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Ancient Greek Theatre » Aeschylus

AESCHYLUS (525-456 B.C.)

For the "father" of the Greek Tragedy, as we call him today, Gods play a most important part in the lives of Humans, defining their destiny and controlling their actions. Aeschylus likes pompous words and makes his characters larger than life in order to be able to match their majestic, omnipotent Gods. Justice plays the most important part in his plays.

Aeschylus made some vital changes in the form of Tragedy: He reduced the number of people participating in the Chorus from 50 to 12, and used 2 Actors instead of 1, thus developing Dialogue in theatrical plays for the first time.
He was also the first to write a Trilogy, a unity of three plays narrating a story. His most famous Trilogy, Oresteia, is the only Trilogy surviving as a whole till nowadays.
Aeschylus is also the author of the oldest surviving Tragedy, Persians, which is also the only fully surviving Tragedy we know today having a content based on History, not Mythology, as it refers to the famous Battle of Salamis.

Aeschylus’ plays - Synopsis

Persians (Persae)

Aeschylus-Persians

The chorus of the Persian people describes the glory of the great army their king Xerxes, son of Darius the Great, has led against the Greeks and wonder about its fate. Enters Atossa, the king’s mother, distressed by a dream that woke her up, and asks about the city of Athens against which her son is attacking. A messenger arrives to report that the Persian fleet has been decisively defeated in a sea-battle at Salamis, and that Xerxes with the remnants of his forces is making his way back to Susa, the nation’s capital. In grief, the chorus and the queen call upon the ghost of the late king Darius. His specter appears and the queen tells him about Xerxes’ expedition to conquer Europe. Darius reveals that Xerxes has offended the Gods not only with his pride but by destroying their temples as well. Finally, Xerxes enters, defeated and desperate, lamenting the loss of his army and the death of the most excellent men of Persia.

Note: Persians is the oldest surviving tragedy, written in 472 B.C., and also the only tragedy whose plot is based on historical events –not on mythology. It refers to the famous Battle of Salamis, when Persians were defeated by Greeks, in 480 B.C., almost 2,500 years ago, marking the beginning of what we now know as the Western Civilization.

Seven against Thebes

Aeschylus-Seven against Thebes

The army of the city of Argos, led by Polynices, is at the gates of his native city, Thebes. His brother, Eteocles, tries to encourage the spirit of his terrified people and leads them in a prayer to the Gods. A messenger reports that seven leaders are in command of the Argive forces, naming and describing each one of them to the king. Eteocles then assigns an appropriate defender to each of the city’s seven gates, realizing that he has kept for himself the defense of the seventh gate, thus having to face his own brother, Polynices. It is now definite that the curse of their father, Oedipus, has in fact come true, and Eteocles rushes to the fatal battle. The messenger brings news that the two brothers have killed one another. Their bodies are brought back to the city, escorted by their mourning sisters, Ismene and Antigone.

Note: The fatal battle between the two brothers is never shown on stage. We “see” it come alive through the messenger’s spectacular narration, instead.

Suppliants (Suppliant Women / Hiketidae)

Aeschylus- The Danaides by John William Waterhouse (1903)

Danaus and his daughters, the Danaids, live in Egypt but are Greeks by descent. The king has refused to allow the marriage between his daughters and their cousins, sons of his brother, Aegyptus. Fleeing their home, the women arrive at Argos, their ancestral city, and claim sanctuary. The king of city, Pelasgus, has a difficult decision to make: to reject the suppliants, who are protected by Zeus, or to accept them and risk conflict with the Egyptians. Therefore, he needs the advice and the approval of his people. Danaus reports that Pelasgus has in fact persuaded his people to protect these suppliants. A threatening herald from the Egyptians arrives and attempts to coerce the maidens into leaving. King Pelasgus intervenes and takes the Danaids into the protection of the city of Argos. Danaus commands his daughters to resist any attractions of desire or love, and part of the chorus agrees to that. Some, though, argue that Love is a powerful deity which must be respected and honored.

Note: Euripides has written a tragedy by the same name, but with a completely different plot.


The Oresteia Trilogy: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers (Choephoroe), Eumenides

Agamemnon

Aeschylus- Clytemnestra hesitates before killing the sleeping Agamemnon. Painting by Pierre-Narcisse Guerin

The message of the fall of Troy arrives at Mycenae. The chorus narrates, in flashback, the fateful omen that had refused the departure of the Greek army, Agamemnon’s dilemma (sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, or abandon the expedition), and her awful murder at Aulis. Agamemnon’s wife, queen Clytemnestra, describes how the news of the fall of Troy has reached Greece. A messenger announces that Agamemnon will shortly return to his home, and that Menelaus and his ships have vanished in a storm. As the chorus proclaims that Justice “brings all things to fulfillment”, Agamemnon enters along with his captive mistress, Kassandra. Clytemnestra persuades him to enter the house walking on a purple carpet, a symbol of the blood he has shed. Kassandra, a former priestess of Apollo, who taught her the secrets of the art of the seers but then cursed her, so that no one may believe her although she foretells the truth, laments her fate. She tells of the murder of Thyestes’ children by Agamemnon’s father, Atreus, and predicts her own death as well as the death of Agamemnon by the hand of Clytemnestra. Then, she goes inside the palace and we hear the death cry of Agamemnon. The doors open to reveal Clytemnestra standing over the bodies of her victims, claiming vengeance for the murder of her daughter, Iphigenia. Her lover, Aegisthus, Thyestes’ only surviving son, enters to join in the triumph, but the chorus insists that this matter is not over.

Note: Murder was NEVER represented on stage, as Ancient Greeks thought it was improper to show such an act in theater. Also, actors never represented the dead as such a thing was considered offensive and disrespectful against men and Gods. Instead, they used dummies, which they pulled on stage with the help of a wooden wheeled vehicle, called eccyclema.

Libation Bearers (Choephoroe)

Aeschylus- Libation Bearers

Orestes, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra’s only son, has come home to Argos from exile with his friend, Pylades. He makes an offering at the tomb of his father, and withdraws as he sees a group of women approaching. Clytemnestra has had a disturbing dream, so she sends her daughter, Electra, to appease her murdered husband’s wrath. Orestes reveals himself and is recognized by his sister. He tells her that Apollo has commanded him to avenge their father by killing their mother. Brother and sister mourn and summon the spirit of their dead father. In the second half of the play, the scene moves to the palace, where Orestes and Pylades gain access by announcing the “death” of Orestes. Clytemnestra sends a nurse to fetch Aegisthus. The chorus intervenes, convincing the nurse tell him to come alone. He arrives and Orestes kills him on sight. In a great confrontation with her son, Clytemnestra bares her breasts and asks Orestes if he can truly kill his mother. Pylades reminds Orestes of the words of Apollo. After the off-stage murder of Clytemnestra, we see Orestes standing over the bodies of his victims, just as his mother had done with Agamemnon and Kassandra. In Orestes’ mind now come the Furies and, thrown into madness, he rushes off the scene.

Note: The libation (choes) offered from the living to the dead, honored not only the memory of their loved ones, but Gods as well.

Eumenides

Aeschylus- Orestes Pursued by the Furies

Pythia arrives at Apollo’s temple where she finds Orestes, with blood still on his hands, and the temple infested by the horrible Furies. Apollo sends Orestes to Athens, in order to seek judgment for his actions and then drives the Furies out of his shrine. Orestes arrives in Athens and takes refuge at the statue of Athena, but the Furies follow him still. His appeal to Athena is answered by her arrival, but she does not send the Furies away. Instead, she submits Orestes’ case to a jury of twelve Athenian men. Apollo appears to defend Orestes and answer the charges of the Furies, who have excellent arguments. The final vote is evenly split, but Athena breaks the tie in Orestes’ favor. Orestes leaves, swearing eternal friendship between Mycenae and Athens, while Athena and her citizens must deal with the angry Furies, who feel that these younger Gods are robbing them of their rights. Athena persuades them to make their home in Athens, as guardians of order and bestowers of fertility. The Furies then become Eumenides (“The Kind Ones”) and the first court of law, the Areios Pagos, is founded.

Note: The Areios Pagos still exists today in the city of Athens, and it is the highest court of law in Greece.

Prometheus Bound (Prometheus Desmotes)

Aeschylus- Prometheus Bound. Painting by Frans Snyders and Peter Paul Rubens

In the recent war between the older Titans and the younger Olympian Gods, the Titan Prometheus (his name means “fore thought”) had joined forces with Zeus, being largely responsible for the victory of the Olympians. But when Prometheus learned that Zeus was intending to destroy the human race, he stole fire –a symbol of all human civilization and technology– and gave it to men, in order to help them survive, thus saving them from extinction. To punish him, Zeus has Prometheus chained to a rock in the Caucasus Mountains. He is visited by the daughters of Oceanus (the Ocean, god of the sea that surrounds the world) and then by Oceanus himself, to whom Prometheus justifies what he has done and foretells that even Zeus is subject to Necessity. Io, the play’s only human character, arrives. Zeus has fallen in love with her, so his wife, Hera, has changed Io into a heifer and now she is cruelly driving around the world with fits of madness and pain. Io recounts her past and Prometheus predicts her future: she will end up in Egypt, be healed by Zeus, and bear him a son; her descendant, Heracles, will release Prometheus from his chains. Then, he tells the chorus his secret: he knows who can overthrow Zeus. Hermes, the official emissary of the Olympians, arrives to force Prometheus reveal his secret, but the Titan refuses and is catapulted into Tartarus by a violent tempest.

Note: In Prometheus Bound the Greek word “Philanthropy” (Philanthropia) is used for the first time in history. Aeschylus “invented” it to express the “love for the human”, as its meaning suggests.

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