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Ευρωπαϊκή Εταιρεία Νεοελληνικών Σπουδών

Γ΄ συνέδριο της Ευρωπαϊκής Εταιρείας Νεοελληνικών Σπουδών

Gonda Van Steen

Rehearsing Revolution: Aeschylus’ Persians and the Greek War of Independence

Là quelques Hellènes, fiers de leur antique gloire, attendaient impatiemment le signal de l'indépendance. Ils aiguisaient leurs armes, en relisant leurs propres annales, et ils admiraient la valeur de leurs ancêtres, comme si le triomphe de Salamine leur eût présagé déjà les exploits libérateurs de Canaris. (302)[1]

Aeschylus’ Persians as the charter myth of Greek revolutionary patriotism? To modern sensibilities, this may be an unlikely proposition. However, this agenda defined the modern Greek view of Aeschylus' tragedy through most of the Enlightenment period. The Greeks sought and found their heroic and patriotic forebears in the ancient Greeks, whom the play does not even bring on as stage characters: they placed naval and other military triumphs over the Ottoman-Turks on a par with the Greek victory over the Persians in the sea battle of Salamis in 480 BCE. The Persians, Aeschylus' oldest extant and historical tragedy (472 BCE) became the link with military and other, ‘national’ glories of the Classical Period. At the start of its new lease on life in the nation-state of Greece, this tragedy was not the disquieting play that modern scholars have uncovered, but the exemplum of a didactic genre of (self-)assurance.

Aeschylus’ Persians became metonymic for the perspective that Greek historical theater brought to its future, but also for the Orientalist gaze through which the West perceived the East. Aeschylus himself had related the naval battle from an oblique angle, (as if) from the perspective of the vanquished. Nonetheless, his play was reinterpreted to promulgate the trium phant look of the winners and many generations of the winners’ ‘descendants’. Aeschylus had restricted his cast to Persian characters only and had set his plot in the Persian capital of Sousa. None of those factors, however, tempered or inhibited the Greek and Philhellenic patriotic enthusiasm: along with the Western-European intelligentsia of the Enlightenment, the modern Greek public saw a composite of the classical tragedy and the real-life military feats. The Greek elite wisely singled out the grand, engaging genre of tragedy as the chosen medium to respond to the West; it was thus exploiting Enlightenment-inspired historical drama and performing (phil)Hellenism upon itself.[2] After the American and the French Revolution, both of which adopted theater a s an art of choice, the Persians was a play waiting to be enlisted in the cause of enlightened modern Greek nationalism: it called for patriotic action before action itself took over.[3]

One early modern but hardly known reading of Aeschylus’ Persians illustrates perhaps best those important strands of Greek patriotism and (emerging) performance. Comte de Marcellus (1795-1865) described an 1820 reading version of the f12Persians in a unique memoir, first published in 1859.[4] Marcellus was a French diplomat to the Ottoman Porte turned travel-writer and folklorist. For him, the play and its readers fulfilled Greece’s nationalist mission, which overlapped with the performing of their cultural mission. Marcellus described as in slow motion a performance that constituted a primer for Greek patriotic self-formation and a beacon guiding collective and imminent action. Though it was technically only a reading of Aeschylus’ Persians th at took place in Constantinople in 1820, the initiative was one of and for performance, theatrical and political alike. Without hesitation, Marcellus associated the event with performative demands: the reading was not a silent one but was a recitation before a purposefully gathered audience. The select audience had come to this no less political than literary evening with a common ideological agenda: the play reading of the Persians served to articulate, sanction, and strengthen ambitions of Greek patriotic military action, which remained subject to Ottoman-Turkish suspicion and retaliation. Marcellus unstintingly helped to present 1821 as the long-awaited rebirth of tragedy, Greek nationhood, and Greek conscience. The modern version of Aeschylus' Persians, which he described and which took the tragic out of the tragedy, transformed the play into a hymn to Greece and its id eals. Marcellus situated the act of the 1820 staged reading of Aeschylus' Persians in the enduring modern myth that was the historical survival of classical Greece. He posited Greek history, performance, and patriotism as topoi of unity among Greeks and as meeting points for Greeks and Westerners. Marcellus also conveyed a strong sense of the prismatic quality of the reading and of the intensity of the historic moment to which he attended. He further showed how nascent Greek nationalism adopted antiquity in the name of the struggle for freedom and how antiquity itself, therefore, needed to be infused with Greek proto-nationalism. This nationalism avant-la-lettre was imported into the glory-days of the fifth century BCE under the flag of the patriotic sentiment that was thought to reverberate in Aeschylus' Persians.

Marcellus held t he position of secretary to the French Embassy at Constantinople, where he had been dispatched in 1815.[5] Upon his early retirement, he devoted his time to travel and writing, mainly about Greece and the Orient. He collected and translated modern Greek folk songs, for instance, but always tried to establish analogies between the ancient and the modern Greeks. Marcellus’ publications bridged the gap between pre-revolutionary and post-revolutionary generations and between insiders and outsiders, or Greeks and Philhellenes. His French royalist sympathies did not prejudice him against a reading of Aeschylus’ Pers ians, the ancient play that exponents of the French Revolution and also Shelley and his circle had redefined as rebellious and oppositional. Nearly forty years after Marcellus had seen a group of elite male Greeks engage with Aeschylus' paradigmatic classical text, he chose to remember and, in effect, commemorate the event. Marcellus' record of 1859 is his wishful and willful act of remembering the Greek rediscovery of Aeschylus' tragedy, its dramatic and patriotic qualities, and its performative impetus. He celebrated Aeschylus' Persians as the earliest beginning and the epitome of Greek patriotism on stage and mused:

[Aeschylus] fit entendre sur la scène qu'il venait de dresser, le premier et le plus noble accent de la muse patriotique . Il célébra . . . les victories contemporaines où il venait d'être lui-même acteur et témoin. Et, deux mille ans plus tard, ces sublimes inspirations devaient faire battre le cœur et rallumer la vaillance de ses descendants toujours éclairés par ce même idiome aux termes sonores, toujours opprimés par cette même race asiatique, et attendant toujours un autre Alexandre pour les venger! … (331)

But what was the precise nature of the event? Marcellus' Philhellenic sympathies secured him access to a literary evening held in the early months of 1820, at a prestigious family mansion on the Bosporus. There, a young student from the School of Kydonia delivered a closed, secretive reading or oral solo-performance of Aeschylus' Persians in ancient Greek. This student performed under the direction of his master, the Orthodox cleric-teacher, theologian, and champion of the Greek Revolution, Konstantinos Oikonomos (1780-1857), who had proposed the recitation.[6] The host Manos gave the start signal by dismissing his servants. Oikonomos then introduced his well-prepared disciple to the select circle of five Greek intellectuals, who knew and trusted each other, and to our Marcellus, who lived to tell the story. Marcellus cast a company of Greek friends and plausible heroes, who, for him, embodied classical nobility and racial purity. He shared only few personal details about these characters and constructed them less as personalities and more as Greek national subjects. As national subjects, too, they died as martyrs for the Greek patriotic cause:

Quelques mois à peine après cet entretien intime et presque furtif, les deux princes Morusi [i.e., Konstantinos and Nikolaos Mourouzes] devaient périr sous le glaive musulman, à l'ombre du serai, et l'archevêque d'Ephèse [i.e., Dionysios Kalliarches] allait succomber sous le lacet , . . . notre hôte [i.e., Manos] mourut en exil sur le sol étranger; et l'élève de Cydonie . . . disparut dans la guerre de la Morée. (331)[7]

The participants' abject fate, however, was probably not the direct result of information about the meeting that had been leaked. Rather, th e attendees were among the high-profile victims whom the Turks executed in reprisal for the outbreak of the Greek Revolution. Marcellus, however, created a near-causal relationship between participation in that remarkable reading and a martyr-style death at the hands of the enemy. By conjuring up a highly meaningful death for noble ideals, tied to religious and patriotic beliefs, Marcellus demonstrated how his Greek friends had lived up to the ethos that the reading of Aeschylus’ Persians had inspired. The Frenchman waited to tell his story until Oikonomos, the last Greek survivor, had passed away. Within two years of Oikonomos' death but nearly forty years after the reading had occurred, Marcellus published his first account in the October 1859 issue of the well-known French periodical Le Correspondant. He then published his memoir a second time by making it a c hapter of his 1861 travel book entitled Les Grecs anciens et les Grecs modernes.
In Marcellus’ presentation, the student-performer took the lead in acting his newfound patriotic identity into existence, as it were, and embodied the new nation of Greece that would perform itself into being, even with the loss of youthful life. Aeschylus' Persians was literally and metaphorically a scenario on the path to responsible citizenship and full nationhood. Marcellus eulogized the brave and talented Greek young man who, in parallel universes, embodied both the old and the new Greece. The younger Greece was different or ‘other’ (autre) only in time, though not in nature or character:

. . . la voix animée, ardente et harmonieuse de l'é colier de Cydonie qui devait sitôt se mêler aux sanglants combats du Péloponèse, et mourir les armes à la main, luttant encore contre d'autres Perses pour l'indépendance d'une autre Grèce. (302)

Oikonomos posited a patriotic meaning for Aeschylus' Persians, which Marcellus dutifully quoted in an extensive passage in direct speech (303-4). This tragedy, Oikonomos lectured, offers us ‘a martial dithyramb in honor of our ancestors rather than a tragedy in the strict sense’ (303). Beforehand, he himself had abandoned the original tragedy's division in epeisodia and choral songs and had arranged the reading's script into five manageable ac ts, conforming to contemporary aesthetic norms. Each act was followed by a session of commentary delivered by Oikonomos. Commenting is, of course, a strategy that guides, controls, and ‘protects’ interpretation. After the first act, Oikonomos compared Aeschylus' play to Homer's Iliad. He thus bestowed an epic dimension on the impending freedom struggle as on the battle of Salamis, which he placed on a par with the Trojan War (306-7): Salamis, which the ancients had already employed as a tool for cultural and political self-representation, once again gained a normative symbolic meaning.[8] Trojans, Persians, and modern Turks became equally fierce and daunting Eastern enemies, whom—again--time separated, whereas their perceived despotic nature and godless hubris linked them together. Marcellus’ recollection of the comments made was selective and carefully constructed: he recalled the language, imagery, and analogues that other Philhellenes would comprehend and appreciate and that evinced the magnitude of the Greek revolt. He celebrated the near-mythical, epic proportions of those Greeks who, by 1820, boasted a ‘tradition’ of defeating their Eastern adversaries, even if that tradition diffused part of history and transformed it into myth.

Oikonomos was known to take an active interest in theater and dramaturgy. Here, he merged all in o ne the roles of teacher, stage director, commentator, and spiritual leader, and acted as the master of this ceremony of language and interpretation. This combination of educational, ideological, and performative duties was a common load in the cultural life of the Greek Enlightenment, in which guided student and amateur performances of ancient tragedies outnumbered commercial or professional revival productions. The rebirth of classical drama, whether in schools or in certain restricted public settings, was a weighty aspiration of Oikonomos: he disclosed that he had been planning to mount an ancient tragedy, such as Sophocles' Philoctetes or Euripides' Hecuba, at the Kydonia School to inspire the students with patriotism. But, he pondered out loud (in the direct speech cited by Marcellus), even though the Turkish authorities might allow those choices, neither one of those dramas satisfied his own patriotic and didactic agenda. Oikonomos regar ded those plays as too tame, because, in his judgment, they recalled mere mythical events ‘of little risk’ (303) of the distant Trojan War. The Turkish censors, who watched the school's activities closely, would never grant the production of a play as bold as Aeschylus' Persians ‘with all its allusions to our recent history’ (303).

Oikonomos did not shy away from interjecting defamatory ethnic stereotypes about Xerxes and the enemy troops that were, in every sense, ‘allusions to recent history’. In the ultra-nationalist and Orientalist vein, he aggrandized Greek love of freedom and citizen patriotism by the sheer contrast of Greek self-discipline with Persian excess and intemperance. Marcellus’ account, too, foregrounded the clash between the good of Hellenism and the evil of the forces opposed to it. In that sense, it amounts to a moralizing parable for Western-European reading pleasure and Orientalist voyeurism. Said famously characterized Aeschylus' Persians as one of the earliest written records of European Orientalism, because he saw in the ancient text the seeds of the dialectic focused on tyranny, excess, decadence, effeminacy, and emptiness.[9] In its extreme, antagonistic, and ethnocentric form, this hegemonic dialectic and its symptomatic binary oppositions (West versus East, us versus them, self versus other) colored the modern Greek reception of the Persians for far too long. The reason was that, for many decades, Orientalism was part of the ideological and militant side of Greek nationalism; its ethnic stereotypes continued to act long after the framework of Western imperialism, which had engendered such perceived ethnicities, had started to crumbl e.

Marcellus invited his reading public to discover Greece as an oasis of ‘authenticity’ in the midst of a barren ‘Oriental’ desert. His case raises the question of just how genuine any revival of a classical tragedy might have been under the watchful eyes of a Philhellenic foreigner, whom the well-connected, cosmopolitan company tried hard to impress. Marcellus produced as well as imported literary, cultural, and ideological images of Greece and the Greeks, at a time when examples of ‘authentic’ survivals and renewals could still readily be molded. Marcellus inscribed, for instance, an ideal of unity and collective belonging that accorded him, an outsider, the historical chance to become an insider and to advance from a position of observation to involvement. His memoir offers a guide t o its author's historical placement or ideological positioning as well as to the exemplary program attributed to Aeschylus and his descendants.
For Marcellus, Aeschylus' play and the Persian Wars had become timeless and irresistible metaphors for Greek victories. Literary memory could become a ‘prophecy for the long term’ (317), as Marcellus confirmed. His writings may have prompted some reassessment as well. By 1860, Greece had developed into an unsteady monarchy afflicted by internal discord and foreign interference. In general, however, revival productions of select ancient tragedies helped to pave the new Greek nation's road to modernity. The modernist function, ‘sanitized’ identity, and militant attitude of Aeschylus' Persians and other plays were hung on the peg of an idealized struggle for liberty. Not surprisingly then, the Greeks placed revival theater--an d the revival culture it often served--at the center of their Enlightenment-inspired and broader Neohellenic identity.

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Augustinos, O., French Odysseys: Greece in French Travel Literature from the Renaissance to the Romantic Era (Baltimore, MD and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994).
Bridges, E., E. Hall, and P. J. Rhodes, Cultural Responses to the Persian Wars: Antiquity to the Third Millennium (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2007).
Demaras, K. Th., Greek Romanticism (in Greek) (Athens: Hermes, 1982).
------. Modern Greek Enlightenment (in Greek). 6th edn. (Athens: Hermes, 1993).

Dumaine, A., Quelques oubliés de l’autre siècle (Paris: Vélin d’Or, 1928).
Hall, E., Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).
Hall, E. (ed.), Aeschylus: Persians (Warminster, England: Aris and Phillips, 1996).
0Harrison, T., The Emptiness of Asia: Aeschylus' Persians and the History of the Fifth Century (London: Duckworth, 2000).
Loraux, N., The Invention of Athens: The Funeral Oration in the Classical City, trans. A. Sheridan (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard University Press, 1986).
Marcellus, M.-L.-J.-A.-C. Demartin du Tyrac [Comte de Marcellus], Souvenirs de l'Orient, 2 vols. (Paris: Debécourt, 1839).
------. ‘Une lecture d'Eschyle à Constantinople en 1820’, Le Correspondant, 48 (1859), 301-31.
------. ‘Les Perses d'Eschyle
u224à Constantinople. Scène orientale’, in Les Grecs anciens et les Grecs modernes, 225-89 (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1861).
Puchner, W., Texts and Countertexts: Ten Studies on Theater (in Greek) (Athens: Kastaniotes, 1997).
Roessel, D., In Byron's Shadow: Modern Greece in the English and American Imagination (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Said, E. W., Orientalism (New York: Random House, 1979).
Spathes, D., The Enlightenment and Modern Greek Theater (in Greek) (Thessalonike: University Studio Press, 1986).
Tambake, A., ‘A Theatrical Production in Constantinople in 1821: The Testimony of R. Walsh’ (in Greek), Ho Eranistes, 20 (1995), 256-60.
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[1] The references in parenthesis are to Marcellus' publication of 1859.

[2] Roessel (2002), 40.

[3] For the resonance of the Greek War of Independence and of the Persian Wars in France, see Athanassoglou-Kallmyer (1989). For examples of modern Greek references, see Demaras (1982), 178.

[4] A minimal reference to this record appeared in Tambake (1995), 256. I use the name Marcellus as a shorthand for ‘de Marcellus’, or for the author's full name, Marie-Louis-Jean-André-Charles Demartin du Tyrac.

[5] Augustinos (1994), 231-32. For a more comprehensive biographical sketch of Marcellus, see Dumaine (1928), 1-64.

[6] On Oikonomos, see Demaras (1982), 47-8 and (1993), 376-7.

[7] The host Demetrios Manos was a former high-ranking official (grand postelnik) in the administration of Wallachia. He had served as an aide also to the father of the Mourouzes brothers, Alexander Mourouzes, who himself had been appointed hospodar, or the Ottoman sultan's viceroy, of Moldavia and Wallachia. The ‘blue-blooded’ Mourouzes sons were reputedly interested in music, literature, and the arts. On the Mourouzes family’s interest in theater, including revolutionary and patriotic student performances, see Puchner (1997), 409-10, 412-3.

[8] In her seminal study, The Invention of Athens (1986), Nicole Loraux provided further insight into this and other related processes of mythification.

[9] Said (1979), 21, 56, 57.