Hence the dramatic poet, as well as the orator, must from the very commencement, by strong impressions, transport his hearers out of themselves, and, as it were, take bodily possession of their attention. There is a species of poetry which gently stirs a mind attuned to solitary contemplation, as soft breezes elicit melody from the Aeolian harp. However excellent this poetry may be in itself, without some other accompaniments its tones would be lost on the stage. The melting harmonica is not calculated to regulate the march of an army, and kindle its military enthusiasm. For this we must have piercing instruments, but above all a strongly-marked rhythm, to quicken the pulsation and give a more rapid movement to the animal spirits. The grand requisite in a drama is to make this rhythm perceptible in the onward progress of the action. When this has once been effected, the poet may all the sooner halt in his rapid career, and indulge the bent of his own genius. There are points, when the most elaborate and polished style, the most enthusiastic lyrics, the most profound thoughts and remote allusions, the smartest coruscations of wit, and the most dazzling flights of a sportive or ethereal fancy, are all in their place, and when the willing audience, even those who cannot entirely comprehend them, follow the whole with a greedy ear, like music in unison with their feelings. Here the poet's great art lies in availing himself of the effect of contrasts, which enable him at one time to produce calm repose, profound contemplation, and even the self-abandoned indifference of exhaustion, or at another, the most tumultuous emotions, the most violent storm of the passions. With respect to theatrical fitness, however, it must not be forgotten that much must always depend on the capacities and humours of the audience, and, consequently, on the national character in general, and the particular degree of mental culture. Of all kinds of poetry the dramatic is, in a certain sense, the most secular; for, issuing from the stillness of an inspired mind, it yet fears not to exhibit itself in the midst of the noise and tumult of social life. The dramatic poet is, more than any other, obliged to court external favour and loud applause. But of course it is only in appearance that he thus lowers himself to his hearers; while, in reality, he is elevating them to himself.
In thus producing an impression on an assembled multitude the following circumstance deserves to be weighed, in order to ascertain the whole amount of its importance. In ordinary intercourse men exhibit only the outward man to each other. They are withheld by mistrust or indifference from allowing others to look into what passes within them; and to speak with any thing like emotion or agitation of that which is nearest our heart is considered unsuitable to the tone of polished society. The orator and the dramatist find means to break through these barriers of conventional reserve. While they transport their hearers into such lively emotions that the outward signs thereof break forth involuntarily, every man perceives those around him to be affected in the same manner and degree, and those who before were strangers to one another, become in a moment intimately acquainted. The tears which the dramatist or the orator compels them to shed for calumniated innocence or dying heroism, make friends and brothers of them all. Almost inconceivable is the power of a visible communion of numbers to give intensity to those feelings of the heart which usually retire into privacy, or only open themselves to the confidence of friendship. The faith in the validity of such emotions becomes irrefragable from its diffusion; we feel ourselves strong among so many associates, and all hearts and minds flow together in one great and irresistible stream. On this very account the privilege of influencing an assembled crowd is exposed to most dangerous abuses. As one may disinterestedly animate them, for the noblest and best of purposes, so another may entangle them in the deceitful meshes of sophistry, and dazzle them by the glare of a false magnanimity, whose vainglorious crimes may be painted as virtues and even as sacrifices. Beneath the delightful charms of oratory and poetry, the poison steals imperceptibly into ear and heart. Above all others must the comic poet (seeing that his very occupation keeps him always on the slippery brink of this precipice,) take heed, lest he afford an opportunity for the lower and baser parts of human nature to display themselves without restraint. When the sense of shame which ordinarily keeps these baser propensities within the bounds of decency, is once weakened by the sight of others' participation in them, our inherent sympathy with what is vile will soon break out into the most unbridled licentiousness.
The powerful nature of such an engine for either good or bad purposes has in all times justly drawn the attention of the legislature to the drama. Many regulations have been devised by different governments, to render it subservient to their views and to guard against its abuse. The great difficulty is to combine such a degree of freedom as is necessary for the production of works of excellence, with the precautions demanded by the customs and institutions of the different states. In Athens the theatre enjoyed up to its maturity, under the patronage of religion, almost unlimited freedom, and the public morality preserved it for a time from degeneracy. The comedies of Aristophanes, which with our views and habits appear to us so intolerably licentious, and in which the senate and the people itself are unmercifully turned to ridicule, were the seal of Athenian freedom. To meet this abuse, Plato, who lived in the very same Athens, and either witnessed or foresaw the decline of art, proposed the entire banishment of dramatic poets from his ideal republic. Few states, however, have conceived it necessary to subscribe to this severe sentence of condemnation; but few also have thought proper to leave the theatre to itself without any superintendence. In many Christian countries the dramatic art has been honoured by being made subservient to religion, in the popular treatment and exhibition of religious subjects; and in Spain more especially competition in this department has given birth to many works which, neither devotion nor poetry will disown. In other states and under other circumstances this has been thought both objectionable and inexpedient. Wherever, however, the subsequent responsibility of the poet and actor has been thought insufficient, and it has been deemed advisable to submit every piece before its appearance on the stage to a previous censorship, it has been generally found to fail in the very point which is of the greatest importance: namely, the spirit and general impression of a play. From the nature of the dramatic art, the poet must put into the mouths of his characters much of which he does not himself approve, while with respect to his own sentiments he claims to be judged by the spirit and connexion of the whole. It may again happen that a piece is perfectly inoffensive in its single speeches, and defies all censorship, while as a whole it is calculated to produce the most pernicious effect. We have in our own times seen but too many plays favourably received throughout Europe, over-flowing with ebullitions of good-heartedness and traits of magnanimity, and in which, notwithstanding, a keener eye cannot fail to detect the hidden purpose of the writer to sap the foundations of moral principle, and the veneration for whatever ought to be held sacred by man; while all this sentimentality is only to bribe to his purpose the effeminate soft-heartedness of his contemporaries [Footnote: The author it is supposed alludes to Kotzebue.—TRANS.]. On the other hand, if any person were to undertake the moral vindication of poor Aristophanes, who has such a bad name, and whose licentiousness in particular passages, is to our ideas quite intolerable, he will find good grounds for his defence in the general object of his pieces, in which he at least displays the sentiments of a patriotic citizen.
The purport of these observations is to evince the importance of the subject we are considering. The theatre, where many arts are combined to produce a magical effect; where the most lofty and profound poetry has for its interpreter the most finished action, which is at once eloquence and an animated picture; while architecture contributes her splendid decorations, and painting her perspective illusions, and the aid of music is called in to attune the mind, or to heighten by its strains the emotions which already agitate it; the theatre, in short, where the whole of the social and artistic enlightenment, which a nation possesses, the fruit of many centuries of continued exertion, are brought into play within the representation of a few short hours, has an extraordinary charm for every age, sex, and rank, and has ever been the favourite amusement of every cultivated people. Here, princes, statesmen, and generals, behold the great events of past times, similar to those in which they themselves are called upon to act, laid open in their inmost springs and motives; here, too, the philosopher finds subject for profoundest reflection on the nature and constitution of man; with curious eye the artist follows the groups which pass rapidly before him, and from them impresses on his fancy the germ of many a future picture; the susceptible youth opens his heart to every elevating feeling; age becomes young again in recollection; even childhood sits with anxious expectation before the gaudy curtain, which is soon to be drawn up with its rustling sound, and to display to it so many unknown wonders: all alike are diverted, all exhilarated, and all feel themselves for a time raised above the daily cares, the troubles, and the sorrows of life. As the drama, with the arts which are subservient to it, may, from neglect and the mutual contempt of artists and the public, so far degenerate, as to become nothing better than a trivial and stupid amusement, and even a downright waste of time, we conceive that we are attempting something more than a passing entertainment, if we propose to enter on a consideration of the works produced by the most distinguished nations in their most brilliant periods, and to institute an inquiry into the means of ennobling and perfecting so important an art.
Essence of Tragedy and Comedy—Earnestness and Sport—How far it is possible to become acquainted with the Ancients without knowing Original Languages—Winkelmann.
The importance of our subject is, I think, fully proved. Let us now enter upon a brief consideration of the two kinds into which all dramatic poetry is divided, the tragic and comic, and examine the meaning and import of each.
The three principal kinds of poetry in general are the epic, the lyric, and the dramatic. All the other subordinate species are either derived from these, or formed by combination from them. If we would consider these three leading kinds in their purity, we must go back to the forms in which they appeared among the Greeks. For the theory of poetical art is most conveniently illustrated by the history of Grecian poetry; for the latter is well entitled to the appellation of systematical, since it furnishes for every independent idea derived from experience the most distinct and precise manifestation.
It is singular that epic and lyric poetry admit not of any such precise division into two opposite species, as the dramatic does. The ludicrous epopee has, it is true, been styled a peculiar species, but it is only an accidental variety, a mere parody of the epos, and consists in applying its solemn staidness of development, which seems only suitable to great objects, to trifling and insignificant events. In lyric poetry there are only intervals and gradations between the song, the ode, and the elegy, but no proper contrast.
The spirit of epic poetry, as we recognise it in its father, Homer, is clear self-possession. The epos is the calm quiet representation of an action in progress. The poet relates joyful as well as mournful events, but he relates them with equanimity, and considers them as already past, and at a certain remoteness from our minds.
The lyric poem is the musical expression of mental emotions by language. The essence of musical feeling consists in this, that we endeavour with complacency to dwell on, and even to perpetuate in our souls, a joyful or painful emotion. The feeling must consequently be already so far mitigated as not to impel us by the desire of its pleasure or the dread of its pain, to tear ourselves from it, but such as to allow us, unconcerned at the fluctuations of feeling which time produces, to dwell upon and be absorbed in a single moment of existence.
The dramatic poet, as well as the epic, represents external events, but he represents them as real and present. In common with the lyric poet he also claims our mental participation, but not in the same calm composedness; the feeling of joy and sorrow which the dramatist excites is more immediate and vehement. He calls forth all the emotions which the sight of similar deeds and fortunes of living men would elicit, and it is only by the total sum of the impression which he produces that he ultimately resolves these conflicting emotions into a harmonious tone of feeling. As he stands in such close proximity to real life, and endeavours to endue his own imaginary creations with vitality, the equanimity of the epic poet would in him be indifference; he must decidedly take part with one or other of the leading views of human life, and constrain his audience also to participate in the same feeling.
To employ simpler and more intelligible language: the tragic and comic bear the same relation to one another as earnest and sport. Every man, from his own experience, is acquainted with both these states of mind; but to determine their essence and their source would demand deep philosophical investigation. Both, indeed, bear the stamp of our common nature; but earnestness belongs more to its moral, and mirth to its animal part. The creatures destitute of reason are incapable either of earnest or of sport. Animals seem indeed at times to labour as if they were earnestly intent upon some aim, and as if they made the present moment subordinate to the future; at other times they seem to sport, that is, they give themselves up without object or purpose to the pleasure of existence: but they do not possess consciousness, which alone can entitle these two conditions to the names of earnest and sport. Man alone, of all the animals with which we are acquainted, is capable of looking back towards the past, and forward into futurity; and he has to purchase the enjoyment of this noble privilege at a dear rate. Earnestness, in the most extensive signification, is the direction of our mental powers to some aim. But as soon as we begin to call ourselves to account for our actions, reason compels us to fix this aim higher and higher, till we come at last to the highest end of our existence: and here that longing for the infinite which is inherent in our being, is baffled by the limits of our finite existence. All that we do, all that we effect, is vain and perishable; death stands everywhere in the back ground, and to it every well or ill- spent moment brings us nearer and closer; and even when a man has been so singularly fortunate as to reach the utmost term of life without any grievous calamity, the inevitable doom still awaits him to leave or to be left by all that is most dear to him on earth. There is no bond of love without a separation, no enjoyment without the grief of losing it. When, however, we contemplate the relations of our existence to the extreme limit of possibilities: when we reflect on its entire dependence on a chain of causes and effects, stretching beyond our ken: when we consider how weak and helpless, and doomed to struggle against the enormous powers of nature, and conflicting appetites, we are cast on the shores of an unknown world, as it were, shipwrecked at our very birth; how we are subject to all kinds of errors and deceptions, any one of which may be our ruin; that in our passions we cherish an enemy in our bosoms; how every moment demands from us, in the name of the most sacred duties, the sacrifice of our dearest inclinations, and how at one blow we may be robbed of all that we have acquired with much toil and difficulty; that with every accession to our stores, the risk of loss is proportionately increased, and we are only the more exposed to the malice of hostile fortune: when we think upon all this, every heart which is not dead to feeling must be overpowered by an inexpressible melancholy, for which there is no other counter-poise than the consciousness of a vocation transcending the limits of this earthly life. This is the tragic tone of mind; and when the thought of the possible issues out of the mind as a living reality, when this tone pervades and animates a visible representation of the most striking instances of violent revolutions in a man's fortunes, either prostrating his mental energies or calling forth the most heroic endurance—then the result is Tragic Poetry. We thus see how this kind of poetry has its foundation in our nature, while to a certain extent we have also answered the question, why we are fond of such mournful representations, and even find something consoling and elevating in them? This tone of mind we have described is inseparable from strong feeling; and although poetry cannot remove these internal dissonances, she must at least endeavour to effect an ideal reconciliation of them.
As earnestness, in the highest degree, is the essence of tragic representation; so is sport of the comic. The disposition to mirth is a forgetfulness of all gloomy considerations in the pleasant feeling of present happiness. We are then inclined to view every thing in a sportive light, and to allow nothing to disturb or ruffle our minds. The imperfections and the irregularities of men are no longer an object of dislike and compassion, but serve, by their strange inconsistencies, to entertain the understanding and to amuse the fancy. The comic poet must therefore carefully abstain from whatever is calculated to excite moral indignation at the conduct, or sympathy with the situations of his personages, because this would inevitably bring us back again into earnestness. He must paint their irregularities as springing out of the predominance of the animal part of their nature, and the incidents which befal them as merely ludicrous distresses, which will be attended with no fatal consequences. This is uniformly what takes place in what we call Comedy, in which, however, there is still a mixture of seriousness, as I shall show in the sequel. The oldest comedy of the Greeks was, however, entirely sportive, and in that respect formed the most complete contrast to their tragedy. Not only were the characters and situations of individuals worked up into a comic picture of real life, but the whole frame of society, the constitution, nature, and the gods, were all fantastically painted in the most ridiculous and laughable colours.
When we have formed in this manner a pure idea of the tragic and comic, as exhibited to us in Grecian examples, we shall then be enabled to analyze the various corruptions of both, which the moderns have invented, to discriminate their incongruous additions, and to separate their several ingredients.
In the history of poetry and the fine arts among the Greeks, their development was subject to an invariable law. Everything heterogeneous was first excluded, and then all homogeneous elements were combined, and each being perfected in itself, at last elevated into an independent and harmonious unity. Hence with them each species is confined within its natural boundaries, and the different styles distinctly marked. In beginning, therefore, with the history of the Grecian art and poetry, we are not merely observing the order of time, but also the order of ideas.
In the case of the majority of my hearers, I can hardly presume upon a direct acquaintance with the Greeks, derived from the study of their poetical works in the original language. Translations in prose, or even in verse, in which they are but dressed up again in the modern taste, can afford no true idea of the Grecian drama. True and faithful translations, which endeavour in expression and versification to rise to the height of the original, have as yet been attempted only in Germany. But although our language is extremely flexible, and in many respects resembling the Greek, it is after all a battle with unequal weapons; and stiffness and harshness not unfrequently take the place of the easy sweetness of the Greek. But we are even far from having yet done all that can perhaps be accomplished: I know of no translation of a Greek tragedian deserving of unqualified praise. But even supposing the translation as perfect as possible, and deviating very slightly from the original, the reader who is unacquainted with the other works of the Greeks, will be perpetually disturbed by the foreign nature of the subject, by national peculiarities and numerous allusions (which cannot be understood without some scholarship), and thus unable to comprehend particular parts, he will be prevented from forming a clear idea of the whole. So long as we have to struggle with difficulties it is impossible to have any true enjoyment of a work of art. To feel the ancients as we ought, we must have become in some degree one of themselves, and breathed as it were the Grecian air.
What is the best means of becoming imbued with the spirit of the Greeks, without a knowledge of their language? I answer without hesitation,—the study of the antique; and if this is not always possible through the originals, yet, by means of casts, it is to a certain extent within the power of every man. These models of the human form require no interpretation; their elevated character is imperishable, and will always be recognized through all vicissitudes of time, and in every region under heaven, wherever there exists a noble race of men akin to the Grecian (as the European undoubtedly is), and wherever the unkindness of nature has not degraded the human features too much below the pure standard, and, by habituating them to their own deformity, rendered them insensible to genuine corporeal beauty. Respecting the inimitable perfection of the antique in its few remains of a first-rate character, there is but one voice throughout the whole of civilized Europe; and if ever their merit was called in question, it was in times when the modern arts of design had sunk to the lowest depths of mannerism. Not only all intelligent artists, but all men of any degree of taste, bow with enthusiastic adoration before the masterly productions of ancient sculpture.
The best guide to conduct us to this sanctuary of the beautiful, with deep and thoughtful contemplation, is the History of Art by our immortal Winkelmann. In the description of particular works it no doubt leaves much to be desired; nay, it even abounds in grave errors, but no man has so deeply penetrated into the innermost spirit of Grecian art. Winkelmann transformed himself completely into an ancient, and seemingly lived in his own century, unmoved by its spirit and influences.
The immediate subject of his work is the plastic arts, but it contains also many important hints concerning other branches of Grecian civilisation, and is very useful as a preparation for the understanding of their poetry, and especially their dramatic poetry. As the latter was designed for visible representation before spectators, whose eye must have been as difficult to please on the stage as elsewhere, we have no better means of feeling the whole dignity of their tragic exhibitions, and of giving it a sort of theatrical animation, than to keep these forms of gods and heroes ever present to our fancy. The assertion may appear somewhat strange at present, but I hope in the sequel to demonstrate its justice: it is only before the groups of Niobe or Laocon that we first enter into the spirit of the tragedies of Sophocles.
We are yet in want of a work in which the entire poetic, artistic, scientific, and social culture of the Greeks should be painted as one grand and harmonious whole, as a true work of nature, prevaded by the most wondrous symmetry and proportion of the parts, and traced through its connected development in the same spirit which Winkelmann has executed in the part which he attempted. An attempt has indeed been made in a popular work, which is in everybody's hands, I mean the Travels of the Younger Anacharsis. This book is valuable for its learning, and may be very useful in diffusing a knowledge of antiquities; but, without censuring the error of the dress in which it is exhibited, it betrays more good-will to do justice to the Greeks, than ability to enter deeply into their spirit. In this respect the work is in many points superficial, and even disfigured with modern views. It is not the travels of a young Scythian, but of an old Parisian.
The superior excellence of the Greeks in the fine arts, as I have already said, is the most universally acknowledged. An enthusiasm for their literature is in a great measure confined to the English and Germans, among whom also the study of the Grecian language is the most zealously prosecuted. It is singular that the French critics of all others, they who so zealously acknowledge the remains of the theoretical writings of the ancients on literature, Aristotle, Horace, Quinctilian, &c., as infallible standards of taste, should yet distinguish themselves by the contemptuous and irreverent manner in which they speak of their poetical compositions, and especially of their dramatic literature. Look, for instance, into a book very much read,—La Harpe's Cours de Littrature. It contains many acute remarks on the French Theatre; but whoever should think to learn the Greeks from it must be very ill advised: the author was as deficient in a solid knowledge of their literature as in a sense for appreciating it. Voltaire, also, often speaks most unwarrantably on this subject: he elevates or lowers them at the suggestions of his caprice, or according to the purpose of the moment to produce such or such an effect on the mind of the public. I remember too to have read a cursory critique of Metastasio's on the Greek tragedians, in which he treats them like so many school-boys. Racine is much more modest, and cannot be in any manner charged with this sort of presumption: even because he was the best acquainted of all of them with the Greeks. It is easy to see into the motives of these hostile critics. Their national and personal vanity has much to do with the matter; conceiting themselves that they have far surpassed the ancients, they venture to commit such observations to the public, knowing that the works of the ancient poets have come down to us in a dead language, accessible only to the learned, without the animating accompaniment of recitation, music, ideal and truly plastic impersonation, and scenic pomp; all which, in every respect worthy of the poetry, was on the Athenian stage combined in such wonderful harmony, that if only it could be represented to our eye and ear, it would at once strike dumb the whole herd of these noisy and interested critics. The ancient statues require no commentary; they speak for themselves, and everything like competition on the part of a modern artist would be regarded as ridiculous pretension. In respect of the theatre, they lay great stress on the infancy of the art; and because these poets lived two thousand years before us, they conclude that we must have made great progress since. In this way poor Aeschylus especially is got rid of. But in sober truth, if this was the infancy of dramatic art, it was the infancy of a Hercules, who strangled serpents in his cradle.
I have already expressed my opinion on that blind partiality for the ancients, which regards their excellence as a frigid faultlessness, and which exhibits them as models, in such a way as to put a stop to everything like improvement, and reduce us to abandon the exercise of art as altogether fruitless. I, for my part, am disposed to believe that poetry, as the fervid expression of our whole being, must assume new and peculiar forms in different ages. Nevertheless, I cherish an enthusiastic veneration for the Greeks, as a people endowed, by the peculiar favour of Nature, with the most perfect genius for art; in the consciousness of which, they gave to all the nations with which they were acquainted, compared with themselves, the appellation of barbarians,—an appellation in the use of which they were in some degree justified. I would not wish to imitate certain travellers, who, on returning from a country which their readers cannot easily visit, give such exaggerated accounts of it, and relate so many marvels, as to hazard their own character for veracity. I shall rather endeavour to characterize them as they appear to me after sedulous and repeated study, without concealing their defects, and to bring a living picture of the Grecian stage before the eyes of my hearers.
We shall treat first of the Tragedy of the Greeks, then of their Old Comedy, and lastly of the New Comedy which arose out of it.
The same theatrical accompaniments were common to all the three kinds. We must, therefore, give a short preliminary view of the theatre, its architecture and decorations, that we may have a distinct idea of their representation.
The histrionic art of the ancients had also many peculiarities: the use of masks, for example, although these were quite different in tragedy and comedy; in the former, ideal, and in the latter, at least in the Old Comedy, somewhat caricatured.
In tragedy, we shall first consider what constituted its most distinctive peculiarity among the ancients: the ideality of the representation, the prevailing idea of destiny, and the chorus; and we shall lastly treat of their mythology, as the materials of tragic poetry. We shall then proceed to characterize, in the three tragedians of whom alone entire works still remain, the different styles—that is, the necessary epochs in the history of the tragic art.
Structure of the Stage among the Greeks—Their Acting—Use of Masks—False comparison of Ancient Tragedy to the Opera—Tragical Lyric Poetry.
When we hear the word "theatre," we naturally think of what with us bears the same name; and yet nothing can be more different from our theatre, in its entire structure, than that of the Greeks. If in reading the Grecian pieces we associate our own stage with them, the light in which we shall view them must be false in every respect.
The leading authority on this subject, and one, too, whose statements are mathematically accurate, is Vitruvius, who also distinctly points out the great difference between the Greek and Roman theatres. But these and similar passages of the ancient writers have been most incorrectly interpreted by architects unacquainted with the ancient dramatists [Footnote: We have a remarkable instance of this in the pretended ancient theatre of Palladio, at Vicenza. Herculaneum, it is true, had not then been discovered; and it is difficult to understand the ruins of the ancient theatre without having seen a complete one.]; and philologists, in their turn, from ignorance of architecture, have also egregiously erred. The ancient dramatists are still, therefore, greatly in want of that illustration which a right understanding of their scenic arrangements is calculated to throw upon them. In many tragedies I think that I have a tolerably clear notion of the matter; but others, again, present difficulties which are not easily solved. But it is in figuring the representation of Aristophanes' comedies that I find myself most at a loss: the ingenious poet must have brought his wonderful inventions before the eyes of his audience in a manner equally bold and astonishing. Even Barthlemy's description of the Grecian stage is not a little confused, and his subjoined plan extremely incorrect; where he attempts to describe the acting of a play, the Antigone or the Ajax, for instance, he goes altogether wrong. For this reason the following explanation will appear the less superfluous [Footnote: I am partly indebted for them to the elucidations of a learned architect, M. Genelli, of Berlin, author of the ingenious Letters on Vitruvius. We have compared several Greek tragedies with our interpretation of Vitruvius's description, and endeavoured to figure to ourselves the manner in which they were represented; and I afterwards found our ideas confirmed by an examination of the theatre of Herculaneum, and the two very small ones at Pompeii.].
The theatres of the Greeks were quite open above, and their dramas were always acted in day, and beneath the canopy of heaven. The Romans, indeed, at an after period, may have screened the audience, by an awning, from the sun; but luxury was scarcely ever carried so far by the Greeks. Such a state of things appears very uncomfortable to us; but the Greeks had nothing of effeminacy about them; and we must not forget, too, the mildness of their climate. When a storm or a shower came on, the play was of course interrupted, and the spectators sought shelter in the lofty colonnade which ran behind their seats; but they were willing rather to put up with such occasional inconveniences, than, by shutting themselves up in a close and crowded house, entirely to forfeit the sunny brightness of a religious solemnity—for such, in fact, their plays were [Footnote: They carefully made choice of a beautiful situation. The theatre at Tauromenium, at present Taormino, in Sicily, of which the ruins are still visible, was, according to Hunter's description, situated in such a manner that the audience had a view of Etna over the back-ground of the theatre.]. To have covered in the scene itself, and imprisoned gods and heroes in a dark and gloomy apartment, artificially lighted up, would have appeared still more ridiculous to them. An action which so gloriously attested their affinity with heaven, could fitly be exhibited only beneath the free heaven, and, as it were, under the very eyes of the gods, for whom, according to Seneca, the sight of a brave man struggling with adversity is a suitable spectacle. With respect to the supposed inconvenience, which, according to the assertion of many modern critics, hence accrued, compelling the poets always to lay the scene of their pieces out of doors, and consequently often forcing them to violate probability, it was very little felt by Tragedy and the Older Comedy. The Greeks, like many southern nations of the present day, lived much more in the open air than we do, and transacted many things in public places which with us usually take place within doors. Besides, the theatre did not represent the street, but a front area belonging to the house, where the altar stood on which sacrifices were offered to the household gods. Here, therefore, the women, notwithstanding the retired life they led among the Greeks, even those who were unmarried, might appear without any impropriety. Neither was it impossible for them, if necessary, to give a view of the interior of the house; and this was effected, as we shall presently see; by means of the Encyclema.
But the principal ground of this practice was that publicity which, according to the republican notion of the Greeks, was essential to all grave and important transactions. This was signified by the presence of the chorus, whose presence during many secret transactions has been judged of according to rules of propriety inapplicable to the country, and so most undeservedly censured.
The theatres of the ancients were, in comparison with the small scale of ours, of colossal magnitude, partly for the sake of containing the whole of the people, with the concourse of strangers who flocked to the festivals, and partly to correspond with the majesty of the dramas represented in them, which required to be seen at a respectful distance. The seats of the spectators were formed by ascending steps which rose round the semicircle of the orchestra, (called by us the pit,) so that all could see with equal convenience. The diminution of effect by distance was counteracted to the eye and ear by artificial contrivances consisting in the employment of masks, and of an apparatus for increasing the loudness of the voice, and of the cothurnus to give additional stature. Vitruvius speaks also of vehicles of sound, distributed throughout the building; but commentators are much at variance with respect to their nature. In general it may be assumed, that the theatres of the ancients were constructed on excellent acoustic principles.
Even the lowest tier of the amphitheatre was raised considerably above the orchestra, and opposite to it was the stage, at an equal degree of elevation. The hollow semicircle of the orchestra was unoccupied by spectators, and was designed for another purpose. However, it was otherwise with the Romans, though indeed the arrangement of their theatres does not at present concern us.
The stage consisted of a strip which stretched from one end of the building to the other, and of which the depth bore little proportion to this breadth. This was called the logeum, in Latin pulpitum, and the middle of it was the usual place for the persons who spoke. Behind this middle part, the scene went inwards in a quadrangular form, with less depth, however, than breadth. The space thus enclosed was called the proscenium. The front of the logeum towards the orchestra was ornamented with pilasters and small statues between them. The stage, erected on a foundation of stonework, was a wooden platform resting on rafters. The surrounding appurtenances of the stage, together with the rooms required for the machinery, were also of wood. The wall of the building, directly opposite to the seats of the spectators, was raised to a level with the uppermost tier.
The scenic decoration was contrived in such a manner, that the principal and nearest object covered the background, and the prospects of distance were given at the two sides; the very reverse of the mode adopted by us. The latter arrangement had also its rules: on the left, was the town to which the palace, temple, or whatever occupied the middle, belonged; on the right, the open country, landscape, mountains, sea-coast, &c. The side-scenes were composed of triangles which turned on a pivot beneath; and in this manner the change of scene was effected. According to an observation on Virgil, by Servius, the change of scene was partly produced by revolving, and partly by withdrawing. The former applies to the lateral decorations, and the latter to the middle of the background. The partition in the middle opened, disappeared at both sides, and exhibited to view a new picture. But all the parts of the scene were not always changed at the same time. In the back or central scene, it is probable, that much which with us is only painted was given bodily. If this represented a palace or temple, there was usually in the proscenium an altar, which in the performance answered a number of purposes.
The decoration was for the most part architectural, but occasionally also a painted landscape, as of Caucasus in the Prometheus, or in the Philoctetes, of the desert island of Lemnos, and the rocks with its cavern. From a passage of Plato it is clear, that the Greeks carried the illusions of theatrical perspective much farther than, judging from some wretched landscapes discovered in Herculaneum, we should be disposed to allow.
In the back wall of the stage there was one main entrance, and two side doors. It has been maintained, that from them it might be discovered whether an actor played a principal or under part, as in the first case he came in by the main entrance, but in the second, entered from either of the sides. But this should be understood with the proviso, that this must have varied according to the nature of the piece. As the middle scene was generally a palace, in which the principal characters generally of royal descent resided, they naturally came on the stage through the great door, while the servants dwelt in the wings. But besides these three entrances, which were directly opposite to the spectators, and were real doors, with appropriate architectural decorations, there were also four side entrances, to which the name of doors cannot properly apply: two, namely, on the stage on the right and the left, towards the inner angles of the proscenium, and two farther off, in the orchestra, also right and left. The latter were intended properly for the chorus, but were likewise not unfrequently used by the actors, who in such cases ascended to the stage by one or other of the double flight of steps which ran from the orchestra to the middle of the logeum. The entering from the right or the left of itself indicated the place from which the dramatic personages must be supposed to come. The situation of these entrances serves to explain many passages in the ancient dramas, where the persons standing in the middle see some one advancing, long before he approaches them.
Somewhere beneath the seats of the spectators, a flight of stairs was constructed, which was called the Charonic, and by which, unseen by the audience, the shadows of the departed, ascended into the orchestra, and thence to the stage. The furthermost brink of the logeum must sometimes have represented the sea shore. Moreover the Greeks in general skilfully availed themselves even of extra-scenic matters, and made them subservient to the stage effect. Thus, I doubt not, but that in the Eumenides the spectators were twice addressed as an assembled people; first, as the Greeks invited by the Pythoness to consult the oracle; and a second time as the Athenian multitude, when Pallas, by the herald, commands silence during the trial about to commence. So too the frequent appeals to heaven were undoubtedly addressed to the real heaven; and when Electra on her first appearance exclaims: "O holy light, and thou air co-expansive with earth!" she probably turned towards the actual sun ascending in the heavens. The whole of this procedure is highly deserving of praise; and though modern critics have censured the mixture of reality and imitation, as destructive of theatrical illusion, this only proves that they have misunderstood the essence of the illusion which a work of art aims at producing. If we are to be truly deceived by a picture, that is, if we are to believe in the reality of the object which we see, we must not perceive its limits, but look at it through an opening; the frame at once declares it for a picture. Now in stage-scenery we cannot avoid the use of architectural contrivances, productive of the same effect on dramatic representation as frames on pictures. It is consequently much better not to attempt to disguise this fact, but leaving this kind of illusion for those cases where it can be advantageously employed, to take it as a permitted licence occasionally to step out of the limits of mere scenic decoration. It was, generally speaking, a principle of the Greeks, with respect to stage imitation, either to require a perfect representation, and where this could not be accomplished, to be satisfied with merely symbolical allusions.
The machinery for the descent of gods through the air, or the withdrawing of men from the earth, was placed aloft behind the walls of the two sides of the scene, and consequently removed from the sight of the spectators. Even in the time of Aeschylus, great use was already made of it, as in the Prometheus he not only brings Oceanus through the air on a griffin, but also in a winged chariot introduces the whole choir of ocean nymphs, at least fifteen in number. There were also hollow places beneath the stage into which, when necessary, the personages could disappear, and contrivances for thunder and lightning, for the apparent fall or burning of a house, &c.
To the hindmost wall of the scene an upper story could be added; whenever, for instance, it was wished to represent a tower with a wide prospect, or the like. Behind the great middle entrance there was a space for the Exostra, a machine of a semicircular form, and covered above, which represented the objects contained in it as in a house. This was used for grand strokes of theatrical effect, as we may see from many pieces. On such occasions the folding-doors of the entrance would naturally be open, or the curtain which covered it withdrawn.
A stage curtain, which, we clearly see from a description of Ovid, was not dropped, but drawn upwards, is mentioned both by Greek and Roman writers, and the Latin appellation, aulaeum, is even borrowed from the Greeks. I suspect, however, that the curtain was not much used at first on the Attic stage. In the pieces of Aeschylus and Sophocles, the scene is evidently empty at the opening as well as the conclusion, and seems therefore to have required no preparation which needed to be shut out from the view of the spectators. However, in many of the pieces of Euripides, and perhaps also in the Oedipus Tyrannus, the stage is filled from the very first, and presents a standing group which could not well have been assembled under the very eyes of the spectators. It must, besides, be remembered, that it was only the comparatively small proscenium, and not the logeum, which was covered by the curtain which disappeared through a narrow opening between two of the boards of the flooring, being wound up on a roller beneath the stage.
The entrances of the chorus were beneath in the orchestra, in which it generally remained, and in which also it performed its solemn dance, moving backwards and forwards during the choral songs. In the front of the orchestra, opposite to the middle of the scene, there was an elevation with steps, resembling an altar, as high as the stage, which was called the Thymele. This was the station of the chorus when it did not sing, but merely looked on as an interested spectator of the action. At such times the choragus, or leader of the chorus, took his station on the top of the thymele, to see what was passing on the stage, and to converse with the characters there present. For though the choral song was common to the whole, yet when it took part in the dialogue, one usually spoke for all the rest; and hence we may account for the shifting from thou to ye in addressing them. The thymele was situated in the very centre of the building; all the measurements were made from it, and the semicircle of the amphitheatre was described round it as the centre. It was, therefore, an excellent contrivance to place the chorus, who were the ideal representatives of the spectators, in the very spot where all the radii converged.
The tragical imitation of the ancients was altogether ideal and rhythmical; and in forming a judgment of it, we must always keep this in view. It was ideal, in so far as it aimed at the highest grace and dignity; and rhythmical, insomuch as the gestures and inflections of voice were more solemnly measured than in real life. As the statuary of the Greeks, setting out, with almost scientific strictness, with the most general conception, sought to embody it again in various general characters which were gradually invested with the charms of life, so that the individual was the last thing to which they descended; in like manner in the mimetic art, they began with the idea (the delineation of persons with heroical grandeur, more than human dignity, and ideal beauty), then passed to character, and made passion the last of all; which, in the collision with the requisitions of either of the others, was forced to give way. Fidelity of representation was less their object than beauty; with us it is exactly the reverse. On this principle, the use of masks, which appears astonishing to us, was not only justifiable, but absolutely essential; far from considering them as a makeshift, the Greeks would certainly, and with justice too, have looked upon it as a makeshift to be obliged to allow a player with vulgar, ignoble, or strongly marked features, to represent an Apollo or a Hercules; nay, rather they would have deemed it downright profanation. How little is it in the power of the most finished actor to change the character of his features! How prejudicial must this be to the expression of passion, as all passion is tinged more or less strongly by the character. Nor is there any need to have recourse to the conjecture that they changed the masks in the different scenes, for the purpose of exhibiting a greater degree of joy or sorrow. I call it conjecture, though Barthlemy, in his Anacharsis, considers it a settled point. He cites no authorities, and I do not recollect any. For the expedient would by no means have been sufficient, as the passions often change in the same scene, and this has reduced modern critics to suppose, that the masks exhibited different appearances on the two sides; and that now this, now that side was turned towards the spectators, according to circumstances. Voltaire, in his Essay on the Tragedy of the Ancients and Moderns, prefixed to Semiramis, has actually gone this length. Amidst a multitude of supposed improprieties which he heaps together to confound the admirers of ancient tragedy, he urges the following: Aucune nation (that is to say, excepting the Greeks) ne fait paratre ses acteurs sur des espces d'chasses, le visage couvert d'un masque, qui exprime la douleur d'un ct et la joie de l'autre. After a conscientious inquiry into the authorities for an assertion so very improbable, and yet so boldly made, I can only find one passage in Quinctilian, lib. xi. cap. 3, and an allusion of Platonius still more vague. (Vide Aristoph. ed. Kster, prolegom. p. x.) Both passages refer only to the new comedy, and only amount to this, that in some characters the eyebrows were dissimilar. As to the intention of this, I shall say a word or two hereafter, when I come to consider the new Greek comedy. Voltaire, however, is without excuse, as the mention of the cothurnus leaves no doubt that he alluded to tragic masks. But his error had probably no such learned origin. In most cases, it would be a fruitless task to trace the source of his mistakes. The whole description of the Greek tragedy, as well as that of the cothurnus in particular, is worthy of the man whose knowledge of antiquity was such, that in his Essay on Tragedy, prefixed to Brutus, he boasts of having introduced the Roman Senate on the stage in red mantles. No; the countenance remained from beginning to end the very same, as we may see from the ancient masks cut out in stone. For the expression of passion, the glances of the eye, the motion of the arms and hands, the attitudes, and, lastly, the tones of the voice, remained there. We complain of the loss of the play of the features, without reflecting, that at such a great distance, its effect would have been altogether lost.
We are not now inquiring whether, without the use of masks, it may not be possible to attain a higher degree of separate excellence in the mimetic art. This we would very willingly allow. Cicero, it is true, speaks of the expression, the softness, and delicacy of the acting of Roscius, in the same terms that a modern critic would apply to Garrick or Schrder. But I will not lay any stress on the acting of this celebrated player, the excellence of which has become proverbial, because it appears from a passage in Cicero that he frequently played without a mask, and that this was preferred: by his contemporaries. I doubt, however, whether this was ever the case among the Greeks. But the same writer relates, that actors in general, for the sake of acquiring the most perfect purity and flexibility of voice (and not merely the musical voice, otherwise the example would not have been applicable to the orator), submitted to such a course of uninterrupted exercises, as our modern players, even the French, who of all follow the strictest training, would consider a most intolerable oppression. For the display of dexterity in the mimetic art, without the accompaniment of words, was carried by the ancients in their pantomimes, to a degree of perfection quite unknown to the moderns. In tragedy, however, the great object in the art was the due subordination of every element; the whole was to appear animated by one and the same spirit, and hence, not merely the poetry, but the musical accompaniment, the scenical decoration, and training of the actors, all issued from the poet. The player was a mere instrument in his hands, and his merit consisted in the accuracy with which he filled his part, and by no means in arbitrary bravura, or ostentatious display of his own skill.
As from the nature of their writing materials, they had not a facility of making many copies, the parts were learnt from the repeated recitation of the poet, and the chorus was exercised in the same manner. This was called teaching a play. As the poet was also a musician, and for the most part a player likewise, this must have greatly contributed to the perfection of the performance.
We may safely allow that the task of the modern player, who must change his person without concealing it, is much more difficult; but this difficulty affords no just criterion for deciding which of the two the preference must be awarded, as a skilful representation of the noble and the beautiful.
As the features of the player acquired a more decided expression from the mask, as his voice was strengthened by a contrivance attached to the mask, so the cothurnus, consisting of several soles of considerable thickness, as may be seen in the ancient statues of Melpomene, raised his figure considerably above the usual standard. The female parts were also played by men, as the voice and general carriage of women would have been inadequate to the energy of tragic heroines.
The forms of the masks, [Footnote: We have obtained a knowledge of them from the imitations in stone which have come down to us. They display both beauty and variety. That great variety must have taken place in the tragical department (in the comic we can have no doubt about the matter) is evident from the rich store of technical expressions in the Greek language, for every gradation of the age, and character of masks. See the Onomasticon of Jul. Pollux. In the marble masks, however, we can neither see the thinness of the mass from which the real masks were executed, the more delicate colouring, nor the exquisite mechanism of the fittings. The abundance of excellent workmen possessed by Athens, in everything which had a reference to the plastic arts, will warrant the conjecture that they were in this respect inimitable. Those who have seen the masks of wax in the grand style, which in some degree contain the whole head, lately contrived at the Roman carnival, may form to themselves a pretty good idea of the theatrical masks of the ancients. They imitate life, even to its movements, in a most masterly manner, and at such a distance as that from which the ancient players were seen, the deception is most perfect. They always contain the white of the eye, as we see it in the ancient masks, and the person covered sees merely through the aperture left for the iris. The ancients must sometimes have gone still farther, and contrived also an iris for the masks, according to the anecdote of the singer Thamyris, who, in a piece which was probably of Sophocles, made his appearance with a black eye. Even accidental circumstances were imitated; for instance, the cheeks of Tyro, streaming blood from the cruel conduct of his stepmother. The head from the mask must no doubt have appeared somewhat large for the rest of the figure; but this disproportion, in tragedy at least, would not be perceived from the elevation of the cothurnus.] and the whole appearance of the tragic figures, we may easily suppose, were sufficiently beautiful and dignified. We should do well to have the ancient sculpture always present to our minds; and the most accurate conception, perhaps, that we can possibly have, is to imagine them so many statues in the grand style endowed with life and motion. But, as in sculpture, they were fond of dispensing as much as possible with dress, for the sake of exhibiting the more essential beauty of the figure; on the stage they would endeavour, from an opposite principle, to clothe as much as they could well do, both from a regard to decency, and because the actual forms of the body would not correspond sufficiently with the beauty of the countenance. They would also exhibit their divinities, which in sculpture we always observe either entirely naked, or only half covered, in a complete dress. They had recourse to a number of means for giving a suitable strength to the forms of the limbs, and thus restoring proportion to the increased height of the player.
The great breadth of the theatre in proportion to its depth must have given to the grouping of the figures the simple and distinct order of the bas-relief. We moderns prefer on the stage, as elsewhere, groups of a picturesque description, with figures more closely crowded together, and partly concealing one another, and partly retiring into the distance; but the ancients were so little fond of foreshortening, that even in their painting they generally avoided it. Their movement kept time with the rhythmus of the declamation, and in this accompaniment the utmost grace and beauty were aimed at. The poetical conception required a certain degree of repose in the action, and the keeping together certain masses, so as to exhibit a succession of statuesque situations, and it is not improbable that the player remained for some time motionless in one attitude. But we are not to suppose from this, that the Greeks were contented with a cold and feeble representation of the passions. How could we reconcile such a supposition with the fact, that whole lines of their tragedies are frequently dedicated to inarticulate exclamations of pain, with which we have nothing to correspond in any of our modern languages?
It has been often conjectured that the delivery of their dialogue resembled the modern recitative. For such a conjecture there is no other foundation than the fact that the Greek, like almost all southern languages, was pronounced with a greater musical inflexion than ours of the North. In other respects their tragic declamation must, I conceive, have been altogether unlike recitative, being both much more measured, and also far removed from its studied and artificial modulation.
So, again, the ancient tragedy, because it was accompanied with music and dancing, [Footnote: Even Barthlemy falls into this error in a note to the 70th Chapter of Anacharsis.] has also been frequently compared with the opera. But this comparison betrays an utter ignorance of the spirit of classical antiquity. Their dancing and music had nothing but the name in common with ours. In tragedy the primary object was the poetry, and everything else was strictly and truly subordinate to it. But in the opera the poetry is merely an accessory, the means of connecting the different parts together; and it is almost lost amidst its many and more favoured accompaniments. The best prescription for the composition of an opera is, take a rapid poetical sketch and then fill up and colour the outlines by the other arts. This anarchy of the arts, where music, dancing, and decoration are seeking to outvie each other by the profuse display of their most dazzling charms, constitutes the very essence of the opera. What sort of opera-music would it be, which should set the words to a mere rhythmical accompaniment of the simplest modulations? The fantastic magic of the opera consists altogether in the revelry of emulation between the different means, and in the medley of their profusion. This charm would at once be destroyed by any approximation to the severity of the ancient taste in any one point, even in that of the costume; for the contrast would render the variety in all the other departments even the more insupportable. Gay, tinselled, spangled draperies suit best to the opera; and hence many things which have been censured as unnatural, such as exhibiting heroes warbling and trilling in the excess of despondency, are perfectly justifiable. This fairy world is not peopled by real men, but by a singular kind of singing creatures. Neither is it any disadvantage that the opera is brought before us in a language which we do not generally understand; the words are altogether lost in the music, and the language which is most harmonious and musical, and contains the greatest number of open vowels for the airs, and distinct accents for recitative, is therefore the best. It would be as incongruous to attempt to give to the opera the simplicity of the Grecian Tragedy, as it is absurd to think of comparing them together.
In the syllabic composition, which then at least prevailed universally in Grecian music, the solemn choral song, of which we may form to ourselves some idea from our artless national airs, and more especially from our church-tunes, had no other instrumental accompaniment than a single flute, which was such as not in the slightest degree to impair the distinctness of the words. Otherwise it must hare increased the difficulty of the choruses and lyrical songs, which, in general, are the part which we find it the hardest to understand of the ancient tragedy, and as it must also have been for contemporary auditors. They abound in the most involved constructions, the most unusual expressions, and the boldest images and recondite allusions. Why then should the poets have lavished such labour and art upon them, if it were all to be lost in the delivery? Such a display of ornament without an object would have been very unlike Grecian ways of thinking.
In the syllabic measures of their tragedies, there generally prevails a highly finished regularity, but by no means a stiff symmetrical uniformity. Besides the infinite variety of the lyrical strophes, which the poet invented for each occasion, they have also a measure to suit the transition in the tone of mind from the dialogue to the lyric, the anapest; and two for the dialogue itself, one of which, by far the most usual, the iambic trimeter, denoted the regular progress of the action, and the other, the trochaic tetrameter, was expressive of the impetuousness of passion. It would lead us too far into the depths of metrical science, were we to venture at present on a more minute account of the structure and significance of these measures. I merely wished to make this remark, as so much has been said of the simplicity of the ancient tragedy, which, no doubt, exists in the general plan, at least in the two oldest poets; whereas in the execution and details the richest variety of poetical ornament is employed. Of course it must be evident that the utmost accuracy in the delivery of the different modes of versification was expected from the player, as the delicacy of the Grecian ear would not excuse, even in an orator, the false quantity of a single syllable.
Essence of the Greek Tragedies—Ideality of the Representation—Idea of Fate—Source of the Pleasure derived from Tragical Representations—Import of the Chorus—The materials of Greek Tragedy derived from Mythology— Comparison with the Plastic Arts.
We come now to the essence of Greek tragedy. That in conception it was ideal, is universally allowed; this, however, must not be understood as implying that all its characters were depicted as morally perfect. In such a case what room could there be for that contrast and collision which the very plot of a drama requires?—They have their weaknesses, errors, and even crimes, but the manners are always elevated above reality, and every person is invested with as high a portion of dignity as was compatible with his part in the action. But this is not all. The ideality of the representation chiefly consisted in the elevation of every thing in it to a higher sphere. Tragic poetry wished to separate the image of humanity which it presented to us, from the level of nature to which man is in reality chained down, like a slave of the soil. How was this to be accomplished? By exhibiting to us an image hovering in the air? But this would have been incompatible with the law of gravitation and with the earthly materials of which our bodies are framed. Frequently, what is praised in art as ideal is really nothing more. But this would give us nothing more than airy evanescent shadows incapable of making any durable impression on the mind. The Greeks, however, in their artistic creations, succeeded most perfectly, in combining the ideal with the real, or, to drop school terms, an elevation more than human with all the truth of life, and in investing the manifestation of an idea with energetic corporeity. They did not allow their figures to flit about without consistency in empty space, but they fixed the statue of humanity on the eternal and immovable basis of moral liberty; and that it might stand there unshaken, formed it of stone or brass, or some more massive substance than the bodies of living men, making an impression by its very weight, and from its very elevation and magnificence only the more completely subject to the laws of gravity.
Inward liberty and external necessity are the two poles of the tragic world. It is only by contrast with its opposite that each of these ideas is brought into full manifestation. As the feeling of an internal power of self-determination elevates the man above the unlimited dominion of impulse and the instincts of nature; in a word, absolves him from nature's guardianship, so the necessity, which alongside of her he must recognize, is no mere natural necessity, but one lying beyond the world of sense in the abyss of infinitude; consequently it exhibits itself as the unfathomable power of Destiny. Hence this power extends also to the world of gods: for the Grecian gods are mere powers of nature; and although immeasurably higher than mortal man, yet, compared with infinitude, they are on an equal footing with himself. In Homer and in the tragedians, the gods are introduced in a manner altogether different. In the former their appearance is arbitrary and accidental, and communicate to the epic poem no higher interest than the charm of the wonderful. But in Tragedy the gods either come forward as the servants of destiny, and mediate executors of its decrees; or else approve themselves godlike only by asserting their liberty of action, and entering upon the same struggles with fate which man himself has to encounter.
This is the essence of the tragical in the sense of the ancients. We are accustomed to give to all terrible or sorrowful events the appellation of tragic, and it is certain that such events are selected in preference by Tragedy, though a melancholy conclusion is by no means indispensably necessary; and several ancient tragedies, viz., the Eumenides, Philoctetes, and in some degree also the Oedipus Coloneus, without mentioning many of the pieces of Euripides, have a happy and cheerful termination.
But why does Tragedy select subjects so awfully repugnant to the wishes and the wants of our sensuous nature? This question has often been asked, and seldom satisfactorily answered. Some have said that the pleasure of such representations arises from the comparison we make between the calmness and tranquillity of our own situation, and the storms and perplexities to which the victims of passion are exposed. But when we take a warm interest in the persons of a tragedy, we cease to think of ourselves; and when this is not the case, it is the best of all proofs that we take but a feeble interest in the exhibited story, and that the tragedy has failed in its effect. Others again have had recourse to a supposed feeling for moral improvement, which is gratified by the view of poetical justice in the reward of the good and the punishment of the wicked. But he for whom the aspect of such dreadful examples could really be wholesome, must be conscious of a base feeling of depression, very far removed from genuine morality, and would experience humiliation rather than elevation of mind. Besides, poetical justice is by no means indispensable to a good tragedy; it may end with the suffering of the just and the triumph of the wicked, if only the balance be preserved in the spectator's own consciousness by the prospect of futurity. Little does it mend the matter to say with Aristotle, that the object of tragedy is to purify the passions by pity and terror. In the first place commentators have never been able to agree as to the meaning of this proposition, and have had recourse to the most forced explanations of it. Look, for instance, into the Dramaturgie of Lessing. Lessing gives a new explanation of his own, and fancies he has found in Aristotle a poetical Euclid. But mathematical demonstrations are liable to no misconception, and geometrical evidence may well be supposed inapplicable to the theory of the fine arts. Supposing, however, that tragedy does operate this moral cure in us, still she does so by the painful feelings of terror and compassion: and it remains to be proved how it is that we take a pleasure in subjecting ourselves to such an operation.
Others have been pleased to say that we are attracted to theatrical representations from the want of some violent agitation to rouse us out of the torpor of our every-day life. Such a craving does exist; I have already acknowledged the existence of this want, when speaking of the attractions of the drama; but to it we must equally attribute the fights of wild beasts among the Romans, nay, even the combats of the gladiators. But must we, less indurated, and more inclined to tender feelings, require demi-gods and heroes to descend, like so many desperate gladiators, into the bloody arena of the tragic stage, in order to agitate our nerves by the spectacle of their sufferings? No: it is not the sight of suffering which constitutes the charm of a tragedy, or even of the games of the circus, or of the fight of wild beasts. In the latter we see a display of activity, strength, and courage; splendid qualities these, and related to the mental and moral powers of man. The satisfaction, therefore, which we derive from the representation, in a good tragedy, of powerful situations and overwhelming sorrows, must be ascribed either to the feeling of the dignity of human nature, excited in us by such grand instances of it as are therein displayed, or to the trace of a higher order of things, impressed on the apparently irregular course of events, and mysteriously revealed in them; or perhaps to both these causes conjointly.
The true reason, therefore, why tragedy need not shun even the harshest subject is, that a spiritual and invisible power can only be measured by the opposition which it encounters from some external force capable of being appreciated by the senses. The moral freedom of man, therefore, can only be displayed in a conflict with his sensuous impulses: so long as no higher call summons it to action, it is either actually dormant within him, or appears to slumber, since otherwise it does but mechanically fulfil its part as a mere power of nature. It is only amidst difficulties and struggles that the moral part of man's nature avouches itself. If, therefore, we must explain the distinctive aim of tragedy by way of theory, we would give it thus: that to establish the claims of the mind to a divine origin, its earthly existence must be disregarded as vain and insignificant, all sorrows endured and all difficulties overcome. With respect to everything connected with this point, I refer my hearers to the Section on the Sublime in Kant's Criticism of the Judgment (Kritik der Urtheilskraft), to the complete perfection of which nothing is wanting but a more definite idea of the tragedy of the ancients, with which he does not seem to have been very well acquainted.
I come now to another peculiarity which distinguishes the tragedy of the ancients from ours, I mean the Chorus. We must consider it as a personified reflection on the action which is going on; the incorporation into the representation itself of the sentiments of the poet, as the spokesman of the whole human race. This is its general poetical character; and that is all that here concerns us, and that character is by no means affected by the circumstance that the Chorus had a local origin in the feasts of Bacchus, and that, moreover, it always retained among the Greeks a peculiar national signification; publicity being, as we have already said, according to their republican notions, essential to the completeness of every important transaction. If in their compositions they reverted to the heroic ages, in which monarchical polity was yet in force, they nevertheless gave a certain republican cast to the families of their heroes, by carrying on the action in presence either of the elders of the people, or of other persons who represented some correspondent rank or position in the social body. This publicity does not, it is true, quite correspond with Homer's picture of the manners of the heroic age; but both costume and mythology were handled by dramatic poetry with the same spirit of independence and conscious liberty.
These thoughts, then, and these modes of feeling led to the introduction of the Chorus, which, in order not to interfere with the appearance of reality which the whole ought to possess, must adjust itself to the ever- varying requisitions of the exhibited stories. Whatever it might be and do in each particular piece, it represented in general, first the common mind of the nation, and then the general sympathy of all mankind. In a word, the Chorus is the ideal spectator. It mitigates the impression of a heart- rending or moving story, while it conveys to the actual spectator a lyrical and musical expression of his own emotions, and elevates him to the region of contemplation.
Modern critics have never known what to make of the Chorus; and this is the less to be wondered at, as Aristotle affords no satisfactory solution of the matter. Its office is better painted by Horace, who ascribes to it a general expression of moral sympathy, exhortation, instruction, and warning. But the critics in question have either believed that its chief object was to prevent the stage from ever being altogether empty, whereas in truth the stage was not at all the proper place for the Chorus; or else they have censured it as a superfluous and cumbersome appendage, expressing their astonishment at the alleged absurdity of carrying on secret transactions in the presence of assembled multitudes. They have also considered it as the principal reason with the Greek tragedians for the strict observance of the unity of place, as it could not be changed without the removal of the Chorus; an act, which could not have been done without some available pretext. Or lastly, they have believed that the Chorus owed its continuance from the first origin of Tragedy merely to accident; and as it is plain that in Euripides, the last of the three great tragic poets, the choral songs have frequently little or no connexion with the fable, and are nothing better than a mere episodical ornament, they therefore conclude that the Greeks had only to take one more step in the progress of dramatic art, to explode the Chorus altogether. To refute these superficial conjectures, it is only necessary to observe that Sophocles wrote a Treatise on the Chorus, in prose, in opposition to the principles of some other poets; and that, far from following blindly the practice which he found established, like an intelligent artist he was able to assign reasons for his own doings.
Modern poets of the first rank have often, since the revival of the study of the ancients, attempted to introduce the Chorus in their own pieces, for the most part without a correct, and always without a vivid idea of its real import. They seem to have forgotten that we have neither suitable singing or dancing, nor, as our theatres are constructed, any convenient place for it. On these accounts it is hardly likely to become naturalized with us.
The Greek tragedy, in its pure and unaltered state, will always for our theatres remain an exotic plant, which we can hardly hope to cultivate with any success, even in the hot-house of learned art and criticism. The Grecian mythology, which furnishes the materials of ancient tragedy, is as foreign to the minds and imaginations of most of the spectators, as its form and manner of representation. But to endeavour to force into that form materials of a wholly different nature, an historical one, for example, to assume that form, must always be a most unprofitable and hopeless attempt.
I have called mythology the chief materials of tragedy. We know, indeed, of two historical tragedies by Grecian authors: the Capture of Miletus, of Phrynichus, and the Persians, of Aeschylus, a piece which still exists; but these singular exceptions both belong to an epoch when the art had not attained its full maturity, and among so many hundred examples of a different description, only serve to establish more strongly the truth of the rule. The sentence passed by the Athenians on Phrynichus, in which they condemned him to a pecuniary fine because he had painfully agitated them by representing on the stage a contemporary calamity, which with due caution they might, perhaps, have avoided; however hard and arbitrary it may appear in a judicial point of view, displays, however, a correct feeling of the proprieties and limits of art. Oppressed by the consciousness of the proximity and reality of the represented story, the mind cannot retain that repose and self-possession which are necessary for the reception of pure tragical impressions. The heroic fables, on the other hand, came to view at a certain remoteness; and surrounded with a certain halo of the marvellous. The marvellous possesses the advantage that it can, in some measure, be at once believed and disbelieved: believed in so far as it is supported by its connexion with other opinions; disbelieved while we never take such an immediate interest in it as we do in what wears the hue of the every-day life of our own experience. The Grecian mythology was a web of national and local traditions, held in equal honour as a sequence of religion, and as an introduction to history; everywhere preserved in full vitality among the people by ceremonies and monuments, already elaborated for the requirements of art and the higher species of poetry by the diversified manner in which it has been handled, and by the numerous epic or merely mythical poets. The tragedians had only, therefore, to engraft one species of poetry on another. Certain postulates, and those invariably serviceable to the air of dignity and grandeur, and the removing of all meanness of idea, were conceded to them at the very outset. Everything, down to the very errors and weaknesses of that departed race of heroes who claimed their descent from the gods, was ennobled by the sanctity of legend. Those heroes were painted as beings endowed with more than human strength; but, so far from possessing unerring virtue and wisdom, they were even depicted as under the dominion of furious and unbridled passions. It was an age of wild effervescence; the hand of social order had not as yet brought the soil of morality into cultivation, and it yielded at the same time the most beneficent and poisonous productions, with the fresh luxuriant fulness of prolific nature. Here the occurrence of the monstrous and horrible did not necessarily indicate that degradation and corruption out of which alone, under the development of law and order, they could arise, and which, in such a state of things, make them fill us with sentiments of horror and aversion. The guilty beings of the fable are, if we may be allowed the expression, exempt from human jurisdiction, and amenable to a higher tribunal alone. Some, indeed, have advanced the opinion, that the Greeks, as zealous republicans, took a particular pleasure in witnessing the representation of the outrages and consequent calamities of the different royal families, and are almost disposed to consider the ancient tragedy in general as a satire on monarchical government. Such a party- view, however, would have deadened the sympathy of the audience, and consequently destroyed the effect which it was the aim of the tragedy to produce.
Besides, it must be remarked that the royal families, whose crimes and consequent sufferings afforded the most abundant materials for affecting tragical pictures, were the Pelopidae of Mycenae, and the Labdacidae of Thebes, families who had nothing to do with the political history of the Athenians, for whom the pieces were composed. We do not see that the Attic poets ever endeavoured to exhibit the ancient kings of their country in an odious light; on the contrary, they always hold up their national hero, Theseus, for public admiration, as a model of justice and moderation, the champion of the oppressed, the first lawgiver, and even as the founder of liberty. It was also one of their favourite modes of flattering the people, to show to them Athens, even in the heroic ages, as distinguished above all the other states of Greece, for obedience to the laws, for humanity, and acknowledgment of the national rights of the Hellenes. That universal revolution, by which the independent kingdoms of ancient Greece were converted into a community of small free states, had separated the heroic age from the age of social cultivation, by a wide interval, beyond which a few families only attempted to trace their genealogy. This was extremely advantageous for the ideal elevation of the characters of Greek tragedy, as few human things will admit of a very close inspection without betraying some imperfections. To the very different relations of the age in which those heroes lived, the standard of mere civil and domestic morality is not applicable, and to judge of them the feeling must go back to the primary ingredients of human nature. Before the existence of constitutions,—when as yet the notions of law and right were undeveloped,—the sovereigns were their own lawgivers, in a world which as yet was dependent on them; and the fullest scope was thus given to the energetic will, either for good or for evil. Moreover, an age of hereditary kingdom naturally exhibited more striking instances of sudden changes of fortune than the later times of political equality. It was in this respect that the high rank of the principal characters was essential, or at least favourable to tragic impressiveness; and not, as some moderns have pretended, because the changing fortunes of such persons exercise a material influence on the happiness or misery of numbers, and therefore they alone are sufficiently important to interest us in their behalf; nor, again, because internal elevation of sentiment must be clothed with external dignity, to call forth our respect and admiration. The Greek tragedians paint the downfall of kingly houses without any reference to its effects on the condition of the people; they show us the man in the king, and, far from veiling their heroes from our sight by their purple mantles, they allow us to look, through their vain splendour, into a bosom torn and harrowed with grief and passion. That the main essential was not so much the regal dignity as the heroic costume, is evident from those tragedies of the moderns which have been written under different circumstances indeed, but still upon this supposed principle: such, I mean, as under the existence of monarchy have taken their subject from kings and courts. Prom the existing reality they dare not draw, for nothing is less suitable for tragedy than a court and a court life. Wherever, therefore, they do not paint an ideal kingdom, with the manners of some remote age, they invariably fall into stiffness and formality, which are much more fatal to boldness of character, and to depth of pathos, than the monotonous and equable relations of private life.
A few mythological fables alone seem originally marked out for tragedy: such, for example, as the long-continued alternation of crime, revenge, and curses, which we witness in the house of Atreus. When we examine the names of the pieces which are lost, we have great difficulty in conceiving how the mythological fables (such, at least, as they are known to us,) could have furnished sufficient materials for the compass of an entire tragedy. It is true, the poets, in the various editions of the same story, had a great latitude of selection; and this very fluctuation of tradition justified them in going still farther, and making considerable alterations in the circumstances of an event, so that the inventions employed for this purpose in one piece sometimes contradict the story as given by the same poet in another. We must, however, principally explain the prolific capability of mythology, for the purposes of tragedy, by the principle which we observe in operation throughout the history of Grecian mind and art; that, namely, the tendency which predominated for the time, assimilated everything else to itself. As the heroic legend with all its manifold discrepancies was easily developed into the tranquil fulness and light variety of epic poetry, so afterwards it readily responded to the demands which the tragic writers made upon it for earnestness, energy, and compression; and whatever in this sifting process of transformation fell out as inapplicable to tragedy, afforded materials for a sort of half sportive, though still ideal representation, in the subordinate species called the satirical drama.
I hope I shall be forgiven, if I attempt to illustrate the above reflections on the essence of Ancient Tragedy, by a comparison borrowed from the plastic arts, which will, I trust, be found somewhat more than a mere fanciful resemblance.
The Homeric epic is, in poetry, what bas-relief is in sculpture, and tragedy the distinct isolated group.
The poetry of Homer, sprung from the soil of legend, is not yet wholly detached from it, even as the figures of a bas-relief adhere to an extraneous backing of the original block. These figures are but slightly raised, and in the epic poem all is painted as past and remote. In bas- relief the figures are usually in profile, and in the epos all are characterized in the simplest manner in relief; they are not grouped together, but follow one another; so Homer's heroes advance, one by one, in succession before us. It has been remarked that the Iliad is not definitively closed, but that we are left to suppose something both to precede and to follow it. The bas-relief is equally without limit, and may be continued ad infinitum, either from before or behind, on which account the ancients preferred for it such subjects as admitted of an indefinite extension, sacrificial processions, dances, and lines of combatants, &c. Hence they also exhibited bas-reliefs on curved surfaces, such as vases, or the frieze of a rotunda, where, by the curvature, the two ends are withdrawn from our sight, and where, while we advance, one object appears as another disappears. Reading Homer is very much like such a circuit; the present object alone arresting our attention, we lose sight of that which precedes, and do not concern ourselves about what is to follow.
But in the distinct outstanding group, and in Tragedy, sculpture and poetry alike bring before our eyes an independent and definite whole. To distinguish it from natural reality, the former places it on a base as on an ideal ground, detaching from it as much as possible all foreign and accidental accessories, that the eye may rest wholly on the essential objects, the figures themselves. These figures the sculptor works out with their whole body and contour, and as he rejects the illusion of colours, announces by the solidity and uniformity of the mass in which they are constructed, a creation of no perishable existence, but endowed, with a higher power of endurance.
Beauty is the aim of sculpture, and repose is most advantageous for the display of beauty. Repose alone, therefore, is suitable to the single figure. But a number of figures can only be combined together into unity, i.e., grouped by an action. The group represents beauty in motion, and its aim is to combine both in the highest degree of perfection. This can be effected even while portraying the most violent bodily or mental anguish, if only the artist finds means so to temper the expression by some trait of manly resistance, calm grandeur, or inherent sweetness, that, with all the most moving truth, the lineaments of beauty shall yet be undefaced. The observation of Winkelmann on this subject is inimitable. He says, that "beauty with the ancients was the tongue on the balance of expression," and in this sense the groups of Niobe and Laocon are master- pieces; the one in the sublime and severe; the other in the studied and ornamental style.
The comparison with ancient tragedy is the more apposite here, as we know that both Aeschylus and Sophocles produced a Niobe, and that Sophocles was also the author of a Laocon. In the group of the Laocon the efforts of the body in enduring, and of the mind in resisting, are balanced in admirable equipoise. The children calling for help, tender objects of compassion, not of admiration, recal our eyes to the father, who seems to be in vain uplifting his eyes to the gods. The wreathed serpents represent to us that inevitable destiny which often involves all the parties of an action in one common ruin. And yet the beauty of proportion, the agreeable flow of the outline, are not lost in this violent struggle; and a representation, the most appalling to the senses, is yet managed with forbearance, while a mild breath of gracefulness is diffused over the whole.
In the group of Niobe there is the same perfect mixture of terror and pity. The upturned looks of the mother, and the mouth half open in supplication, seem yet to accuse the invisible wrath of heaven. The daughter, clinging in the agonies of death to the bosom of her mother, in her childish innocence has no fear but for herself: the innate impulse of self-preservation was never more tenderly and affectingly expressed. On the other hand, can there be a more beautiful image of self-devoting, heroic magnanimity than Niobe, as she bends forward to receive, if possible, in her own body the deadly shaft? Pride and defiance dissolve in the depths of maternal love. The more than earthly dignity of the features are the less marred by the agony, as under the rapid accumulation of blow upon blow she seems, as in the deeply significant fable, already petrifying into the stony torpor. But before this figure, thus twice struck into stone, and yet so full of life and soul,—before this stony terminus of the limits of human endurance, the spectator melts into tears.
Amid all the agitating emotions which these groups give rise to, there is still a something in their aspect which attracts the mind and gives rise to manifold contemplation; so the ancient tragedy leads us forward to the highest reflections involved in the very sphere of things it sets before us—reflections on the nature and the inexplicable mystery of man's being.
Progress of the Tragic Art among the Greeks—Various styles of Tragic Art —Aeschylus—Connexion in a Trilogy of Aeschylus—His remaining Works.
Of the inexhaustible stores possessed by the Greeks in the department of tragedy, which the public competition at the Athenian festivals called into being (as the rival poets always contended for a prize), very little indeed has come down to us. We only possess works of three of their numerous tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and of these but a few in proportion to the whole number of their compositions. The extant dramas are such as were selected by the Alexandrian critics as the foundation for the study of the older Grecian literature, not because they alone were deserving of estimation, but because they afforded the best illustration of the various styles of tragic art. Of each of the two older poets, we have seven pieces remaining; in these, however, we have, according to the testimony of the ancients, several of their most distinguished productions. Of Euripides we have a much greater number, and we might well exchange many of them for other works which are now lost; for example, for the satirical dramas of Achaeus, Aeschylus, and Sophocles, or, for the sake of comparison with Aeschylus, for some of Phrynichus' pieces, or of Agathon's, whom Plato describes as effeminate, but sweet and affecting, and who was a contemporary of Euripides, though somewhat his junior.
Leaving to antiquarians to sift the stories about the waggon of the strolling Thespis, the contests for the prize of a he-goat, from which the name of tragedy is said to be derived, and the lees of wine with which the first improvisatory actors smeared over their visages, from which rude beginnings, it is pretended, Aeschylus, by one gigantic stride, gave to tragedy that dignified form under which it appears in his works, we shall proceed immediately to the consideration of the poets themselves.
The tragic style of Aeschylus (I use the word "style" in the sense it receives in sculpture, and not in the exclusive signification of the manner of writing,) is grand, severe, and not unfrequently hard: that of Sophocles is marked by the most finished symmetry and harmonious gracefulness: that of Euripides is soft and luxuriant; overflowing in his easy copiousness, he often sacrifices the general effect to brilliant passages. The analogies which the undisturbed development of the fine arts among the Greeks everywhere furnishes, will enable us, throughout to compare the epochs of tragic art with those of sculpture. Aeschylus is the Phidias of Tragedy, Sophocles her Polycletus, and Euripides her Lysippus. Phidias formed sublime images of the gods, but lent them an extrinsic magnificence of material, and surrounded their majestic repose with images of the most violent struggles in strong relief. Polycletus carried his art to perfection of proportion, and hence one of his statues was called the Standard of Beauty. Lysippus distinguished himself by the fire of his works; but in his time Sculpture had deviated from its original destination, and was much more desirous of expressing the charm of motion and life than of adhering to ideality of form.
Aeschylus is to be considered as the creator of Tragedy: in full panoply she sprung from his head, like Pallas from the head of Jupiter. He clad her with dignity, and gave her an appropriate stage; he was the inventor of scenic pomp, and not only instructed the chorus in singing and dancing, but appeared himself as an actor. He was the first that expanded the dialogue, and set limits to the lyrical part of tragedy, which, however, still occupies too much space in his pieces. His characters are sketched with a few bold and strong touches. His plots are simple in the extreme: he did not understand the art of enriching and varying an action, and of giving a measured march and progress to the complication and denouement. Hence his action often stands still; a circumstance which becomes yet more apparent, from the undue extension of his choral songs. But all his poetry evinces a sublime and earnest mind. Terror is his element, and not the softer affections, he holds up a head of Medusa before the petrified spectators. In his handling Destiny appears austere in the extreme; she hovers over the heads of mortals in all her gloomy majesty. The cothurnus of Aeschylus has, as it were, the weight of iron: gigantic figures stalk in upon it. It seems as if it required an effort for him to condescend to paint mere men; he is ever bringing in gods, but especially the Titans, those elder divinities who typify the gloomy powers of primaeval nature, and who had been driven long ago into Tartarus before the presence of a new and better order of things. He endeavours to swell out his language to a gigantic sublimity, corresponding to the vast dimensions of his personages. Hence he abounds in harsh compounds and over-strained epithets, and the lyrical parts of his pieces are often, from their involved construction, extremely obscure. In the singular strangeness of his images and expressions he resembles Dante and Shakspeare. Yet in these images there is no want of that terrific grace which almost all the writers of antiquity commend in Aeschylus.
Aeschylus flourished in the very freshness and vigour of Grecian freedom, and a proud sense of the glorious struggle by which it was won, seems to have animated him and his poetry. He had been an eye-witness of the greatest and most glorious event in the history of Greece, the overthrow and annihilation of the Persian hosts under Darius and Xerxes, and had fought with distinguished bravery in the memorable battles of Marathon and Salamis. In the Persians he has, in an indirect manner, sung the triumph which he contributed to obtain, while he paints the downfall of the Persian ascendancy, and the ignominious return of the despot, with difficulty escaping with his life, to his royal residence. The battle of Salamis he describes in the most vivid and glowing colours. Through the whole of this piece, and the Seven before Thebes, there gushes forth a warlike vein; the personal inclination of the poet for a soldier's life, shines throughout with the most dazzling lustre. It was well remarked by Gorgias, the sophist, that Mars, instead of Bacchus, had inspired this last drama; for Bacchus, and not Apollo, was the tutelary deity of tragic poets, which, on a first view of the matter, appears somewhat singular, but then we must recollect that Bacchus was not merely the god of wine and joy, but also the god of all higher kinds of inspiration.