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A Greek View of War's Tragedy: 'The Persians'

Christos Loulis as King Xerxes in <em>The Persians</em>.
Christos Loulis as King Xerxes in The Persians.
Greek actress Lydia Koniordou directs and stars in <em>The Persians</em>.
Greek actress Lydia Koniordou directs and stars in The Persians.

You could say that The Persians, which was written in 472 BC, was the first docudrama. Its author, Aeschylus, is best known as a playwright and poet -- but the only words on his tombstone describe him as a soldier who fought the Persians at the battle of Marathon.

The Persians is structurally very simple. The King Xerxes is away at battle, having led the Persians on a campaign to defeat the Greeks. Word arrives that the Persians have suffered defeat at the Battle of Salamis, leaving King Xerxes to return to his people, a symbol of hubris and shame.

Lydia Koniordou, who directs The National Theatre of Greece's production of The Persians and also plays the role of Queen Atossa, says the entire theatre company was taken to where the battle of Salamis took place.

"You feel that something tremendous happened there. It is a very eerie kind of feeling," she says.

The play, at New York's City Center, is performed in Greek with English subtitles.

On one level, The Persians is a play about the strengths and resilience of democracy; the Greeks are better fighters, because they rule themselves. The Persians are arrogant, the very image of power and war, but they are still seen as human, tragic figures.

A number of journalists and critics have seen the play as a critique of President George Bush and the war in Iraq. Koniordou says that is too simplistic a view, but notes the play's message about the dangers of denial in a civilization.

"[The Persians] are facing this great disaster, too late to change, because they haven't heard the warning signs ... these are signals that our civilization gives us, and we still deny. We say it is exaggerations of the press, or it won't happen, or we will be dead when it happens, so who cares."

The Persians, she says, makes one more conscious of the need to take responsibility in a democracy. Performances of the play end this week.

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