AESCHYLUS: THE FIRST GREAT PLAYWRIGHT

This article was originally published in A Short History of the Drama. Martha Fletcher Bellinger. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1927. pp. 27-8.

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OF all the miracles which dazzle mankind in the history of literary genius, none is more amazing than the advent of Aeschylus. In his art he was bound by innumerable ties to Thespis and the forerunners, and to the half savage dancers round the drum; yet he reached far beyond them. Those primitive rituals and dances are alien to us, while Aeschylus speaks as one of ourselves. With him appeared probably the first written play. He took the scattering, haphazard exercise of Thespis and made of it a coherent art form. He also began to think about the questions and problems with which we are still concerned, and tried to embody them in his work. He steps from the dim light of the primitive world into the relatively broad daylight of modern times; and he ushers in the great cycle of Greek drama which, in the space of a century, ran its course and decayed.

Life of Aeschylus. 525-456 B.C. The last recorded public appearance of Thespis was in 534 B.C. Nine years after that, at Eleusis, not far from Athens, Aeschylus was born, in a family belonging to the ancient Attic nobility. He and his brother Cynegeirus fought with distinction in various engagements against the invading Persians, and their portraits were included in the famous picture of the battle of Marathon on the Painted Porch at Athens. The first appearance of Aeschylus in the competitions for tragedy was made, as has been noted, in 499 B.C., against Pratinus and Choerilus, and was unsuccessful. The excitement of the contest brought such a great crowd of spectators to the theater that the wooden benches broke down. After his first appearance and defeat, Aeschylus left Athens for Sicily; but in 490, the year of Marathon, he must have been back in Athens. Between the battles of Marathon and Salamis he achieved the first of his thirteen successes in the competitions. In 468 he was defeated by the young Sophocles.

Aeschylus made many visits to Sicily, and seems finally to have adopted that island as his home, under the patronage of Prince Hieron. He must have returned frequently to Athens, however, in order to act in his plays and to superintend their production. Although greatly admired by the Athenians, yet he was almost mobbed on one occasion under suspicion of having revealed the Eleusinian mysteries. At his trial he was acquitted. He died at Gela, Sicily, in his seventieth year. The legend is that he was seated out of doors, writing, when an eagle, mistaking his bald head for a stone, dropped a tortoise on it and killed him. He was buried in the public tombs of Gela with great pomp and magnificence. Over his tomb was inscribed an epitaph which, it was said, was composed by himself, mentioning the fact that he had fought at Marathon, but saying nothing of his work as a poet.

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