Aeschylus: An Introduction, 2010

An Introduction to the Folio Society volumes of Aeschylus’s plays

Aeschylus, eldest of the three tragic poets whose work has come down to us from fifth-century Athens, was born outside Athens at Eleusis around 525 BC. The others, Sophocles and Euripides were roughly thirty and forty-five years younger. Tragedy had begun a generation before Aeschylus’s birth when the “dithyramb”, a narrative song with choral refrains, developed into a choral song sung while a solo singer, maybe the leader of the chorus, acted the story using different masks to represent different characters.

Prizes stirred public interest in poetry then as now, and in 534 BC an annual competition began to find the year’s “best tragedy”. The singer credited with this innovation was the first to win the prize and also, reputedly, the first to put on stage a singer pretending to be someone else. His name was Thespis. He made tragedy possible when a soloist, in a choral context, put on a mask and became an actor. Hence our word “Thespian”.

These origins are vital to understanding Aeschylus’s work. At the heart of his art is the relation between “we” and “I”. The chorus may be suppliants, women mourners, or men too old to fight a war but their common voice and their moral reactions stand in for those of the audience. The musical relation between choral and single voice is also the relation between the universal perspective of common humanity, in which we all share, and that of a particular character.

This genre of tragedy developed while democracy too was taking shape at Athens. Solon the lawgiver began that process in 594 BC. But when Aeschylus was about eighteen a nobleman called Cleisthenes became the real father of Athenian democracy when he reformed the constitution on a democratic footing. Both democracy and tragedy turn on a group’s relation to the individual, and the tragic chorus’s response to a particular character, in expressing a common morality, speak for society and therefore for us, the audience.

At first a tragic poet presented his story continuously through three tragedies followed by a related lighter play, a “satyr play”. Aeschylus continued this tradition. Only one whole trilogy, however, has survived: the trilogies to which his other plays belonged, The Persians, Suppliant Maidens, Seven Against Thebes and Prometheus Bound (which may be the work of a later playwright, but is vital to the way later ages have always read Aeschylus), are lost. But the Oresteia of 458 BC, one of Aeschylus’s last works, shows us how a tragic poet patterned the causalities of a story through succeeding plays.

Its first play, Agamemnon, tells us Agamemnon has been pressured in the past by divinity to do an impious act, to sacrifice his daughter. Then then it stages the consequences: his wife murders him in revenge. The second play, Libation Bearers,shows us new consequences. Agamemnon’s son, again pressured by divinity, avenges his father by killing his mother. At the end he sees divinities arriving in “robes of black” to punish him with madness (line 1049) The third play Eumenides brings these daemons on stage and shows them hunting the son. But is also brings out the underlying problem: that human conflict is a result of conflicted divinity.

The Oresteia is a wonderfully complex unfolding of dark, hidden, underlying pressures. They are alluded to at first in dreams, they turn up as “secret angers”, “deep within”, as blood spilt on the ground turned into “ingrown spirits” or “dark angels” rising out of Night and Earth (Agamemnon 155, 990, 1000, 1342) The first two plays are shot through with dark allusions to a family legacy of guilt. The third brings these forces out into public view. In the Eumenides, uniquely, the chorus are not impotent onlooker but are themselves the Furies, “darkness of the Pit below”, born “because of evil”: the daemonic instruments of vengeance, roused by the mother’s ghost to pursue the son who killed her. Athena, Athens’ patron goddess, manages to integrate them into society as its moral guardians (Eumenides 72, 94, 900-915).

The Eumenides was an unprecedented, unrepeatable coup de theatre. You could only bring Furies onto stage for the first time once. The Oresteia was performed in 458 BC when the trilogy was already on the way out. Sophocles and Euripides abandoned the trilogy form and for the annual competition offered three tragedies with different stories, and as Aeschylus’s four surviving other plays have lost their partners we have to treat them each in its own terms, as a play on its own.

At the time when the translations in this book were made, scholars believed that because tragedy began with choral song, the play that had most choral song must be the first, and that was the Suppliant Maidens Today we know the earliest of Aeschylus’s surviving plays is The Persians, produced in 472 BC. Its emotional climax exemplifies the intense relation between chorus and soloist: the chorus has a dialogue with a ghost. When they see it, they respond with the untranslatable verb sebomai: “I feel reverence, I feel awe” (line 694, here translated “I’m shamed”): they must tell the ghost of their dead emperor, Darius, that his own son Xerxes has destroyed the Persian army.

This play, the world’s earliest recorded tragedy, demonstrates how linked tragedy was to contemporary events. The older tragic poet Phyrnichus, pupil of Thespis, reputedly introduced a separate actor in addition to the leader of the chorus and so began true theatrical dialogue. Phrynichus had his first victory in 511 BC, when Aeschylus was about 15 and about eighteen years later staged his controversial play, Capture of Miletus about a recent Greek disaster. In 499 BC Miletus (a Greek city in what is now Turkey, close to the island of Samos) led a revolt of the eastern Greek cities which had been ruled by Persia for about forty years, against the huge Persian empire BC. In 494 the Persians suppressed the revolt and burned Miletus, killing the men, enslaving the women and children. Miletus was a colony of Athens and the Athenians burst into tears at Phrynichus’s play.

Right from the start, tragedy was political. It was upsetting audiences by making them think about their own concerns – Phrynichus was fined “for reminding us of home misfortunes” and a law was passed forbidding any further play on the subject.

Nearly twenty years later Phrynichus wrote another play on recent history. The Persians under King Darius had invaded Greece in 491 BC but were defeated by a storm and also by the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon, in which Aeschylus fought. (When Aeschylus died, around 456 BC, his epitaph high-lit not his plays but his fighting at Marathon.) In 480 Darius’s son Xerxes invaded Greece and managed to burn Athens but was decisively defeated at sea in the Battle of Salamis (in which Aeschylus again fought) and on land in 479. In 476 BC Phrynichus celebrated the Battle of Salamis in his play Phoenician Women.

After the death of Phrynichus, Aeschylus was Athens’ favourite tragedian, winning first prize in nearly every competition until 468 when the young Sophocles first beat him. The Persians covered the ground addressed by Phrynichus in Phoenician Women. In the scene with the Herald, who describes the Battle of Salamis (248-515), Aeschylus was writing about events he had been part of from the point of view of the Persian, the enemy, the vanquished.

Tragedy and history came into being in the same century. Both were stimulated by Greece’s experience of the Persian War; both focussed on painful knowledge – knowledge which is sad to have to know but which it is an important part of being human to confront: the harm we do each other and ourselves. Both were passionately interested in the causes of such harm. “Learning,” says the chorus of the Agamemnonputs it (line 177-8, here translated “wisdom”) comes “through suffering”. History started out as writing about a war. Herodotus wrote about the Persian Wars, Thucydides about the war (431-404 BC) between Athens and Sparta. Tragedy focussed on conflict, often on murder. The Furies, the characteristic tragic daemons, represent vengeance and guilt for spilt blood. Tragedy developed once an actor could interact with a chorus but Aeschylus added a second actor and from this point on, tragedy could stage conflict between individuals.

In different ways, tragedy and history are concerned to set their wondering about whypeople damage themselves and each other in a wide and universal context, and for tragedy this means religion. Sophocles specialized in the tragedy of individual character but Aeschylus’s plays tend to stress the conflict inherent in human relations with divinity. Xerxes is punished for over-stepping human boundaries (like “yoking the sea” when he invaded Greece, 722), in the Prometheus Bound Prometheus is embattled against the divine ruler of the universe, and the Oresteia shows that confliect in and between human beings is due to divinities in conflict with each other. Apollo enforces one principle in human relationships, the Furies another: we endure a disunity of motive and emotion because we are the battleground of self-conflicted divinity.

Aeschylus writes, in fact, of a world which crackles with gods. There are gods in everything you say, do or feel: they inhabit your lintel and hearth, the crossroads and the street, every shadow and boundary and every human relationship from father with child and man with woman to brother with sister and even different parties to a treaty. Hermes is god of wayfarers but also of making a legal contract. This is the world of Athens in the fifth century BC and it was against this background that Greek philosophy developed unique and intense thrust to prioritize the rational and the logical. It is emblematic of the way tragedy speaks to this world that the first recorded play stages dialogue with a ghost.

Out of all these elements, Aeschylus established the genre which was the highlight of the Athenian calendar, and lay at the heart of Athens’ democratic culture – as it would later lie at the heart of Western culture. The grand-scale vision of guilt and universal conflict in the Oresteia influenced all opera but especially Wagner’s Ring, and also the great nineteenth-century tragic novels.

And yet we know less than a tenth of his work. He wrote between seventy to ninety tragedies but these seven are the only ones whose manuscripts survive. Our idea of his achievement might be radically altered if we had even one more play. But we don’t. We are lucky to have even these.