Aeschylus - Greek Playwright

Aeschylus - Greek Playwright
Aeschylus - Greek Playwright

The son of a wealthy family in sixth century b.c.e. Attica, Aeschylus was a tragedian at a time when Greek theater was still developing from its beginnings as a form of elaborate dance.

In contrast to the first dramas, performed in honor of Dionysus and under the influence of copious amounts of wine, Aeschylus’s work emphasized natural law and punishment at the hands of the gods, by examining the role of his characters in a larger world.

His participation as a soldier in the Battle of marathon in 490 b.c.e., when the invading Persians were successfully repelled by vastly outnumbered Greek forces, probably informed his approach. The Persians told the story of the battle and was first performed 18 years later.

Of Aeschylus’s 70-some plays, only seven survive. They are the earliest known Greek tragedies, as he is one of only three tragedians (with Euripides and Sophocles) whose works have survived to the modern era. Seven against Thebes is another battle narrative, concerning that of “the Seven” mythic heroes against Thebes in the aftermath of the death of the sons of Oedipus.

The Suppliants is a simpler story about the daughters of Danaus fleeing a forced marriage, while the Oresteia is a trilogy of plays about the house of Atreus, starting with the return of Agamemnon from the Trojan War.

The Oresteia has had enduring appeal in the modern world: 20th-century playwright Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra was based on it, substituting the Civil War for the Trojan War in the backstory of O’Neill’s trilogy.

Composers Richard Strauss and Sergey Taneyev each based operas on the Oresteia, and many more writers and artists have found compelling the idea of the Furies who in Aeschylus’s trilogy bring down the wrath of the gods upon Orestes for having killed his mother.

In a sense the Oresteia is not just the earliest surviving trilogy of Greek plays. It is also one of the earliest horror stories, with the Furies tracking Orestes by following the scent of his mother Clytemnestra’s blood, and the play’s emphasis on the idea, so resonant in horror literature and ghost stories, of the supernatural exacting horrible justice on transgressors.

Legend claims that Aeschylus met his death under the strangest of circumstances, when a passing eagle dropped a turtle on his head.