Friday, 9 September 2016

The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus


The Suppliant Women by Aeschylus


I have previously written about how much I enjoy seeing the works of ancient Greece in our theatres when I wrote about the National Theatre of Scotland re-working The Oresteia by Aeschylus earlier this year at the Citizens Theatre. The resonances in the modern world of these works first performed 2500 years ago are crystal clear. Barely five months later and Aeschylus is soon to be back on the stage in Scotland with The Suppliant Women being performed at the Lyceum Theatre in October 2016.

"Aeschylus. Translation & Lexicon"
The old edition of Aeschylus translations which I have at home starts with a quote on the frontispiece from an earlier translator. In a preface to his 1824 translation of Aeschylus' Agamemnon, John Symmons, complaining about the challenges he faced wrote...
"The times, customs, religion and manners are changed; words which vibrated to the ear, and went straight to the heart, of an Athenian, causing a thrill through their crowded theatres, are known to us only by the dim light of lexicons, context, and glossaries; and even when understood, we search in vain for corresponding expressions in or own language."
Knowing that I was definitely planning to go and see the new version of The Suppliant Women at the Lyceum Theatre by David Greig I read through Aeschylus' words today. One thing that jumps off the page from the off is the fact that the "the times, customs, religions and manners" do not seem to have changed so much.

The Suppliants is the first, and only surviving part, of a tetralogy of plays telling the tale of the Danaides. These 50 women, the daughters of Danaus, leave their home near Syria and flee across the Mediterranean Sea in boats and land in Greece. They are being pursued by 50 sons of their uncle Aegyptus who wish to force them to marry. When they arrive in Greece they seek asylum in Argos. King Pelasgus is reluctant to take them in but puts it to his people who welcome them warmly. As a Herald from Aegyptus arrives to drag them away, King Pelasgus threatens the Herald and takes the women into his city.

The Supplicants by Aeschylus
The echoes in our world of today barely need spelled out, but let me do just that. There are many translations and editions of the story but I am quoting from the one that I have. This was a kind gift to my wife from an old family friend many years ago; a 19th century edition of 2500 year old plays, given to a 14 year old.

Unusually for a Greek play the chorus play a part as characters in the story, here made up of the 50 women fleeing their homeland. In the opening lines they tell of their journey.
"wafted here in ships having set sail from the mouths of the Nile.....having left the divine land bordering on Syria, we fled."
Refugees arriving in Lesbos
If this scenario is unsettling in its familiarity, the language that the chorus use to describe those whom they are fleeing is similarly disquieting in its modern echoes.
"...the male-abounding insolent swarm, sprung from Aegyptus..."
Whilst he was British Prime Minister, David Cameron was accused of dehumanising migrants by describing those trying to get to Britain to seek a new life as "a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean". This type of language, relating to insects rather than people, was then quickly picked up and used again in subsequent days by Nigel Farage, and the Daily Mail and The Express newspapers. Comparisons were drawn between the way The Daily Mail described refugees coming to Britain today to the inflammatory and irresponsible way it described Jews fleeing Nazism as "pouring into" Britain from Germany in its pages in 1938.

Daily Mail newspaper articles in 2015 and 1938
The women hope that the local gods have been kind to them by allowing them calm waters to cross the sea and they humbly plea for help from Jove at his altar, suppliant, laying boughs here.
"...fearing my friends, if there is any one who cares about this flight of ours...But there is even to those who fly from war afflicted an altar, a defence..."
...a "surer defence than a tower" they hope. They invoke Apollo, a god who like them was "once exiled" from heaven. King Pelasgus arrives, suspicious of their foreign appearance.
"Of what country is this band that we address, not Grecian in its garb, delicately clothed in barbaric robes and many folds of dress...you are more like to Libyan women"
Syrian women arriving in Greece
When they make their case for help Pelasgus is torn between the possible consequences whichever way he acts; fearful of bringing danger upon his city or the shame of not welcoming strangers.
"...lest at any time the people shall say, if perchance any thing fall out not such as we desire to happen, honouring strangers you have destroyed the city."
When the women threaten to hang themselves from the temple walls, King Pelasgus puts it to the people of the city, who vote wholeheartedly to accept the women, and threaten exile for those that do not.


King Pelasgus asks them to leave their suppliant boughs at the temple "as a sign of their trouble." To me this phrase just made me think of the piles of (often useless) life-jackets lying on beaches in Lesbos, the modern sign of the troubles today's refugees have faced. Bound to people and clutched by people making perilous crossings, more in hope than expectation that they will bring some safety.

Life jackets on a beach in Lesbos, Greece
The Herald of Aegyptus' sons arrives to demand their return. In fear the women call out about the fate they fear awaits them in their homeland.
"There await us draggings, draggings and stabbings, bloody deadly cutting off of heads."
King Pelasgus dispatches the Herald sent from their pursuers, demanding he show respect for the gods and the will of his people. He offers the homes of his city to take in the women. They enter the city walls and safety, but know that they cannot tell what fate lies ahead for them. They are in the hands of the gods. Their father, Danaus, cautions them.
"But every one bears a ready evil tongue against a stranger, and to speak slander is an easy thing."
I was going to put a photograph of Nigel Farage here to illustrate the point, but instead an image of refugees trapped at a camp near the northern border of Greece. Here they face further hardship, suspicion and help seems in short supply. A modern chorus whose voices seem to be going unheard.


In last week's newspapers Scottish local authorities were being praised for welcoming their 1000th Syrian refugee to the country, a third of the total which the UK has accepted. However in Greece, a country struggling with a crippled economy, 856,723 refugees arrived in 2015, like The Suppliant Women, by sea. The attitudes and fears of the rulers and people of ancient Argos are playing out there on a daily basis. The scale of the situation is difficult to grasp.

In modern Greece the ancient, crumbling walls of Argos still sit atop a hill in the Peloponnese, but in the time of Aeschylus the audience would know them well, the city where the women sought help. Like the words of Aeschylus, these ruins still speak to us today, and his words speak with an alarming authority, a comment on recent events in the Mediterranean.

The walls of Ancient Argos, atop a hill in Greece today
The spectacle of Ancient Greek theatre is lost to us, as are many of the major works. Things go badly for the Danaides in the next stage of the story, but we will never know how Aeschylus told this part of their tale. 

Theatre of Dionysus, Athens, where Aeschylus' plays were often performed

With the original in mind, obviously the piece of theatre being created at the Lyceum Theatre will use this as a springboard for a novel work. Re-uniting writer David Greig, director Ramin Gray and composer John Browne who worked together to produce The Events, it would appear a nod to the music of Greek theatre is being planned. So it is with great anticipation that I aim to make a birthday trip to Edinburgh to see the work of Aeschylus on stage again.

Tickets are available at the Lyceum website (but do seem to be going fast).


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