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Prometheus Bound in a Sicilian Performance Context

Colleen Kron

Ohio State University

The Prometheus Bound presents many scholarly entanglements regarding its textual transmission and performance history. Issues of authorship, date, and staging have plagued larger questions of interpretation and meaning for this play. Griffith especially (1976, 1978, 1983, & 1984) has suggested that several peculiarities of Prometheus Bound indicate that this work was not, in fact, composed by Aeschylus. This argument is echoed by Taplin (1977, 1978, & 2007), Ruffell (2012), and Sommerstein (1996). In this paper, I argue that these apparent inconsistencies can be explained by situating Prometheus Bound in a performance context “outside Athens” and on a Sicilian stage. Specifically, I suggest the Aeschylus composed Prometheus Bound for performance at the theater of Syracuse in the court of Heiron I. A Sicilian performance context makes the clearest and simplest sense of three of Prometheus Bound’s signature peculiarities: (1) the brief use of a fourth actor to play “Bia,” (2) the unusual entry of the chorus of Oceanids and the overall character of the choral lyrics, and (3) the practical difficulty of staging the crucial descent of Prometheus at the end of the play.

In arguing for a Sicilian Prometheus Bound, I follow recent scholarship on the history and performance of Greek theater in the western Mediterranean, such as Wilson (2007), Reverman & Wilson (2008), and Bosher (2012). These studies seek both to account for the vibrancy of the Sicilian dramatic scene and to adjust an entrenched Athenocentric disciplinary perspective. Methodologically, these studies of Greek drama in the West share a tendency to interweave several different strands of evidence, incorporating literary, historical, epigraphic, art-historical, and archaeological material as complementary paths for understanding a particular question. Most of all, such studies emphasize the experience of the performance in context over minor irregularities in anticipated metrical form.

Specifically, I use Bosher’s work on Aeschylus’ Persians in the court of Hieron I at Syracuse as a model for addressing this old Aeschylean question in a new way. In addition to staging issues, Bosher argued that a Syracusan performance context explains several “peculiarities” surrounding Persians, like the absence of specific Athenian references in a play with historical subject matter (itself peculiar), and the problematic understanding of the Persians within its suggested tetralogy. Prometheus Bound suffers from related concerns: this play has an analogously peculiar all-divine cast, anti-tyrannical message, and uncertain relationship to other potential Prometheus plays.

Following this methodology, I incorporate textual, art-historical, and archaeological evidence to provide a clear understanding of the appropriateness of a Sicilian performance context for performing Prometheus Bound and the corresponding limitations of an Athenian stage. Regarding the idiosyncratic descent of Prometheus into Tartarus, I conclude that this scene most likely made use of the Charonian steps that Bosher argued were crucial for staging Aeschylus’ two other Sicilian plays: Women of Aetna and Persians. If Prometheus Bound were staged at the theater of Syracuse, the entry of the Oceanids could make use of large caves located directly to the north of the theater. In addition, the fourth silent actor could be better integrated into the play as the “oistros” that maddened Io.

Shifting the performance context of Prometheus Bound from Athens to Sicily allows for a reinterpretation of its political themes in the context of Syracusan tyranny rather than Athenian democracy. The mythological motifs of ritual binding and the punishments of the titans Atlas and Telephon in Prometheus Bound may be similarly reinterpreted. Most importantly, a Sicilian setting for Prometheus Bound destabilizes the traditional interpretation of Greek drama as composed first and foremost at Athens, for an Athenian audience. Acknowledging that Aeschylus may have developed entrances and exits that are uniquely well-suited to a non-Athenian theater, or meters that maximized the potential of a non-Athenian chorus, not only destabilizes Athenocentric assumptions about the relationship between production, authorship, and location in Athenian performance theory, but highlights the agency and adaptability of a individual Greek playwright. 

Session/Panel Title:

Performing Problem Plays

Session/Paper Number

33.2

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