Missing the Vital Spark

Mark Ford

  • Prometheus by Tony Harrison
    Faber, 86 pp, £8.99, November 1998, ISBN 0 571 19753 1

The first literary appearance of the mythical figure of Prometheus (whose name means ‘foresight’) is in the writings of Hesiod. Hesiod’s Titan is something of a trickster, of ‘intricate and twisting mind’ in Richmond Lattimore’s 1959 translation, who first affronts Zeus by trying to cheat him of his sacrificial dues: Prometheus slaughters an ox, but instead of offering the meat to the father of the gods, he gives it to men, presenting Zeus only with the animal’s bones, concealed beneath a thick layer of fat. As punishment, Zeus decides to deny mankind the use of fire, but Prometheus cleverly manages to steal the sacred flame, which he smuggles down to Earth by hiding it in the hollow of a fennel stalk.

Zeus retaliates by creating the irresistibly beautiful Pandora, endowed by the various gods with all manner of attractions, but by Hermes ‘with the mind of a hussy, and a treacherous nature’. On her marriage to Prometheus’ brother, Epimetheus (‘hindsight’), she unseals her jar containing all the evils that have since plagued humanity. Only the spirit of Hope remains imprisoned in the jar, unable to escape and alleviate the suffering of mortals. Meanwhile Prometheus has been shackled to a column and each day an eagle arrives to feed on his liver; every night the ravaged liver grows back to its original size, in preparation for the next day’s visitation. Eventually Heracles kills Prometheus’ tormentor and releases the Titan from his bondage, though not, we are told, without the consent of Zeus, who is at last willing to forget his anger for the sake of his son Heracles’ burgeoning glory.

Some three centuries after Hesiod, Prometheus was the subject of a connected series of dramas, Prometheus the Fire-Bringer, Prometheus Bound and Prometheus’ Release. Only a fragment survives of Prometheus’ Release, and Prometheus the Fire-Bringer has been lost altogether. Prometheus Bound has traditionally been ascribed to Aeschylus, but there are no Festival records to confirm his authorship. The case against this attribution has been made with particular force in recent decades, most compellingly by M. Griffith in The Authenticity of ‘Prometheus Bound’ (1977). In a recent edition of the play in translation, Michael Ewans argues that ‘in dramatic style and technique, as well as language and poetic style, Prometheus is markedly different from, and inferior to, the six other dramas’ in the Aeschylean canon. Ewans dates the play to c.440-430BC, twenty years after Aeschylus’ death, and tentatively suggests the most likely author was Aeschylus’ own son, Euphorion.

In the foreword to his 1967 prose version of Prometheus Bound, Robert Lowell noted that this play is ‘probably the most lyrical of the Greek classical tragedies’, but also ‘the most undramatic – one man, a sort of demigod at that, chained to a rock, orated to, and orating at, a sequence of embodied apparitions’. Lowell, needless to say, transforms Prometheus into a self-doubting intellectual, wracked less by his chains and the eagle than by moral anxieties about his own obsessional and transgressive behaviour: ‘I think I should have been more loyal to the idiocy of things,’ he tells the Daughters of Ocean, who function as the chorus, ‘or bolder, or more careless. Yet I had no choice, such was the gravity and devotion that drew me on.’ Lowell’s Prometheus, like that of so many writers who have appropriated the myth over the centuries, is fashioned very much in his own image.

The Prometheus of drama is much nobler than his prototype in Hesiod. He presents himself as benefactor and saviour of mankind: he not only brings the primary gift of fire, but explains the mysteries of medicine, architecture, mathematics, the seasons, fortune-telling and mining. After Zeus’ victory in the war against his father, Cronus, the newly enthroned god decides to annihilate the entire human race and create a new species in its stead. ‘No one did anything against this plan,’ Prometheus laments (in Ewans’s translation)

                     except for me –
but I dared to; I freed mankind
from being totally destroyed, and sent to
                                       Hades’ halls.
That’s why I’m bent by many torments, terrible
to suffer, pitiable to see.

In later accounts, such as that attributed to the fourth-century BC Greek philosopher Heraclides, Prometheus is even figured as the creator of mankind, a tradition followed by Ovid in the Metamorphoses, rendered by Ted Hughes as follows:

Then Prometheus
Gathered that fiery dust and slaked it
With the pure spring water,
And rolled it under his hands,
Pounded it, thumped it, moulded it
Into a body shaped like that of a god.

Though all the beasts
Hang their heads from horizontal backbones
And study the earth
Beneath their feet, Prometheus
Upended man into the vertical –
So to comprehend balance.
Then tipped up his chin
So to widen his oudook on heaven.

In this way the heap of all disorder
Earth
Was altered.
It was adorned with the godlike novelty
Of man.

The various roles projected by the Greeks and Romans onto Prometheus – creator of man, defier of authority, victim of God’s ire – have been fused together by the time Spenser alludes to the legend in The Faerie Queene, published in the 1590s. In Book II, Canto X, the knight Guyon plunges into a tome entitled ‘Antiquitie of Faerie lond’, and reads

             how first Prometheus did create
A man, of many partes from beasts deriued
And then stole fire from heauen, to animate
His worke, for which he was by loue depriued
Of life him selfe, and hart-strings of an Ægle riued.

The creation of a new lifeform by the assembling and uniting of disjunctive body-parts from different beasts looks forward to the ill-fated scientific experiment undertaken by ‘the modern Prometheus’, as the subtitle of the novel describes him, Mary Shelley’s Doctor Frankenstein. For the Romantics the myth served as both an image of potentially fatal transgression, and an inspiring political allegory. ‘Of thine impenetrable Spirit,’ wrote Byron in his 1816 poem ‘Prometheus’, ‘Which Earth and Heaven could not convulse,/A mighty lesson we inherit.’ Two years later, Shelley embarked on his long poetic drama Prometheus Unbound, which celebrated the Titan’s rebellion against Zeus as the original paradigm of all acts of political resistance.

Tony Harrison’s first feature film provides a variety of perspectives on this legend, and three different embodiments of the Promethean spirit. It opens in a Yorkshire mining town just as the last pit in the area is about to be closed down. The messenger of the gods, Hermes (Michael Feast), has been sent by the tyrant Zeus to oversee this crushing blow to the town’s economic prospects. As in the play, Zeus never actually appears, but is presented by his spokesperson, Hermes, as a crude compound of injustice, repression, misanthropy and totalitarianism. The equally evil Hermes decides to use the pit closure as the suit of a campaign to turn mankind against its supposed benefactor, Prometheus, whose gift of fire, far from improving the human condition, has led to terrible wars, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, threats to the environment and so on. Although Zeus in fact delights in these acts of mass destruction, and could, if he wanted, annihilate the Earth with a single flash of lightning, he still resents Prometheus’ audacious challenge to his supremacy. As Hermes puts it:

It’s long been Zeus’ fervent hope
by giving men sufficient rope
and simply allowing a free hand
with stolen fire, the contraband,
that fire will blow up in the face
of the whole detested human race.
The big blow up! Or bit by bit
sink Man slowly in the shit,
the slower but secure solution,
poisoned by his own pollution.

Accordingly, Zeus orders his henchmen Kratos (‘Force’) and Bia (‘Violence’) – who in the Greek text supervise the chaining of Prometheus to his crag – to kidnap six miners when they clock off after the pit’s final shift. They are taken by cattle-truck to a foundry in Germany where they are incinerated and incorporated into the metal that makes up a giant golden statue of Prometheus, his fist raised in the posture of a heroic Stalinist worker. They thus become both the real victims of unjust economic and political circumstances and potential symbols of resistance. ‘Miners,’ Hermes observes as the statue cools, ‘from that molten muck’ll/melt into each golden knuckle.’ The eight-metre high figure is then strapped onto a flat-truck and driven to various sites in Europe where the consequences of fire or pollution might goad the local population to vilify Prometheus. The film is thus a kind of travelogue, with each location presented in terms of its Promethean history. Their first stop is Dresden; here, or so Hermes hopes, the inhabitants’ memories of the Allied fire-bombing will result in a surge of anti-Promethean feeling. Hermes has the statue taken to an empty football stadium, which is intended to evoke the missing lives of those who perished in the firestorm of 13/14 February 1945. A chorus of ghosts sings the names of some of the missing, and another the names of the streets that were destroyed. Meanwhile, the stadium floodlights flash on and off, like interrogation lights. Other stops include Auschwitz, the carbon-black factory in Copsa Mica in Romania (the most polluted town in Europe) and Elefsina (modern day Eleusis), the birthplace of Aeschylus, where the pilgrimage ends, and the statue is affixed to a rock overlooking the belching chimneys of this heavily industrialised town.

The two other figurations of Prometheus are the son and father of one of the miners who is about to be made redundant. The boy (Jonathan Waistnidge) has been given a speech by ‘Goldenballs’ as Hermes derisively calls him, to learn for his homework:

With Prometheus life began
to flourish for benighted Man.
My gift of fire made Mankind free
but I stay in captivity.

By mistake the boy lights the morning fire with his father’s collection of cuttings recording the miners’ strike of 1985 and the subsequent demise of the Yorkshire pits. When he finds out, his father angrily throws the boy’s book into the flames and clips his ear. The boy storms out and runs off to play in a decommissioned fire-engine in a scrapyard. The statue’s journey across Europe is intercut with shots of the boy, fixed in his cab like Prometheus on his rock, ringing the fire-bell, and on one level the journey can be understood as his creative projection, an example of the Promethean powers of the imagination.

It is also, however, presented as a film which the boy’s grandfather (Walter Sparrow) watches in a derelict cinema while defiantly chain-smoking and coughing his lungs out. We are asked to see the Old Man’s cigarettes as versions of the fire secreted in the fennel stalk, bringers of pleasure and danger alike. The grandfather, an old-style socialist, and Hermes – described by Harrison in an interview as ‘the Peter Mandelson of Zeus’ – engage in an agonistic conflict. From the cinema screen Hermes taunts the unregenerate ex-miner with the failure of all his hopes:

History spat you out like phlegm,
shop-steward of the NUM
expecting, of all things, to create
in class-torn Britain a fair state!
So I’d unclench your weedy fist
you smoke-demolished Socialist.

The Old Man counters by appealing for solidarity to the industrial workers to whom the statue is exhibited, and inveighing against all forms of authority:

Dictators, deities, they’re all t’ same
forbidding men fags, fruit or flame.
First Zeus wi’ fire then t’ God of t’ chapel’s
obsession wi’ forbidding apples.
One crunch into that contraband
gave man t’ knowledge God had banned.
We’ve got t’ knowledge, we’ve got t’ fire,
we’ve raised ussens up out of t’ mire.
Diso-bloody-bedience got us over
t’ barbed wire fences of Jehovah.

Eventually Hermes tricks Walter into hurling his cigarette at the screen. This results in a cataclysm in all three realms of the film: the statue of Prometheus explodes, leaving just its clenched fist pinioned to the rock above Elefsina; Hermes appears to be consumed in flames but, it later turns out, was only pretending. In the cinema, on the other hand, Walter suffers a heart attack and dies, and the building is set alight by the blazing screen. The boy, meanwhile, frantically pulls on the bell of his derelict fire-engine, which has now mysteriously appeared outside the cinema.

Marx described Prometheus as ‘the first saint and martyr of the philosopher’s calendar’, and Harrison’s film functions mainly as an elegy to the proletarian political movements which Marx predicted – without much Promethean foresight – would one day conquer the world. The final shot of the film is of the boy fleeing through the collapsing cooling towers of an abandoned industrial landscape. ‘And at his back,’ the voice of Hermes suavely declares, parodying a line from Marvell, ‘he’ll always hear/the boots of KRATOS and of BIA!’ Although within the narrative the forces of good and evil are opposed to each other – the Prometheans against Hermes and his henchmen – the issues the film raises cannot be so easily resolved. The Old Man, for instance, belligerently defends his right to smoke, without connecting his addiction to the machinations of multinational tobacco companies. He was inducted into the mysteries of smoking, he explains, by the film stars of his youth:

When Bogey lit up so did I,
smoke curling past my one closed eye.
Bogey gets best smoker’s prize,
cig-smoke crinkling up his eyes.

It is the skilful marketing strategies of Hollywood and big business which make lighting up seem a heroic, Promethean gesture. In this context the Old Man’s habit, which has destroyed his lungs as the eagle destroyed Prometheus’s liver, reveals him as a gullible consumer.

As in Frankenstein, the original theft of fire is related to the exploration of technologies which are as likely to end in disaster as in the liberation of man from misery and oppression. Since the 19th century Prometheus has frequently been invoked as the presiding genius of industrial progress, the patron saint of scientific meliorists. Ironically, as Hermes points out, it was the desperate attempts to modernise undertaken by the Communist governments of the Eastern bloc that created both the worst living conditions and the most ruinous depredations of the environment: belief in Prometheus as ‘industrial utopia seeker’ eventually reduced Romanian towns like Copsa Mica to poisoned waste lands and their inhabitants to penury.

The diagnosis the film offers of European history and contemporary politics will not be surprising to anyone at all familiar with Harrison’s oeuvre. The workers are all figured as salt-of-the-earth types, while Hermes, in his dinky silver suit and boots, sums up everything Harrison dislikes about New Labour. Potentially and dramatically, Prometheus is not nearly as powerful as earlier Harrison theatre and film scripts. Like much of his recent output, the verse is throughout defiantly close to doggerel. The contest for the audience’s hearts and minds between the Old Man and Hermes is so obviously set up in the Old Man’s favour that it never manages to generate any convincing intellectual tension or dramatic suspense. One ends up, perversely, rather tempted to side with Hermes: Harrison’s script is so coercive of our sympathies that one longs to make some Promethean gesture of rebellion.

The film also attempts to update the story of Io, who in the Greek text is lusted after by Zeus, and then pursued in the shape of a cow by gadflies sent by the jealous Hera. The boy’s Mam suddenly finds herself impelled to start running very fast, perhaps in pursuit of her husband, who is one of the abducted miners. In her vagabond, filthy state she slowly begins to resemble a Friesian heifer, and somewhere in Bulgaria is slaughtered by Kratos and Bia in an abattoir. Perhaps the implication is that her son, or one of his descendants, as in the legend, will grow up to be Heracles, the liberator of Prometheus. Cinematically, however, these episodes seem irrelevant and confusing.

Prometheus contains many audacious ideas, embodies a forceful political vision, and makes use of one of Western civilisation’s most resonant stories. And yet as a cinematic experience the film is rather dull. Though its concept is exhilarating and the acting throughout of a high standard, it is itself in dire need of a Promethean spark to ignite it. One of the epigraphs to the essay ‘Fire and Poetry’ that stands as a foreword to the script is derived from Pasolini: ‘To make films is to be a poet.’ There is no disputing this gnomic utterance, but for a poet to make films, or at least good films, he or she has also to be a filmmaker.