Libation Bearers is the second play in a trilogy of tragedies by Aeschylus entitled the Oresteia. (Part 1 is called Agamemnon, and Part 3 is called Eumenides.) In the heyday of Athenian tragedy – and Aeschylus's work is definitely from the heyday – all three parts of a trilogy would be performed back-to-back on a single day. Sometimes, these would be followed by a fourth play, called a satyr play, which would provide a goofy contrast to the tragedies. Each series of plays would usually be linked by some overarching story and set of themes; the Oresteia, which talks about a cycle of revenge within three generations of a single family, is no exception.
The Oresteia was first performed in Athens at the Festival of the god Dionysusin 458 BC. At this festival, tragedies were always performed as part of a contest pitting poet against poet; you'll be pleased to know that, with the Oresteia, Aeschylus took home first-place.
By the time he won this victory, Aeschylus was already an established playwright, and an old man. How did he get there? Well, first of all, he had to be born; this happened around 525 BC, in Eleusis, a small town not far from Athens. Eleusis was considered part of Athenian territory, so Aeschylus was born an Athenian citizen; his family came from the nobility. Aeschylus began writing plays as a young man, in the 490s BC. Then, when the Persians made war on the Greeks, Aeschylus fought alongside his fellow Athenians at the battle of Marathon. When the Persians invaded Greece a second time ten years later, Aeschylus fought again, this time participating in the sea battle at Salamis, a decisive victory for the Greeks.
According to one ancient source, Aeschylus was so proud of defending his country that his epitaph (which he wrote himself, of course) made no mention of his career as a playwright, instead boasting of his courage in battle against the Persians. Maybe this was just because, by this point, the man's prowess as a writer of tragedies went without saying. In between those two battles against the Persians, Aeschylus won the annual tragedy contest for the first time in 484 BC. He was top of the heap for a good time after that, in part because he completely revolutionized his art form. According to Aristotle, before Aeschylus came along, tragedies only featured one actor and a chorus; Aeschylus was the first person to add a second actor. Thus, you could say that Aeschylus invented dramatic dialogue, making him the originator of all subsequent theater, movies, and TV. Not too shabby.
But then, in 468, Aeschylus was given a run for his money by a young upstart named Sophocles, who actually won first prize in his first year competing. Sophocles brought to the game a new secret weapon: a THIRD ACTOR. Fortunately, Aeschylus knew a good thing when he saw it and, in no time, he was working three-actor scenes into his own tragedies, including those of the Oresteia. Aeschylus's trick was that he would keep the third actor silent for long periods of time, making him (all Greek actors were male) speak only at climactic moments. In Libation Bearers, the long-silent third actor is Pylades, who only speaks once it the play – at a decisive moment near the end. (We're not going to spoil it for you by telling you when.)
Written near the end of his life, and incorporating his own innovations and those of Sophocles, Libation Bearers and the rest of the Oresteia make up Aeschylus's greatest achievement. It is no coincidence that these plays were revived and re-performed after Aeschylus's death, a rare honor in ancient Athens. Fortunately for us, they continue to be read and performed today.
Why Should I Care?
You've seen Agamemnon. Now, its acclaimed cast is back for more: more action, more drama, more deception. That's right: from prize-winning tragic playwright Aeschylus comes… Libation Bearers, Part 2 of THE ORESTEIA, the explosive new miniseries that's taking the ancient theater by storm.
Multiple-tragedy-prize winner Sophocles calls it "The most mind-blowing spectacle of mayhem ever mounted onstage – even if Aeschylus totally rips off my Third Actor bit." (See "In a Nutshell" for more details.) Dionysus, god of wine and the theater raves, "Aeschylus turns up the heat in this unforgettable sequel." Other critics, like the divine personification of Justice, call the play a "Thought-provoking mediation on the social and personal costs of revenge."
That's right, folks, the critics are unanimous. So what are you waiting for? For years, this masterpiece was only available in Ancient Greek. Now, thanks to the development of the English language and translating technologies, you can read it at home… TODAY.