Since the band's 2006 break, Tankian has worked at the pace of 10 men: in addition to releasing his two standard solo albums (first 2007's profane and loopy Elect the Dead, then last fall's orchestrally melodramatic opus Imperfect Harmonies, both on his own Serjical Strike record imprint), touring with a full orchestra, and penning a classical symphony, he managed to squeeze in a few years' worth of work on Prometheus Bound. And if his natural disinclination for musicals as a genre may have made it seem like an odd fit, the themes of the project made it a perfect match. In the hands of playwright/lyricist Sater and director Diane Paulus, Prometheus Bound is nudged in a political direction, becoming a creation myth for the concept of tyranny. For Tankian, whose work from System of a Down onward has always featured a strong political consciousness, Sater's Prometheus is a perfect fit. "It's funny," says Tankian, "because in the couple of years before I was involved in this project, I'd been dealing, in my music, with the concept of what civilization meant to me personally. I believed, and still do, that the word 'civilization' is very misunderstood, and people don't realize that what we call 'history' is really just the story of civilization. And I was, you know, concerned with thoughts and theories about what's going to happen next, what with us being at the edge of the end of civilization for the last few years. And then this thing fell into my lap dealing with the Greek mythological beginning of civilization!"
If your Aeschylus is a tad rusty, a quick primer: Prometheus, a Titan, is punished by Zeus for giving fire to mankind. In tellings of the story prior to Aeschylus (most notably by Hesiod in the sixth century BC), Prometheus is seen as a troublesome Loki whose gift of fire not only forces mankind to fend for itself in a manner similar to a post-Eden world, but also brings about the appearance of the first female, Pandora, with the well-known subsequent results. Aeschylus's version re-frames the story as that of a prisoner of conscience: Prometheus has thwarted Zeus's plan to do away with mankind, and as punishment is chained to a rock, subjected to the Groundhog Day-meets-Guantánamo torment of reliving the same day over and over for eternity, with every day in question including an eagle devouring his liver sans anesthesia. "I find it fascinating, the way that the early Greeks may have interpreted this story," says Tankian, "and how in this telling, Prometheus is represented by what he stood up for, regarding humanity. I mean, if mankind was this experiment of the gods, it is indeed possible that some of the gods knew that we, as humans, would fuck up this little experiment to the nth degree, and maybe that's why Prometheus was tied to that rock!"
The parallels between Prometheus's torment and that of the modern-day human-rights atrocities are made clear in the ART production, with each week of the show being dedicated to a different non-mythological Amnesty International case. The first is that of Jafar Panahi, the imprisoned Iranian filmmaker who, found guilty of "propaganda against the state" for his filmmaking and political activism, has been barred for 20 years from making films, traveling abroad, and speaking to the media. "The thing about this play is that it's an emancipative story of humanity in some ways. If you look at Prometheus not as a Titan but just as a regular guy who's in prison for doing something that we find morally commendable and being punished for it, it's hard not to compare him to Panahi, or someone in a Myanmar prison for speaking up about human rights."