The Father of Our Tragedies

Aeschylus_Bust

Bust of Aeschylus

“When an elephant gets angry at you, he settles the score by resting his head on your chest. Really hard and really long – after he pinned you to the ground. That’s what I heard, at least.”

Vetfaan shudders at the thought. It’s been a quiet day in Boggel’s Place, and the conversation slewed to the many different ways in which life may end – or dying, to be more specific. With the political scene constantly moving south, this seemed to be a very natural thing to do.

“Ag, Vetfaan, being crushed by an elephant may be an apt metaphor when you think about it. We small people don’t really feature in the greater scheme of things. If Zuma builds a new home, takes a new wife or buys eight nuclear power stations…what can we do? Death, taxes and silly governmental decisions – those are inevitable. We might as well stop worrying about it.” Shrugging her shoulders, Precilla orders another beer.

“There is the story of Aeschylus, of course…,” Gertruida says with an appropriate pause at the end. She knows they’ll want to know what she’s talking about. They don’t disappoint her.

“Well, he lived about 500 years before Christ. He was a writer.” Again the tantalising silence as she sips her beer. Kleinpiet rolls his eyes and stares at her with pleading eyes.

“Oh, come on! You guys should know all about that famous Greek? He was the father of soapies.”

When Servaas slaps her playfully, softly, on her cheek, she smiles and relents by telling the story.

“Aeschilus was a playwright, you see? Before he appeared on the scene, the Greeks certainly staged plays, but they had a single actor on stage, backed up with a chorus. It was more – as I understand it – a way of musical story-telling. Then Aeschilus changed all that. He brought in the concept of tragedy by placing two actors in a conflict situation. The chorus wasn’t so important anymore – the actors acted out the story. And of course, there had to be a winner and a loser, hence the tragedy. He wrote plays which enthralled the audience so much that – according to an old book, The Life of Aeschilus  – ‘they caused young children to faint, patriarchs to urinate, and pregnant women to go into labour.’

“In those days trilogies became popular, with tragic episodes following each other; much like the Americans do with their TV programs. And, in contrast to preceding efforts, his actors had to dress up and be made up to look like the character they portrayed: like Zeus or Achilles and so on.

“Anyway, today we honour him as the Father of Tragedy, the one who introduced mankind to the reality of everyday life – on stage. He was hugely successful in his time, but I think only seven of his plays survived.”

Vetfaan shakes his head. “What has that to do with unusual deaths, Gertruida? That’s what we were talking about.”

“Oh that?” She smiles enigmatically. “Of course. You see, he heard a prohesy about his death. It was said that something would fall on his head, killing him instantly. So he solved the problem by staying outside, never venturing into buildings and cities. He thought he was safe.”

“So he died of old age?”

“Nope. According to Pliny in Naturalis Historiæ and an earlier writer, Valerius Maximus, an eagle  carried a tortoise high into the air, looking for a suitable rock to dash it on. Mistaking Aeschilus’s head for a rock, the eagle dropped the tortoise on target, killing the playwright.”

“So the father of tragedy died as a result of a flying tortoise?”

“Indeed. You see, if you are destined to die on a certain day in a certain manner, that’s the way it’ll be. You can’t escape fate.”

Oudoom clears his throat. He doesn’t like this type of argument.

“Don’t worry, Oudoom, we all know that such old tales are often fables and bits of oral history that get distorted over time, And, remember, those stories were written up long before Christ, which must make us look at them in context.”

With Oudoom suitably placated, a comfortable silence settles in Boggel’s Place while they mull over the life and times of that old Greek.

Credit: Independent Newspapers. File picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

Credit: Independent Newspapers. File picture: Jeffrey Abrahams

“Yes,” Servaas says suddenly. “Tragic trilogies. Mandela, Mbeki, Zuma. Today our modern playwright is the Parliament and let’s agree – they certainly dress up according to the drama they depict. They still use a chorus, though, when they protest.”

“Aeschilus all over again?” Vetfaan raises an eyebrow. “So we wait for a flying tortoise to bring sense back to our politics?”

He gets a slow nod from Gertruida. “Something slow is going to happen really fast one day. You’ll see, it’ll happen. Already the press and the media are baying for the head of our beloved President. It’s almost as if they know something we don’t. Or perhaps they are busy preparing the nation for a change. But, in the end, we have to agree that a tortoise can be as deadly as an elephant. It’s surprising how effective they can be under the right circumstances.”

“Falling tortoises and waning support…you may be right, Gertruida.”

Gertruida merely smiles that  smile again. She’s wondering who will be the eagle, and what form the tortoise will take. The tragedy, she thinks, is that the play on our political stage is so well written, that – like Aeschilus proved in his plays and with his demise – the end will come as  a surprise to everybody.

One of the main actors may be sacrificed, but the play will go on – and it can never be a comedy. Yes, she thinks, we’re doing Aeschilus proud…

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