The very essence of the drama is empathy, the act of seeing through the eyes of someone different than yourself.
The first extant drama we have in the western canon is Aeschylus’ The Persians, which tells the story of the Greeks entirely unexpected victory over the Persians in the second great invasion of Greece in 480 BC. Greek forces triumphed over Xerxes’ army, thus proving for the Greeks that free men fought better than slaves and mercenaries, and that democracy was more resilient than a dictatorship.
A mere eight years later, Aeschylus retold this story- from the Persians point of view.
The audacity of this act is breathtaking, even 2500 years later. Aeschylus was asking his audience to take a huge empathic leap, to sympathize with their enemies. We only know two things about the reception of The Persians: it didn’t win any prizes that year, but it made so strong an impression that many people wrote it down, passed it from hand to hand, and it became one of the very few Greek tragedies to survive the collapse of the classical world and come down to us today.
The Freedom Theater of Jenin was founded by Juliano Mer-Khamis as a way of using art rather than violence to create political change. He understood that only by seeing each other as people, looking at seemingly intractable dilemmas from all sides, could change really come to his society. He was a brilliant actor, a courageous leader, and a hero: a man who gave his life in attempting to change the world.
His friend and pupil, Nabil Al-Raee, has taken the theater Juliano founded to even greater heights. His play The Siege is a thoughtful, powerful look at his hometown, Bethlehem, and the siege of the Church of the Nativity in the spring of 2002. He gives us a great gift by dramatizing, in brilliant and visceral terms, what it felt like to the Palestinians who were holed up in the Church for over a month- their despair and passion, their anger and vulnerability, their arguments and their struggle. The Siege is necessary theater, doing what theater does best: opening the world up to us by seeing it through the eyes of someone else.
Oskar Eustis is an Arts Professor in NYU Tisch School of the Arts’ Art and Public Policy Program. He has been the Artistic Director of the The Public Theater since 2005.