The Libation Bearers is the second part of Aeschylus' great trilogy, the Oresteia. It has been said that Athens left the world two masterpieces of surpassing beauty: the Parthenon and the Oresteia. Aeschylus was the great father of drama in the West, and this trilogy provides the bulk of what we know about his ideas. Of the seventy or so plays that he wrote, only seven have survived. The other four surviving plays are parts of trilogies, each disconnected from each two sister plays, and it is therefore difficult to examine them with any confidence. But the Oresteia has come down to us intact, and in it Aeschylus presents a vision that is whole, unique, and beautiful.
The specific circumstances surrounding the origin of Greek drama were a puzzle even in the fourth century BC. Greek drama seems to have its roots in religious celebrations that incorporated song and dance. By the sixth century BC, Athenians had transformed a rural celebration of Dionysis into an urban festival with dancing choruses that competed for prizes. An anonymous poet came up with the idea of having the chorus interact with a masked actor. Later, Aeschylus transformed the art by using two masked actors, each playing different parts throughout the piece, making possible Greek drama as we know it. With two actors and a chorus, complex plots and conflicts could be staged as never before, and the poets who competed in the festival were no longer writing elaborate hymns, but true plays. Incredibly, the playwrights were more than just writers. They also composed the music, choreographed the dances, and directed the actors. Athens was the only Greek city-state where this art form evolved; the comedies, tragedies, and dramas handed down to us from the period, although labeled generically as "Greek," are in fact all Athenian works. After the defeat of the Persians in a decisive campaign (480-479 BC), Athens emerged as the superpower of the independent Greek city-states, and during this time, the drama festival, or the Dionysia, became a spectacular event. The Dionysia lasted four to five days, and the city took the celebrations seriously. Prisoners were released on bail and most public business was suspended. Roughly ten thousand free male citizens, along with their slaves and dependents, watched plays in an enormous outdoor theater that could seat seventeen thousand spectators. On each of three days, the Athenians were treated to three tragedies and a satyr play (a light comedy on a mythic theme) written by one of three pre-selected tragedians, as well as one comedy by a comedic playwright. The trilogies did not have to be an extended drama dealing with the same story, although often they were. The Oresteia is the only surviving complete trilogy that we have. (Although the three Sophocles plays dealing with the Oedipus myth are sometimes called "The Oedipus Trilogy," Sophocles never presented those works together and in fact wrote the plays separately over the span of decades.) At the end of the festival, the tragedians were awarded first, second, and third prize by the judges of Dionysis.
For modern readers, the Chorus may be the most alien element of the play. Greek drama was not meant to be what we would consider "naturalistic." It was a highly stylized art form: actors wore masks, and the performances incorporated song and dance. The Chorus delivers much of the exposition and expounds poetically on themes, but it is still meant to represent a group of characters. In the case of The Libation Bearers, the Chorus is constituted by the slave women who live in Clytaemestra's palace, captives from old wars. They are loyal to Orestes and Electra and they despise Clytaemestra and Aegisthus. They interact with the actors, and they play a crucial part in the conspiracy. In general, the choruses of the Oresteia are more integral to the action than in the works of the other two great Greek tragedians. Aeschylus, after all, was closer to the tradition in which the Chorus was the whole show.
Consistent with the norms of Greek drama, The Libation Bearers is not divided into acts or discrete scenes. There is a scene change in the middle of the play, but that can be accomplished with minimal movement of set pieces in almost no time. However, time elapses in non-naturalistic fashion: at certain points, from reports of what has happened offstage, it is clear that a great amount of time is meant to have passed even though only a few seconds have passed for the audience. In general, as noted by Aristotle, most Greek tragedies have action confined to a twenty-four hour period.
This study guide works from the Richmond Lattimore translation.