In Herodotus’ history, one of the Persians who is arguing against democracy says that people are simply too ignorant to govern themselves.  In many ways, this seems a valid complaint (cf. our own elections!).  To make a democracy work takes an extraordinarily high caliber of citizen.  One reason we place so much emphasis on education in our own society (and one reason democracy so difficult to establish in other places).

The reforms of Solon and Cleisthenes turned Athens into a democracy, and it’s interesting that democratic institutions were so rooted in Athenian culture that, even when the city of Athens was destroyed, Athens still operated democratically.  The ecclesia continued to meet!

After the Persian War, Athens has to rebuild—and rebuild it does. The Golden Age of Athens is just around the corner, a free society at its best.  

How did the Athenians make democracy work?  The democracy works in part because Athenian citizens are well informed.  Partly, this education is informal, through conversations in the agora.  Years later, the New Testament comments that the Athenians delighted in nothing other than to hear or say something new).

But perhaps even more important in training the citizenry to be effective decision makers, the theater.

From time of Pisistratos onward, there were two great dramatic festivals every year, the City Dionysia in March, and the Lenaea in January.  The latter was devoted largely to comedies, the former to tragedies. As part of the City Dionysia, there were three days in a row where playwrights would each take a day to present their work--three tragedies and a satyr play, sun-up to sundown.

Something enormously special happening in these plays.  Theater historians would say that three out of the four greatest tragic playwrights were three of the Athenians who wrote plays for these competitions—Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides.

For the next exam, you should be prepared to take one of these figures (Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides) and write an essay arguing that this man was the best and most important of the Greek playwrights.

Now are these really the greatest tragic playwrights of all time? Well, certainly other playwrights have thought so.  Great writers go back again and again to these plays trying to adapt them to own times.  Seneca, Racine, T.S. Eliot, Shelley, Jean Cocteau, Sartre, Hofmannsthal.  Jean Giraudoux (who wrote Amphytrion 38!) all modified Greek originals. They wrote some very fine plays. Wagner at Bayreuth and Hofmannsthal at Salzburg did some very impressive things.  But rarely are these later writers able to make tragedy work.

Why were our three Athenians more successful?

Tragedy deals with great issues, as Aristotle noted, things of sufficient magnitude.  It deals with great human conflicts, often involving right vs. right, focusing on our conflicting duties (state/family, gods/love, etc).   

Now it’s not all that hard to bring these conflicts to the stage.  But successful tragedy requires something else: it requires the conflict to be resolved, not only for person on stage, but for audience as well.  

Successful tragedy has powerful effect on audience: Aristotle called it catharsis (“through pity and terror effecting the purgation of these emotions”).  But Aristotle’s definition not quite easy for us.  (There’s a joke where one professor tells another that the commonly accepted idea theory of catharsis is not really what Aristotle meant at all. “No?” he asks, “Well then, I claim it for myself.

In producing catharsis (whatever it is) the Greek tragic playwrights had some advantages—

--Confidence of Persian war victory
--Public support
--A well-developed tradition (Homer)
--Shared mythology (the lack thereof is why Wagner failed)

But even with all this going for them, the credit should go mostly to the individual playwrights.

First of all, Aeschylus.

With few exceptions, we know very little about the lives of the great writers of antiquity.  This is unfortunately the case with Aeschylus.  We don’t know when he was born—525 BC?  512 BC?  We do know that he fought at Marathon and possibly other Persian War battles.  We know his first first prize came in 484 BC.  We know he wrote more than 90 plays, and we have titles of 79 of them.  We know he won first prize on 13 occasions, that he traveled to Sicily and produced plays there, and that he died in Sicily around 456.

It would be nice to know more, but it would be nicer to have more than the seven extent Aeschylus plays.  Still, these seven plays are sufficient to show that Aeschylus was one of the greatest playwrights of all time.

Aeschylus is first of all important for his innovations.  Aristotle tells us he introduced the 2nd actor to the stage.

Aeschylus was also a great poet.  Like Homer, he uses iambic hexameter with all its variations.  Much of what he is doing her won’t come across in translation, but some of his poetry does show through, especially if you get a translation that preserves his wonderful images.

Aeschylus is great also for his mastery of the dramatic form.  I love his opening to Prometheus Bound, “This is the Scythian country we have come to, an unending waste.”  This is true in a double sense—and one often feels that was as (say) one looks at American politics or the education bureaucracy.

Most important, there’s the way Aeschylus handles important themes,  A great example, Prometheus Bound.

Prometheus is part of a trilogy.  It’s strange and a bit difficult that we have only the middle play, but for the Greeks that would have been less of a problem.  They knew the whole story well, both what came before and what came after.

For the full story of Prometheus, we turn today mostly to the poet Hesiod and his Theogony.  The basic story is as follows.

To the Greeks, Zeus was a relatively recent god, preceded as supreme by primordia chaos, Ouranos, and then Chronos. Zeus had to seize power from his violent father, and then put down rebellions/attempts to overthrow him by the Titans.  He did so with the aid of Prometheus.

But Prometheus fell into disfavor because of his help to mankind.  First, he tricked Zeus in the matter of sacrifices, leaving Zeus with the generally useless portions of the sacrificial animal.  Zeus responded with a flood to destroy mankind, but Prometheus warned Deucalion and humans survived.  Mankind was going to die out anyway, but Prometheus stole fire and give men the ability to survive.  Zeus is now going to punish Prometheus for this.

Men are punished too.  How?  With a gift from Zeus—a woman, Pandora.  

“For from her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live among mortal men to their great trouble.”
Hesiod says of Pandora, “But into her heart Hermes, the guide, the slayer of Argus, put lies, and wheedling words of falsehood and a treacherous nature…to be a source of sorrow to men that eat bread.”

‘Don’t’ let any sweet-talking woman beguile your good senses with the fascination of her shape,” warns Hesiod.  “It’s your barn she’s after.”

Now there is none of this misogyny in Aeschylus: quite the reverse.  And here’s a key point.  The basic stories of Greek mythology are fixed: a playwright can’t change the details.  What they can do is select what they want, leaving out what they don’t and adding additional details.

In analyzing theater, it’s useful to take a look for each of the five “narrative essentials,” plot, character, theme, setting and tone.  Note that plot is the process of selecting and ordering story elements, and that’s what the Greek dramatists will do.

Note the way Aeschylus handles plot in Prometheus Bound, and note the effectiveness of each plot element.

1.  We get first Hephaestus forced against his will to chain Prometheus.
2.  We get next interaction with a chorus, the daughters of Tethys.
3.  We see Oceanus come and commiserate with Prometheus.
4.  We get Io stopping by in the midst of her wandering.
5.  We get a confrontation of Hermes and Prometheus.

All these are well chose to support Aeschylus over purpose [plot choices discussed in class.]

Note how the setting and tone also support Aeschylus purpose. “This is the Scythian country we have come to, and unending waste.”  A bleak and desolate place where order/reason don’t hold sway, fitting for a bleak situation!

Then there’s Aeschylus overall theme.  First, we see Zeus as like a mortal tyrant, and the dilemmas the characters in the play face are very much like Athenians might have faced during the tyranny of Pisistratos.

But there’s also Zeus as a god, and living in a world governed by an unjust god is even worse.  Is the highest power in the universe unjust—or is justice even a consideration?  James Russell Lowell writes, “Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong, though its portion be the scaffold and upon the throne be wrong.”  

But what if there is no ultimate justice, no God keeping watch above his own?  It’s a scary thought!!

But beyond this, there is a deeper question Aeschylus is dealing with, the relationship of force and reason.  Should human life be governed by force or reason?  Ultimately, the two have to be reconciled, and here’s the “cosmic conflict” that Aeschylus deals with.  Ultimately, it’s going to be resolved in the 3rd play of the trilogy, where Zeus and Prometheus are going to come to some sort of an agreement.

Now how are force and reason going to be harmonized in political life?  Isn’t that what democracy is about?  

And then there is force and reason in our own lives: our own tendency to want to use force instead of allow ourselves to be governed by reason.  Here, too, Aeschylus is giving us a catharsis—a cleansing, a changed heart.

There’s another major theme: the pursuit of truth.  Note Io persists in wanting to know what’s ahead, even though the future is filled with evil.  Maxim Gorky said, “The truth isn’t always the thing for what ails you.” I think Aeschylus might disagree.  Note the “blind hope” theme: one of Prometheus gifts to men.