Thursday, January 28, 2010

"The Suppliants" by Aeschylus

"Hateful, and fain of love more hateful still,
Foul is the bird that rends another bird,
And foul the men who hale unwilling maids,
From sire unwilling, to the bridal bed.
Never on earth, nor in the lower world,
Shall lewdness such as theirs escape the ban:
There too, if men say right, a God there is
Who upon dead men turns their sin to doom,
To final doom. Take heed, draw hitherward,
That from this hap your safety ye may win."
- The Suppliants, Aesychles.

Aesychles is sometimes called "the father of drama". Of the great Greek dramatists, his plays are the oldest; although probably not the first in actuality, they're the oldest that still survive. I point out this potential answer to a Jeopardy question because Aesychles helps to illustrate something about the canon: he shows how it's surprisingly coherent, raising questions that have yet to be answered.

A digression: What got me interested in all of this in the first place was reading the French Romantics for my dissertation and realizing that these 19th century writers, who are so completely modern in so many ways, cannot be understood fully without having a good understanding of the Bible, Homer, Shakespeare, Kant and Virgil- to begin with. Entire generations grew up steeped in this tradition so, when they wrote, they were taking part in conversations that have outlasted any blogospheric debate. In other words, for people not so long ago, this was culture and it was a totally living thing, as compared to how most of us experience it- distant, dead, and something to cram for the midterm! For me, it was the shock of realization that these texts are still living, contrary to the impression I always got from my professors.

Which brings us to The Supplicants, once considered the oldest play we have (now the second), and still startlingly relevant now that everyone has the people of Haiti in their thoughts, because it asks: "Are societies ever in the right in turning away refugees?" Admittedly, the refugees here are in a somewhat bizarre situation: the fifty daughters of the prince Danaus, the Daniades, are fleeing Egypt where their Uncle, Aegyptus, is trying to force them to marry his sons, their cousins. They will eventually be claimed and forty-nine of them will kill their husbands on their wedding nights. But, in the play, they have arrived en masse on the shores of Argos and they want to be granted asylum.

We're introduced to the Danaides first and it's hard not to sympathize with them- they're fleeing being forced into marriages, and hence sexual relationships that they find morally abhorrent. Incest is the oldest human taboo and one every society has shared. All nature rises up against it, as the Danaids claim in the above quote: even birds would fain pollute their race. One notices that there is plenty of incest in the ancient creation stories, such as the Egyptian; but that's because the gods can commit incest- it's in those stories to prove that they're gods and not like us. Humans have always had a visceral repulsion towards incest- King Oedipus will gouge out his eyes before too long. The Danaides, all fifty of them, have decided they will either take asylum in Argos, or the noose.

In a sense, the Danaides face something women throughout history have faced when they say, "save me from marriage with a man I hate." Marriages are still arranged of course; there's not much talk of love when it comes to a woman's marital destiny. In fact, Plato suggests (in the Symposium) that true love is to be found outside of marriage. The historical norm was for virgins to be offered up to men they barely knew on their wedding night. Aeschylus's comparisons between predatory young men and birds of prey still ring true. Marriage was a woman's fate, regardless of her wishes. The Danaides, of course, face something worse. Nevertheless, there are young women in many parts of the world who will still relate to the Danaides when they say: "Never, oh never, may I fall subject to the power and authority of these men. To escape this marriage that offends my soul I am determined to flee, piloting my course by the stars."

(Rodin's Danaide statue.)

The King, Pelasgus, would seem to have a fairly easy choice to make here. Basic morality compels him to protect these maidens in need. In addition, he has reason to believe that Zeus protects them, and no one can go against Zeus and fare well. I think we still see granting refugee status as a simple moral imperative; we just cannot turn away victims to be further victimized, if we can protect them. Ah, but there's the rub- at some point, we cannot protect them. How much security can we provide before we compromise our own safety? In this case, Argos is a relatively small city-state and the fleet of fifty hot and bothered Egyptians are soon coming to claim their wives, and there's good reason to believe they will make war over this. ( Clearly, the pickings were pretty slim in Egypt at this time!) Will Pelasgus follow the moral imperative even if it means getting his own people slaughtered?

And what if this other culture simply does things differently? Does the law of Zeus apply to those who worship other gods? Luckily for the Danaids, they are not a different people at all, but are also of the Argive race, which is again important here, as it was in the Iliad and Odyssey. Descent matters for the Greeks, having one foot still in the tribal world. Kin and clan matter. The mythological background: Io, a priestess of Hera was seduced by Zeus. In order to keep his mistress on the down low, Zeus turned her into a heifer, but his wife Hera got wise and tormented Io with a gadfly. Driven to distraction, Io eventually wandered all the way to Egypt and Danaus is among her descendants. So, when they show up in Argos, the Danaides and their father are reconnecting with racial kin. Even these exotic foreign refugees are from the same family.

What will be their fate? King Pelasgus chooses to let the people decide, a move that terrifies the maidens. Will the Argive people respond to the moral imperative, or will they seek to protect their own security? What do populations do when the two are at odds? Making the choice as a group, will they just find mutual support in taking the coward's way out? Will the maidens end up like Kitty Genovese: victimized because the onlooking crowd doesn't want to get involved? Does democracy result in heightened ethics, or do we sink lower together? If the choice is between turning a blind eye to the rape of these outsiders or having their own children get slaughtered, what is the right thing to do?

Aeschylus is responding to the stirring interest in democracy, which will be established in Athens two years later. He sets up the case for and against the Suppliants much like a courtroom drama. It's important to note that, for the maidens, it is not clear that democracy will lead to an ethical culture at all; they might well get thrown to the predators. For contemporaries, such as Aeschylus, it wasn't clear either. It still isn't.

However, for my money, Aeschylus screws up the play when it comes to the public vote, leaving it off-stage. This is the main source of tension in the play- a great way of staging The Suppliants would be to have the audience vote on the fate of these refugees. Instead, Aeschylus sets up tension about the vote and then has Danaus come on stage to inform us how it went: Good news! The maidens will stay. (Maybe I should have said "spoiler alert"!)

Of course, including the Argos public on stage would be extremely difficult. The play is already almost comically complicated- after all, the "Chorus" is made up of fifty women, who are also protagonists in the story. Drama is not yet perfected. Perhaps the reason that I've yet to see a performance of The Suppliants is that it's likely hard to stage it without it degenerating into farce.

Nevertheless, the quick denouement is a real let down. I'll admit that I felt a bit ripped off and yelled "What are you doing, Aeschylus?!" at the text. My wife has, thankfully, come to expect these sorts of outbursts; the cat was a bit frightened. It's still very disappointing to me how Aeschylus plays this off as a very easy choice, when the whole play argues that it's not an easy choice. Sticking our neck out to protect the weak and victimized is never as easy as it should be. Not in this life. Sure, the Argos democracy "does the right thing". But the point of the play is that these debates will take place in democracies for generations to come because it's seldom written in thunder what the right thing might be.

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