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- Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book III. - 4/24 -


regular stage, appropriate scenery and costume, mechanical inventions and complicated stage machinery, gave fitting illusion to the representation of gods and men. To the monologue of Phrynichus, Aeschylus added a second actor [14]; he curtailed the choruses, connected them with the main story, and, more important than all else, reduced to simple but systematic rules the progress and development of a poem, which no longer had for its utmost object to please the ear or divert the fancy, but swept on its mighty and irresistible march, to besiege passion after passion, and spread its empire over the whole soul.

An itinerant platform was succeeded by a regular theatre of wood--the theatre of wood by a splendid edifice, which is said to have held no less an audience than thirty thousand persons [15]. Theatrical contests became a matter of national and universal interest. These contests occurred thrice a year, at three several festivals of Bacchus [16]. But it was at the great Dionysia, held at the end of March and commencement of April, that the principal tragic contests took place. At that period, as the Athenian drama increased in celebrity, and Athens herself in renown, the city was filled with visiters, not only from all parts of Greece, but almost from every land in which the Greek civilization was known. The state took the theatre under its protection, as a solemn and sacred institution. So anxious were the people to consecrate wholly to the Athenian name the glory of the spectacle, that at the great Dionysia no foreigner, nor even any metoecus (or alien settler), was permitted to dance in the choruses. The chief archon presided, over the performances; to him was awarded the selection of the candidates for the prize. Those chosen were allowed three actors [17] by lot and a chorus, the expense of which was undertaken by the state, and imposed upon one of the principal persons of each tribe, called choragus. Thus, on one occasion, Themistocles was the choragus to a tragedy by Phrynichus. The immense theatre, crowded by thousands, tier above tier, bench upon bench, was open to the heavens, and commanded, from the sloping hill on which it was situated, both land and sea. The actor apostrophized no mimic pasteboard, but the wide expanse of Nature herself--the living sun, the mountain air, the wide and visible Aegaean. All was proportioned to the gigantic scale of the theatre, and the mighty range of the audience. The form was artificially enlarged and heightened; masks of exquisite art and beauty brought before the audience the ideal images of their sculptured gods and heroes, while (most probably) mechanical inventions carried the tones of the voice throughout the various tiers of the theatre. The exhibitions took place in the open day, and the limited length of the plays permitted the performance of probably no less than ten or twelve before the setting of the sun. The sanctity of their origin, and the mythological nature of their stories, added something of religious solemnity to these spectacles, which were opened by ceremonial sacrifice. Dramatic exhibitions, at least for a considerable period, were not, as with us, made hackneyed by constant repetition. They were as rare in their recurrence as they were imposing in their effect; nor was a drama, whether tragic or comic, that had gained the prize, permitted a second time to be exhibited. A special exemption was made in favour of Aeschylus, afterward extended to Sophocles and Euripides. The general rule was necessarily stimulant of renewed and unceasing exertion, and was, perhaps, the principal cause of the almost miraculous fertility of the Athenian dramatists.

VI. On the lower benches of the semicircle sat the archons and magistrates, the senators and priests; while apart, but in seats equally honoured, the gaze of the audience was attracted, from time to time, to the illustrious strangers whom the fame of their poets and their city had brought to the Dionysia of the Athenians. The youths and women [18] had their separate divisions; the rest of the audience were ranged according to their tribes, while the upper galleries were filled by the miscellaneous and impatient populace.

In the orchestra (a space left by the semicircular benches, with wings stretching to the right and left before the scene), a small square platform served as the altar, to which moved the choral dances, still retaining the attributes of their ancient sanctity. The coryphaeus, or leader of the chorus, took part in the dialogue as the representative of the rest, and, occasionally, even several of the number were excited into exclamations by the passion of the piece. But the principal duty of the chorus was to diversify the dialogue by hymns and dirges, to the music of flutes, while, in dances far more artful than those now existent, they represented by their movements the emotions that they sung [19],--thus bringing, as it were, into harmony of action the poetry of language. Architectural embellishments of stone, representing a palace, with three entrances, the centre one appropriated to royalty, the others to subordinate rank, usually served for the scene. But at times, when the plot demanded a different locality, scenes painted with the utmost art and cost were easily substituted; nor were wanting the modern contrivances of artificial lightning and thunder--the clouds for the gods--a variety of inventions for the sudden apparition of demon agents, whether from above or below--and all the adventitious and effective aid which mechanism lends to genius.

VII. Thus summoning before us the external character of the Athenian drama, the vast audience, the unroofed and enormous theatre, the actors themselves enlarged by art above the ordinary proportions of men, the solemn and sacred subjects from which its form and spirit were derived, we turn to Aeschylus, and behold at once the fitting creator of its grand and ideal personifications. I have said that Homer was his original; but a more intellectual age than that of the Grecian epic had arrived, and with Aeschylus, philosophy passed into poetry. The dark doctrine of fatality imparted its stern and awful interest to the narration of events--men were delineated, not as mere self-acting and self-willed mortals, but as the agents of a destiny inevitable and unseen--the gods themselves are no longer the gods of Homer, entering into the sphere of human action for petty motives and for individual purposes--drawing their grandeur, not from the part they perform, but from the descriptions of the poet;--they appear now as the oracles or the agents of fate--they are visiters from another world, terrible and ominous from the warnings which they convey. Homer is the creator of the material poetry, Aeschylus of the intellectual. The corporeal and animal sufferings of the Titan in the epic hell become exalted by tragedy into the portrait of moral fortitude defying physical anguish. The Prometheus of Aeschylus is the spirit of a god disdainfully subjected to the misfortunes of a man. In reading this wonderful performance, which in pure and sustained sublimity is perhaps unrivalled in the literature of the world, we lose sight entirely of the cheerful Hellenic worship; and yet it is in vain that the learned attempt to trace its vague and mysterious metaphysics to any old symbolical religion of the East. More probably, whatever theological system it shadows forth, was rather the gigantic conception of the poet himself, than the imperfect revival of any forgotten creed, or the poetical disguise of any existent philosophy. However this be, it would certainly seem, that, in this majestic picture of the dauntless enemy of Jupiter, punished only for his benefits to man, and attracting all our sympathies by his courage and his benevolence, is conveyed something of disbelief or defiance of the creed of the populace--a suspicion from which Aeschylus was not free in the judgment of his contemporaries, and which is by no means inconsonant with the doctrines of Pythagoras.

VIII. The conduct of the fable is as follows: two vast demons, Strength and Force, accompanied by Vulcan, appear in a remote plain of earth--an unpeopled desert. There, on a steril and lofty rock, hard by the sea, Prometheus is chained by Vulcan--"a reward for his disposition to be tender to mankind." The date of this doom is cast far back in the earliest dawn of time, and Jupiter has but just commenced his reign. While Vulcan binds him, Prometheus utters no sound--it is Vulcan, the agent of his punishment, that alone complains. Nor is it till the dread task is done, and the ministers of Jupiter have retired, that "the god, unawed by the wrath of gods," bursts forth with his grand apostrophe--

"Oh Air divine! Oh ye swift-winged Winds-- Ye sources of the Rivers, and ye Waves, That dimple o'er old Ocean like his smiles-- Mother of all--oh Earth! and thou the orb, All-seeing, of the Sun, behold and witness What I, a god, from the stern gods endure.

* * * * * *

When shall my doom be o'er?--Be o'er!--to me The Future hides no riddle--nor can wo Come unprepared! It fits me then to brave That which must be: for what can turn aside The dark course of the grim Necessity?"

While thus soliloquizing, the air becomes fragrant with odours, and faintly stirs with the rustling of approaching wings. The Daughters of Ocean, aroused from their grots below, are come to console the Titan. They utter many complaints against the dynasty of Jove. Prometheus comforts himself by the prediction that the Olympian shall hereafter require his services, and that, until himself released from his bondage, he will never reveal to his tyrant the danger that menaces his realm; for the vanquished is here described as of a mightier race than the victor, and to him are bared the mysteries of the future, which to Jupiter are denied. The triumph of Jupiter is the conquest of brute force over knowledge.

Prometheus then narrates how, by means of his counsels, Jupiter had gained his sceptre, and the ancient Saturn and his partisans been whelmed beneath the abyss of Tartarus--how he alone had interfered with Jupiter to prevent the extermination of the human race (whom alone the celestial king disregarded and condemned)--how he had imparted to them fire, the seed of all the arts, and exchanged in their breasts the terrible knowledge of the future for the beguiling flatteries of hope and hence his punishment.

At this time Ocean himself appears: he endeavours unavailingly to persuade the Titan to submission to Jupiter. The great spirit of Prometheus, and his consideration for others, are beautifully individualized in his answers to his consoler, whom he warns not to incur the wrath of the tyrant by sympathy with the afflicted. Alone again with the Oceanides, the latter burst forth in fresh strains of pity.

"The wide earth echoes wailingly, Stately and antique were thy fallen race, The wide earth waileth thee! Lo! from the holy Asian dwelling-place, Fall for a godhead's wrongs, the mortals' murmuring tears, They mourn within the Colchian land, The virgin and the warrior daughters, And far remote, the Scythian band, Around the broad Maeotian waters, And they who hold in Caucasus their tower, Arabia's martial flower Hoarse-clamouring 'midst sharp rows of barbed spears.

One have I seen with equal tortures riven-- An equal god; in adamantine chains Ever and evermore The Titan Atlas, crush'd, sustains


Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book III. - 4/24

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