|This article is reprinted from the Summer 1993 issue of FIDELIO Magazine.
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Aeschylus Republican Tragedies
by Paul Gallagher
Last December, in the course of its exhibition of Greek sculpture from the fifth century B.C.E. , the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. presented three films, comprising in four-and-one-half hours the tragic trilogy known as the Oresteia of Aeschylus, as performed in 1983 by the British National Theatre, in attempted original Greek tragedic form. The films, even as VHS videotapes, are available only in larger libraries in the United States, and performances of this full Aeschylus trilogy are relatively rare.
If these tragedies are well-performed, as they are in this production, they make clear that Aeschylus the dramatist played a powerful role in defining and maintaining the unique quality of the Athenian republic. This is the republican idea of the individual among the Greeks generally, against the oligarchic idea of fixed human nature ruled by irrational instinct and the power of fate. This opposition, between the model of Athens and the slave-state of Sparta, are identified by Schiller in his Legislation of Lycurgus and Solon, as the fundamental division in human history.
Aeschylus, whose mature life covered the first half of the fifth century B.C.E. , composing and presenting plays in Athens, Syracuse, and other cities of the Greeks, laid the foundation of the idea of tragedy in Western civilization. He won first prizes for sets of tragedies at Greek dramatic festivals over a period of nearly thirty years. Of about seventy tragic plays Aeschylus is believed to have written, only seven survive, and of those, the Oresteia is the only complete trilogy. The three playsAgamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenideswere presented first in Athens in 458 B.C.E. , only two years before Aeschylus death; they were among his last.
It is said that before Aeschylus began staging plays in 499 B.C.E. , the form of Greek drama allowed for a chorus which spoke, sang, and danced accompanied by musicians; for narrative by the chorus leader; and for the presentation of a character by a single actor. Aeschylus, who like Shakespeare was an actor-dramatist, introduced a second individual actor. This allowed a triple dialogue among two leading characters and the chorus, which mediated between the characters and audience. Later, both Sophocles and Aeschylus introduced a third actor (usually speaking little or not at all), and the Greek dramatic festival competitions of their later years allowed each dramatist a chorus, musicians, and three actors. Always using masks, the actors and chorus members portrayed different combinations of characters and different choral groups at different stages of a play. This is the format in which the British National Theatre presents the Oresteia. All actors and chorus members are males, who attempt by varying the tone and resonance of their speaking voices to merely indicate the sex and age or youth of the character.
The three plays together are an extraordinary demonstrationthe oldest full demonstration knownof the powerful principles of Classical tragedy, once Aeschylus innovations had truly created individual dramatic character through this process of dialogue. Classical tragedy makes the tragic characters express consciousness the object of the spectators conscious attention. Ultimately, the negentropy or positive human development for which that character yearns and suffers, uplifts the spirits of the spectators; that is the spark of true life, evoked so within the audience....
The tragic principle so described was identified by Lyndon LaRouche in his On the Subject of Metaphor published in Fidelio last year. That principle is focussed in these plays, on the character for whom this trilogy is named: Orestes, son of Agamemnon the King of Argos. The suffering of the people of Argos, which culminates in Orestes torment, also evokes the terror in these faces (of the men of Athens onstage and of the spectators) in which Athena sees great good for our citizens at the end of the trilogy. This is, says the goddess, a just terror, the terror of just men who have seen the terrible injustice and suffering unleashed when natural law is violated by irrationality, greed, and power-lust.
Prometheus Bound was, in all likelihood, written by Aeschylus as part of a set of plays, of which the others have been largely or completely lost. We can see in the Oresteia that the three plays were clearly meant by Aeschylus to be viewed at once, or at least within few enough days that the spectator could see them as a whole, as a single idea of the uplifting of mankind. The effect of the whole upon the audience is to evoke such anguish, as Schiller says, so as to come close to the terror which Athena speaks about at the conclusion. Yet in the final play (The Eumenides), the spectators desire to see mankind ennobled so as to deal with such suffering, is strengthened and resolved. No doubt, this was Aeschylus method in his other sets of plays as well, and it is a great advantage for the understanding of tragedy, that in this case, the entire trilogy has survived. Prometheus declares in speech that even the Olympian gods, who play with the fates of mankind, must finally bow before natural law. But in the Oresteia, this Promethean principle is shown in action to be true.
The Oresteia deals with the Greek city-region of Argos and its ruling House of Atreus; the impact upon them of the Trojan War and the terrible aftermath of the Pyrrhic victory over Troy won by the Argive Greeks under Agamemnons command. In the killing and maiming of much of its male population in the ten-years war, and the ongoing self-destruction of its royal house by a cycle of revenge murders, victorious Argos is descending before the spectators eyes into the kind of misery, famine, and anarchy we see inflicted today on parts of Africa, of the Balkans, and of other nations.
But in The Eumenides, Argos cycle of destruction is ended and its descent into hell reversed, not by Argos but by the citizens of Athens and her protecting spirit, the goddess Pallas Athena.
The Atreus Principle
From this equivalence which enfolds all the characters, the chorus (the people more broadly), and the audience, Aeschylus can create tragic irony and real transformation.
The first play moves toward the arrival of Agamemnon and his decimated remnants back from Troy; then toward his murder by his wife Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, whom she has taken as a lover. The bitter and sorrowful chorus (who represent the elders of Argosonly old men, women, and young children have survived the war) watches and speaks to the characters, to the audience and to themselves, about the history of this blood revenge. Atreus fought his brother Thyestes for the throne of this kingdom, and killed Thyestes children, except for Aegisthus, who escaped. Thyestes, defeated, cursed the children of Atreus, Menelaus and Agamemnon. Menelaus wife Helen was kidnapped and taken to Troy; army after Greek army has been wasted to get her back. Agamemnon, the commander, was convinced by the treasonous priest Calchas, that to get favorable winds to sail to Troy, he must ritually sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia. Agamemnons wife, Clytemnestra, to revenge their daughter, has taken Thyestes surviving son Aegisthus as her lover. Now she and Aegisthus will murder Agamemnon and Cassandra, the Trojan princess he has brought back as a slave.
These kings and nobles have made war for power, ambition, women, and revenge, rather than the defense and welfare of their people. For their violations of natural law and justice, they and above all their people are draining the cup of misery. The chorus, knowing all that has been done, is in anguish and dread throughout the first play, bitterly rejoicing in Agamemnons final victory over Troy, fearing Clytemnestras bold lying.
But Aeschylus, throughout this series of causally-linked disasters, is also invisibly creating an opposed, positive principle through the dialogue between the mind of the chorus and the minds of the spectators.
The dramatist creates this positive potential through the chorus yearning for justice. The members of the chorus are too old for war; but at the same time, they are the elders of Argos. The chorus leader tells Agamemnon:
Once created, this potential spark of justice is tested at the conclusion of Agamemnon, and fails. When Cassandra, speaking to the chorus, foresees the imminent murder of Agamemnon within the palace, the chorus fearfully falls into confusion over whether they can act to stop it. So Clytemnestra steps out over the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra; and Aegisthus comes out with his soldiers to threaten any who resist this new tyranny, with destruction, exile, death. The chorus calls out for his punishment, but no one resists.
At the end of Agamemnon, Aeschylus demonstrates the powerful influence the mind of the chorus may have, within the consciousness of the spectators; how the chorus can prepare or prefigure within the spectators minds, the appearance of a higher good, or a higher law, in complete contrast to the oppressive action of the tragedy. First the chorus changes the dead Agamemnon, whom they have distrusted and blamed for their citys devastation, into the soul of justice:
But no sooner have they done this, than they link this idea, as the play ends, to another name, of a character who has not appeared, whom they do not even know is still aliveOrestes:
So Agamemnon ends.
The Orestes Principle
At the opening of Aeschylus second play, The Libation Bearers, the audiences consciousness of this moral purposiveness becomes quickly and powerfully focussed upon the character of Orestes. The identification appears at once in the spectators mind when Orestes steals secretly into Argos to Agamemnons grave as the play opens. But it is given overwhelming force through dramatic dialogue: the long dialogue of prayers over their fathers grave between Orestes, his sister Electra, and the chorus of mourning women who appear with her, who are the libation bearers.
The audience cannot resist, during this dramatic action, this linking of a higher moral purposiveness to the name and figure of Orestes. At a later point, the spectator will be brought by Aeschylus to reflect on this from a higher standpoint. Then, he or she may find it strikingly singular and unusual. After all, Orestes has returned on a mission, indeed ordered by the god Apollo, to kill his mother and Aegisthus, to avenge his father. Isnt this what Thyestes did against Atreus? Clytemnestra and Aegisthus against Agamemon? Agamemnon against Paris and Troy? Did these not all appear to slaughter from necessity, if they were to have revenge?
But the audience has seen into the mind of Orestes, through the chorus, even before he appeared on the stage. Then, through the dialogue with Electra and the chorus, Aeschylus has dramatically constructed a fact which outweighs the whole empirical progression: Orestes is different; he is not moved by personal ambition or even dynastic family obligation; he is fighting with the slightest of means to restore the good of the city and the honor of his father. He approaches what he must do suffering the greatest inner conflict, asking Electra sister and his friend Pylades if it really must be done. (In this regard, Shakespeares Hamlet seems to stand on the shoulders of The Libation Bearers.)
Therefore Orestes action is different, despite all the empirical evidence that it is the same cycle of blood revenge which the chorus and audience have been watching in horror. His fight evokes the potential to transform the situation for the better. The series of dramatic actions and dialogue have been constructed, so that Orestes action is experienced as a break in this series of blood-revenge murders: equal in power but opposite in directiontoward a higher idea of justice. Logic does not rear its head at this moment to try to contradict this.
When Orestes succeeds, even as the chorus thinks it may rejoice, Aeschylus leaps dramatically to the next level. The spectator is forced to see and reflect that Orestes brave frontal attack on the tyranny, has not overcome the long cycle of brutal violations of natural law. Rather his success has brought forth a more violent assault: the awful Furies arise literally from the earth, as avengers of the hearth of his mother Clytemnestra, to drive him from the palace and make him mad. Orestes is overcome by distraction and flees. The grieving choruspoor Argosnow faces descent from tyranny to utter anarchy, with no government at all. The implacable fate bearing down on the heads of all, seems now more powerful than ever.
So The Libation Bearers ends.
An Unresolved Knot?
Precisely thus, are the Furies now pursuing Orestes.
Schiller says that in his own Judeo-Christian civilization, or more generally any civilization believing in man in the image of one God, the spectators of a classic tragedy seek out a justification for this particular case in universal laws, and to resolve the particular discord in a greater harmony. Greek art never elevated itself to this pure summit of tragic compassion....
What can be said, albeit briefly, about the trilogys resolution in The Eumenides, is that at the end of the drama, Aeschylus seeks to encircle the limit imposed by Greek civilization upon the power of reason to rise above such tragic anguish. Aeschylus does this by transferring this potential of reason from the image of Orestes, to the more powerful idea of the Athenian citizen.
The Furies are the power of necessity and fate, and they declare that under their rule all murderers are destroyed, none may atone, all blood-violence is paid with retributive blood violence. No god may stop this: although Apollo may briefly protect Orestes, the Furies will ultimately drain his life, drive him mad. One will arise who will kill him.
The Furies appear to represent natural law, which ultimately punishes all who willfully violate it; but they are also blindly insisting that murder must be requited by further violence. They are blind to the law of the poetic truth of human reason and compassionof which they know nothing. So their power at the conclusion of The Libation Bearers and the first part of The Eumenides, is what causes that anguish bordering on terror in an audience reared within Western Judeo-Christian civilization.
Orestes flees from the Furies to the shrine of Athena, always the most Promethean of the Olympian gods. Athena creates a completely unexpected new power to transform the situation, by calling a jury of Athenian citizens to judge the case.
Against this potential new power, and creating the great tension of the trial, are the more and more violent threats of the Furies to blight and destroy Athens itself, if Orestes is acquitted.
By Athenas confidence that these citizens are so ennobled in power of reason as to judge this fierce battle between the Kings of Argos and the Furies, Aeschylus creates within the audience also, a moral confidence in this power of reason of the Athenians. Was it so within Aeschylus original audience, who were Athenian citizens?
By this collaboration of Athena and the Athenian citizens, the Furies are flanked and brought to a higher reason; they accept a new role, agreeing to protect the arts of Athens and make its surrounding earth fruitful, and their transformation is marked by their being renamed Eumenides (Gracious Ones). The Oresteia ends in a singing celebration of the future of the republic of Athens; while within it, both Athena and the chorus (who are the Eumenides) appeal over and over to the citizens to remember that these Eumenides, so uplifted but still the Furies of implacable necessity, have the fate of the city in their charge. Athena tells them:
Aeschylus tragedies were written in the years when the city of Athens mobilized the other Greek cities to fight and defeat the invading Persian Empire. At the turning-point battles of Salamis and Marathon, Aeschylus fought and members of his family were killed. These great Greek military victories represented the quality of civilization which would ultimately make republican government triumph over empire. They came after centuries of growth of Greek cities and colonies had made Greece the most densely populated area in human history until that time; and after Solon had given Athens government based on constitutional law.
During these years, Aeschylus himself was brought to trial in Athensas was Socrates latercharged with sacrilege and profanation. It was claimed that his plays had revealed the secrets of one of the Eleusian mysteries; specifically that mystery (or ritual) by which one who had committed murder with justification might be absolved before trial. He was acquitted.
British National Theatre
The music accompanying the chorus, while it is limited and restrained for the most part, otherwise has one basic flaw: while little is known about the modes of music Aeschylus employed for his tragedies, we should assume that it was beautiful; this music is not. The company recognizes that the Greek poetry should be rendered as poetry or an ordered meter in English, to allow the voices to sing; however the poetry is sometimes grossly modernist. The chorus refers to the sins of Atreus and Agamemnon as hubris I and hubris II, for example. Such awful television-speak interrupts the spectators concentration on the dramatic action, by suddenly reminding them they are watching modern British actors (directed by Peter Hall, who brought us the shameful Marat/Sade years ago).
But these problems are overcome, and the films are a very unusual opportunity, for most people, to attempt to understand the principles of Classical tragic drama as it originated. Those principles are fundamental to our ability to react, as human beings in the image of God, to the disasters unleashed by economic collapse throughout much of the globe today.
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