From the excellent Giornale Nuovo
Been thinking a lot about the origins of Greek tragedy. Readings in Steiner's Antigones and The Death of Tragedy.
There is an illuminating passage in Borges' Other Inquisitions regarding the introduction of the second actor as one of the most significant events in human history:
"I have suspected that history, real history, is more modest and that its essential dates may be, for a long time, secret. A Chinese prose writer has observed that the unicorn, because of its own anomaly, will pass unnoticed. Our eyes see what they are accustomed to seeing. Tacitus did not perceive the Crucifixion, although his book recorded it.From http://www.wayneturney.20m.com/AESCHYLUS.htm
Those thoughts came to me after a phrase happened to catch my eye as I leafed through a history of Greek literature. The phrase aroused my interest because of its enigmatic quality: "He brought in a second actor." I stopped; I found that the subject of that mysterious action was Aeschylus and that, as we read in the fourth chapter of Aristotle's Poetics, he "raised the number of actors from one to two." It is well known that the drama was an offshoot of the religion of Dionysus. Originally, a single actor, the hypokrites, elevated by the cothurnus, dressed in black or purple and with his face enlarged by a mask, shared the scene with the twelve individuals of the chorus. The drama was one of the ceremonies of the worship and, like all ritual, was in danger of remaining invariable. Aeschylus' innovation could have occurred on but one day, five hundred years before the Christian era; the Athenians saw with amazement and perhaps with shock (Victor Hugo thought the latter) the unannounced appearance of a second actor. On that remote spring day, in that honey-colored theatre, what did they think, what did they feel exactly? Perhaps neither amazement nor shock; perhaps only a beginning of surprise. In the Tusculanae it is stated that Aeschylus joined the Pythagorean order, but we shall never know if he had a prefiguring, even an imperfect one, of the importance of that passage from one to two, from unity to plurality and thus to infinity. With the second actor came the dialogue and the indefinite possibilities of the reaction of some characters on others. A prophetic spectator would have seen that multitudes of future appearances accompanied him: Hamlet and Faust and Segismundo and Macbeth and Peer Gynt and others our eyes cannot yet discern."
From Aeschylus and His Tragedies
Innovations: Introduction of the Second Actor. Judging from his earliest surviving plays, Aeschylus added a second actor at first not so much to increase conflict, as to advance the story (as opposed to the plot) by introducing new material while adding visual and aural variety to his plays. The messenger telling Atossa of the death of her son Xerxes in the Persians is thus the oldest extant "messenger speech." It clearly heightens the emotion, but creates involves no agon. The fellow who took the role of this "second" actor is, then, the first professional actor and we happen to know his name-Kleander (but, alas we know nothing else about him). This marks also the first stage of the decline of prominence of the khoros, a literary event that can be traced through Sophokles and Euripides and which was to have very far reaching consequences indeed.
The closing years of the life of Aeschylus were passed in Sicily, which country he first visited soon after his defeat by Sophocles. At Syracuse his Persæ was several times performed at the request of the king, and here also he brought out his Women of Etna, celebrating the foundation of that city by Hiero and prophesying happiness for its inhabitants. Returning to Athens, he produced his Orestean trilogy, probably the finest of his works; but the Eumenides, the last of the three plays, revealed so openly his aristocratic tendencies that he became extremely unpopular, and returning to Sicily, died soon afterward at Gela. The story as to the manner of his death, that an eagle, mistaking his bald head for a stone, dropped a tortoise upon it to break the shell, is the sheerest fabrication, and, it would seem, entirely unnecessary to account for the natural death of an exile nearly seventy years of age.
The Oresteia: Agamemnon; The Libation Bearers; The Eumenides by Aeshylus
The Three Theban Plays by Sophocles