Specimens of Greek Tragedy — Aeschylus and Sophocles
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Title: Specimens of Greek Tragedy Aeschylus and Sophocles
Author: Goldwin Smith
Release Date: December, 2004 [EBook #7073][Yes, we are more than one year ahead of schedule][This file was first posted on March 6, 2003]
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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 ofDionysus, god of wine, which was celebrated with dance, song, andrecitative. The recitative, being in character, was improved into theDrama, the chief author of the improvement, tradition says, beingThespis. But the dance and song were retained, and became the Chorus,that peculiar feature of the Greek play. This seems to be the generalaccount of the matter, and especially of the combination of the lyricwith the dramatic element, so far as we can see through the mist of anunrecorded age.
Thirlwall, still perhaps the soundest and most judicious, though notthe most vivid or enthusiastic, historian of Greece, traces the originof the Drama to "the great choral compositions uniting the attractionsof music and action to those of a lofty poetry, which formed thefavourite entertainment of the Dorian cities." This, he says, appearsto have been the germ out of which, by the introduction of a newelement, the recitation of a performer who assumed a character andperhaps from the first shifted his mask, so as to exhibit the outlinesof a simple story in a few scenes parted by the intervening song ofthe Chorus, Thespis and his successors unfolded the Attic Tragedy. Ofthe further development of the Drama in the age of Pericles, Thirlwallsays:—
"The drama was the branch of literature which peculiarly signalisedthe age of Pericles; and it belongs to the political, no less than tothe literary, history of these times, and deserves to be considered inboth points of view. The steps by which it was brought through aseries of innovations to the form which it presents in its earliestextant remains, are still a subject of controversy among antiquarians;and even the poetical character of the authors by whom these changeswere effected, and of their works, is involved in great uncertainty.We have reason to believe that it was no want of merit, or of absoluteworth, which caused them to be neglected and forgotten, but only thesuperior attraction of the form which the drama finally assumed. OfPhrynichus in particular, the immediate predecessor of Aeschylus, weare led to conceive a very favourable opinion, both by the manner inwhich he is mentioned by the ancients who were acquainted with hispoems, and by the effect which it is recorded to have produced uponhis audience. It is clear that Aeschylus, who found him in undisputedpossession of the public favour, regarded him as a worthy rival, andwas in part stimulated by emulation to unfold the capacities of theircommon art by a variety of new inventions. These, however, were soimportant as to entitle their author to be considered as the father ofAttic tragedy. This title he would have deserved, if he had onlyintroduced the dialogue, which distinguished his drama from that ofthe preceding poets, who had told the story of each piece in a seriesof monologues. So long as this was the case, the lyrical part musthave created the chief interest; and the difference between the Attictragedy and the choral songs which were exhibited in a similar mannerin the Dorian cities was perhaps not so striking as their agreement.The innovation made by Aeschylus altered the whole character of thepoem; raised the purely dramatic portion from a subordinate to theprincipal rank, and expanded it into a richly varied and wellorganised composition. With him, it would seem, and as a naturalconsequence of this great change, arose the usage, which to us appearsso singular, of exhibiting what was sometimes called a trilogy, whichcomprised three distinct tragedies at the same time."
"The tragic drama belonged essentially to the festivals in honour ofthe god Dionysus; being originally a chorus sung in his honour, towhich 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 fromthe beginning, and always continued to be, persons either divine orheroic above the level of historical life, and borrowed from what wascalled the mythical past. 'The Persae' of Aeschylus, indeed, forms asplendid exception; but the two analogous dramas of his contemporary,Phrynichus, 'The Phoenissae,' and 'The Capture of Miletus,' were notsuccessful enough to invite subsequent tragedians to meddle withcontemporary events. To three serious dramas, or a trilogy—at firstconnected together by a sequence of subject more or less loose, butafterwards unconnected and on distinct subjects, through an innovationintroduced by Sophocles, if not before—the tragic poet added a fourthor satyrical drama; the characters of which were satyrs, thecompanions of the god Dionysus, and other historic or mythical personsexhibited in farce. He thus made up a total of four dramas, or atetralogy, which he got up and brought forward to contend for theprize at the festival. The expense of training the chorus and actorswas chiefly furnished by the choregi,—wealthy citizens, of whom onewas named for each of the ten tribes, and whose honour and vanity weregreatly interested in obtaining a prize. At first these exhibitionstook place on a temporary stage, with nothing but wooden supports andscaffolding; but shortly after the year 500 B.C., on an occasion whenthe poets Aeschylus and Pratinas were contending for the prize, thisstage gave way during the ceremony, and lamentable mischief was theresult. After that misfortune, a permanent theatre of stone wasprovided. To what extent the project was realised before theinvasion of Xerxes we do not accurately know; but after hisdestructive occupation of Athens, the theatre, if any existedpreviously, would have to be rebuilt or renovated, along withother injured portions of the city."
"Thespis was the founder of Attic tragedy. He had introduced apreliminary system of order into the alternation of recitative andsong, into the business of the actor, and into the management of dressand stage. Solon was said to have disliked the art of Thespis,regarding as dangerous the violent excitement of feelings by means ofphantastic representation; the Tyrants, on the other hand, encouragedthis new popular diversion; it suited their policy that the poorshould be entertained at the expense of the rich; the competition ofrival tragic choirs was introduced; and the stage near the blackpoplar on the market-place became a centre of the festive merry-makings in Attica."
Curtius thinks that Pisistratus, as a popular usurper and opponent ofthe aristocracy, encouraged the worship of the popular god Dionysuswith the Tragic Chorus, and he gives Pisistratus the credit of thisglorious innovation. A similar policy was ascribed to Cleisthenes ofSicyon by Herodotus (v. 67).
The Chorus thus remaining wedded to the Drama, parts the action withlyric pieces more or less connected with it, and expressive of thefeelings which it excites. In Aeschylus and Sophocles the connectionis generally close; less close in Euripides. The Chorus alsooccasionally joins in the dialogue, moralising or sympathising,and sometimes, it must be owned, in a rather commonplace and insipidstrain. In "The Eumenides" of Aeschylus, the chorus of Furies takespart as a character in the drama; in "The Suppliants" it plays theprincipal part.
The Drama came to perfection with Athenian art generally, and withAthens herself in the period which followed the Persian war. Theperformance of plays at the Dionysiac festival was an important eventin Athenian life. The whole city was gathered in the great open-airtheatre consecrated to Dionysus, whose priest occupied the seat ofhonour. All the free men, at least, were gathered there; and when wetalk about the intellectual superiority of the Athenian people, wemust bear in mind that a condition of Athenian culture was thedelegation of industry to the slave. That audience was probably theliveliest, most quick-witted, most appreciative, and most criticalthat the world ever saw. Prizes were given to the authors of the bestpieces. Each tragedian exhibited three pieces, which at first formed aconnected series, though afterwards this rule was disregarded. Afterthe three tragic pieces was performed a satyric drama, to relieve themind from the strain of tragedy, and perhaps also as a conventionaltribute to the jollity of the god of wine. In the Elizabethan Dramathe tragic and comic are blended as they are in life.
The subjects were taken usually from mythology, especially from thecircle of legends relating to the siege of Troy, to the tragic historyof the house of Atreus, the equally tragic history of the house ofLaius, and the adventures of Hercules. The subject of "The Persae" ofAeschylus is a contemporary event, but this, as Grote says, was anexception. Heroic action and suffering, the awful force of destiny andof the will of heaven, are the general themes of Aeschylus andSophocles; passion, especially feminine passion, is more frequentlythe theme of Euripides. Romantic love, the staple of the modern dramaand novel, was hardly known to the Greeks, whose romantic affectionwas friendship, such as that of Orestes and Pylades, or Achilles andPatroclus. The only approach to romantic love in the extant drama isthe love of Haemon and Antigone in the "Antigone" of Sophocles; andeven here it is subordinate to the conflict between state law and lawdivine, which is the key-note of the piece; while the lovers do notmeet upon the scene. The sterner and fiercer passions, on the whole,predominate, though Euripides has given us touching pictures ofconjugal, fraternal, and sisterly love. In the "Oedipus Coloneus" ofSophocles also, filial love and the gentler feelings play a part inharmony 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 thepeople. Debate, both political and forensic, was almost the dailybread of the people of Athens. The Athenian loved smart repartee anddisplay of the power of fencing with words. The thrust and parry ofwit in the single-line dialogues (stichomythia) pleased themmore than it pleases us. Rhetoric had a practical interest when notonly the victory of a man's opinions in the political assembly, buthis life and property before the popular tribunal, might depend on histongue. The Drama was also used in the absence of a press forpolitical or social teaching, and for the insinuation of political orsocial opinions. In reading these passages we must throw ourselvesback twenty-three centuries, into an age when political and socialobservation 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 strugglesfor expression in the speeches of Thucydides.
The trio of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides has been compared withthat of Marlowe, Shakespeare, and Beaumont and Fletcher, and with thatof Corneille, Racine, and Voltaire. The parallel will hardly hold goodexcept as an illustration of the course of youth, perfection, anddecay through which every art or product of imagination seems to