Nine years ago today, I was in a state of panic and fear and the Twin Towers hadn't even been attacked yet.
I had just quit a safe and secure full-time job to return to graduate school to see if I could be a writer. I've always made my living as a writer, but often the work was anything but creative. I'd lost touch with the spark that had driven me as a child to write stories and draw comics and pass them around to my friends. Maybe I was simply meant to be a journalist, an ad man or a technical writer -- and there's nothing wrong with any of those jobs. But storytelling had once been my passion. I'd lost that and I wanted to find it again.
Less than two weeks into an esteemed writing program at the nation's oldest drama school, I found the pace, workload and creative demands so intense and challenging that my failure seemed all but inevitable. I wasn't hacking it. My hardest efforts resulted in work so poor I felt certain I was going to be kicked out of the program.
So reading was not just a big part of my curriculum, but a thankful solace. Whenever I couldn't sleep, I had a shelf of new theater texts to reach for. The assignment for September 11, 2001, was Aeschylus' incredible play The Persians, written circa 472 BC. And this is what we were discussing in a History of Drama seminar at the exact moment the worst terrorist attacks on U.S. soil took place.
The play is told from the point of view of the Persians, whom the Greeks had defeated years earlier. I believe this to be the only surviving Greek play based on an actual historical event. It's remarkable because it asks the audience to feel pity for the invading army seeking to topple the Greek empire.
The play asks: Why did the Persians lose the war? They were a great army led by Xerxes, a powerful leader, and they believed the gods were on their side. They fell, we learn, because of their unmitigated pride. Hubris. This is a play about wars and the fools who lose them. Aeschylus served up this tragic and chilling cautionary tale to an audience that would've felt freshly the wounds of this conflict.
When this play was first performed, it wasn't long after the Greeks had defeated the invading Persian army, maybe just a generation or less. As my wonderful professor Brian Johnson pointed out, the audience was probably filled with war veterans, some of them horribly scarred and maimed, as well as families mourning lost loved ones. In fact, there's a very good chance the audience was still sitting amidst blood-stained rubble, their very own Ground Zero.
Aeschylus sought to dramatize this defeat from the Persian perspective, but he didn't want his fellow countrymen to gloat or revel in superiority. He believed such things were fatal flaws. So he portrayed the Persians as being defeated not so much by the might and valor of the Greek army, but by their own corrupt values.
The play's theme -- warning against hubris, against the foolishness of believing one's nation is invincible and divined by supernatural higher powers -- has, sadly, become more relevant with each passing year.
Whenever anyone invokes a higher power in the name of war, you have reason to be very afraid, no matter what their religion.
When my classmates and I emerged from class that morning, we instantly knew something was wrong with the world. People everywhere on campus were hugging each other and crying in disbelief. As we learned of the attacks, each of us began to wonder: what the hell good is freakin' theater on a planet where something this catastrophic can happen? Like everyone in the days following the attacks, my fellow storytellers-in-training (actors, directors, designers, etc.) questioned the paths our lives had chosen. We wondered if we were wasting valuable time.
It took me a while but I finally realized that, when catastrophe reared its ugly head, I was doing exactly what I needed to be doing. The poetry and vision of The Persians informed and validated that feeling like nothing else. Even today, whenever I need motivation to write (or even just to get out of bed each morning), I think of Aeschylus and how his words speak to us across the centuries. This is why I write. To speak. To communicate. To let others in the world know that we share the same dreams and blessings and curses, no matter who -- or when -- we are.
Storytelling binds us as a species. It is one of the most hopeful things we have. Sometimes I dwell on the thousands of Greek plays that are forever lost to us and it's enough to drive me to tears. All those writers and the stories they hoped to pass down to us -- gone. Just gone. We are incredibly fortunate that this particular play has survived the ravages of time. It is a warning, an admonition, a plea for peace and humility in the face of violence. I hope that one day we will truly hear its message.
(Above: bust of Aeschylus; photos from production of "The Persians" mounted in 2006 by the National Greek Theater; bottom photo from 2005 production by Washington, DC's Scena Theatre)