In 1987, Nancy and I stood atop the Acropolis in Athens and looked down, not knowing the visual history lesson we were about to see. We received one of the most pleasant surprises of the whole trip. Below us lay two ancient theaters: the one on the right with most of its seats and much of its superstructure of thick walls intact, the one on the left basically level with the ground. The sturdy theater stands as a monument to the Romans' efficiency and brute-strength engineering; but the ruin on the left marks the beginning of western drama. The chorus and the acted dialogue were invented here. Sophocles and Euripides won prizes here. The worship that once went on in the Parthenon just behind us is lost, for better or for worse, but many of the plays performed in that ruined theater below remain to instruct and delight.
My ten-year reading plan covers all forty-three extant plays from ancient Greece. Earlier this year I read five: Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus, and four comedies by Aristophanes. I highly recommend A. E. Haigh's Tragic Drama of the Greeks as a guide through these plays. This year, Haigh's most helpful comment for me concerned Prometheus, about the god who stole fire from Zeus to give to men and was chained to a cliff in punishment. Haigh suggests that the play is still popular (hey, in certain, very small circles, it's still popular; and after all Haigh wrote this a hundred years ago, when high school graduates were still literate) because it can be taken in several ways. Some see Prometheus as a noble hero, taking his punishment for the greater good of mankind; not surprisingly some even see him as similar to Christ. On the other hand, he is proud to a fault, and some see Aeschylus' Prometheus primarily as a warning against stubborn pride. For the Christian, the options depend partly on how we view Zeus. Does he represent God here, or is Zeus merely Zeus? If we take him as God, then Prometheus comes out looking bad; all his fine talk about personal liberty really just boils down to rebellion against the One Who is both our Source and our End. But if Zeus is just a selfish power who took charge by tossing his father off the heavenly throne, Prometheus suddenly becomes a model for life, teaching us to endure unjust suffering with patience.
The comedies by Aristophanes are wonderful. Like any good comedies, they are full of topical humor, and much of their two-and-a-half-millennia-old news is lost on me. But he delivers the humor so well, I like even what I don't understand. Benjamin Bickley Rogers's brilliant translation helps a lot in this regard. It's simply fun to read a play full of lines like these:
"Wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-wh-where may he be
"that was calling for me? In what locality
No matter who "he" is, why he was calling, or where he is, the rhythmic lines bring smiles to my face.
Here's another example, reminiscent of Zeus' namesake, Dr. Seuss:
"A servant's a bird, and an ass is a bird.
"It must therefore assuredly follow
"That the Birds are to you (I protest it is true)
"Your prophetic divining Apollo."
While some of the play's newsy references are no longer familiar, the plot makes as much sense today as it ever did. The birds, convinced that they were the original gods (they know the seasons, man sees various birds as symbols of both birth and death, etc.), try to found a new utopia: a city without lawyers or debts. But as soon as they build their city, false priests and government officials appear and sponge off the citizens. Similarly relevant, The Acharnians and The Knights poke merciless fun at warmongers and their terrible justifications for fighting. It's a wonder no American in the past nine years has rediscovered them and turned one into a Bush-bashing musical.
Speaking of anti-war arguments, I've heard that the Parthenon survived beautifully until just about a century ago, when the Greeks used it as a munitions depot and the Turks hit it. Who uses an ancient work of art as a munitions depot?! (I guess we know the answer to that one.) And I just read last month in Durant that many more of these ancient plays survived in Constantinople until 1204, when the Venetians set off on the "Fourth Crusade," totally ignoring the Muslims and sacking their Christian commercial rival instead. Let us enjoy the plays we have before another war -- or illiteracy -- destroys them all.