Aeschylus (525 – 455 BC), arguably the founder of serious drama, and referred to as “The Father of Tragedy“, was Ancient Greece’s greatest playwright, who wrote over 90 plays, half of them winning prizes at Athens’ great drama festivals. According to tradition, he used to work in a vineyard, until he was visited in his sleep by the god Dionysius, who ordered him to write tragedies instead.
Greek tragedy was typically performed at religious festivals, such as the Athenian Dionysia, during which three playwrights competed for a prize with three tragedies and a comedy each.
Acting as we understand the term today, and thus theater, movies, and our favorite television series, can all be traced back to Aeschylus’ innovations. Before, theater had consisted of a narrator telling a story, broken at intervals with a chorus singing and dancing. Aeschylus was the first to produce plays in which the story was conveyed by actors playing out roles and exchanging dialogue.
Aeschylus was also noted for the use of striking imagery, and extravagant costumes. He was the first to introduce a wheeled platform to change stage scenery and employed a crane to lift actors for use in scenes that entailed flight or descent from the heavens.
The main themes of Aeschylus’ plays were conflicts between men and the gods, between the individual and the state, and the inevitability of divine retribution for misdeeds. As playwrights submitted three tragedies when competing at the drama festivals, Aeschylus took to linking his three plays into a trilogy, which followed a family over several generations, such as the Oresteia, which dealt with Agamemnon and his descendants in the aftermath of the Trojan War.
The turbulence of Aeschylus’ own era, particularly the Persian Wars, strongly influenced his plays. He fought in the Battle of Marathon, in which his brother was killed. He also fought at the battles of Artemisium and Salamis. Those experiences found expression in the earliest of his surviving plays, The Persians.
For all his literary accomplishments, Aeschylus’ self-penned epitaph said nothing of his success as a playwright but simply stated what he was proudest of in his life and what he wanted to be remembered for: that he had fought at Marathon. Aeschylus’ surviving plays are still performed in theaters all around the world.