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Placing Prometheus

Lorna Hardwick, The Open University, UK

‘A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point out frauds, to take sides; start arguments,
shape the world and stop it from going to sleep’

This sounds very much like a statement about the handling of the myth of Prometheus throughout history. In fact, it is a quotation from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses . Either way, it provides an appropriate starting point for a Colloquium which seeks to identify and analyse aspects of the role of classical referents in Tony Harrison’s work. The verse-film Prometheus is a key text in this respect and so I wish to begin by trying to place the work in three different contexts:-

  1. how figures in the myth have been explored in various artistic media
  2. the creation of Prometheus in the genres of tragedy and film
  3. the impact of Prometheus as a catalyst for interventionist work

My aim will be to identify ways in which Harrison’s Prometheus may and may not mesh with other examples of the treatment of the myth and to consider its special contribution to representations of Greek mythology and tragedy today.

The question of the adaptability of the Prometheus myth

Two extremes in the malleability of Greek myth have often been identified by critics.[1] At one end of the spectrum may lie the Oedipus myth, which resists adaptation and change.[2] At the other end is the protean figure of Heracles. Where does Prometheus fit in? My view is that the malleability of Prometheus lies less in the figure and more in flexibility for construction in a range of media and genres. As a figure, Prometheus has historically been an icon for defiance and struggle, appropriated for ‘causes’ rather than being a vehicle for psychological analysis or a means towards metamorphosis. Analysis of examples reveals some common features which can be taken forward as indicators for the placing of Harrison’s work.

An overview of the representations of Prometheus in various media from the fourteenth century onwards reveals three broad strands, Prometheus the Creator or Firebringer, Prometheus Bound or in Chains and Prometheus Unbound, or freed by Heracles.[3] In the twentieth century there has been notable continued interest in exploring all these strands across the arts. They come together in the Prometheus trilogy, three gilded bronze sculpture sketches by Paul Manship (1950) with casts in the Minnesota Museum of Art. Manship also has a Prometheus, with torch, a gilded bronze fountain figure at the Rockerfeller Centre, New York. There is also a painting by Kokoschka, The Prometheus Saga, a tryptich ceiling painting (1950 Private Collection, London). This features ‘Prometheus Bound’ and the other panels are ‘Apocalypse’ (including Apollo turning away and Aeneas rescuing Anchises) and ‘Hades and Persephone’ (Persephone emerging from the underworld a messenger of spring).

In dance, Ninette de Valois created the choreography and scenario for a ballet Prometheus, using music by Beethoven. The ballet was first performed in 1936 at Sadler’s Wells. In 1970 Frederick Ashton was the creator of the choreography and scenario for Die Geschöpfe des Prometheus (The Creatures of Prometheus) with music by John Lanchbery (after Beethoven), first performed in Bonn. These examples demonstrate the versatility and plasticity of the myth across a range of media.

Of course, twentieth - century approaches were deeply conscious of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth - century association between Prometheus and the Romantic Movement. In literature, apart from Goethe’s unfinished drama (1773) and Schlegel (1797) the major figure is Shelley, whose Prometheus Unbound was published in London in 1820. Also important for alluding to other aspects of the myth’s potential is Byron, especially in his contrast between Prometheus on the Rock and the exile of Napoleon in Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte (1814, stanza 16).[4] Allusions in later nineteenth century iconic works include Robert Browning’s treatment of Prometheus’ enlightenment of man in the monologue ‘With Bernard de Mandeville’ in Parleyings with certain people of importance in their day, 1887, (stanzas 10-11), while George Eliot had Prometheus Bound read to Mordecai the sick radical in Daniel Deronda (1876). Prometheus was also a figure appealing to the visual imagination in art, for example, the drawings of Fuseli (c1770-1) and Flaxman (1792-4) and the painting by William Blake Richmond Prometheus Bound (1874, now in Birmingham City Art Gallery). The radical political implications of the myth are highlighted by the fact that it was the favourite play of Karl Marx.

Another notable feature of reception in the nineteenth century was that the Prometheus Bound attributed to Aeschylus became important as a play for translation. As a student Gerard Manley Hopkins translated lines 88-100 and 114-127 as ‘Prometheus Desmotes’ (1862-38 not published until the twentieth century). The influence of the play on Hopkins is evident from his Notebooks and Letters and critics have related his later original work to his close reading and translation of Greek texts.[5] The influence on Hopkins’ development of innovative rhythmic forms in English is especially striking. Elizabeth Barrett Browning made two efforts at translating the whole of Aeschylus’ play. The first (1833) was flayed by the critics. A revised translation (1845) appeared in Poems, new edition, vol.1 (London, Chapman and Hall, 1850). Anna Swanwick began her major work of the 1850’s and 1860’s as a translator of Aeschylus with Prometheus Bound. Augusta Webster also started her translation from the Greek with the play (1866), before going on in her own poetry to develop active representations of oppressed but dynamic figures.[6] Both she and Swanwick were active in the movements for women’s suffrage and for women’s education. It is almost as if translating the play was a rite de passage for women translators. Certainly it was demonstrably a springboard for further radical and creative work and shaped their responses to the issues of obligation, community, freedom, tyranny and oppression of women, all of which were raised by the play. Thus for these women literary engagement with the Prometheus myth was a stimulus to political and social action (both in poetry and in the wider world) and perhaps an ancestor of the directly politically engaged theatre which in the twentieth century came to be called Interventionist. [7]

The role of the Prometheus Bound as a catalyst also for aesthetic as well as political aspects of cultural debate has intensified in the twentieth century. In the 1920s Angelos Sikelianos and his wife Eva Palmer developed the Delphic Idea. This aimed at the establishment at the omphalosor navel of the earth at Delphi of a university based on a spiritual and communal ideal of world peace. In 1927 a Festival was held at which tragedy was performed, together with athletics and folk dancing. Part of the performance of the Prometheus (in Chains, in the translation by I. Gryparis) has been preserved on film. These festivals attracted criticism from the radical press on the grounds that they were inaccessible to the public and encouraged cultural nostalgia but they also stimulated debate about performance styles as well as initiating the demand for the modern use of ancient Greek theatres. This aspect has played a significant role in the staging of Harrison’s other Greek work. As a result of the 1927 performance, the staging of ancient drama became a subject of study and debate, not about staging in an authentic theatre but also concerning the role of dance, choreography, setting and the aesthetic and symbolic use of theatrical space.[8] The staging of Prometheus and the role of the critical comment it attracts have continued to function as an index of the love/hate attitudes to the cultural past. I shall take this forward as a strand in the discussion, to add to those already identified above: variety of art forms; vehicle for radical voices and critique; springboard for writers’ other work; catalyst for debate about cultural nostalgia and performance styles.

Recent Stagings of Prometheus

There are three recent modern stagings which raises issues of particular relevance to the treatment of the myth and of Aeschylus’ play in Harrison’s film.

In 1967 Robert Lowell’s Prometheus Bound, described as a tragedy in prose after Aeschylus, had its first performance at the Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven. It was directed by Jonathan Miller. Miller has spoken about his approach to the staging of ancient drama :

‘Classics are simply residues, maps left over from earlier cultures; they invite you to make some sort of imaginative movement.’[9] Miller is on record as denying that there is any duty or obligation to a dead author – ‘the play becomes a public object’ and he regards directorial adaptations as a form of tribute.[10]

Miller staged the play in an abstract setting based on the idea of a seventeenth century chamber used in the Spanish Inquisition. He saw the seventeenth century as a form of hinge between the ancient and modern worlds because of the role of the Renaissance in transmitting and mediating knowledge of the Graeco-Roman world. Miller claimed that he wanted to escape from the ‘white robes and chanting choruses’ of so-called traditional performances of Greek plays. He thought it ‘would be far more exciting if we could set it in some institution that represents tyranny’.[11] Miller intended the setting to bring in associations with tyrants from Zeus to Cromwell and Hitler, and ‘perhaps even Lyndon Johnson’ to quote one observer.[12] The concept recast the gods as fallible humans, dwarfed by the imposing set. Amy Green has described them as prisoners who acted out the story to pass the time.[13]

Lowell’s script was a free version of the Aeschylus seeking modern overtones and divided into three acts. Reviewers were mesmerised by the performance of Irene Worth, who as Io created a woman ‘ both alive and trapped in myth…vulnerable flesh as well as mythological icon’. Kenneth Haigh as Prometheus was also praised but critics such as Walter Kerr (New York Times 11 June 1967) felt overwhelmed by the layers of imagery – ‘ we are finally bowed under the weight of words that are variations rather than progressions’. Critics agreed that the play had an important message but that it was impossible that it would succeed, either on Broadway or off, because of the demands that it made on the audience. Interestingly, the reviews suggest that the production was interpreted by audiences as offering a humanist and radical cry of pain in a universe ruled by a malignant mind. They saw the play as dealing with the relationship of humans with a powerful god rather than with political tyranny. The ‘imaginative movement’ generated by the play was thus by no means unambiguous. Furthermore, communicating a sense of Aeschylus' language proved problematic.[14]

The conjunction of the notions of ‘ mapping’, ‘contours’ and ‘movement of imagination’ raises, along with the problem of how to convey the shape and texture of Aeschylus’ language, questions about coherence and about whether the specific introduction of modern (or indeed intermediary) analogues supports the plays powers to communicate and generate imaginative movement or is merely intrusive and distracting.

In 1985, also in the USA, Richard Schechner staged The Prometheus Project, subtitled Four Movements and a Coda. This version attempted to draw together themes from the ancient play, the exercise of power over humans as a whole and the abuse of Io. In setting a twentieth century context which proposed that Prometheus had unknowingly helped to develop the atomic bomb, the staging relied heavily on non-verbal techniques and appeal to the contemporary experiences of the audience. These included slides of the destruction of Hiroshima as viewed by a man in a leather jacket, clips from pornographic films, a sexually explicit dance and two sequences of repetitive actions. One of these enacted visually Io’s terrified flight; the other represented the chaining of Prometheus. The myth was recited at the end with some rather strange sounding amplifications – ‘It is the nursery of life itself that is being poisoned’.[15]

Unsurprisingly, critics reacted strongly against the attempted moral conflation of the bombing of Hiroshima and sexual abuse, which they saw as distinct and unrelated phenomena.[16] However, as Hartigan points out, in Aeschylus’ play the treatment of Prometheus and Io is structurally and metaphorically linked in that both cases stem from Zeus’ misuse of power. The Schechner version therefore highlighted two specific difficulties (related to those mentioned earlier) with which most modern adaptations have to contend:-

  1. how to reconcile the force of visual images and movement with any attempt at verbal and structural equivalence to Aeschylus
  2. how, if setting the play in a modern context, to represent political and sexual abuse as coherently part of the same framework

My third modern example is Tom Paulin’s version Seize the Fire.

This was initially commissioned in 1989 by the BBC in the context of the Open University course on Fifth Century Athens: Democracy and City State. It has also been broadcast on BBC Radio 3. Paulin’s version follows the structure, form and dramatic conventions of the Greek play quite closely but in terms of language it is by no means a close translation. Instead, Paulin chose to develop his own poetic idiom in language and speech rhythms to create a Prometheus who speaks overtly to a modern audience. Costume, characterisation, gesture and other non-verbal aspects of the production are equally important in suggesting resonances to a modern audience. Yet the strangeness of the remote physical setting of the myth is there too. I was fortunate enough to have a small role in the initial discussions in the early stages of the creation of the work and at a very early stage we thought in terms of images from TV and current events which might act as a back-drop, visually translating Aeschylus’ ideas, emotions and situations into experiences familiar to modern audiences. At one time, it even seemed that a film poem might be the way to transplant Aeschylus’ staging and idiom into modern consciousness. However, in the end a studio performance was decided upon. Paulin then wrote his version and I find I can still ‘hear’ some of those TV screen news items in his words, although the staging was eventually designed with a set which is remote and vague in place and time, as in myth.

Paulin’s language in the opening scene of the published text is taut, coarse and brutal in its compression and precise in drawing correspondences between Zeus’ tyranny and that of modern despots.[17]

The place is -
a dump for rebels
and the disappeared (p. 3)

The new gods in Aeschylus’ play become new politicians in twentieth century idiom.

It’s a hard, tight
new state we live in -
Zeus set it up.
No room for pity.

This contrasts with the positive and poetic vision of Prometheus’ speech with which the TV version began -

Didn’t I seize the fire of ideas
and make them leap, tear, fly sing -
the rush and whap of them
in each split moment.

For Paulin’s Prometheus, fire means the fire of ideas rather than technology. It means freedom, anarchy even, rather than ‘civilisation’. (Of course, Shelley came between and after all banished Jupiter in Prometheus Unbound, 1820). In Paulin’s play the language and images are those of twentieth century political struggle. Zeus in his turn will face a coup -

Just when his state looks safe. . . .
there’ll be this strange weekend,
part holiday and part disaster.
First all the fountains
in the public squares
will switch themselves off,
power will fail,
jolt back in spasms. . . .

It’ll all be secret
and anonymous.
Tanks on the lawn, news blackouts,
locked doors and panic
those empty sinister blocked roads (pp 13-14)

Now Prometheus has placed himself outside politics, outside Zeus’ party. He has had the worst of both worlds. The reaction of the Chorus, in the performance a single voice played by Kate Binchy, added a Promethean resonance from Irish history to the totalitarian scenario of Zeus’ tyranny,

You made yourself a rebel,
a rebel and a traitor both

Prometheus retorts that with Zeus there was always ‘some historian handling the press’,

He’s fed you lies
Zeus hijacked both the history
and the state we made

That’s why I broke with him
and brought the people fire

The Io episode in Paulin’s version draws its impact from the characterisation of Io as a Marilyn Monroe figure - a star with pins stuck in it, a pathetic reminder of the Monroe we saw in a black and white news film singing ‘Happy Birthday Mr. President at a Kennedy gathering. Paulin’s Hermes is a sinister figure, a ‘fixer’ -

Listen, please listen.
All states depend
On empty rituals. . . .

We’ll blow some trumpets,
Untie your hands
So you walk freely
past guilded mirror after mirror
Up to a dais
Zeus and the other gods
they’ll be drawn up
one side of a long table
it’s there you’ll sign
two public texts
a recantation
and a treaty
. . . . we have this fine chateau
all ready for you
bay trees
. . . . . . . . . . . . . your memoirs (Paulin, 1990, p 57)

Prometheus’ reply is rooted in the discourse of protest -

Here I stand
I can’t submit
Choose you.

His closing reference to ‘the democratic light’ both refers back to the Greek play and its context and idealises the archetype of the Promethean rebel. The set fades into a dark background, relieved only by pinpoints of light – candles, the touch of the director, Tony Coe. This both dates the version to the late nineteen-eighties and creates an unforgettable resonance with the candle-carrying protesters in Wenceslas Square before the fall of the Soviet-dominated regime in the former Czechoslovakia.

The style and tone of the staging of Paulin’s version and the poet’s didactic language raise the issue of the degree of overtness acceptable in the signalling to the audience of modern correspondences with the ancient play. This Prometheus is centre stage and modern but nevertheless the dynamics of the action and the framework for struggle are the ancient ones from Aeschylus. From Aeschylus’ play the authority of the cultural past is used to dignify and legitimise present concerns and as with Aeschylus myth is mediated for a contemporary audience. The exact nature of that purpose is, however, more directly stated in Paulin than in Aeschylus. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to suggest that Paulin oversimplifies the political comment implied by the play. In addition to the hints of Zeus’ Stalinism and an Orwellian concern with the role of the historian and the historian’s language, there are images making connections with recent events in South America and Asia while Paulin is arguably at his most subtle when seeding allusions to the political confrontations in Ireland in the first quarter of the century with the subsequent effects of the Treaty, Civil War and the persistence of the Troubles. The plurality of application of the political allusions made in the play has largely enabled Paulin to avoid the accusations of drawing simplistic links between ancient and modern, which critics have applied to many recent Irish adaptations of Greek drama.[18]

Finally, I come to the place of Prometheus in Harrison’s work. The impact of his classical education has been both to provide an entrée to the ‘movement of the imagination’ involved in the adaptation and refiguring of classical texts and to stand out as a mark of alienation, both personal and cultural, from his working-class roots. Harrison’s Prometheus engages directly with both these aspects. It also draws on some aspects of his previous work on translating Aeschylus’ Oresteia for the National Theatre production directed by Peter Hall (1981 at the National Theatre and 1982 at Epidaurus). This was notable, even controversial, for its use of masks to concentrate the minds of actors and audience and to provide emotional distance.[19]) Although the translation of the Oresteia is in one sense more traditionally conceived as a literary and classical undertaking than is the Prometheus, it also involves approaches on which Harrison builds in the verse-film. The importance of sound in the production of the Oresteia (in conjunction with the music by Birtwistle) is conveyed in Harrison’s description of the work as a rhythmic libretto.[20] In an interview associated with that production, Harrison said ‘As a northerner I am drawn to the physicality of Aeschylus’ language. I relish its cragginess and momentum…my translation of Aeschylus is most emphatically a rediscovery of the dignity of the accent’ (ie the northern, not the Greek pitch!).[21]

The Prometheus of Aeschylus is a play of verbal action in which the chained protagonist is physically static. Ignoring or diverting from this emphasis on verbal action leads to the kinds of problems encountered by Schechner. The manner in which Harrison engages with this emphasis on verbal action provides the nexus between the images used in the film, the ‘message’ and the ways in which he adapts and reworks the Greek conventions, especially the Chorus. In Harrison’s Prometheus the protagonist is silent and in one sense immobile but is transported as a statue on a journey through Europe whereas the mythical and historical comment is assigned to Hermes. The route taken by the statue takes us to the most depressing elements of Europe’s recent history, alternating moments of coruscating judgement (Dresden, Romania) with displacement of narrative correspondence to Aeschylus’ play.. The Chorus of grieving women undergoes a shift of cultural identity, starting as the fish -processing factory workers in the Oceanus coach and then through metamorphosis becoming a Greek Chorus, statuesque with mask- like faces, warning and lamenting as they are carried through Europe on a raft. In this they are close relations of Harrison’s recurring device of the Chorus of Mams.[22] As well as emphasising the resilience of these female Choruses, Oliver Taplin has pointed to the way in which Harrison uses song as a primary form of vocal delivery so that ‘the theatre can face things that would be impossible in ‘real life’.[23]

In Prometheus, Mam herself is not part of the Chorus. She has a dual identity and is silent. The mother of the young boy in the mining community becomes Io, searching and then fleeing through Europe as though tormented. She becomes black and white like a Friesian cow, but in her case from exposure to chemicals and carbon. The abattoir is then the place of convergence between the suffering of the cow/Io and the desecration of the environment.

The exploration of the dual potential of fire and technology in the film also draws on Harrison’s images from earlier work. For example, his 1985 poem ‘The Fire Gap’ (illustrated in the Blood Axe edition with a Promethean/Christ like figure with outstretched arms) wends visually and verbally in the danger zone - ‘This fire-gap I walk on’s where/ the snake and I will meet’. In his poetic adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women the duality is made explicit in the exploration by the Chorus of Women of the destructive power of Zeus and the consequent conflicting potentials of fire:

‘Flames can nourish, can transform,
flames bake bread, and keep us warm
but the flames like those of Troy
do nothing, nothing but destroy’.[24]

In his introduction to The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (1990, Faber and Faber), first performed at Delphi and then at the National Theatre a further element is suggested. Harrison again takes up the theme of fire – ‘that terrible form of fire that brought about the ‘VJ’ when unleashed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. One element for celebration and terror. One space for the celebrant and the sufferer’ (p.vii). He quotes from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound 1091-2 on the panton koinon phaos, the light common to all which is ‘the first essential of ancient drama…it is not only the illumination in the sense of the lighting that unites audience and performer in a shared experience but also in the sense of spiritual understanding’. Harrison’s exploration of the satyr play is also part of his examination of clues to what he calls ‘ the wholeness of the Greek imagination and its ability to absorb and yet not be defeated by the tragic…without the satyr play we cannot know enough about the way in which the Greek spirit coped with catastrophe’ (p.ix) Coping with catastrophe is, I suggest, a shaping theme within the Prometheus film itself and also in its underlying allusive force.

The introduction to Trackers offers some insights into the generation of Harrison’s Prometheus project, prepared for also in the film poem The Gaze of the Gorgon (printed text published by Bloodaxe 1992) which encoded a broad cultural critique of the contrasting faces of the classical tradition, including its exploitation in fascism, and laid bare the battle field for the appropriation of ancient images and the imaginative associations they bring and the imaginative shifts they generate.

So in his Prometheus, looking at the appropriation of the myth, of fire and technology, by Zeus and Zeus’ spin doctor Hermes (the phrase is Zeus’ ‘defusing’ of Prometheus, seen at its most awful in the Dresden sequence) Harrison, too, is performing an act of counter- appropriation. As he says in ‘Fire and Poetry’,his introduction to the printed text (Faber and Faber 1998), ‘creative memory is at work, giving the suffering new form, a form to allow the suffering to be shared and made bearable across great gaps of time…it is a myth because of its time scale that encompasses many generations of mortals, which continually makes us reassess our history’ (p.viii).The two great powers ‘that make the so-called gods’ world ours’ are fire and poetry and throughout the film the two operate together. The significance of Prometheus’ gift of fire to mankind is paralleled by the gift of poetry, expressed by the miners ‘talking in rhyme’. According to Hermes, Zeus’ attack on the poet is for breaking down the constraints and boundaries he set round speech. Talking through poetry is analogous to taking fire for humans.

Thus both aesthetic and socio-political aspects are brought together. Harrison’s version both draws on the history of committed theatre and film in twentieth century Europe and in so doing addresses ways in which modern versions of ancient Greek drama have once again become a forum for political critique and struggle. The function of Interventionist drama and film is to create an awareness of the ideology which underpins the situation being challenged. Harrison’s use of the medium of film allows him to exploit the effects of visual montage and to create interrupted and simultaneous narratives. This enables the resonances of the myth to be extended to include genocide as well as class and gender oppression and to demand awareness of the destruction of the environment in Europe as well as of mining communities in Britain.

Harrison believes that if Aeschylus were writing today he would write a different play. He thinks that ‘ no play in the ancient repertoire works over a longer time scale than Prometheus Bound. Or deals with more unbroken suffering…30 millennia of tyrannical torture, 30 millennia of defiance’ (p.viii). So the film links the images of the eagle which ate Prometheus’ liver with the relief sculpture at Dresden and the huge stone eagle under which Hermes sits, Zeus' agent of punishment and breaker of the human spirit. The eagle emblem of genocide also links Prometheus’ gnawed liver with the lungs of the miner, the damage to which, part self-inflicted, cannot be restored overnight. Some critics have seen this as a jarring juxtaposition of different kinds of disaster. For example, Keith Miller wrote ‘ There is an arrogant tendency to conflate all of the big themes of the past 100 years into one enormous supermyth : Orgreave to Auschwitz via Dresden, all aboard! One specific problem about this is that it is frankly offensive to imply that sacking someone is the same as butchering them alongside their families’ (an criticism equivalent to that levelled at Schechner).[25] Of course, Harrison’s link is that it is the miners, consumed by the flames like the miners in Zola’s Germinal, who constitute the metal from which the statue of Prometheus is cast.

The Staatsoper Munich production of Carl Orff’s opera Prometheus in 1968 used video techniques to project enlarged images of Prometheus’ face on to the rock on which he was nailed and Harrison draws on this experience to show that in the case of the ex-miner men projected onto a large screen could temporarily become gods. This brought together fire and poetry through the large screen. Filmic images can enable the viewer to gaze into the fires of Dresden, Hamburg, the ovens of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the Balkans and can recreate the burning of the books from the Library of Alexander, and the Institute for Oriental Studies of Sarajevo to Rushdie’s Satanic Verses in Bradford. There is a kind of metatheatre involved, a film within a film. This raises huge questions about how the ‘real life’ spectators are to be addressed and involved. One technique is to include comment within the play, specifically through the figure of Hermes. Another is use of internal narrative- those unfamiliar with the myth and the status of Prometheus in Greek tragedy are indirectly informed via the schoolboy’s narration of the myth to his father. Thus the film is permeated by double perspectives – linguistic, visual, metaphorical and judgemental. Through the film within a film, it creates a different kind of theatricality which enables Harrison to get a hearing for the submerged voices whom he had earlier sought to revive in Trackers.

The techniques used by Harrison and the reactions of some critics ( including those who regard awareness of class oppression as outdated) bring into focus broad issues about what may be involved in ‘ translating’ Greek drama for modern audiences. Translation is now widely regarded as involving the creation of ‘equivalence’ rather than as archaising reproduction. The debate therefore becomes one about changes in what is regarded as a translational ‘norm’.[26] In this sense, judgements about the film rest on whether Harrison has presented modern equivalences of the different aspects of Zeus’ abuse of power as dramatised by Aeschylus, whether he has communicated an understanding of the dual potential of Prometheus’ action in bringing fire to humans and whether the formal conventions of the tragedy – including chorus, music and movement are effectivly transplanted into the modern genre.

Harrison’s awareness of the special role of translation in embattled cultures suggests that translation and adaptation can provide a means, even in barely-censored societies, of slipping in, past the self-censors of entrenched assumptions, an interventionist drama and poetry which brings about that movement of the imagination (referred to by Miller) which enables a larger scale transformation of perspective and opens the way to change.[27] The overall impression of the narrative aspects of the film, however, is fragmented and problematic, as is the ideological focus. The situation of the left, whether in Thatcher’s Britain or in Eastern Europe is the object of both critique and lament. In balancing this paradox of ideology, image is as important as shaping narrative.

So the question becomes, what are the mechanisms of the translation and how does the poetry in this film communicate? Via the music – the miners’ band, the choristers’ voices in Dresden, the Jewish cantor, the Chorus as it sails down the river? Through the accent? In the rhyme and rhythm? In the pity? In the image of the phoenix (cited in Harrison’s introduction ‘Fire and Poetry’ p.xxix) in which poetry arises out of its own ashes? In a work which gives a significant role to music, images, silences there are also memorable insights given impact by the verse rhythms (for example, the Voice of Hermes : ‘Poets have taught mankind to breach/ the boundaries Zeus put round speech/ and the fire Prometheus stole/ created man’s poetic soul. Text p 44)

In Harrison’s the Labourers of Herakles, the Spirit of Phrynichos (played by Harrison) spoke of redeeming destruction through the power of art’:

‘… Phrynichos, who gave the theatre a start
in redeeming destruction through the power of art,
and, witnessing male warfare, gave the task
of mourning and redemption to the female mask’. [28]

Post-holocaust, as Adorno claimed, this hardly seemed possible, but Harrison’s Prometheus perhaps suggests an inversion, redeeming the power of art by tackling the theme of destruction. This is why for me the film represents not only a culmination in Harrison’s work but also looks to the future role of the arts. Like the Greeks, Harrison reworks myth in the context of his own time and culture. Or to put it another way, he takes contemporary themes and masks and performs them in myth, drawing together the dramatic and poetic techniques and allusions in his earlier work and refiguring them through film. In these respects, Harrison’s Prometheus seems to be, in contrast to the nineteenth -century writers for whom the myth was a starting point for their literary and political action, a culmination to his work - so far. However, his Prometheus Unbound is yet to come. Will Zeus draw on Prometheus’ experience and learn (painfully) to adapt?



I thank the anonymous referees for critical comments and suggestions.

[1] G. Karl Galinsky, 1972, The Herakles Theme: the adaptations of the Hero in Literature from Homer to the Twentieth Century, Oxford, Blackwell, pp. 1-2.

[2] Although it is nevertheless sufficiently adaptable to suggest resonances in different contexts, for example in David Greig’s recent version Oedipus, performed as part of the triple bill Greeks by theatre babel, Glasgow, March 2000. In this version the conflict between Oedipus and Creon concerning transfer of power and civic values is redolent of debates about the newly devolved power in Scotland and yet the setting in the British Raj establishes a framework which denies simplistic readings of the relationship between Scottish devolution and liberation from colonial domination and reminds the spectator that modern Scotland is as much post-imperial as post-colonial.

[3] See Jane Davidson Reid, 1993, The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology and the Arts 1300 – 1990s, New York and Oxford.

[4] Also significant in Byron’s work are The Age of Bronze 5.227-232, a satirical poem (1823), and Prometheus in the Prisoner of Chillon and other Poems (1816).

[5] Discussed by Todd Bender, 1966, Gerard Manley Hopkins: The Classical Background and Critical Reception of his work, Baltimore, pp56-7.

[6] See L.Hardwick (2000), ‘Women, Translation and Empowerment’ in (eds.) J. Bellamy, A. Laurence and G. Perry Women, Scholarship and Criticism 1780 -1900, Manchester, Manchester University Press; L. Hardwick, 2000, ‘Theatres of the Mind: Greek tragedy in women’s writings in English in the nineteenth century’, in Theatre Ancient and Modern: Selected Proceedings of the January Conference 1999, (eds) L. Hardwick, P. E. Easterling, F. Macintosh and N. Lowe, Milton Keynes, pp 68-81, and published electronically at

[7] For discussion of examples, see L.Hardwick, 2000, Translating Words, Translating Cultures, London, Duckworth, especially chapter 4.

[8] See the discussion in the context of twentieth century Greece by Platon Mavromoustakos, 1998, ‘Ancient Greek Drama on the modern stage: the question of theatrical space’, in A Stage for Dionysus: Theatrical space and ancient drama, Athens, Kapon Editions, pp177-189.

[9] J. Miller, quoted in Jonathan Price ‘Jonathan Miller directs Robert Lowell’s Prometheus, Yale Theatre 1, Spring 1968, p. 40.

[10] J. Miller, quoted in Richard Gilman ‘Directors versus playwrights’, Sunday Review, April 1982 pp. 32-2.

[11] Quoted in Robert Brustein ‘No more masterpieces’ in The Third Theatre, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1969, p.31; also published in Yale Theatre 1, Spring 1968, pp. 10-19.

[12] See Price, op.cit. p.43

[13] Amy S.Green, 1994, The Revisionist Stage, Cambridge, CUP, p.45.

[14] Reviews referred to are discussed in the section on Prometheus Bound as an ‘occasional production’ in Karelisa V. Hartigan, 1995, Greek Tragedy on the Modern Stage: Ancient Drama in the Commercial Theatre, 1882-1994, Westport CT and London, Greenwood Press.

[15]Quoted in Hartigan, op.cit. p.134.

[16] Walter Goodman, New York Times, 27 December 1985, summarised in Hartigan, op.cit. p.134.

[17] Page references are to the full text T. Paulin (1990) Seize the Fire, London, Faber and Faber.

[18] See L. Hardwick, 2000, Translating Words, Translating Cultures, London, Duckworth, ch. 5.

[19] Discussed in detail by R.B.Parker, 1986, ‘The National Theatre’s Oresteia 1981-2’ in (eds) M.Cropp, E. Fantham and S.E. Scully, Greek Tragedy and its Legacy: Essays Presented toD. J. Conacher, University of Calgary Press, pp 337-357.

[20] Discussed further in John Chioles, 1993, ‘The Oresteia and the avant-garde: three decades of discourse’, Performing Arts Journal 45, pp 1-28, especially pp 16-17.

[21] From the Sunday Times Weekly Review 29 November 1981, p.33, discussed in Parker, op. cit. p 349.

[22] Discussed by Oliver Taplin in (ed.) Sandie Byrne, 1997, Tony Harrison: Loiner, Oxford, Clarendon Press, pp 171-225.

[23] Taplin, op.cit. p 173.

[24] From Selections published in Arion, Spring/Summer 3rd series 5.1, 1997, pp 142-152.

[25]Times Literary Supplemlent May 14th, 1999. Contrast Glyn Maxwell Sight and Sound, 29thSeptember, 2000, who concluded ‘Somehow only Harrison the documentary maker can process images so stark.’

[26] See L. Hardwick, 2000, Translating Words, Translating Cultures, London, Duckworth, chapter 1.

[27] See the interview with Harrison quoted in Sandie Byrne, 1998, H.V and O; The Poetry of Tony Harrison, Manchester, Manchester University Press, p 160.

[28] T. Harrison, The Labourers ofHercules, performed 1995; published text in Tony Harrison: Plays 3, 1996, London, Faber and Faber, p 143.