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SPECIMENS OF GREEK TRAGEDY
GOLDWIN SMITH, D.C.L.
AESCHYLUS AND SOPHOCLES
Greek drama, forerunner of ours, had its origin in the festival of Dionysus, god of wine, which was celebrated with dance, song, and recitative. The recitative, being in character, was improved into the Drama, the chief author of the improvement, tradition says, being Thespis. But the dance and song were retained, and became the Chorus, that peculiar feature of the Greek play. This seems to be the general account of the matter, and especially of the combination of the lyric with the dramatic element, so far as we can see through the mist of an unrecorded age.
Thirlwall, still perhaps the soundest and most judicious, though not the most vivid or enthusiastic, historian of Greece, traces the origin of the Drama to "the great choral compositions uniting the attractions of music and action to those of a lofty poetry, which formed the favourite entertainment of the Dorian cities." This, he says, appears to have been the germ out of which, by the introduction of a new element, the recitation of a performer who assumed a character and perhaps from the first shifted his mask, so as to exhibit the outlines of a simple story in a few scenes parted by the intervening song of the Chorus, Thespis and his successors unfolded the Attic Tragedy. Of the further development of the Drama in the age of Pericles, Thirlwall says:--
"The drama was the branch of literature which peculiarly signalised the age of Pericles; and it belongs to the political, no less than to the literary, history of these times, and deserves to be considered in both points of view. The steps by which it was brought through a series of innovations to the form which it presents in its earliest extant remains, are still a subject of controversy among antiquarians; and even the poetical character of the authors by whom these changes were effected, and of their works, is involved in great uncertainty. We have reason to believe that it was no want of merit, or of absolute worth, which caused them to be neglected and forgotten, but only the superior attraction of the form which the drama finally assumed. Of Phrynichus in particular, the immediate predecessor of Aeschylus, we are led to conceive a very favourable opinion, both by the manner in which he is mentioned by the ancients who were acquainted with his poems, and by the effect which it is recorded to have produced upon his audience. It is clear that Aeschylus, who found him in undisputed possession of the public favour, regarded him as a worthy rival, and was in part stimulated by emulation to unfold the capacities of their common art by a variety of new inventions. These, however, were so important as to entitle their author to be considered as the father of Attic tragedy. This title he would have deserved, if he had only introduced the dialogue, which distinguished his drama from that of the preceding poets, who had told the story of each piece in a series of monologues. So long as this was the case, the lyrical part must have created the chief interest; and the difference between the Attic tragedy and the choral songs which were exhibited in a similar manner in the Dorian cities was perhaps not so striking as their agreement. The innovation made by Aeschylus altered the whole character of the poem; raised the purely dramatic portion from a subordinate to the principal rank, and expanded it into a richly varied and well organised composition. With him, it would seem, and as a natural consequence of this great change, arose the usage, which to us appears so singular, of exhibiting what was sometimes called a trilogy, which comprised three distinct tragedies at the same time."
"The tragic drama belonged essentially to the festivals in honour of the god Dionysus; being originally a chorus sung in his honour, to which were successively superadded: First, an iambic monologue; next, a dialogue with two actors; lastly, a regular plot with three actors, and a chorus itself interwoven into the scene. Its subjects were from the beginning, and always continued to be, persons either divine or heroic above the level of historical life, and borrowed from what was called the mythical past. 'The Persae' of Aeschylus, indeed, forms a splendid exception; but the two analogous dramas of his contemporary, Phrynichus, 'The Phoenissae,' and 'The Capture of Miletus,' were not successful enough to invite subsequent tragedians to meddle with contemporary events. To three serious dramas, or a trilogy--at first connected together by a sequence of subject more or less loose, but afterwards unconnected and on distinct subjects, through an innovation introduced by Sophocles, if not before--the tragic poet added a fourth or satyrical drama; the characters of which were satyrs, the companions of the god Dionysus, and other historic or mythical persons exhibited in farce. He thus made up a total of four dramas, or a tetralogy, which he got up and brought forward to contend for the prize at the festival. The expense of training the chorus and actors was chiefly furnished by the choregi,--wealthy citizens, of whom one was named for each of the ten tribes, and whose honour and vanity were greatly interested in obtaining a prize. At first these exhibitions took place on a temporary stage, with nothing but wooden supports and scaffolding; but shortly after the year 500 B.C., on an occasion when the poets Aeschylus and Pratinas were contending for the prize, this stage gave way during the ceremony, and lamentable mischief was the result. After that misfortune, a permanent theatre of stone was provided. To what extent the project was realised before the invasion of Xerxes we do not accurately know; but after his destructive occupation of Athens, the theatre, if any existed previously, would have to be rebuilt or renovated, along with other injured portions of the city."
"Thespis was the founder of Attic tragedy. He had introduced a preliminary system of order into the alternation of recitative and song, into the business of the actor, and into the management of dress and stage. Solon was said to have disliked the art of Thespis, regarding as dangerous the violent excitement of feelings by means of phantastic representation; the Tyrants, on the other hand, encouraged this new popular diversion; it suited their policy that the poor should be entertained at the expense of the rich; the competition of rival tragic choirs was introduced; and the stage near the black poplar on the market-place became a centre of the festive merry- makings in Attica."
Curtius thinks that Pisistratus, as a popular usurper and opponent of the aristocracy, encouraged the worship of the popular god Dionysus with the Tragic Chorus, and he gives Pisistratus the credit of this glorious innovation. A similar policy was ascribed to Cleisthenes of Sicyon by Herodotus (v. 67).
The Chorus thus remaining wedded to the Drama, parts the action with lyric pieces more or less connected with it, and expressive of the feelings which it excites. In Aeschylus and Sophocles the connection is generally close; less close in Euripides. The Chorus also occasionally joins in the dialogue, moralising or sympathising, and sometimes, it must be owned, in a rather commonplace and insipid strain. In "The Eumenides" of Aeschylus, the chorus of Furies takes part as a character in the drama; in "The Suppliants" it plays the principal part.
The Drama came to perfection with Athenian art generally, and with Athens herself in the period which followed the Persian war. The performance of plays at the Dionysiac festival was an important event in Athenian life. The whole city was gathered in the great open-air theatre consecrated to Dionysus, whose priest occupied the seat of honour. All the free men, at least, were gathered there; and when we talk about the intellectual superiority of the Athenian people, we must bear in mind that a condition of Athenian culture was the delegation of industry to the slave. That audience was probably the liveliest, most quick-witted, most appreciative, and most critical that the world ever saw. Prizes were given to the authors of the best pieces. Each tragedian exhibited three pieces, which at first formed a connected series, though afterwards this rule was disregarded. After the three tragic pieces was performed a satyric drama, to relieve the mind from the strain of tragedy, and perhaps also as a conventional tribute to the jollity of the god of wine. In the Elizabethan Drama the tragic and comic are blended as they are in life.
The subjects were taken usually from mythology, especially from the circle of legends relating to the siege of Troy, to the tragic history of the house of Atreus, the equally tragic history of the house of Laius, and the adventures of Hercules. The subject of "The Persae" of Aeschylus is a contemporary event, but this, as Grote says, was an exception. Heroic action and suffering, the awful force of destiny and of the will of heaven, are the general themes of Aeschylus and Sophocles; passion, especially feminine passion, is more frequently the theme of Euripides. Romantic love, the staple of the modern drama and novel, was hardly known to the Greeks, whose romantic affection was friendship, such as that of Orestes and Pylades, or Achilles and Patroclus. The only approach to romantic love in the extant drama is the love of Haemon and Antigone in the "Antigone" of Sophocles; and even here it is subordinate to the conflict between state law and law divine, which is the key-note of the piece; while the lovers do not meet upon the scene. The sterner and fiercer passions, on the whole, predominate, though Euripides has given us touching pictures of conjugal, fraternal, and sisterly love. In the "Oedipus Coloneus" of Sophocles also, filial love and the gentler feelings play a part in harmony with the closing scene of the old man's unhappy life. In the "Philoctetes," Sophocles introduces, as an element of tragedy, physical pain, though it is combined with moral suffering.
A popular entertainment was of course adapted to the tastes of the people. Debate, both political and forensic, was almost the daily bread of the people of Athens. The Athenian loved smart repartee and display of the power of fencing with words. The thrust and parry of wit in the single-line dialogues (_stichomythia_) pleased them more than it pleases us. Rhetoric had a practical interest when not only the victory of a man's opinions in the political assembly, but his life and property before the popular tribunal, might depend on his tongue. The Drama was also used in the absence of a press for political or social teaching, and for the insinuation of political or social opinions. In reading these passages we must throw ourselves back twenty-three centuries, into an age when political and social observation was new, like politics and civilised society themselves, and ideas familiar to us now were fresh and struggling for expression. The remark may be extended to the political philosophy which struggles
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