Drama is thought to have originated as a form of worship.  People would reenact their hunts, as a form of communication and as worship.  It is obvious early drama occupied an important, if limited, niche in human society as a religious act. As society progressed, this became more organized. The ancient Egyptians used the art form as way to celebrate royal coronations in addition to important religious holidays.  However, when we think of classical theater, the ancient Greeks come to mind. It is in this culture that we see Drama most readily accepted. In the 6th century B.C., a state-ordained annual drama festival was arranged in honor of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus. As the golden age of Greek civilization dawned, the arts flourished and this led to the emergence of some of the greatest dramatists in human history. Aeschylus was one of them, the first of the Greek tragedians.

Born into a noble family of Athenian origin in 525 B.C, Aeschylus fought in the battle of Marathon before dedicating himself to playwriting. He made many important innovations in the field, including the introduction of a second character; before that, dialog between actors was not seen in drama. He wrote more than seventy plays in his lifetime but unfortunately, only seven have survived. Of these, the book includes four.

Prometheus Bound

Roman-era relief showing Prometheus creating humanity under the watchful eye of Athena
Prometheus creates humanity as Athena looks on. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Prometheus, the Traitor, was dragged before Zeus. He cast pleading eyes towards his friends and peers, the gods of Olympus, but they looked away. Why should they help him now when he had betrayed them all? Why should they forgive him for that which was unforgivable? The Titan was forced to his knees. He braced himself as he looked up at Zeus, one final act of haughty rebellion. “Prometheus, you stole Fire.” He nodded, his silent gaze never leaving the face of the king of gods. Zeus’s eyes narrowed. “And you gave it to the mortals, when you knew I wanted to destroy them and create a perfect race in their place.” “I did.” Prometheus’s statement rang out in the court; his tone lacked both guilt and humility. Zeus’s face colored as his clearly vexed voice rang out: “And in doing so, you have not only sealed their fates but yours as well. You will be bound to a rock, lashed by the elements for millennia, tormented by the pain of flesh and soul, until such a time that you may learn the meaning of regret.”  Prometheus smiled ruefully as the deliverers of his punishment, Strength and Violence, began to take him away. His smile angered Zeus even more; it was no longer just pride that bothered him. As the titan of Foreknowledge and Prophecy disappeared from view, the king of the gods couldn’t help but feel he had just played a part in some plan beyond even his own understanding.The first of the Promethean trilogy, this play starts immediately after Prometheus has been sentenced by Zeus for giving the gift of fire to mankind. The first scene depicts the symbolic characters of Strength and Violence executing Zeus’s sentence, accompanied by the lame-limbed god of Fire. Prometheus laments his fate as various gods and nymphs visit him, though none dare to go against the will of Zeus. The cursed virgin Io also makes her appearance; her plight gives Prometheus a new perspective on his own. Later, the messenger god Hermes comes to ask Prometheus about the fate of Zeus, and an argument ensues. This tragedy symbolizes the struggle between knowledge and power, as power seeks to crush knowledge in order to consolidate itself.  ‘Prometheus Bound’ is one of Aeschylus’s most well-known plays but unfortunately the remaining parts of the trilogy did not survive.
The Suppliants

This play is set in a timeline several generations removed from ‘Prometheus Bound’. The curse upon Io has been removed; she has long been dead. Generations later, her line has been divided amongst two brothers; Danaus has 50 daughters and Aegyptus has 50 sons. The sons have resolved to marry their cousins, an abhorrent idea to the girls, who flee with their father back to the land of their ancestor. They have reached the city-state of Argos and seek refuge there. If the king agrees, he will most certainly be condemning his people to war and bloodshed as Aegyptus’s sons are in pursuit. If he refuses, he will risk the curse of the gods for denying sanctuary to fifty innocent maidens. It illustrates the clash that may arise between responsibility and conscience. This is the first play of the Danaid Trilogy; unfortunately, its second and third parts have also been lost.

Seven against Thebes

This play continues the story of Oedipus and the curse upon his family. At the opening, Oedipus is already dead. Before his death, after the incestuous nature of his marriage was discovered, he cursed his sons Eteocles and Polyneices for their behavior towards him. After their father died, the brother agreed to share power but this proved impossible. Now the city is under siege, and the old curse reveals itself by pitting blood against blood once again; Eteocles must fight his brother. He knows he will be defeated, as Oedipus’s father was defeated by his own son. His messenger tries to convince him otherwise but Eteocles is resigned to what he considers his fate. This play is the third of a trilogy, but its original ending has been lost.

The Persians

This is the only Greek tragedy based on a recent historical event: the battle of Salamis, in which Aeschylus himself participated. It was produced 8 years after the battle itself and many of its factual details match with Herodotus’s account of the battle. However, it is infused with much more flamboyance and served a patriotic purpose.

In conclusion, this book is a very good introduction to classical Greek tragedies. It presents to us not only an expression of a timeless art, but it is also a vital part of literary history. Where would Shakespeare be had Aeschylus not contributed to the development of Drama? It is all the more important that we preserve these plays as they exist only in fragments now; what treasures might have been lost to us, we can never know. Perhaps that is the greatest tragedy of all.

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