Claim by “Big Love” proves false
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, November 7, 2006
FTT’s website says of its upcoming “Big Love” (opening on Tuesday) that it’s based upon the oldest surviving play, “The Suppliant Women” by Aeschylus. Wrong. The discoveries at Oxyrhynchus provided evidence that “The Suppliant Women” is in fact preceded by both “The Persians” and “Seven Against Thebes.”
The idea that “The Suppliant Women” came before the others stems from a fallacy in talking about art. Because “The Suppliant Women” is in some ways Aeschylus’ most stylistically-primitive play, some critics assumed this meant he wrote it first. This relies on a warped notion about art – that every innovation happens adventitiously and that use of that innovation will necessarily produce a better work of art. Since we now know that Aeschylus wrote more stylistically-progressive works before “The Suppliant Women,” that makes us wonder why he used the form for it that he did.
The answer is simple: the style best suited his artistic goals for the piece. The erroneous notion that led critics to provide an earlier composition date for “The Suppliant Women” creates a problem because it assumes that artists are constricted by the current conventions of their medium, instead of taking the position that artists can innovate at will. Why did Aeschylus seldom employ three actors? Was it because the innovation wasn’t around when he started writing, or that, when it did emerge, he was just too atavistic to jump on the bandwagon? Both of these theories are inadequate. If three actors had served the dramatic and philosophical purposes of Aeschylus’ plays, he would have created the innovation rather than Sophocles. The fact that he not only lacked the initiative to create the three-actor rule, but that he seldom employed it afterwards demonstrates that – while it may have been a beneficial tool for playwrights in general – it did not serve his purposes.
Certainly evolution in aesthetic approach opens up more options for playwrights to express themselves, but it does not mean the old form is inferior, and that we are positively evolving. Few would argue that French is an inherently-superior language to Latin simply because it evolved from it. The critics who assumed that “The Suppliant Women” was older than Aeschylus’ other surviving works just because its structure reflects a method that had been around longer is insulting to Aeschylus; it is akin to those offensive executives who colorize old black-and-white films for tv viewing, assuming that, had they the technology and financial resources, the filmmakers would have necessarily shot in color. The argument goes like this: color film developed after black-and-white; therefore it is better; therefore everyone must want to use it. Ok, then I guess filmmakers from Bogdanovich to Welles, Fellini to Kurosawa, Woody Allen to George Clooney, among others, are just plain stupid. And, apparently, so was Aeschylus.