Wagner and AeschylusGeorge Kokkos
What is new about this age (Axial Age)…is that man becomes conscious of Being as a whole, of himself and his limitations. He experiences the terror of the world and his own powerlessness. He asks radical questions. Face to face with the void he strives for liberation and redemption.
~ Karl Jaspers
“In any serious investigation of the essence of our art of the day, we cannot make one step forward without being brought face to face with its intimate connection with the art of ancient Greece. For, in point of fact, our modern art is but one link in the artistic development of the whole of Europe; and this development found its starting point with the Greeks”.
Thus wrote Richard Wagner in his essay ‘Art And Revolution’ (‘Die Kunst und die Revolution’), published in 1849. Interestingly enough, Wagner’s work was influenced on many levels by Aeschylus. Let’s see how:
Axial Age (Achsenzeit)
The period of ancient history from about the 8th to the 3rd century BCE, is when humans began to conceive and develop theologies of religion and philosophy. The famous German psychiatrist and philosopher Karl Jaspers called this period of unprecedented religious and philosophical creativity “The Axial Age”.
Those thinkers that emerged from this “Axial Age” included Classical Greek dramatists and philosophers, Lao Tze, the Buddha, the Upanishads, Confucius and Hebrew prophets. Aeschylus belongs to this group of thinkers. His theater plays, never ceased to have a profound influence not only to ancient thinkers but also to intellectuals of the 19th and 20th centuries.
Aeschylus: the innovator
Did you know that Aeschylus introduced the concept of trilogies? Think of “Lord Of The Rings”, “Star Wars” or any other set of three theater plays or movies that are connected and can be seen either as a single movie or as three individual movies.
He introduced ‘stochasmos’ and ‘logos’, transforming the plot into a vehicle to explore other concepts and ideas! (The term ‘stochasmos’ can be translated in English as ‘conjecture’. while the Latin term is ‘status coniecturalis’.)
Influence on Wagner
One of the most loyal fans of Aeschylus was Richard Wagner. On the last day of his life, the great German composer and theatre director said of Aeschylus, ‘my admiration for him never ceases to grow’.
Wagner records in his autobiography, “Mein Leben“, that he then:
‘for the first time . . . mastered Aeschylus with real feeling and understanding’,
and goes on to say that the impact on him of the Orestes trilogy was so great that:
‘I could see the Oresteia with my mind’s eye, as though it were actually being performed; and its effect on me was indescribable.
Nothing could equal the sublime emotion with which the Agamemnon inspired me, and to the last word of the Eumenides I remained in an atmosphere so far removed from the present day that I have never since been really able to reconcile myself with modern literature.
My ideas about the whole significance of the drama and of the theater were, without a doubt, molded by these impressions’ …(!)