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As A.E. Haigh notes, Aristotle treats Aeschylus with complete indifference in the Poetics. Throughout his writings, the standards of dramatic writing are supplied by Sophocles and Euripides. He fully recognizes Aeschylus’ role in the introduction of a second actor and in the expansion of dialogue, but that is all. This is because Aristotle mainly focused his attention on plot, as well as his classification of recognition, complication, and revolution, and “for such investigations there was little material to be found in Aeschylus” (124). Nevertheless, it is somewhat possible to analyze The Oresteia in terms of Aristotle’s Poetics.
There is little doubt that at some period what we now call tragedy consisted of a chorus which sang comments in response to a story told by the poet, but whether, as has been claimed, there was a time when there was only the chorus is open to dispute. It was once accepted as a fact, based on something that Aristotle wrote, but now is less accepted. What is more likely – and we can possibly attribute this to Thespis – is that two different poetic traditions fused into the one form. What we do know is that a combination of one actor and a chorus does not give a very wide range of dramatic possibilities, particularly as it is almost certain that the chorus always worked in unison. For the form to grow, the introduction of a second actor was essential and, according to Aristotle, it was Aeschylus who did this. He also, said Aristotle, reduced the importance of the chorus, and thus he is called the “father of tragedy”. Of course, once a major innovation occurs, more tend to follow quite quickly and Sophocles is usually credited with the next advance, the introduction of a third actor, somewhere around 460. It should be noted that we are talking here of actors, not characters. Each actor could, of course, play more than one character, but only three could be on-stage together.
The three tragedies which each poet presented at a competition were not necessarily on a related subject: only Aeschylus is known to have written trilogies on a single theme, like the Oresteia. However, Aristotle does not comment on this, as the trilogy format was more or less discarded after The Oresteia.
The contrasting structures of the two plays are worth noting here. In the Poetics (1452b), Aristotle gives the most concise description of the formal structure of tragedy. There are usually five scenes or episodes separated by choral odes (stasima), the whole preceded by a prologue and followed by an epilogue or exodos. This form is the precursor of the five-act structure familiar in Shakespearean drama. The Libation Bearers (and Agamemnon) follows this structure. By contrast, since the chorus plays a unique role as the Furies in The Eumenides, the structure is fundamentally altered. Consistent with the norms of Greek drama, The Eumenides is not divided into acts or discrete scenes. There is a scene change in the middle of the play, but that can be accomplished with minimal movement of set pieces in almost no time. However, time passes in non-naturalistic fashion: at certain points, from reports of what has happened offstage, it is clear that a great amount of time is meant to have passed even though only a few seconds have passed for the audience. In general, as noted by Aristotle, most Greek tragedies have action confined to a twenty-four hour period. Aeschylus’ decision to break the “unities” of Aristotle’s classic dramatic form to allow his play to range over ten years of time and various geographic locals is significant here.
Aristotle addresses both The Libation Bearers and The Eumenides in relation to plot in Poetics 13. Here he commends the singular focus of plot on one person’s fortune, rather focusing the plot on the type of end that said person meets. The only prescription for the ending is that it should be a single (haplous) plot featuring some sort of major change. Tragedy’s high culture is best achieved through a single change, and not through the popular use of a double plot ending. On the one hand, as Aristotle remarks, the double ending in comedy would have the bad man (Aegisthus) coming to a good end (avoiding the death penalty at Orestes’ hands), and the good man (Orestes) coming to a bad end (failing to exact the necessary vengeance against his enemy, instead making Aegisthus his friend). On the other hand, the double ending in tragedy would be what we actually have in Aeschylus’ plays: Orestes kills Aegisthus in vengeance; hence the bad man comes to a bad end (in The Libation Bearers), and the good man comes to a good end (The Eumenides). Aristotle does not seem to express whether Aeschylus’ treatment of this plot outline is more single than double in its execution in The Oresteia, and thus he is silent on the rank of the trilogy as an achievement in tragedy.
Aristotle also discusses “recognition” as a formal component of tragedy: we see this in The Libation Bearers: Electra finds the lock of hair on the tomb, and here we see our first “recognition,” or as Aristotle puts it, “recognition by the process of reasoning….someone resembling me [Electra] has come: no one resembles me but Orestes: therefore, Orestes has come.” The second act of recognition comes when Clytemnestra recognizes Orestes: “My son, do you not fear your mother’s curse?” This is another type of recognition, which depends on “memory when the sight of some object awakens a feeling.” Here, Clytemnestra remembers the prophecy of her dream, and thereby deduces that this man is her son, Orestes. Neither of these recognitions are exactly what Aristotle prescribed as the “best” kind of recognition, which is “that which arises from the incidents themselves, where the startling discovery is made by natural means,” as is seen in Oedipus and Iphigenia.
Orestes and Pylades gain entrance to the palace under false pretenses, and here the Chorus plays a vital role in the forthcoming events. (Kitto states that Aeschylus fundamentally alters the role of the Chorus here, because they are traditionally never supposed to take part in the action: “the superiority of this over a purely formal treatment of the incident is clear enough. It does indeed result in the interesting figure of the Nurse” .) The Chorus suggests to the Nurse that things are not what they seem, and they convince her to tell Aegisthus to come without his bodyguard. His killers are waiting for him offstage, and the audience hears him scream as he is stabbed in the climax of the play. Before the killing, the play has developed at a leisurely pace: much is said in monologue, comparatively. As soon as Orestes kills Aegisthus, the dialogue explodes with speed and intensity which indicates what is yet to come in the third play.
This Chorus, I believe, is one of the most important and difficult elements of Greek dramaturgy to understand, and I would like to spend a moment discussing its history and composition. As Simon Goldhill explains, the chorus, like the actors, were made up of citizens, since there was no sub-class of “theatricals,” as there were in Rome. Scholars differ over whether there were twelve or fifteen chorus members in The Oresteia; at any rate, it was a fairly significant number. The chorus was selected for a specific performance and trained by the poet. Like the actors, they were fully masked, but not in the familiar comedy/tragedy masks that we have come to view as representations of ancient theatre. Rather, these masks were intricately painted figural representations. The chorus generally performed in the orchestra, a dancing area below the raised stage which the actors performed on. The separation of acting spaces helped to create “a specific dialectical relation between collective chorus in the orchestra and individual actors on stage” (17). As I mentioned, the role of the Chorus is unique in these two plays: in The Libation Bearers, they specifically alter the action by convincing the Nurse to keep Aegisthus vulnerable to attack; in The Eumenides, further affect the action by actually playing a major role in it; that is, the role of the Furies. (It is interesting to note, however, that in the text, they are still referred to as “Chorus.”)
The staging of the Chorus is notable as well. In The Libation Bearers, the entry of the Chorus takes time, so that Orestes is able to withdraw and observe. Vase-paintings suggest that the tomb was represented by the altar at the centre of the orchestra. So there is a contrast between Agamemnon, in which action is focused on the stage and skene-building (= the palace), and the opening of The Libation Bearers, where the spatial focus shifts to the centre of the orchestra. There is a shift of focus back to the palace from 652, accompanied by change in pace of developments (cf. different structural patterns in first and second parts of Agamemnon). The Eumenides begins with focus on skene-building (= Apollo’s temple in Delphi), but with change of location to Athens comes with shift of focus to orchestra (central altar = shrine of Athens where Orestes takes refuge). Controlled variation in the use of the performance space achieves variety within and between plays, and is another device for shaping the trilogy as a whole.
The Chorus thematically changes functions through the trilogy, as well. The chorus of elders from Argos in the Agamemnon are, with the exception of the mute jury in the Eumenides, the most democratic body presented on stage; they are also weak and ineffective, kowtowing to Clytemnestra when they should be warning Agamemnon about the terrible things his wife has done and planned in his absence.2 The second chorus on stage, the slave girls from the Libation Bearers, is apparently much stronger than the chorus of old men; they encourage Orestes and Electra to commit their “just” crime of matricide/vengeance; they pray to the retinue of gods to give Agamemnon’s children the strength to carry out the deed. And, as representatives of the Apollinian form of justice, they question the validity of chthonic justice; the third verse of their parados implies that Ge, for supporting Clytemnestra’s prayers, has shown herself as an unnatural, evil force. The final chorus, the Furies themselves, are gods on-stage, without a doubt the most formidable chorus of the trilogy. They are chthonic justice incarnate. They appear even stronger because of their weak opposition, the supplicant Orestes and Apollo-as-lawyer. Apollo makes four increasingly ridiculous arguments on Orestes’ behalf-without Athene’s intervention, there appears to be no logical reason for Orestes’ getting off the hook. The trilogy’s choruses, then, serve as an undertow to the general theme of justice progressing to rationality.
Another note on tragic form: As Aristotle writes in The Poetics, violence between those who are close is a fundamental part in tragedy; as it turns out in this trilogy, all of the violence occurs between family members: Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon, Orestes kills Clytemnestra, and so on. “Let us therefore take up the question what classes of events appear terrible or pitiable. Necessarily, we are concerned with interactions between people who are closely connected with each other, or between enemies, or between neutrals. If enemy acts on enemy, there is nothing pitiable either in the action itself or in its imminence, except in respect of the actual suffering in itself. Likewise with neutrals. What one should look for are situations in which sufferings arise within close relationships, e.g. brother kills brother, son father, mother son, or son mother—or is on the verge of killing them, or does something else of the same kind.” (translated M. Heath, Penguin 1996)
It is well known that The Eumenides depends much more heavily on spectacle than the other plays. A popular story, probably apocryphal, of performances tell of the horrific first appearance of the Furies, which caused boys to faint and pregnant women to miscarry. A device which is more or less specific to the work of Aeschylus is the eventual visualization of images such as the Furies: in Agamemnon, we hear of the Furies, mentioned several times, but rather vaguely in terms of “the hunt” and “the net”; At the beginning of The Eumenides, the priestess describes them in more lifelike and gruesome terms: “they’re black and totally repulsive, with loud rasping snorts,” “disgusting pus comes oozing from their eyes,” etc., but we still don’t see what she’s talking about. And finally, the audience actually witnesses their presence on stage in all of their horrible glory: they are the hunters of Orestes’ blood. Aristotle tends to turn up his nose at this kind of spectacle, saying that it is least connected with the art of poetry, depending more on “the art of the stage machinist” (VI).
The role of music in the Poetics is a topic usually ignored or treated as of little importance. In the definition of tragedy in Poetics 6, the phrase “sweetened language” refers to the musical elements of tragedy. These are not mere “embellishments,” or “non-essential additives.” Instead, Aristotle uses this metaphor from cooking to refer to what corresponds, in tragedy, to “precisely these additives which characterize the art of cooking” (56). Music imitates “character qualities,” such as anger, gentleness, courage and temperance, and thus effects a change in the souls of the audience. In tragedy, the musical elements help “to reveal ethical qualities and emotions that lie beyond the limits and expressive capabilities of ordinary speech” (58-59). Sifakis gives some excellent examples of passages in tragedy that serve this function, arguing, for example, that in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, “the function of the kommos is to set the moral tone that will make Orestes’ dreadful task appear just and inevitable” (61).
Finally, we arrive at the concept of catharsis. Aristotle says that in seeing tragedy – for instance, killing one’s husband (Agamemnon) or killing one’s mother (The Libation Bearers) – the spectator experiences “through pity and fear… the proper purgation [i.e. catharsis] of these emotions.” (23) One traditional interpretation of the cathartic ending is that it purges or cleanses spectators’ own pity and fear, relieving them of harmful emotions and making them better people for the experience. Another interpretation, more consistent with Aristotle’s approach, is that catharsis resolves dramatic tension, bringing the plot to a logical conclusion and thereby allowing the audience to feel satisfied despite the unhappy ending. The Oresteia exemplifies this approach, a final example of the echoes of Aristotle’s Poetics in Aeschylus’ work.
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