The Eumenides is like The Return of the Jedi. It's like The Return of the King. It's like Mockingjay. In other words, it's the third installment of a trilogy of blockbuster hits… except that the crowds that lined outside the theater to see the premier of The Eumenides were toga-wearing Ancient Greeks.
Aeschylus wrote the Oresteia trilogy (Part I is Agamemnon, and Part II is Libation Bearers) to be performed back-to-back-to-back, on a single day. Those Athenian audiences had quite the attention span.
Each series of plays in Ancient Greece 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 Dionysus in 458 B.C.E.—yeah, this play is old. 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. 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.
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. 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.
In The Eumenides, the climax of the trilogy, the big three-actor scene is the trial, where Apollo, Orestes, and the goddess Athena all have speaking parts (plus the Chorus of Furies). Written near the end of his life, and incorporating his own innovations and those of Sophocles, The Eumenides 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.
You should care about The Eumenides if you care about breaking the rules.
No, not good rules like "Don't walk in three abreast on a crowded sidewalk" or "You only get to use two armrests if you're sitting in the middle seat on an airplane" or "Tip your pizza delivery guy extra if it's snowing." We're not animals.
We're talking about fusty playwriting rules like "Don't change things too crazy-like in the third act" or "Only set your drama in one location" or "Don't have the action in your play go on for more than one day." Stupid rules. Old-fashioned rules. Rules that were meant to be split apart like a literary piñata.
The first rule that The Eumenides cracks like a coconut is sometimes called the Aristotelian or "classical unities." These are 1) "unity of action," 2) "unity of time," and 3) "unity of place." What does this mean? Well, that 1) a play should concern itself with one significant action 2) a play should take place in one location and 3) should not depict an action that last longer than one day.
The Eumenides laughs in the face of these last two. The scene onstage in this play starts in Delphi and ending up in Athens. Also, because Delphi and Athens are more than a day's walking distance from each other, the time clearly lasts longer than one day.
But why is this important? Simple: The Eumenides was making theatrical history. Aeschylus is often called the "father of tragedy" and it's extremely important to modern theater (and literature in general) that Aeschylus was not your garden-variety soccer dad-of-tragedy—he was a motorcycle-riding, leather-jacket-sporting rebel with a cause.
And he didn't just break other people's rules. He diverted from his own form. The Eumenides is Part #3 in a trilogy, and it totally differs from Parts #1 and #2. Agamemnon and Libation Bearers, the first two entries in the Oresteia trilogy, are exciting. Agamemnon is like a scary movie and Libation Bearers is like its inevitable sequel.
In The Eumenides, however, we move into different territory: that of the courtroom drama. How many slasher movies do you know that end with a trial? Maybe when they make Friday the 13th Part 196, there will be a big courtroom scene where Jason has to face down the Chorus of the Furies in a trial judged by the Goddess of Diminishing Box Office Returns… but we aren't holding our breath.
Why is this important? Well, not only is every episode of The Good Wife or Law and Order the great-great-great-great-great-(we could keep going)-grand-baby of The Eumenides, but we have Aeschylus' play to thank for every time that a work of literature from its prescribed format. Every literary twist and turn—from those whaling chapters in Moby-Dick to the surprise ending of Fight Club—is based on a precedent set by ye olde The Eumenides.
Who would have thought that a dude who looked like this would have been such a bad boy?
Theoi Greek Mythology
Your one-stop shop for information about all things Greek and mythological. This is a good place to turn if you're stuck on some obscure mythological reference.
Aeschylus Online, for free!
Online texts of Aeschylus's seven surviving plays. Thanks, MIT!
The Travelling Players
This Greek film (also known by its original title, O Thiasos, uses Aeschylus's Oresteia to retell the history of modern Greece.
A 70's TV adaptation of Aeschylus's trilogy. So very 70's.
This is a bust of Aeschylus. Chances are it was not done from life, but it can give you some idea of what ancient people after Aeschylus imagined that he looked like.
Fragment of a Lost Play by Aeschylus
This papyrus fragment is from a "satyr play" by Aeschylus, entitled the Dictyulci, or "Net-pullers." A satyr play is a comic play, which a chorus made up of satyrs—weird little half man half goat dudes. Traditionally a tragedian would write one tragic trilogy and a satyr play to accompany it.
Here's a 1983 British Production of The Eumenides with a masked, all-male cast.
Oresteia Trilogy in 60 Seconds
This more or less sums it up. (Okay, less.)
"Chorus of the Furies" by Faith and The Muse
This track by the American goth duo is inspired by the Furies from Aeschylus's The Eumenides.
Chill out to the sounds of Esben and the Witch's "Eumenides."
Orestes Pursued by the Furies
The American 19th-20th century painter John Singer Sargent painted this picture of Orestes being pursued by the Furies.
This painting by the turn of the 20th century Viennese artist Gustav Klimt shows the presiding goddess of The Eumenides in all her glory.
Clytemnestra Wakes Up The Sleeping Erinyes
In this image, by the so-called "Eumenides Painter" (a dude who painted scenes from Aeschylus's play, between 390 and 380 BC), we see Clytemnestra attempting to awaken the so-called "Erinyes" or "Furies." They don't look too scary to us.
Orestes Purified by Apollo
Here is another image from the so-called "Eumenides Painter." It shows what happens right before our play begins: when Orestes is cleansed of his sin at the shrine of Apollo. What is the cleaning agent? Pig's blood, of course!