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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 10/97 -

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 Litterature_. 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 Barthelemy'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

Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 10/97

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