I think the very best movie/theater/book reviews are the ones that not only give you a sense of the production, but help you connect it to history or politics or culture, to the works of other artists, to your own life, etc. My good friend Cristina White has written several such reviews, which she quietly circulates among friends. This time, she wrote one for Left At The Altar and I’m honored to share it with you:
by Cristina L. White
Friday 15 October 2004
Last night I saw Ellen McLaughlin’s adaptation of The Persians at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. This tragedy by Aeschylus is the first extant full length play in the western canon. It is an account of the stunning defeat suffered by the Persian Navy at Salamis, when King Xerxes brought an overwhelming force against the City of Athens, and saw his navy decimated by the Greeks. The playwright Aeschylus spent his youth in the military. As a soldier in the Athenian Army, he fought with the winning side in two wars against the Persians, at Salamis and at Marathon. But his play is not about winning or losing; it is about the horrific misery of war, for both the victor and the vanquished.
In March 2003, when America invaded Iraq, Tony Randall was the artistic director of the National Actors’ Theatre. He made a decision of political conscience, and canceled the entire spring season in order to mount The Persians. As I watched this brilliantly written tragedy unfold, I had to keep reminding myself that it describes an actual war that occurred roughly 3000 years ago. It often seems a thinly disguised dramatic rendition of our pitiable situation in Iraq, for there is so much in the play that echoes our own time. King Xerxes’ father, Darius, led an unsuccessful war against Athens at Marathon. Some years later, when Xerxes mobilized his armada for an invasion against Athens, it was not to defend Persia. He went to win the war that his father had been unable to win.
There is a moment in the play when the Queen Mother, Atossa, calls on the ghost of her husband. Darius comes to her from the dead, and asks how these thousands were lost, how did this war come about? Atossa answers that Xerxes does not bear the blame alone. She points to his advisors, who were incessant in their praise, and made the young king think he was a god who could do no wrong. I thought of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, all those who urged Bush forward to a preemptive war. It is impossible to see this play and not think of Iraq, impossible to hear the Messenger cry out the names of those cut down in their prime at Salamis, and not remember all those who have fallen in Iraq, never to know the seasons of their life.
But after the heartbreak of watching this tragedy in which there are so many astonishing parallels, I felt the greatest misery in what is most different between the account of that war in Athens and this one in Iraq. At the end of the play King Xerxes returns to his home. His splendid battle uniform is bedraggled by dust and dirt and blood. He is full of grief, in agony over the thousands who have fallen in his war. His voice and his body are broken with sorrow.
I thought of George W. Bush, swaggering onto that battleship to proclaim Mission Accomplished. I remembered him strutting as he took the stage at the Republican National Convention, full of pomp and circumstance. I recalled him leaning into the camera and grinning during the debates, declaring that freedom is on the march in Iraq. This man, who has never felt anything more painful than a bad hangover, never had his flesh broken except for scratches caused by errant back brush on his Texas ranch, never faced anything more frightening than the prospect of being choked by a pretzel, this man sent our thousands to Iraq, to kill and be killed. This self-declared “war President” is so fearful of the reality of war that he will not allow the American people to see the flag draped coffins of our kith and kin and countrymen, those who died for us, all of them, forever gone. So far from battle, far from the torn and bloodied bodies, far from the devastation of American and Iraqi lives lost, George W. Bush struts before us, untouched by sorrow. As the cradle of civilization is each day destroyed by the war machine, he confidently insists that the world is a better place because he has led us, and he wants to lead us still, and again. This son of power and privilege and wealth, this boy-man who has never known the horror of war, his suit and his shirt perfectly clean, George W. Bush swaggers onto the world stage, and grins. That is our tragedy.
(copyright 2004, Cristina L. White)