies -- to abuse by the powerful and victorious in war. Played out at the very origins of gods and inception of humanity, Prometheus's stubborn, irrational resistance to tyranny and his allegiance with the weak and unfortunate reach across time.


Want to read more? Check out more of Artbound's most recent articles:

A New Spin on 'Prometheus Bound'
The cast of the avant-garde production "Prometheus Bound" at the Getty Villa perform on a five ton, 23-foot tall revolving circular steel structure.


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Top Image: Ron Cephas Jones as Prometheus. Prometheus Bound at the Getty Villa. | Photo: © 2013 Craig Schwartz.

About the Author

I'm a classical archaeologist and classicist who decided at age 11 that the past was going to be my profession.
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