Saturday, September 13, 2008
Greek Plays: Seven Against Thebes
Greek plays always start in the middle of the story and Aeschylus' "The Seven Against Thebes" is no exception. Like "The Persians," it is a martial play, more set on reading the rolls of heroic soldiers than exploring character and plot.
Thebes was an ancient Greek city founded by Cadmus, who was out looking for his sister Europa, who'd been carried off by Zeus. He never found Europa, but he did find a great site for a city. Cadmus killed a dragon and the goddess Athena had him plant the dragon's teeth in the ground. An army of men popped up and started fighting and the survivors became the founders of Thebes.
Cadmus' descendents had the most terrible luck and nobody had it worse than poor Oedipus, who was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. The play "The Seven Against Thebes" begins after Oedipus is blinded and driven out of Thebes and his twin sons are fighting over the throne.
Eteocles is the son ruling the city and his brother Polyneices has gathered an army to attack. The play begins with a looong speech by Eteocles to his people describing the situation. A spy enters and gives a lengthy report: seven great chieftans are outside the gates, offering sacrifices to Ares, god of war.
Thebes has seven gates, you see, each with its own name. For reasons best known to Polyneices, he's decided to send one warrior chieftan against each gate, rather than massing all seven against one gate. Not the greatest military strategy (Clausewitz would never approve), but Poly is the leader, so they all go along. So now Poly's chieftans are busy playing paper-scissors-rock to see who will attack which gate.
Eteocles prays to Zeus, then leaves. And here comes the Chorus, a group of Theban women who are absolutely terrified:
"I wail in the stress of my terror, and shrill is my cry of despair ..."
They shriek for a good two pages, crying for the gods' protection, and finally irritating Eteocles, who hustles over to shut them up.
"Your flying feet, and rumour of your fears,
have spread a soulless panic on our walls"
He yells at them for a good long while, telling them that women are stupid and a pain, that the gods won't help them, to keep their voices down, to just shut up already. "Beshrew your cries!" he shouts. "In silence face your fate!"
This, of course, does no good at all, and Eteocles stomps out in disgust. The Chorus of women give a harrowing account of what happens to conquered people, working themselves into a real frenzy.
Eteocles finally returns, accompanied by six buddies who will defend the gates of Thebes. The Spy turns up and describes each of seven champions attacking Thebes -- each man's name, who his daddy was, what he's wearing and how much he can bench-press. Eteocles arranges his own champions to meet the enemy but saves the best for himself -- the Seventh Gate, to be attacked by his brother Polyneices. Eteocles will fight his brother at the gate.
The women start shrieking at the news, but Eteocles marches off. The defenders defeat the attackers, but at the Seventh Gate, the two brothers kill each other in battle. Says the Spy:
"So is the city saved; the earth has drunk
Blood of twin princes, by each other slain."
The bodies of Eteocles and Polyneices are brought in by their sisters, who sing a nice long dirge with the Chorus. A Herald arrives and says the City Council has decided to bury Eteocles (the defender) in all honor, his attacking brother Polyneices will be left out for the dogs.
The sister Antigone will not agree.
"I, I will bury this my brother's corpse
And risk your wrath and what may come of it!"
This, of course, sets up the famous Greek play "Antigone," where heroine must decide whether to bury her brother Polyneices despite certain execution for it. But "The Seven Against Thebes" ends here with the chorus carrying off Eteocles' body for a big funeral.
"He saved us from a foreign yoke,
A wild assault of outland folk,
A savage, alien wave!"