This month I continue my survey of the Great Books by reading the theatrical works of Aeschylus, earliest of the three great Greek tragedians. Seven of Aeschylus’ plays have come down to us, although four of them are parts of now lost trilogies and the authorship of one of those, Prometheus Bound, is often questioned. When I read these plays in order I realized what a powerful transformative influence Aeschylus must have been on the art form by seeing how much his own work changed over time.
At the beginning of Aeschylus’ career, Greek tragedy was already at least a couple of generations old. It grew out of an older tradition of bards called rhapsodies reciting religious poetry at festivals. The first Greek playwright, Thespis had created an entirely new genre when he started writing pieces in which the Rhapsody played actual characters instead of just narrating. He also backed him up with a chorus which could interact with the character, giving the audience cues about how they should react, and probably also enriching the piece with dance, chanting, and simple sound effects.
Greek playwrights didn’t use stage directions. However, in his earlier plays like The Supplicant Maidens and The Persians there is the definitive sense that the actors spend much of their time standing in one place talking to the chorus, much as they must have done in Thespis’ plays. Aeschylus is famous for being the first to have multiple actors in his plays, but in the early works he seems to still be working out the possibilities. The dialogue between actors is limited, and there is no physical interaction between the characters. The emphasis is on the language in their speeches. In point of fact, Aeschylus is usually considered to be the best straight-up poet among the big three tragic playwrights.
By Prometheus Bound, one of the latest plays, he has overcome any inhibitions about interactions between the characters. The first scene is a masterfully written three-way dialogue between the gods Prometheus, Hephaestus, and Kratos (Strength) while Hephaestus chains Prometheus and rivets him to the side of a mountain. Not only is there plenty more expository dialogue as the play goes on, there are enough (implied) special effects to keep a modern CGI studio busy for weeks: the chorus arriving in winged cars and hovering before dismounting, a god riding a Hippogriff, a woman who has been turned half-way into a cow, and of course the entire mountain collapsing at the end of the play after it has been struck by a thunderbolt. One can only imagine the look on the stage manager’s face when Aeschylus showed him the script.
As I said earlier, many scholars debate whether Aeschylus actually wrote Prometheus Bound. However, the actual writer was probably either his son or another of his close associates, who would have been trained and influenced by him; the work represents an evolutionary end point of his art, whether or not he penned it personally. The fact that the play contains so much more interaction and visual interest than the earlier works is particularly noteworthy when we recall that the main character spends his time chained to a rock and can’t move.
Aeschylus was a writer who spent his career pushing to enlarge and improve his art. We modern writers would do well to adopt him as a role model. The reason Aeschylus is remembered after 25 centuries is he wasn’t afraid to push the envelope in his genre and “break the rules” if it would improve the end product. And he was successful enough at it that other writers began imitating him.
These days I think many authors, particularly new authors, are afraid to take creative risks. Following established formats and creating a mystery novel or epic fantasy (or what have you) that is just like all the others on the market is a recipe for forgettable writing. If you want to be like Aeschylus, you need to come up with a way to innovate and do something to make it your own, not just follow the established conventions of your chosen genre.