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Greek Tragedy: Its Genius & Character

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Source: The Lyrical Dramas of Aeschylus, translated into Enlish Verse by John Stuart Blackie (London: J.M. Dent, 1906).


“In der Beurtheilung des Hellenischen Alterthums soll der Scharfsinnige nicht aus sich herauszuspinnen suchen, was nur aus der Verbindung mannichfacher Ueberlieferungen gewonnen werden kann.”




Let us inquire, therefore, setting aside alike Shaksperian examples and Aristotelian canons, what the τραγῳδία, or “tragedy,” was to the ancient Greeks. Nor have we far to seek. The name, when the modern paint is rubbed off, declares its own history; and we find that the main idea of the old word τραῳδία—as, by the way, the only idea of the modern word τραγουδι* —is a song. Of the second part of this word, we have preserved the root in our English words ode, melody, monody, thenody, and the other half of the word means goat; whether that descriptive addition to the principal substantive came from the circumstance that the song was originally sung by persons habited like goats, or from other circumstances connected with the worship of Dionysus, to whom this animal was sacred, is of no importance for our present purpose. The main fact to which we have to direct attention, is that the word tragedy, when analysed, bears upon its face, and in the living Greek tongue proclaims loudly to the present hour, that the essential character of this species of poetry—when the name was originally given to it—was lyrical, and not at all dramatic or tragic, in the modern sense of these words. A drama, in modern language, means an action represented by acting persons; and a tragedy is such a represented action, having a sad issue; but neither of these elements belonged to the original Greek tragedy, as inherited from his rude predecessors by Æschylus, nor (as we shall immediately show) do they form the prominent or characteristic part of that exhibition, as transmitted by him to his successors. With regard to the origin of the Greek “goat-song,” and its condition previous to the age of Æschylus, there is but one uncontradicted voice of tradition on the subject; the curious discussions and investigations of the learned affecting only certain minute points of detail in the progress, which have no interest for the general student. That tradition is to the effect that the Greek lyrical drama, as we find it in the extant works of Æschylus, arose out of the Dithyrambic hymns sung at the sacred festivals of the ancient Hellenes in honour of their god Dionysus, or, as he is vulgarly called, Bacchus; hymns which were first extemporized under the influence of the stimulating juice of the grape,* and then sung by a regularly trained Chorus, under the direction of the famous Methymnean minstrel, Arion. The simplest form which such hymns, under such conditions, could assume, was that of a circular dance by a band of choristers round the statue or the altar of the god in whose honour the hymn was sung. This is not a matter peculiar to Greece, but to be found at all times, and all over the world, wherever there are men who are not mere brutes. So in the description of the religious practices of the ancient Mexicans, our erudite poet Southey has the following beautiful passage, picturing a sacred choral dance round the altar of sacrifice:—

  • Round the choral band
  • The circling nobles gay, with gorgeous plumes,
  • And gems which sparkled to the midnight fire,
  • Moved in the solemn dance, each in his hand,
  • In measured movements, lifts the feathery shield,
  • And shakes a rattling ball to measured sounds;
  • With quicker steps, the inferior chiefs without,
  • Equal in number, but in just array,
  • The spreading radii of the mystic wheel
  • Revolved; and outermost, the youths roll round,
  • In motions rapid as their quickened blood.

The academic student, who is familiar with these matters, is aware that what has been here constructed hypothetically, as a natural result of the circumstances, is the real historical account of the origin and progress of the Greek tragedy, as it is shortly given in a well-known passage of Diogenes Laertius. “In the oldest times,” says that biographer of the philosophers, “the Chorus alone went through the dramatic exhibition (διεδραματ[Editor: illegible character]ζεν) in tragedy; afterwards Thespis, to give rest to the Chorus, added one actor distinct from the singers; then Æschylus added a second, and Sophocles a third; which gave to tragedy its complete development.”* The reason mentioned here for the addition of the first actor by Thespis, is a very probable one. The convenience or ease of the singers contributed, along with the lively wit of the Greeks, and a due regard for the entertainment of the spectators, to raise the dramatized ode, step by step, into the lyrical drama.

In the above account, two secondary circumstances connected with this transition, have not been mentioned The first is, that the jocund and sometimes boisterous hymn, in honour of the wine-god, should have passed into the lyrical representation of an action generally not at all connected with the worship or history of that divinity; and, secondly, that this action should have changed its tone from light to grave, from jocular to sad, and become, in fact, what we, in the popular language of modern times, call tragic. Now, for the first of these circumstances, I know nothing that can be said in the way of historical philosophy, except that man is fond of variety, that the Greek genius was fertile, and that accident often plays strange tricks with the usages and institutions of mortal men. For the other point, there can be no doubt that the worship of the god of physical and animal joy, being violent in its character, had its ebb as well as its flow, its broad-gleaming sunshine not without the cloud, its wail as well as its rejoicing. Whether Dionysus meant the sun, or only wine, which is the produce of the solar heat, or both, it is plain that his worshippers would have to lament his departure, at least as often as they hailed his advent; and, in this natural alternation, a foundation was laid for the separation of the original Dithyrambic Chorus into a wild, sportive element, represented by the Aristophanic comedy, and a deeply serious, meditative element represented by tragedy But we must beware, in reference to Æschylus at least, of supposing that the lyrical drama, as exhibited by him, however solemn and awe-inspiring, was necessarily sad, or, as we say, tragic in its issue. Aristotle indeed, in his famous treatise, lays down the doctrine that the main object of tragic composition is to excite pity and terror, and that Euripides, “though in other respects he manages badly, is in this respect the most tragic of the tragedians, that the most of his pieces end unfortunately.”* But there is not the slightest reason, in the nature of things, why a solemn dramatic representation, any more than a high-toned epical narrative, should end unfortunately. The Hindoo drama, for one, never does; and, in the case of our poet, it is plain that the great trilogy, of which the Orestes is the middle piece, is constructed upon the principle of leading the sympathizing spectator through scenes of pity and terror, as stations in a journey, but finally to a goal of moral peace and harmonious reconciliation. That the great trilogy of the Prometheus, of which only one part remains, had an equally fortunate termination, is not to be doubted. Here, therefore, we see another impertinence in that modern word tragedy, which, in the superscriptions of these plays, I have been so careful to eschew.

We shall now examine one or two of the Æschylean pieces by a simple arithmetical process, and see how essentially the lyrical element predominates in their construction. Taking Wellauer’s edition, and turning up the Suppliants, I find that that play, consisting altogether of 1055 lines, is opened by a continuous lyric strain of 172 lines. Then we have dialogue, in part of which the Chorus uses lyric measures to the extent of 22 lines Then follows a short choral song of only 20 lines. The next Chorus comprises 76 lines, and the next 70. After this follows another dialogue, in which the Chorus, being in great mental agitation, use, according to the uniform practice of Æschylus, lyric measures to the extent altogether of 20 verses. Then follows another regular choral hymn of 47 lines. After that a violent lyrical altercation between the Chorus and a new actor, to the amount of 74 lines, in the most impassioned lyrical rhythm. Then follow 14 lines of anapæsts; and the whole concludes with a grand lyrical finale of 65 lines: altogether 580—considerably more than the half of the piece by bare arithmetic, and equal to two-thirds of it fully, if we consider how much more time the singing, with the musical accompaniments, must have occupied than the simple declamation. No more distinct proof could be required how essentially the account of Diogenes Laertius is right; how true it is that the choral part of the Æschylean drama is both its body and its soul, while the dialogic part, to use the technical language of Aristotle’s days, was, in fact, only an ἐπεισόδιον (from which our English word Episode) or thing thrown in between the main choral acts of the representation, for the sake of variety to the spectators, and, as the writer says, of rest to the singers. We thus see, also, what an incorrect and indefinite idea of the Æschylean drama Aristotle had when he says—so far as we can gather his meaning—that “Æschylus first added a second actor; he also abridged the chorus, and made the dialogue the principal part of tragedy.”* The last article, so far as the play of the Suppliants is concerned, is simply not true. Let us make trial of another play. The Agamemnon, which, for many reasons, is one of the best for testing the mature genius of the bard, contains about 1600 lines; and, without troubling the reader with details, it will be found that about the half of this number is written in lyric measures. When we consider, further, that the most splendid imaginative pictures, and the wildest bursts of passion, all the interest, the doubt, and the anxiety, the fear, the terror, the surprise, and the final issue, are, according to the practice of Æschylus, regularly thrown into lyric measures, we shall be convinced that Aristotle (if we rightly apprehend him) was altogether mistaken when he led the moderns to imagine that the father of tragedy had really given such a preponderance to the dialogic element, that the lyric part is to be looked on, in his productions, as in any way subordinate. Unless it be the Prometheus, I do not know a single extant play of Æschylus in which the lyric element occupies a position which, in actual representation, would justify the dictum of the Stagyrite. And even in this play, let it be observed, how grandly the poet makes his anapæsts swell and billow with sonorous thunder in the finale; as if to make amends for the somewhat prolix epic recitals with which he had occupied the spectator, and to prove that a Greek tragedy could never be true to itself, unless it left upon the ear, in its last echoes, the permanent impression of its original character as a Song

Three observations strike me, that may conveniently be stated as corollaries from the above remarks. First, That those translators have erred who, whether from carelessness, or from ignorance, or from a desire to accommodate the ancient tragedy as much as possible to the modern, have given an undue predominance to blank verse in their versions, making it appear as if the spoken part of the Æschylean tragedy bore a much larger proportion, than it really does, to the sung. Second, Those critics have erred who, applying the principles of modern theatrical criticism to the chaunted parts of the ancient lyrical drama, have found many parts dull or wearisome, extravagant, and even ridiculous, which, there can be no doubt, with their proper musical accompaniment, were the most impressive, and the most popular parts of the representation. Third, We err altogether, when we judge of the excellence of an ancient Greek drama as a composition, by its effect on us when reading it. The Suppliants, for instance, is generally considered a stupid play; because it wants grand contrasts of character and striking dramatic situations, and contains so much of mere reiterated supplication. But this reiteration, though wearisome to us who read the text-book of the lost opera, was, in all probability, that on which the ravished ears of the devout ancient auditors dwelt with most voluptuous delight. In general, without re-creating some musical accompaniment, and dwelling with ear and heart on the frequent variations of the lyric burden of the piece, a man is utterly incapable of passing any sane judgment on an Æschylean drama. Such a piece may contain in abundance everything that the auditors desired and enjoyed, and yet be very stupid now to us who merely read and criticise.

The fact of the matter is, that the marshalled band of singers, however satisfactory to an ancient audience, who looked principally for musical excitement in their tragedies, and not for an interesting plot, was not at all calculated for allowing a dramatic genius to bring out those tragic situations in which the modern reader delights; but rather stood directly in the way of such an effect The fine development of character under the influence of various delicate situations, and in collision with different persons, all acting their part in some complex knot of various-coloured life, could not be exhibited in a performance where a band of singers on whom the eye of the spectators principally rested, and who formed the great attraction for the masses,* constantly occupied the central ground, and constantly interfered with every thing that was either said or done, whether it was convenient for them to do so or not. For a perfect tragedy, as conceived scientifically by Aristotle, and executed with a grand practical instinct by Shakespere, the Chorus was, in the very nature of the thing, an incumbrance and an impediment. It was only very seldom that the persons of that body could form such an important part of the action, and come forward with such a startling dramatic effect as in the Eumenides. Too often they were obliged to hang round the action as an atmosphere, or look at it as spectators; spectators either impartial altogether, and then too wise for dramatic sympathy, or half-partial, and then, by indecision of utterance, often making themselves ridiculous, as in a noted scene of the Agamemnon (Vol I p. 79), or contemptible, as in the Antigone* The proper position of the Chorus in a regularly constructed drama, is, like the witches in Macbeth, to form a mysterious musical background (not a fore-ground, as in the Greek tragedy), or to circle, as in the opera of Masaniello, the principal character with a band of associates naturally situated to assist and cheer him on to his grand enterprise. But the Greek Chorus, even in the time of Sophocles and Euripides, who enlarged the spoken part, was too independent, too stationary, too central a nucleus of the representation, not to impede the movements of the acting persons who performed the principal parts. As a form of art, therefore, the Greek tragedy, so soon as it attempted to assume the scientific ground so acutely seized on by the subtle analysis of Aristotle, was necessarily clumsy and incongruous. The lyric element, which was always the most popular element, refused to be incorporated with the acting element, and yet could not be altogether displaced, a position of scenic affairs which has strangely perplexed not a few modern critics, looking for a dramatic plot with all the dramatic proprieties in a composition where the old Hellenic spectator only felt a hymn to Jove; and curiously tasking their wits to find excuses for a poet like Euripides, who, with blossoming lyrics and sonorous rhetoric, might gain the prize of the “goat-song,” even over the head of a Sophocles, and yet, in point of dramatic propriety, as we demand it in our modern plays, be constantly perpetrating enormities which a clever schoolboy at Westminster or Eton might avoid.

So much for the artistic form of the Æschylean drama. As for the matter, it was essentially a combination of mythologial, legendary, and devotional elements, such as naturally belonged to a people whose religion was intimately blended with every passion of the human heart, and every chance of human life, and whose gods were only a sort of glorified men, as their men sometimes were nothing less than mortal gods The Greek lyrical dramas were part of the great public exhibitions at the great feasts of Bacchus, which took place, some in the winter season, and some in the spring of the year;* and in this respect they bear a striking resemblance both to the Hindoo dramas (for which see Wilson), to the so-called mysteries and moralities of mediæval piety, and to the sacred dramas of Metastasio, exhibited to the court at Vienna. And what sort of an aspect does ancient polytheistic piety present, what sort of an attitude does it maintain, in these compositions? An aspect surprisingly fair, considering what motley confusion it sprang from, an attitude singularly noble, seeing how nearly it was allied to mere animal enjoyment, and how prone was its degeneration into the mire of the grossest sensuality. The pictured pages of Livy, and brazen tablets of the grave Roman senate still extant, tell only too true a tale into what a fearful mire of brutishness the fervent worship of Dionysus might plunge its votaries. And yet out of this Bacchantic worship, so wild, so animal, and so sensual, arose the Greek tragedy, confessedly amongst the most high-toned moral compositions that the history of literature knows. Our modern Puritans, who look upon the door of a theatre (according to the phrase of a famous Edinburgh preacher) as the gate of hell, might take any one of these seven plays which are here presented in an English dress, and with the simple substitution of a few Bible designations for Heathen ones, find, so far as moral and religious doctrine is concerned, that, with the smallest possible exercise of the pruning-knife, they might be exhibited in a Christian Church, and be made to subserve the purposes of practical piety, as usefully as many a sermon The following passage from the Agamemnon is not a solitary gem from a heap of rubbish, but the very soul and significance of the Æschylean drama:—

  • “For Jove doth teach men wisdom, sternly wins
  • To virtue by the tutoring of their sins;
  • Yea! drops of torturing recollection chill
  • The sleeper’s heart; ’gainst man’s rebellious will
  • Jove works the wise remorse:
  • Dread Powers, on awful seats enthroned, compel
  • Our hearts with gracious force.”

The only serious charge that, to my knowledge, has ever been made against the morality of the Greek drama, is that in it “an innocent person, one in the main of a virtuous character, through no crime of his own, nay not by the vices of others, but through mere Fatality and Blind Chance, is involved in the greatest of all human miseries.” This is the critical judgment of Dr. Blair (lecture xlvi.) in reference to the famous Labdacidan story of Œdipus.* Now, though the personal history of Œdipus contains many incidents that expose it justly to criticism, especially when brought upon the stage in a modernized dress by modern French or other poets (which abuse the learned Doctor no doubt had principally in view); yet, as applied to the whole Labdacidan story, or to the subjects of the Greek drama generally, the allegation is either extremely shallow, or altogether false, There is no destiny or fatality of any kind in the Æschylean drama, other than that which, according to the Mosaic record, drove Adam out of Paradise; that destiny which a divine decree, seeing the end in the beginning, has prepared, and that fatality which makes a guilty man not merely the necessary architect of his own misery, but the propagator of a moral contagion, more or less, to the offspring that inherits his pollution and his curse. On this subject I need make no lengthened observations here, as I have brought it and other points of moral and religious feeling prominently forward, both in the introductory observations to the separate plays, and in various places of the notes. I shall only say that the reader who does not find a high moral purpose and a deep religious meaning in the specimens of ancient Greek worship now submitted to his inspection, has no eye for what is best in these pages, and had better throw the book down. The Germans, who look deeper into these matters than we have either time, inclination, or, in the general case, capacity to do, have written volumes on the subject. To me it has seemed more suitable to the genius of the English reader merely to hint the existence of this rich mine of moral wealth, leaving to the quiet thinker where, amid our various political and ecclesiastical clamour, he may have found a corner, to work out the vein with devout spade and mattock for himself.

A few words must now be said on the Dance, as an essential part of the lyrical element of the Greek tragedy. Our sober British, stern Protestant, and precise Presbyterian notions, make it very difficult for us to realize this peculiarity. Even the old Heathen Roman could say, “Nemo fere saltat sobrius, nisi forte insanit”;* much more must it be hard for a modern Presbyterian Christian to recognise, in the twinkling-footed celerity of the merry dance, an exercise which a pious old Dorian could look upon as an indispensable part of an act of public worship. To read the weighty moral sentences of a solemn Æschylean Chorus, and then figure to ourselves their author as a dancing-master, is an unnatural and almost painful transition of thought to a Christian man in these times; and yet Athenæus tells us, that the author of the Prometheus really was a professor of the orchestric art, and a very cunning one too. The fundamental truth of the case is, that the religion of the Greeks was not, like ours, a religion only of moral emotions and theological principles, but a religion of the whole man, with rather too decided a tendency, in some parts, it must be confessed, towards a disturbance of the equipoise on the side of the senses. But, whatever may be thought of Bacchic orgies and other associate rites, with regard to dancing, there is plainly nothing in the exercise, when decorously conducted, inconsistent either with dignity, or with piety; and the feelings of ancient Romans and modern Presbyterians on the subject, must be regarded as the mere products of arbitrary association. Certain it is, that all the Greek philosophers looked upon dancing as an essential element, not only in the education of a gentleman, but in the performance of public worship; nay, even among the severe Jews, we read that David, on occasion of a great religious festival, danced before the Lord; and only an idle woman called him an idle fellow for doing so. We need not be surprised, therefore, if among the merry Greeks, professing a religion fully as much of physical enjoyment as of moral culture, orchestric evolutions, along with sacred hymns, formed an essential part of the tragic exhibitions belonging to the feasts of the great god Dionysus. On the details of this matter, we are sadly wanting in satisfactory information; but that the fact was so, there can be no doubt. The only point with regard to which there is room for a serious difference of opinion is, whether every performance of the Chorus in full band included dancing, or whether it was only introduced occasionally, as the ballet in our modern operas. On this point, the greatest authority in Greek Literature at present living has declared strongly in favour of the latter view; and, in doing so, he has been followed by one of the first philologers of our own country;* and as I have not been led, in the course of my studies, to make any particular examination of this subject, I am loath to contradict anything proceeding from such an authoritative quarter. One great branch of the evidence, I presume, on which this view is supported, lies in the words of the old Scholiast to the choral chaunt in the Phœnissae of Euripides, beginning with these words, Τύριον διδμα λιπονˆ[Editor: illegible character] ἒβαν. “This chaunt,” says the annotator, “is what is called a στάσιμον, or standing chorus; for when the Chorus, after the πάροδος, remaining motionless, sings a hymn arising out of the subject of the play, this song is called a στάσιμον. A πάροδος, on the other hand, is a song sung as they are marching into the orchestra on the first entrance.” Now, no doubt, if this matter be taken with a literal exactitude, the expression, ἀκίνητος, or without moving, will exclude dancing; but if we merely take it generally, as opposed to the great sweeping evolutions of the Chorus, and as implying only a permanent occupation of the same ground in the centre of the orchestra, by the band, as a whole, while the individual members might change their places in the most graceful and beautiful variety of forms, we are thus saved from the harshness of giving to the orchestric element, in many plays, a subordinate position, equally at variance with the original character of the Chorus, and with the place which the dance held as a prominent part of Greek social life With regard to Æschylus, in particular, I do not see how I should be acting in consistency with the testimony of Athenæus just quoted, if I were to assign such a small proportion of the choric performances to orchestric accompaniment, as Boeckh and Donaldson have done in their editions of the play of Sophocles, which the genius of Miss Faucit has rendered so dear to the friends of the drama in this country. It would be easy to show, from internal evidence such as Boeckh finds in what he calls the Orchestric Chorus, or ἐμμέλεια of the Antigone, that certain choruses of Æschylus are more adapted for violent and extensive orchestric movements than others. But I have thought it more prudent, considering the general uncertainty that surrounds this matter, not to make any allusion to dancing in any one performance of the Chorus more than another; contenting myself with carefully distinguishing everywhere between the anapæstic parts where the Chorus is plainly making extensive movements, and the Choral Hymn with regular Strophe and Antistrophe, which is sung when they are placed in their proper position in a square band round the Thymele (θυμέλη), or Bacchic altar, in the centre of the orchestra.*

Having said so much with regard both to the form and substance of the lyric portion of the Æschylean drama, I have said almost all that I was anxious to say; for, in stating this matter clearly, I have brushed out of the way the principal part of that host of modern associations which is so apt to disturb our sympathetic enjoyment of the great masterpieces of Hellenic art. Anything that might be said in detail on the Iambic or dialogic part of ancient tragedy would only serve to set in a yet stronger light the grand fact which has been urged, that the strength of the Greek drama lies in the singing, and not in the acting. It were easy to show by an extensive analysis, that the classical “goat-singers” had but very imperfect notions on the subject of stage dialogue; and that it was a light thing for them to deal at large in mere epic description, or rhetorical declamation, without offending the taste of a fastidious audience, or sinning grossly against the understood laws of the sort of composition which they exhibited. Notwithstanding Aristotle’s nicely-drawn distinction, the narrated, or purely epic parts of the Greek tragedy, are often the best This is the case not seldom even with Æschylus, whose native dramatic power the voice of a master has judged to be first-rate. But with him the infant state of the art, and the insufficient supply of actors,§ combined with a radical faultiness of structure, produced, in not a few instances, the same anti-dramatic results as the want of dramatic genius in Euripides. Further, to use the language of Mr. Donaldson—“the narrowness and distance of the stage rendered any (free and complex) grouping unadvisable. The arrangement of the actors was that of a processional bas relief. Their movements were slow, their gesticulations abrupt and angular, and their delivery a sort of loud and deep-drawn sing-song, which resounded throughout the immense theatre. They probably neglected everything like by-play and making points, which are so effective on the English stage. The distance at which the spectators were placed would prevent them from seeing those little movements and hearing those low tones which have made the fortune of many a modern actor. The mask, too, precluded all attempts at varied expression, and it is probable that nothing more was expected from the performer than was looked for from his predecessor, the rhapsode—viz., good recitation.” These observations, flowing from a realization of the known circumstances of the case, will sufficiently explain to the modern reader the extreme stiffness and formality which distinguishes the tragic dialogue of the Greeks from that dexterous and various play of verbal interchange which delights us so much in Shakespere and the other masters of English tragedy. Every view, in short, that we can take, tends to fix our attention on the musical and the religious elements, as on the life-blood and vital soul of the Hellenic τραγῳδία; forces us to the conclusion that, with a due regard to organic principle, its proper designation is sacred opera,* and not tragedy, in the modern sense of the word at all; and leads us to look on the dramatic art altogether in the hands of Æschylus, not as an infant Hercules strangling serpents, but as a Titan, like his own Prometheus, chained to a rock, whom only, after many ages, a strong Saxon Shakespere could unbind.

To conclude. If these observations shall seem to any conceived in a style too depreciatory of the masterpieces of Hellenic art, such persons will observe, that what has been here said of a negative character has reference only to the form of these productions as works of art, and not to their poetic contents. An unfortunate external arrangement is often, as in the case of the German writer Richter, united in intimate amalgamation with the richest and most exuberant energy of intellectual and moral life. However imperfect the Greek “tragedies” are as forms of artistic exhibition, they are not the less admirable, for the mass of healthy poetic life of which they are the embodiment, and the grand combination of artistic elements which they present As among the world’s notable men there are some who are great rather by a harmonious combination of the great healthy elements of humanity, than by the gigantic development of any one faculty, so in literature there are phenomena which must be measured by the mass of inward life which they concentrate, not by the structural perfection of form which they exhibit. The lyrical tragedy of the Greeks presents, in a combination elsewhere unexampled, the best elements of our serious drama, our opera, our oratorio, our public worship, and our festal recreations. The people who prepared and enjoyed such an intellectual banquet were not base-minded. Had their stability been equal to their susceptibility, the world had never seen their equal. As it is, they are like to remain for ages the great Hierophants of the intellectual world, whose influence will always be felt even by those who are ignorant or impudent enough to despise them; and among the various branches of art and science which owed a felicitous culture to their dexterous and subtle genius, there is certainly no phenomenon in the wide history of imaginative manifestation more imposing and more significant than that which bears on its face the signature of the rude god of wine, and his band of shaggy and goat-footed revellers.

[* ]There is a prevalent idea that the modern Greek language, or Romaic, as it is called, is a different language from the ancient Greek, pretty much in the same way that Italian is different from Latin. But this is a gross mistake Greek was and is one unbroken living language, and ought to be taught as such.

[]Whiston, Article Tragedy in Smith’s Dictionary of Antiquities, Second Edition; and Donaldson in the Greek Theatre, Sixth Edition London: 1849. P. 30.

[* ]Γενομένη ἀπ ἀρχη̂ς ἀυτοσχεδιαστικὴ ἡ τραγῳδία ἀπὸ τωˆν ἐξαρχόντων τὸν διθύραμβον κατὰ μικρον ὴυξήθη.—Aristot. poet. 4.—Compare the words of the old Iambic poet Archilochus, given by Athenaeus (XIV. p. 628)—“I know well how to dance the Dithyramb when the wine thunders dissily through my brain!” The word Dithyramb, according to the best etymology which has come in my way (Donaldson & Hartung), means the revel of the god.

[]Αρίον τὸν Μηθυμναɩ̂ον πρωˆτον ἀνθρώπων τωˆν ἡμεɩ̂ς [Editor: illegible character]δμεν ποιήσαντα τε καὶ [Editor: illegible character]νομάσαντα και διδάξαντα τὸν διθύραμβον ἐν Κορίνθῳ.—Herod. I. 23. Compare Suidasin voceArion, and ScholPindar, Olymp. XIII 25.

[* ]Vit. Philos III 34 It will be observed that, if a third actor appears on the stage in some parts of the Orestean trilogy, this is to be accounted for by the supposition that, in his later plays, the poet adopted the improvements which his young rival had first introduced The number of actors here spoken of does not, of course, take into account mutes or supernumeraries, such as we find in great numbers in the Eumenides, and more or less almost in every extant piece of Æschylus.

[* ]Poetics, c. xiii.

[]Wilson, Vol. I. p. xxvi.

[* ]Twining; but the meaning of the Greek is disputed.

[* ]“ἡ μελοποίια, μέγιστον τωˆν ἡδυσμάτων.”—Poetics, c. vi. The success of the modern Italian opera in England, proves this in a style of which Aristotle could have had no conception.

[* ]The position of the old Theban senators, who form the Chorus in this play, has called forth not a little learned gladiatorship lately, Böckh (whose opinion on all such matters is entitled to the profoundest respect) maintaining that the Chorus is the impersonated wisdom of the play as conceived in the poet’s mind, while some of his critics (Dyer in Class Mus Vol II p 69) represent them as a pack of cowardly sneaking Thebans, whom it was the express object of the poet to make ridiculous This latter opinion is no more tenable than it would be to say that it was the object of Æschylus to make his Chorus of old men in that noted scene of the Agamemnon ridiculous; but so much truth there certainly is in it, that from the inherent defect of structure in the Greek tragedy, consisting in the constant presence of the Chorus in the double capacity of impartial moralizers and actors after a sort, there could not but arise this awkwardness to the poet that, while he always contrived to make them speak wisely, he sometimes could not prevent them from acting weakly, and even contemptibly

[]On the dramatic imbecility of Euripides, see my article in the Foreign Quarterly Review, No. XLVII His success as a dramatist is the strongest possible proof of the undramatic nature of the stage for which he wrote.

[* ]See the article Dionysia, by Dr. Schmitz, in Smith’s Dictionary of Antiq

[* ]The same doctrine, I am sorry to see, has been repeated with special reference to Æschylus, and with very little qualification, by Whiston in the article Tragædia in Dr. Smith’s Dict. Antiq, 2d Edit, p 1146. Schlegel is quite wrong, when he says “the Greek gods are mere Naturmächte”—physical or elemental powers. Connington, however, in the preface to his Agamemnon, expresses exactly my sentiments, when he protests against a “crystallization of destiny” being set up “as the presiding genius of the national dramatic literature of the Greeks.”

[]See the works of Klausen and Blumner at the end of Vol. II And our English Sewell recognizes, in the works of Æschylus, “the voice of a self-constituted Heathen Church protesting against the vices and follies that surrounded her.”—Preface to the Agamemnon, p. 15.

[* ]Cicero pro Muræna, 13.

[]Αισχύλος πολλὰ σχήματα ὸρχηστικὰ ἀυτος ὲξευρίσκων, ἀνεδίδου τοɩ̂ς χορευταɩ̂ς.—Lib I. p. 22.

[]See Dyer, on the Choral Dancing of the Greeks.—Classical Museum, No. IX. p. 229.

[* ]Boeckh and Donaldson, in their editions of the Antigone. Berlin, 1843, p. 280 London, 1848 Introduction, p xxix.

[]I read ἐισόδῳ, not ε̂ξόδω, as it is in Matthiae, which is either a misprint, or a mistake in the writer, as the quotation immediately following proves

[]This is Muller’s view in Eumenides, § 21

[* ]It may be as well here, for the sake of some readers, to remark that the orchestra, or dancing place (for so the word means), was that part of the ancient theatre which corresponds to the modern Pit For a minute description of the ancient stage, the reader must consult Donaldson’s Greek Theatre, c. VII

[]One of the most striking proofs of this is the many instances that occur in the tragedians of that most undramatic of all mannerisms—self-description—as when a sorrowful Chorus describes the tears on its cheek, the beating on its breast, and such like True grief never paints itself

[]Bulwer, in Athens and the Athenians

[§ ]From the limited number of actors arose necessarily this evil, that the persons in a Greek dramatic fable appear not cotemporaneously, but in succession, one actor necessarily playing several parts Now, the commonest fabricator of a novel for the circulating library knows how necessary it is to keep up a sustained interest, that the character, when once introduced, shall not be allowed to drop out of view, but be dexterously intermingled with the whole complex progress of the story, and be felt as necessary or at least as agreeable, to the very end.

[* ]Writers on Belles Lettres, from Trapp down to Schlegel, have been very severe on the modern opera, and indignantly repudiated all comparison between it and the Greek tragedy It is a common illusion of mental optics with the learned to magnify the defects of what is near and before their nose, while the peculiar excellencies of what is far distant in time or space are in a corresponding degree exalted So Schlegel, in his sublime German zeal against certain shallow judgments of Voltaire and other French critics, worked himself up into an idealized enthusiasm for some of the most glaring imperfections of the Greek stage, while in the modern opera he only sees the absurdities of the real. In assuming this tone he has, of course, been imitated by certain persons of little speculation in this country, who have thought it necessary slavishly to worship the Germans in all things, merely because certain other persons of no speculation ignorantly despised them. With regard to the opera, it is plain enough that it differs from the ancient tragedy in the following points:—(1) In not being essentially of a religious character; (2) in not varying the musical with the declamatory element; (3) in dealing more in monody, and less in choral singing, (4) in using the Chorus freely, according to the nature of the action, and not being always encumbered with it; (5) in making the mere musical element so predominate that poets of the first order seldom condescend to employ their talents in writing the text for an opera All these special differences, however, do not mar the propriety of the general comparison between an ancient “goat-song” and a modern opera, justified, as it is, plainly by the common musical element which both contain in different degrees of prominence. In point of high moral tone, high poetic diction, and noble conception, the ancient lyrical drama is no doubt vastly superior to the modern opera; but in some other points, as in the more free and adroit use of the Chorus, the opera is as much superior to the goat-song. With respect to the Chorus in particular, Schlegel has said many things that look very wise, but are simply not true. The Chorus is only half described (see above, p 20), when it is called the “ideal spectator.” What he says about publicity is mere talk. There is no other reason for the presence of the Chorus than because it was originally the essential part of the performance, and could not but be to the end the most popular.

Last modified April 13, 2016