Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Week 05, Aeschylus

Introduction to Ancient Greek Theater

Good Books I’ve Come Across:

Easterling, P.E. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Kaufmann, Walter. Tragedy and Philosophy.

Ley, Graham. A Short Introduction to the Ancient Greek Theater. Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1991.

McLeish, Kenneth. A Guide to Greek Theatre and Drama. London: Methuen, 2003.
Pomeroy, Sarah. Et al. Ancient Greece: A Political, Social, and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.

Religious Roots of Tragedy: The Festivals of Dionysus at Athens were called the City Dionysia, which was held in March or April, and the Lenaea, which was held in January. Though classical theater flourished mainly from 475-400 BCE, it developed earlier from choral religious ceremonies dedicated to Dionysus.

The God of Honor: Dionysus was an Olympian god, and the Greeks celebrated his rites in the dithyramb. In mythology, his followers were satyrs and mainades, or ecstatic females. We sometimes call him the god of ecstasy, and as Kenneth McLeish says, he “supervis[ed] the moment when human beings surrender to unstoppable, irrational feeling or impulse” (1-2). His agents are wine, song, and dance. Song and dance were important to Dionysian rites, and the participants apparently wore masks.

At the festivals, three tragic writers would compete and so would three or five comedic playwrights. The idea was that each tragedian would present three plays and a satyr play; sometimes the three plays were linked in a trilogy, like The Oresteia. So the audience had a great deal of play going to do during the festival seasons; the activities may have gone on for three or four days, with perhaps four or five plays per day. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival provides something like this pace.

Organization: How were the festivals organized? Well, the magistrate was chosen every year by lot – the archon. Then, dramatists would apply to the magistrate for a chorus, and if they obtained a chorus, that meant that they had been chosen as one of the three tragic playwrights. After that affair was settled, wealthy private citizens known as choregoi served as producers for each playwright. The state paid for the actors, and the choregos paid chorus’ training and costumes. So there was both state and private involvement in the production of a tragedy or comedy.

The Playwrights: Aeschylus 525-456 B.C. / Sophocles 496-406 B.C. / Euripides 485-406 B.C.
Aeschylus composed about 80 dramas, Sophocles about 120, Euripides perhaps about 90. Aristophanes probably wrote about 40 comedies. Dramatists who wrote tragedies did not compose comedies, and vice versa.

The playwright was called a didaskalos, a teacher or trainer because he trained the chorus who were to sing and dance. As drama developed, the playwright also took care of the scripts and the music. He was something like a modern director, and may at times have acted in his own plays, especially in the early stages of his career. A successful dramatist could win prizes, but generally, playwrights were able to support themselves independently by land-holdings. Sophocles, for example, was a prominent citizen – he served as a general and treasurer. Aeschylus was an esteemed soldier against the Persian Empire, and his tombstone is said to have recorded his military service, not his prowess as a playwright.

The Theater: The theater for the City Dionysia was located on the south slope of the citadel of Athens, the Acropolis. The Didaskalia Classics site offers 3-D images of a later reconstruction: http://didaskalia.open.ac.uk/StudyArea/visual_resources/dionysus3d.html.

The theater had three parts:

Theatron: this was for seating around 14,000 spectators; it was probably at first of wood, but later it was of stone.

Orchestra: this was for the chorus to sing and dance in and for the actors, when their function was developed.

Skene: this was at first a tent-like structure that served as a scene-building, and it had a door for entrances and exits. The Oresteia requires one, though perhaps the earliest plays didn’t.
Costume was important, too, because it could be used to determine factors like status, gender, and age.

The chorus remained important in drama, especially in Aeschylus. At some point, a choregos (legend says it was “Thespis,” hence actors are “thespians”) stepped forth and became the first actor, or answerer (hypocrites). So the composer was the first participant to turn choral celebration into what we call drama, with a plot and interaction between characters. Apparently Aeschylus or Sophocles added a third actor. The former’s early plays required only two actors, but even that was enough to make for interesting exchanges between the chorus and the actors and, to some extent, between the actors and each other. With three actors, of course, the possibilities for true dramatic dialogue and action are impressive.

Audience: Would have consisted mostly of male citizens -- the ones who ran Athenian democracy by participating in the Assembly. There would probably have been very few, if any, slaves or women present, and perhaps some resident aliens or “metics” and visiting dignitaries. Drama was surely a male-centered affair, as was the political life of Athens. Public speaking was vital in democratic Athens -- anyone who was someone in the legal/political system needed to know how to move and convince fairly large numbers of men. Theater and political life, as we shall see from Aeschylus, were in fact closely connected: the same skills were required, and the same class of people participated (male kyrioi, or heads of households who also performed military service). So while the stuff of tragedy seems almost always to have been the ancient myth cycles, the audience watching the plays would have felt themselves drawn in by the dramatists’ updating of their significance for the major concerns of the 5th-century B.C. present. And that present was, of course, the age of the great statesman Pericles (495-429 B.C.), who drove home the movement towards full Athenian democracy from 461 B.C. onwards and who at the same time furthered a disastrous course of imperial protection and aggression that had ensued from victory in the Persian Wars around 500 B.C. Greek tragedy grew to maturity in the period extending from the battles of Marathon on land in 490 B.C. and the naval engagement at Salamis in 480 B.C., on through the Second Peloponnesian War from 431-404 B.C., in which the Athenians lost to Sparta the empire they had gained during half a century of glory following the victories over Persia. Athens’ supremacy didn’t last long as such things go, but it burned brightly while it lasted, and festival drama, along with architecture, sculpture, and philosophy, was among its greatest accomplishments. So the dramas took place in one of the most exciting times in Western history – both heady and unsettling at the same time, shot through with violence, democratic and artistic flowering, victory, and great loss.

Tragic Masks: The masks tell us something about tragedy: with linen or clay masks, a single actor might play several roles, or wear several faces of the same character. Wilde said, “give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.” His quip should remind us that masks don’t discourage expression -- as Kenneth McLeish says, they had religious significance in the theater: participants in Dionysian rites offered up their personal identity to the god, and further, he continues:

“Wearing a mask does not inhibit or restrict the portrayal of character but enhances it, allowing more, not less, fluidity and suppleness of movement; and the character created by or embodied in the mask and the actor who wears it can feel as if it has an independent identity which is liberated at the moment of performance – an unsettlingly Dionysian experience” (9).
That emphasis on what we might call expression is important especially because – Aristotle’s claims about plot being the soul of tragedy notwithstanding – not much happens in many Greek tragedies. Instead, chorus members and characters “take up an attitude” towards the few well-packaged, exciting events that take place on or off the stage. The action is important, but the characters’ words and attitudes help us, in turn, gain perspective on the action. Perhaps when Aristotle emphasizes plot so much, he’s taking for granted the great power of the Dionysian mask to support the plot in driving the audience towards catharsis. Character, he says, will reveal itself in relation to the play’s action.

Aristotle’s theory of drama – we didn’t cover this much in our class, but if you would like to read something about it, please see my Fall 2005 E491 Literary Theory blog (http://www.ajdrake.com/blogs/491_fall_06/), where (in the entry for Week 2 or 3) I cover The Poetics in some detail. In Aristotle’s view, a well constructed plot that follows probability and necessity will induce the proper tragic emotions (pity and fear or terror), with the result being “catharsis,” a medical term that may be interpreted as “purgation” (of emotion) and/or as “intellectual clarification.” I should think that the tragic emotions, once aroused, become the object of introspection; thereafter, the audience attains clarification about an issue of great importance – for instance, our relation to the gods, the nature of divine justice, etc.

Notes on ‘‘The Eumenides’’


Pythia prays first to earth and tradition, and then she mentions Phoebus Apollo, the civilized and prophetic god. Apollo speaks for Zeus. She praises Athena, Dionysus, and Zeus. We might take this as foretelling need to placate all the gods, and the Furies later. Goldhill says that relations in divine order mirror the uncertainty and strife we see in the human realm. Right after this prayer, 1-30, the Pythia around 33 is shaken; she sees first a man, Orestes, come as suppliant to Apollo’s Oracle at Delphi . And she sees beings that she can’t identify; they must have to do with pollution.

33-65. Pythia says Apollo must purge his own house. So she has set the stage: Apollo must purge his own house.

66-96. Apollo promises to help Orestes. Even Apollo does not name the Furies, though he calls them eternal virgins, obscenities. He tells Orestes to go to Athena’s sanctuary. At line 85, Apollo says he’ll devise the master stroke—so he admits some responsibility. Orestes wants “justice,” which Apollo knows must be tempered with compassion. The Furies are loathed by men and gods, so they will all have to come to terms with these creatures.

97-139. Clytemnestra rouses the Furies. She says that for those she killed, the charges of the dead will never cease. Her own Furies owe her something—a dream is calling them, she says. The Furies cry out in their sleep “Get him.” A dream calls them, and now she calls them. The Underworld’s shades are real. At 136, she says her charges are just. Fine words as always. Then the Furies awake, Orestes having escaped.

144-75. The Furies speak, first lamenting the loss of Orestes. The quarry has slipped from the nets—that’s the same reference used in reference to Clytemnestra’s killing of Agamemnon. She will set them on Orestes as hunters. Unless this happens, she thinks, there’s no justice. Around 173, the Furies accuse Apollo of polluting his own shrine.

176-232. Apollo argues with the Furies, who (at 151) have accused him of taking away their prerogatives. He sides with civility and order, employing a series of violent images to describe the Furies—they belong with wild animals and people who act like wild animals. He doesn’t accept their right to be where they are. But isn’t he denying the revenge cycle, which he calls unacceptable and loathsome? He says the order of Olympus will be against the Furies, but that won’t happen at the trilogy’s end. He accuses the Furies of being unbalanced in their notions about justice—they privilege Clytemnestra because killing a mother is killing irreplaceable flesh and blood. At 222, Apollo puts his faith in Athena. At 230, he says that Orestes would become a terror to gods and men, a frustrated suppliant. Incivility and not keeping one’s word, not observing proper relations between gods and men, are his greatest anxieties.

233-407. Orestes prays to Athena’s statue, but his call for help isn’t answered at once. The Furies, with their references to hunting, appear to him first. Notice the reference to the Eagle of Zeus hunting the hare. At 235, Orestes says he’s purified, his hands are clean. But he’s still an outcast, and the Furies don’t recognize his statement as valid. They have come to a holy part of the City, thirsting for blood.

253-73. The Furies speak of their kind of justice—blood for blood, not Athenian law. They invoke the might of Hades, their own realm. They don’t see this as anarchy: the accounts of men’s deeds are written on Hades’ tablets. Revenge, as Sir Francis Bacon says disapprovingly in an essay written around 1600, is “a kind of wild justice.” The Furies favor the argument from antiquity: their kind of justice is binding upon men and gods, and it predates (and therefore supersedes) written law and civic institutions. Perhaps Aeschylus wants to show the persistence of tradition even in the fifth-century-BCE present. One cannot wish away the violent past or the traditional ways of dealing with it. Even settled law and order are always beset by the threat of violence.

287-90. Here Orestes invokes Athena; he wants justice without a battle. He wants a new settlement for himself and Argos .

304-06. Here the Furies assert their own parallel authority; they must sacrifice Orestes to their own law, unwillingly, which is corrupt sacrificial practice. (Ritual sacrifice of animals, by the way, called for getting the victim to “nod” its approval of its treatment.) Just as Apollo said he would use a spell, so will they. They sing a chain-song to bind human beings. So we must balance this song against the Olympian hymns at the trilogy’s end, and vice versa.

307-407. They sing the independence of their own realm, and the result is an oxymoronic hymn of fury. They pray to their Mother Night, and call Apollo a whelp. Nobody can shake their grip, and the Fates have given them independence even from the gods. They mock the notion of a trial, standing instead upon their rights. They insist at line 363 that Zeus wouldn’t champion Orestes or Apollo. Everyone is arguing over what the gods will do. Neither do the Furies accept Orestes’ washing of his hands—see 362, where he is still described as “streaked with blood.”

372. The Furies mock men’s dreams of grandeur—so much for human pretensions and aspirations and illusions; they will be swallowed up by this prior realm that predates even the order of the gods. The dreams of grandeur would include Athenian edifices of law and stone: the Classical and golden era of art. All these ways of building up humanity will be lost when the Furies sing and dance. Their language threatens to undermine human beings’ attempts to use these artistic forms in the service of civilization. We are here close to the territory of Friedrich Nietzsche ’s early writing about the inseparable “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” elements in Greek culture—so much of what we call “civilization” seems to depend upon what Nietzsche labels “forgetting”—forgetting the necessary violence and cruelty that went into the beautiful forms and practices we deem civilized. The Furies, at least (and in their unbalanced way), don’t want us to forget.

399-403. The Furies deny any possible evolution from the wild and violent to the civilized. At 401, they refer to their own prerogatives as law. Apollonian constructions that help the Greeks endure are not to be allowed. One possible contradiction emerges around 396-407: the Furies say that they have their pride, but they also admit that they have been banished to the realm beneath the earth. Therefore, their claim that the gods cannot touch them does not hold up well. But they assert that they still retain their prerogatives. Nonetheless, their assertion of eternal privilege does not square with the facts, and it seems that change can occur, in spite of the Furies.

408-449. Athena enters, armed for combat, in spite of what Orestes had asked. Both the Furies and Orestes start off equal in Athena’s eyes—she mixes them together. The Furies must name themselves as curses and daughters of the night. Athena is fair-minded and she will accept the facts. The Furies, meanwhile insist that revenge never ends as far as they are concerned. Athena distinguishes between the name of justice and the act of justice, and she would like to see a settlement.

444ff. A pivotal moment occurs here because the Furies exhibit an interest in a settlement—this may come as a surprise considering what they have said earlier. The point Athena makes to them is that oath-taking should never lead to injustice. As Goldhill says, this is partly going to be an argument over what language is for—how does it mediate between or affect the various realms?

449. The Furies respond to Athena’s respectful addresses. Perhaps they want to break free of their realm, which is that of the endless revenge cycle. But ‘‘why’’? Is it to increase their power and escape their constraints, or to participate in the balancing act between primal impulse and civic code?

461-65. Orestes says to Athena that he has purified himself, and then explains why he killed his mother. Apollo shares the guilt, Orestes says. He implies that he was in a double bind: he had to avenge his father, or face punishment. Orestes wants to know if he has acted justly, and he wants things to end.

484-85. Even Athena will call for a full trial—humans must get involved. She acknowledges the Furies’ power. So she is in a bind, too, along with Agamemnon over Iphigenia, Clytemnestra over the murder of Iphigenia, and Orestes over both his parents. It seems that the divine realm mirrors the uncertainty of the human realm with regard to relationships.

497-99. From the interaction between men and gods will come a way to settle the problems permanently. A new justice that will involve all three realms.

506-71. The Furies sing a powerful song: if Orestes wins, they ask, what’s the point of living? Violence would overwhelm the cosmos. They say 536-41 that they want a settlement and ‘‘ measure.’’ At this point, revenge consists in measure. We will find later that Athena agrees with them. The Furies see themselves as powers bringing order and measure when humans threaten anarchy. They ally themselves with a kind of justice we might not have given them credit for understanding. What, then, must happen? Well, humans must accept the Furies as a counterforce, and must accept them into the civic space and psyche of Athens . In being accepted, they are renamed as “the Well-Abiding” rather than the Erinyes or Furies. Are they transformed, or are people’s perceptions of them transformed? It seems to me that the latter is the case. Violent impulses and movements must always be hemmed in by the Furies’ “tide that threatens to sweep the world.” Anarchy and violence are present in the founding of civic order, and cannot be banished entirely. Rather, we need words, song, dance, law, and magic charms to contain it and yet embrace its presence and power over us. See line 517: we can only define true justice against what threatens it. Anarchy faces those who deny the Furies’ power.

585: Apollo says he’s partly responsible, and asks that the trial proceed. He has always said he trusted Athena.

591-614. The Fury leader questions Orestes, who turns to Apollo. The Fury leader is playing lawyer at this point—this “lawyering up” constitutes tacit consent to the trial, to the institution of a new kind of justice. They want to be players in this new game.

630-84. Apollo argues back, using Athena as his main exhibit in favor of the male principle. She sprang from Zeus’ head, and Zeus is the most powerful god of all. From 643 on, Apollo offers a lawyerly description of Clytemnestra’s crime. His enthusiasm, though brief, evokes her exultant language transforming the deed.

650. The Furies remind Apollo that Zeus shackled his father Cronos. Apollo’s response is emotional, not rational—he’s really praising might as right. Still, when humans do an injustice, it’s irretrievable, while Zeus can make things right. But the Furies still want to know at lines 661-63 how Orestes could possibly fit into the civic order given what he has done.

665-84. Apollo makes his concluding speech or “peroration” to warlike Athena, as a negation of the female principle. But Athena is still a ‘‘ goddess,’’ so things are more complicated than Apollo credits. He appeals to the male principle in Athena.

692-725. Athena sounds much like the Furies as she calls for the casting of lots. Neither anarchy nor tyranny should be the goal; we must never banish terror from the gates, not outright. The Areopagus will remain “swift to fury.” Notice the reference to keeping watch, which is the way the trilogy began. Athena’s act is foundational—here she inaugurates and defines the powers of the Court of the Areopagus. There seems to be a mixing together of the male and female. She mentions the Amazons who fought Duke Theseus. Notice the phallic language Fagles employs. The Amazons sacrifice to Ares, god of war, and Athena is standing with the Amazons.

As for the Areopagus, the term ties in to contemporary politics just before Aeschylus’ play was produced. In 462 BCE, a democratic, anti-Spartan reformer named Ephialtes tried to limit the still mostly aristocratic power of the Council of the Areopagus mainly to homicide cases. He was later assassinated, and in 461 Pericles took over the reformist party, and became the ascendant power in Athens until his death in 429 BCE (a few years into the disastrous Second Peloponnesian War with Sparta that lasted from 431-404 BCE; the first one stretched out undeclared from 460-445 BCE). Perhaps Aeschylus’ audience would have seen his own attitude as favoring the aristocratic Council; but one can’t be too sure about this thesis since in the play, as some critics have pointed out, the Court seems to have only the powers Ephialtes himself wanted it to have.

726-48. Here Apollo and the Furies argue. Both threaten each other. They’re all waiting to see how things will turn out.

750. Athena declares in advance that she will vote for Orestes.

760. Orestes prays to Apollo for an end, one way or the other. They say much the same—either they’ll go down forever, or they’ll win. But things won’t be so clear-cut.

768-790. Freed, Orestes praises Athena, Apollo, and Zeus, promising Argos ’ friendship with the Athenians. He says he will visit punishment on anyone who breaks the deal. He sounds like Athena and the Furies here.

791-899. The Furies reel and lament, repeating themselves in an elegiac passage. Athena bears with their anger, and shapes it. At first she doesn’t have much success. The Furies complain that much has been taken from them. Athena promises them a home. I don’t see that they change; rather, the perspective of gods and humans alters in their favor.

912. The Fury leader wants the power to bind people forever.

937-40. The Furies are connected with the dark soil, rooted in the earth. Something “underlies” the City and its institutions, and whoever denies it runs into disaster. The Greeks come to terms with the harshness of nature. See line 941ff. How to keep nature within its boundaries?

951. Athena promises clarity of relations between realms. The Furies will have a clearly defined space and role. Her Olympian hymns and promises function as something like a magic spell. In Christian terms, one thinks of Faustus summoning Mephistopheles, prince of darkness. But with the Greeks we are dealing with pre-Christian legend, so we can’t be so sure that summoning will either lead to taming the dark powers or to being swallowed up by them. It isn’t “evil” that we see in operation in ‘‘The Oresteia.’’ The forces threatening the social space and the individual psyche are summoned in this trilogy by means of divine intervention, song, spectacle, and dance. The Furies are invited into the City, become associated with what is best in it, and are there to stay. Athens can’t just get rid of them; the City must come to terms with them.

900. Here the Furies turn in Athena’s favor. Then follows the victory celebration from 913 onwards. From 927-38 the Furies embrace Athena and Athens , and Athena and the Furies bestow blessings all around. Men will “learn to praise” their Furies. Their acceptance will come about processively. Athena sends the Furies back to the core of the earth, having once and for all accepted the ‘‘ principle’’ for which they stand. Notice the torches—contained fire, clothing of blood-red robes. And it ends in dancing, part of the Dionysian rites. What union has been effected? How should we connect ‘‘The Odyssey’s’’ interplay between the wild and the tame with ‘‘The Oresteia’s’’ dealings with dark forces in Athens ? Embracing and renaming are central. Language plays a vital role in effecting proper relations amongst the realms. In fact, all the major elements of tragedy play an important part: song, spectacle, dance, etc. They help to charm and persuade the dark powers under the earth, inviting them in and sending them back. (See Jan Kott’s book ‘‘The Eating of the Gods.’’)

Here’s an analogy from personal experience: I once met a woman on a plane who tamed her fear of flying by imagining that the plane was enveloped in a luminous blue funnel that prevented anything bad from happening. She realized that she couldn’t simply wish away her fear, so she strategized, employing reason to harness the irrational in a positive way. Perhaps tragedy is a similar transaction with what we would call the irrational, with whatever exceeds the bounds of the civilized—and something must exceed those bounds, or we couldn’t even delineate what is “civilized.” I would suggest that the border between the violent and the civil remains somewhat porous. Finally, as August Wilhelm Schlegel writes in his C19 ‘‘Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature,’’ “if at last a sanctuary within the Athenian territory is offered to the softened Furies, this is as much as to say that reason is not everywhere to enforce its principles against involuntary instinct, that there are in the human mind certain boundaries which are not to be passed, and all contact with which even every person possessed of a true sentiment of reverence will cautiously avoid, if he would preserve peace within.”

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