Seven against Thebes

by Aeschylus

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Critical Overview

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Seven Against Thebes depicts the third story in the Oedipus trilogy. The first story in the trilogy tells of the curse that is visited upon Laius, which threatened Thebes if Laius had any offspring. In the second tragedy, Oedipus cannot escape his father’s curse, and fulfills it with the murder of his father and marriage to his mother. When Oedipus discovers that he has fulfilled the prophecy, he blinds himself and promises that his sons will have to do battle over his property, thus setting up the actions of the third part of the trilogy, the fight between Eteocles and Polyneices. The story of Antigone and of her insistence on following her conscience, which she places before the laws of the state, is also the subject of a tragedy, Sophocles’s Antigone.

We do not know how Aeschylus’s audience reacted to Seven Against Thebes, but we can assume that the reaction was favorable, since he received a first prize for the trilogy, of which it is a part. It is important to remember that Greek drama was not nightly entertainment, but was a part of festivals, which were staged only a few times during the year. Plays were not intended to hold up a mirror to life, but the playwright did hope that his play would touch the audience, forcing them to consider the implications of the behavior depicted on stage. Audiences listened very intently to the actors and the Chorus, even reacting with fear to an actor’s persona, costuming, or mask. Tragedy was intended to teach a lesson, reveal a moral truth, or create an emotional response in the audience, such as pity or fear. In a particularly effective tragedy, the play would produce a catharsis of these emotions in the audience. The audience would learn that sometimes these emotions are destructive, and therefore, they would attempt to avoid them in their own lives. In Seven Against Thebes, Eteocles teaches the audience that hatred is destructive in its blindness. Eteocles and Polyneices should have united in strength; instead they opposed one another and so both died.

Aeshcylus’s plays are not often produced, since many directors find his works difficult to stage before a modern audience. However, there is still an occasional production, as one would expect, in Greece, such as a recent presentation of Seven Against Thebes in Athens in August 1995. Occasionally, productions are attempted elsewhere, as in a 1994 staging at the Macunaima Drama School in Sao Paulo, Brazil. There was also a 1996 staging at the Stagecraft theater in New Zealand. Of the latter production, a review by John Davidson mentions the difficulty in staging Aeschylus. In this performance, the director included a lecture on the mythical background and a staged conversation between Oedipus and Antigone, in which the two discussed their family history. These devices preceded the performance, but Davidson argues that ‘‘a straightforward delivery of the essential features of the story would probably have been more useful.’’ Davidson also noted that the Chorus was unequal to the role, lacking emotional force. In spite of the problems of the performance, Davidson credits the actors playing Eteocles and the messenger as particularly effective. One addition that pleased the reviewer was a pageant of Theban champions, whose shields matched the descriptions delivered by the messenger. A too-small theater and uneven acting, according to Davidson, could not diminish the glimpses of the ‘‘raw power of Aeschylus.’’ We cannot compare modern productions and the audience’s response to how a Greek audience might have responded to this tragedy. By the time the ancient Greek audience witnessed Seven Against...

(This entire section contains 726 words.)

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Thebes, they had been following this familial tragedy through productions of the first two parts of the tetralogy. Since the first two plays have not survived, a modern audience will never experience these plays in their entirety. Nor is a modern audience as familiar with the myths that lie behind the trilogy. Aeschylus’s audience was informed and attentive, with the events on stage having a meaning for the audience that is lacking in a modern audience. Davidson noted in his review that this production of was followed by a staging of The Persians with a production of Agamemnon planned the following year. Occasionally an audience is lucky enough to experience Aeschylus’s work, and for a few moments, they are transported back to ancient Greece.

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