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- Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 14/97 -

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 Laocoon are master- pieces; the one in the sublime and severe; the other in the studied and ornamental style.

Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature - 14/97

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