Bringing Ancient Greek Drama to Life
‘All human skills are from Prometheus’..or so Prometheus claims in the ancient Greek tragedy Prometheus Bound. As the first of two features marking Cambridge University Press’ sponsorship of the Cambridge Greek Play 2013, Dr Oliver Thomas, incoming Editor of The Cambridge Classical Journal, explores the enduring fascination of the figure of Prometheus.
Google ‘Prometheus’ today and your first hits will probably concern Ridley Scott’s 2012 film of that name. Here Prometheus is a spaceship, taking a group of future humans on a scientific mission to seek mankind’s creators and immortality. This seems light years from ancient Greece, so why name the film after a Greek mythological figure?
Even in antiquity Prometheus had many incarnations. The first is in Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days (c.700 BCE). Prometheus is an immortal who sticks up for humans. First he tries to trick Zeus into letting humans eat almost all the meat at sacrifices; Zeus retaliates by stopping the Golden Age’s free supply of food. Next Prometheus steals fire so that humans can make things, especially bread. Zeus sends the first woman, Pandora, and she unleashes various evils such as disease into the world. So, thanks (or no thanks) to Prometheus, the human condition is defined: men have to work, reproduce sexually, and fight illness, but we have some tools to do so.
Other sources relate Prometheus to the human condition differently. In some, he is the father and adviser of Deucalion, the Greek Noah, and hence ensures mankind’s survival after the flood. In Plato’s Protagoras, Prometheus and his brother fashion humans in the first place.
The tragedy Prometheus Bound (perhaps c.450-430 BCE), which receives its first outing as a Cambridge Greek Play this October, elevates Prometheus from Hesiod’s unsuccessful trickster into an obstinate defender of humanity against Zeus, who has become a full-blown tyrant. The play’s stunning opening sees Prometheus nailed to a cliff, as what Zeus thinks is his final punishment. But Prometheus has foreknowledge that if Zeus’s philandering turns its attentions to a particular nymph, the son will overthrow Zeus. During the play he rails against Zeus, describes his gifts to humanity, and flaunts his secret insight until Zeus tries to coerce it out of him by plunging him underground. But Prometheus resists: and so, many centuries later, he will have to be freed.
The survival of Prometheus Bound shows it was popular; in fact, we have dozens of copies from 13th-century Constantinople (Istanbul), where it was a common school-text. But its influence has blossomed particularly since the late 18th century. A few of the impressive greats who have been inspired will have to suffice: Goethe, Beethoven, Byron, both Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Longfellow, Marx, Freud…
Prometheus embodies what resistance to autocracy can achieve. Napoleon was seen as a modern-day Prometheus at the time of the French Revolution. For Marx, the play symbolises the shackling and eventual freeing of the working class under capitalism. More recently, the corrupt senator Clay Davis in The Wire (season 5: 2008) claims that he is enjoying Prometheus Bound because he too is being unfairly punished by the powers that be for helping the poor.
Prometheus the poster-boy
Secondly, Prometheus has been influential as a poster-boy for human creativity – whether that of the genius who rejects social convention, or that of technological progress. Mary Shelley gave Frankenstein the subtitle ‘or, The Modern Prometheus’, and with such a disconcerting view of technology we can return to Ridley Scott. In his film, human technology has created a disturbingly independent android, and also enabled scientists to face their makers and limitations, with disastrous results. Whatever its illogicalities in detail, the plot outline at least is a coherent rethinking of what the Greek myth of Prometheus – the definer of humanity, the technician punished for obstinacy – can mean today.