Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Aeschylus - Father of Greek Tragedy or Primus Inter Parents?

I trust you are all well in this gelid month of Poseidon.

Aeschylus (c.525 BCE – 456 BCE) is known to most us as ‘The Father of Tragedy’ for being the first Greek playwright whose individual works survive intact (only seven of his estimated output of seventy to ninety plays have survived) and also for adding many innovations to the tragedy format such as a second actor and possibly scene decoration (skenographia), some of which went as far as full chariot with real horses entrance scenes! Not only that but amped up costumes for the actors and platform boots to make the players literally larger than life. They must have caused quite a sensation.

But were there others before him to whom we should give the title?

Theatre was still in its infancy when Aeschylus began writing plays and there is evidence of earlier innovators, such as Thespis, who added an actor to stand  apart from the chorus creating the initial -albeit limited- dramatic dynamic.  There are problems even with identifying the origins of Greek Tragedy – it is still not completely accepted that they are a development from the dithyramb (a sort of early ritual dance with singing and flute accompaniment in honour of the god at festivals) as Aristotle states.

The school of thought that has Aeschylus as the puller-together of all the pre-existent disparate elements into the new synthesis can be traced from Wilamowitz’s 1889 Introduction to Greek Tragedy through to Gilbert Murray’s book on Aeschylus in 1940. Aeschylus seemed to have gone one further and added a second actor and in the process created the dramatic triangle (chorus, actor 1 and actor 2), an essential building block for realistic character interplay with the chorus taking a more backseat supporting role. This must have seemed a radical departure from the days where the dithyrambic performances were simply a chorus or two choruses with their ‘call and response’ strophe and antistrophe recitation to flutes and measured dancing.

It hasn’t been seriously challenged since then although I am sure it has been chipped at around the edges and we find that among recent scholars the doubts have resurfaced. However with the lack of epigraphical evidence we remain in the dark on these matters with speculation as our only recourse.

Thespis is the playwright credited with starting the ball rolling with the inauguration of the tragic performances at the Dionysia (the large festivals in honour of the God Dionysos held at Athens) in 534 BCE. Sadly we have nothing other than the titles (and even these titles may themselves be spurious inventions of another writer Heraclides) of his plays from the Suda, a 10th Century Byzantine literary encyclopedia of the ancient world so it’s practically impossible to tell how much of an innovator he might have been and thus the real father of Tragedy.

There are other contenders for the title – although they seem to be even more shadowy figures than Thespis, victims of the ravages of time and the loss of their plays with only the most fleeting of references in other works. Choerilus (dates unknown but around the same time as Aeschylus?) is one and is credited in a life of Sophocles as being his one time opponent in the Dionysia competitions and a contemporary of Aeschylus. However, only two fragments of his works survive and those are obscure epithets rephrased in Aeschylus’s plays.

We also have Pratinas who was said to have competed against Choerilus and Aeschylus between the years 499 BCE and 496 BCE. Pratinus’ son Aristesias, who carried out the compiling and presentation of his father’s work after his death was well known for his satyr plays (the fourth element in the traditional tetrology format of plays and a hangover from the Dionysiac elements of the original frenzied if somewhat indecorous celebratory rites of the gods worship at the festivals) rivaling those of Aeschylus himself.

As it happens, the Oresteia is the only complete trilogy we have of an ancient Greek dramatist that is (almost)fully extant and that too had a satyr play ( the Proteus which is sadly lost apart from a couple of fragments) as was customary to complete the performance. The interesting point here is that Pratinas is listed in the Suda as being the first to write such plays, in turn derived from the original ritualized dithyrambs and if it is correct that tragedy grew out of the dithyrambic elements, this puts him in potential pole position for the title of Father of Tragedy. However we must be cautious with the Suda since a lot of its entries are often difficult to cross-reference in order to verify or are just basically incorrect.

As if two rival contenders weren’t enough we also have Phrynicus who was Aeschylus’ elder being born sometime around 530 BCE and had considerable career overlap (around 20 years) with the latter playwright. Aristophanes the comedic playwright mentions Phrynicus as his main rival in his play Frogs (908 f;1296 f) so who is not to say that  we could have a case of two writers at the top of their game, watching each other’s work, reacting to it, improving on it and trying to out- innovate each other? Phrynicus is also attributed as the first playwright to use real events from recent history and give them the dignified mantle of tragedy. He was also the first to introduce a female character into drama.

The historical event which Phrynicus decided to write about was the sack of the city of Miletus in 494 BCE as a tragic nadir to the events of the ill fated Ionian revolt against the Persians. Herodotus tells us (Histories Book VI.29) that Phrynicus was fined a 1000 Drachmas for ‘having reminded the citizens of their own misfortunes’, so horrific and realistic was the drama, leaving no bloodthirsty details out one can assume. Could Aeschylus have been inspired by this to write the Persians? I say this for two reasons; one that perhaps Aeschylus was in the audience and, like any professional passionate about perfecting his craft had one eye on the play and the other on the faces of the audience. What he saw must have electrified him.

The other reason is that he would have realized that Phrynicus had made a great discovery and a great mistake at the same time, in that real recent events have the ability to transform drama from mere entertainment into something altogether more powerful and significant, but more importantly to locate the tragedy too close to home was overkill or even politically dangerous – an artistic mistake which diminished the tragic impact and subtlety of emotion and psychological effect.

Wouldn’t it rather be more subtle to maintain the high tragedy and deep pathos of such recent events…but locate them in the breasts and hearthstones of the enemy? Surely this is where the genius of Aeschylus lies; in the perfect execution of this blinding insight in the shape of his masterpiece The Persians 472 BCE. Through his play the message resounds all the stronger ‘This is what happened to the Persians but it could so easily have been us’.

Tragically the play was to be more prophetic than either Aeschylus or the Athenians could have known…with the hubris and attendant retribution suffered by Athens as it went through the long drawn out years of mutually assured destruction of The Peloponnesian Wars.

We are in pure speculation territory here I hasten to add…in fact at its wildest shores! We are totally unclear as to who might have been borrowing from who or who was originally the traditionalist and who the innovator and for how much of their respective careers this would have been the case for either artist since surely, the creative mind and sensibility, the times and fashions themselves, would surely have been ever changing for both men. Is it the fact that because we have more work surviving on one writer of a period that we decide to crown him or her as the epitome of that period let alone its leading light?

It does worry me though that in future millennia..archeologists or literary archivists of the far future may be describing (insert mediocre but highly popular mass selling author here!) as The ‘Father of Ancient British Literature’...merely based on his/her surviving works as opposed to the 3 surviving 5-line fragments of an obscure minor writer called James Joyce.

What I am saying is that there are a lot of gaps in early Greek tragedy and we should bear that mind. I suppose though that the title ‘one of the fathers of Greek Tragedy’ sounds a bit too ‘open relationship’ plus the fact that there is only room at the top for one with these sorts of monikers. One thing is for sure, Aeschylus was certainly worthy of such a title but we cannot rule out the possibility of such a conclusion for Phrynicus too.

 Don't forget this Sunday evening on BBC Radio 3...the second part of the Oresteia..The Libation Bearers!


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