On Aeschylus: The Father of Tragedy

Aeschylus Essay
Spread the love

Aeschylus. Photo: Anderson, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Listen to the audio version of this essay.

The subject of this essay is a man whose influence on playwriting and theater is absolutely unparalleled. The plays we see today in theaters all stem from the seeds this man laid down sometime in the 4th century BC.

In spite of the great influence he has had on theater and playwriting, he is criminally underrated and unknown today, barely celebrated by any one of us. The people who know him are usually university students who are made to study his works. But they are far too less to spread his fame and influence far and wide in the present day and age. History, unfortunately, has been somewhat unkind to him in that respect.

The man I am talking about is the ancient Greek playwright and tragedian Aeschylus, who is widely regarded as the father of tragedy. All academic knowledge in the genre of tragedy begins from his plays and any and all understanding of early Greek tragedy is primarily based on inferences made from reading his existing plays.

Aeschylus is believed to have been born sometime around 525 BC in the small town of Elefsina (or Eleusis) in western Attica, Greece, situated about 18km northwest of Athens. Some scholars believe that his year of birth was simply calculated by counting back 40 years from his first victory in the festival of Dionysia.

He was said to be born into a wealthy family where his father, Euphorion, was a member of the Eupatridae, the ancient nobility of Attica.

However, again, this is not something we can believe or consider to be accurate. More likely than not, it is pure fiction and myth. Even the story of how he began writing tragedies is full of myth and fiction but fascinating nonetheless.

Legend says that Aeschylus worked at a vineyard in his youth, when one night Dionysus, also known as Bacchus (the God of grape-harvest, winemaking, fertility, festivity, vegetation, orchards, fruits, religious ecstasy, theater, and surely something else I am missing), came to him in his sleep and ordered him to focus all his attention on the art of tragedy, which was then not as popular in Greek culture as it would later become. In strict obeisance to what he considered to be divine intervention, as soon as he woke up from his sleep, he began writing a tragedy.

Now, needless to say, this sounds like pure fiction, like a myth that inevitably sprung up around the man due to a lack of true and accurate information and knowledge about him. In a way, looking at his pioneering work and influence on the art of writing plays, it is hardly surprising that over the centuries scholars assumed divine intervention to be the reason for his beginning to write tragedies.

In the days of the old, it was quite common to associate some kind of divine power or intervention with the lives of men who managed to accomplish something extraordinary and lasting in their chosen field.

The first performance of Aeschylus’ tragedy took place in 499 BC when he was around 26 years old. It was also around this time that he took part in an event that would play a huge role in his life and career as a playwright. That event was the Greco-Persian Wars, which were a series of conflicts between the Greek city-states and the Achaemenid Empire that lasted for around 50 years, from 499 BC to 449 BC.

In 490 BC, Aeschylus and his brother Cynegeirus were part of the army that fought and defended Athens against the invading army of Darius I of Persia at the Battle of Marathon. The victory of the Greek army and the successful defense of Athens was so vital and significant that the victory was celebrated and lauded across all of Greece.

Cynegeirus, unfortunately, was killed while trying to stop a Persian ship from retreating from the shore. For his brave attempt, he was posthumously praised and extolled as a hero by his countrymen.

The Battle of Marathon was of such great importance that upon Aeschylus’ death, his epitaph celebrated his participation in the battle but made no mention of his success as a playwright.

In 480 BC, when Aeschylus was around 45 years old, he was once again summoned into military service along with his brother Ameinias to fight against the invading forces of Xerxes I at the Battle of Salamis. The following year, he also fought at the Battle of Plataea.

Before being called for the Battle of Salamis, Aeschylus had already begun making a name for himself as a playwright after having won his first victory at the Dionysia in 484 BC, around the age of 41.

During this period, dramatic competitions became an important part of the Dionysia, which was a large festival in ancient Athens held in honor of the God Dionysus. And these theatrical performances of dramatic tragedies and comedies became the main events of the festival.

It was in the Dionysia that the seeds of Greek drama were sowed and began taking root. The festival was considered the second-most important festival after the Panathenaia.

It is believed that the first competition Aeschylus took part in involved three playwrights, each of whom presented three tragedies and one satyr play. Such a format is known as a continuous tragic tetralogy. This was probably Aeschylus’ first proper writing experience that gave him a chance to explore the theological, cosmic, and human dimensions of a mythic sequence, and develop it in successive phases.

The second competition he took part in involved five comedic playwrights.

These competitions were then judged by a panel and the winner was decided. After the death of one of his main rivals, Phrynichus, Aeschylus became the favorite playwright every year to win the competition. It is said that from then onward, he won first prize in nearly every competition.

In such a way, Aeschylus slowly established his reputation as a great playwright. And although only seven tragedies attributed to him have survived to the present day, sources claim that he actually wrote between 70-90 plays.

In fact, one of his plays almost got him killed. The legend goes that Aeschylus, like many Greeks of the time, was initiated into the Eleusinian Mysteries, which was an ancient cult of the Olympian goddess Demeter, who was the goddess of harvest and agriculture. Sometime later, when he had become a fairly well-known playwright, he was accused by people of impiety for revealing some of the secrets of the cult on stage through one of his plays.

Angry mobs tried to stone him and kill him for this, and he took refuge at the altar in the orchestra of the theater of Dionysus. He also underwent a trial for his impiety, where he pleaded ignorance and was acquitted by a jury mostly due to the accomplishments of his and his brothers in military service.

Now, how true are these accounts, I do not know. There is no accurate and concrete evidence to support these claims and so, just like Aeschylus during his trial, I claim ignorance now.

The seven plays of Aeschylus that have managed to survive the course of the centuries are The Persian, Seven Against Thebes, The Suppliants, the trilogy of tragedies Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides (collectively known as the Oresteia), and the Prometheus Bound (whose attribution to Aeschylus is still disputed).

Sources say that apart from Prometheus Bound, the remaining six plays won first prize at the Dionysia. No one knows for sure if Prometheus Bound was a success or not. Some ancient accounts of Aeschylus claim that he won the first prize 13 times, while fellow playwrights Sophocles and Euripides won it 18 times and 5 times respectively.

So how was Aeschylus a pioneering playwright, you may wonder. What did he do so differently from all the other playwrights that made him special? What is his lasting influence that I was referring to early on?

Well, let me get to that part now.

One of the pioneering styles for which Aeschylus stood out was his tendency to write connected trilogies in which each play served as a chapter in an overall continuous dramatic narrative. Although he is believed to have written several more such trilogies, the only surviving example is The Oresteia, which comprises Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides. Together, these three plays tell the violent story of the family of Agamemnon, the king of Argos.

In fact, The Oresteia is the only complete trilogy of Greek plays by any playwright still extant. For that alone, Aeschylus stands out from his contemporaries.

Over the years, scholars have come to the conclusion that three of his existing plays were actually a part of connected trilogies. The Suppliants (written in 463 BC) was the first play in a Danaid trilogy, and it deals with the democratic undercurrent which was then running through the city of Athens, almost immediately preceding the establishment of a democratic government in 461 BC. The play also lays emphasis on the theme and importance of the polis (an administrative and religious city center distinct from the rest of the city).

Seven Against Thebes (written in 467 BC) was the last play in an Oedipus trilogy. It has the contrasting theme of the interference of the gods in human affairs, and another theme which was that the polis was a key development of human civilization.

And Prometheus Bound (whose date is still disputed), if at all it was written by Aeschylus, was the first play in a Prometheus trilogy. It is based on the myth of Prometheus, the Titan god of fire who defies Zeus and steals fire from the gods and gives it to mankind and protects them, for which he is subjected to the wrath of Zeus and punished.

Scholars have even suggested lost trilogies based on known play titles, such as Achilleis, which consists of MyrmidonsNereids, and Phrygians (also known as The Ransoming of Hector).

The Soul-raisersPenelope, and The Bone-gatherers are believed to be plays in a trilogy that recounts Odysseus’ return to Ithaca after the Trojan War.

And The Award of the ArmsThe Phrygian Women, and The Salaminian Women suggest a trilogy about the madness and subsequent suicide of the Greek hero Ajax, who plays an important and heroic role in the Trojan War according to Homer‘s The Iliad.

There are many more such suggested trilogies, which, unfortunately, we shall never get to read in their original form. Many of these trilogies were centered around legends and myths about the Trojan War and its aftermath and were no doubt inspired by The Iliad and The Odyssey.

But this was not the only way in which Aeschylus influenced theater. He, along with Sophocles, is credited to have introduced scene decoration in his plays. He made costumes more dramatic, detailed, and elaborate and even made his actors wear platform boots so that they were more visible to the audience.

Most importantly, he introduced a second actor along with the first to interact with the chorus. This addition not only resulted in the chorus playing a less important role in plays but also allowed for greater dramatic variety. This development led to further expansion in the number of characters in plays, allowing conflict among them, where previously the characters only interacted with the chorus.

Aeschylus’ works were usually centered around strong religious and moral themes, including stories about the gods and the position of humans in relation to the gods, divine law, and divine punishment.

The plays were all written in verse, usually set in faraway places like in The Persians, and have a certain remoteness from daily Athenian life and were devoid of any violence.

The Persians was based on his own experiences, especially in the Battle of Salamis, and is quite unique and rare among other surviving Greek tragedies as it deals with and describes a recent historical event. It deals with the theme of Hubris (a personality quality of extreme, excessive pride or dangerous overconfidence in combination with arrogance) and blames Persia’s loss on the excessive pride of its king.

Even the death of Aeschylus is shrouded in some kind of fiction and myth, or at least it seems like that. It is said that he was killed sometime around 456 BC (aged around 67) outside the city of Gela in Sicily when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head after mistaking his head for a rock suitable for shattering the tortoise’s shell.

Now, how true and believable is this account? You decide for yourself.

Aeschylus’ plays were said to have had the effect of inspiring Greeks to be brave and virtuous. Over the years, his plays became ingrained into Greek culture and education and were read, enjoyed, and studied by men like Aristotle and Aristophanes. His works were so admired and respected among Athenians that after his death his tragedies were the only ones allowed to be restaged in subsequent competitions.

Gradually, the influence of his work spread outside of Greece and across Europe, influencing the likes of German theater director and composer Wilhelm Richard Wagner, American playwright Eugene O’Neill, etc.

O’Neill based his trilogy of plays Mourning Becomes Electra (released in 1931) on Aeschylus’ trilogy The Oresteia. O’Neill was so influenced by Aeschylus that he even began to develop a play about him, noting that Aeschylus changed the system of the tragic stage to such an extent that he had more claim than anyone else to be regarded as the father and founder of tragedy.

Wagner’s four-cycle epic music drama The Ring of the Nibelung is also believed to be greatly influenced by The Oresteia, so much so that scholars have found a character-by-character comparison between the two works.

Although today Aeschylus’ works are not as widely read among the general public, his influence still lives on through contemporary writers and playwrights. His life and work are studied by literature students in universities across the world.

Few who have read his works can fail to acknowledge the fact that Aeschylus was indeed not only the founder of tragedy but also a pioneering playwright in several other aspects of the theater who has greatly and deeply influenced and changed modern theater.