Otto Steinmayer: CLASSIC GROUND

The goat-winning tragedies of Aeschylus

[New Straits Times, 13 November 1991]


Classical studies is a vast trivia game. Take the three great tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. They came to strange ends, so it's said.

Aeschylus was the eldest of the three, and if not the actual inventor of tragedy, its first great poet. Some time or other he left his native Athens in a huff and went to Syracuse at the tyrant's invitation. Then one day, while he was sunning himself on a terrace, an eagle flew overhead with a tortoise in its claws. Aeschylus' bald head looked like a convenient rock on which to smash the animal, and there was an end of the poet.

Do you believe it? Of course not, but who cares?

Drama is universal, but it had its slow beginnings. In primitive societies, it's often hard to tell at what point drama becomes art. The dances and re-enactments of myth usually take place as part of a ritual.

Nobody knows exactly how tragedy began, but we have a good guess. Homer describes how poets sang a myth while a chorus (from the word "to dance") of men or women danced and mimed. After Homer's time the chorus sang, too. Real drama arrived when one person stepped out from the corps de ballet and began to speak in character, as the hero of the story, and carried along a dialogue with the dancers.
This actor wore a mask. He could leave the performance area to change his mask and come back to speak as another character. An important "mask" in this "one-actor" tragedy was that of the Messenger, who came on at the climax to report what had happened to the hero.
This style of drama became popular and contests---since the Greeks loved competition---were established. The prize for the best play was a he-goat, in Greek "tragos," and so these plays came to be called "tragedies," that is, "goat-songs." (Nobody knows whether this is really true either.)

Tragedies were presented once a year in a state festival in honour of Dionysus, god of wine. From that, some people have thought that tragedy was a form of worship---tragedy's seriousness makes that believable. In fact, the Greeks put on tragedies in the same way as the Balinese now give arja and topeng plays on temple grounds, as an entertainment which both the god and human beings share.

When modern people say that some event unfolds "like a Greek tragedy" they mean it has progressed in a ghastly way towards a horribly predictable catastrophe. There's truth in this. The audience that came into the Theater of Dionysus to see a tragedy knew exactly how the story began and ended. The suspence lay in the way the action developed.

Aeschylus wrote about 82 plays, of which only seven have survived, because they were texts assigned in school.

Aeschylus' earliest play of those we have is the Persians. This unusual tragedy deals not with myth, but with contemporary history, the defeat of the grand army of the Persian emperor Xerxes. The Persians won the dramatic prize of that year. No wonder, with such a patriotic subject.
What is tragic about the Persians? Aeschylus sees the destruction of the Persians from their own point of view. The theme is one that the Greeks thought a profound moral principle of the universe: greatness breeds pride, pride breeds folly, and through folly men destroy themselves. Xerxes in his passion to punish the Greeks, insults the gods by whipping and chaining the seas that will not carry him. Xerxes behaves in a way not allowed to man, and his expedition is doomed.

Aeschylus' aimed to "stun" his audience. To that end he used all the tricks of the stage: spectacle, costume, action, ghosts, above all words. Of the three great tragic poets, Aeschylus used the richest, splendidest, darkest language.

After God struck down the tower of Babel and confused the languages of men, He left us with the gruesomely impossible problem of translation. We have solved it to the point we can get the bare information across from one language to another. But how to translate poetry? How do we get that richness across?

And when we read the plays in our dusty classrooms, we miss the spectacle, dance, music, the sound and the gesture of the actors. A play is meant to be performed; its meaning is fulfilled only on the stage.

In the dramatic contests, each poet was required to present three tragedies. These three might be on separate stories, but Aeschylus liked to link his three tragedies together in one long plot, each play taking up a further step in the myth.

Aeschylus' only surviving trilogy is the Oresteia, containing the tragedies Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Eumenides.
The first play dramatizes the return of the Greek general Agamemnon from Troy and his murder by his wife Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus. The pattern, again, is greatness, pride, folly, and destruction. Mid-play, Agamemnon arrives in a chariot and greets his wife and his people. Clytemnestra has long ago plotted her husband's death; nothing remains but for her to allow Agamemnon himself to justify it. She orders embroidered purple cloth to be laid from the chariot to the door of the palace, so that Agamemnon may not place "the foot that destroyed Troy" on the ground of his home land.

Agamemnon hesitates. His military bureaucratic mind dimly understands the symbolism. Not to touch the ground, to trample purple, is the privilege of gods, not men. But Agamemnon chooses to rival the gods, to let loose his pride, and walks into the palace to meet the axe's edge.

CLYTEMNESTRA: There is the sea, who shall dry it up?
It nourishes the ever-new ooze of purple,
Garments' dye, in worth equal to silver.
King, with the gods this House abounds in wealth,
The palace does not know to be poor.
I would have vowed the trampling of many garments,
If the oracle had ordered it,
The price to me scheming for this breath of life.
The vine's root is whole, leaves climb upon the house
Spreading shade above against the Dogstar;
And at your coming to the house's hearth,
Appears a sign of warmth to come in winter;
And when Zeus fashions from the sour grape
Wine, then there is coolness in the house,
A perfect man inhabiting the palace.
Zeus, Zeus Perfecter, perfect my prayers!
Take charge of what you must bring to pass.

The cruel ironies of Clytemnestra's triumph are the very soul of terror in language.

"Pity and terror," says Aristotle the original drama-critic, are the central emotions of tragedy. Left to its own, tragedy would end with a bare stage and a violent, meaningless universe. But Aeschylus looked for ways to redeem his theme.

In the Libation-Bearers, Agamemnon's son Orestes kills his mother in a divinely ordered revenge. In the final play, the grim spirits of Earth, the Eumenides, ironically "the kindly ones," demand Orestes' death. There is a trial, and Orestes is acquitted by one vote. In recompense, the Eumenides receive new honour and worship.

The sequence of Aeschylus' trilogy manifests, in dramatic terms, the development of justice from savage vendetta to the rule of law, the movement from chaos to order, imbalance to balance, how the divine will works in human affairs. Few dramatists have had such a high conception of drama, or realized it so well.