Greek Comedy Dancing In Rome
( Originally Published 1924 )
An art that achieves beauty by means of the grace of simple lines, elegance of proportion and other simple resources of composition, is the art of a vigorous nation. Such an art scorns florid treatment, surface realism, triviality; and such an art was that of early Rome. It had that something clumsily called semiasceticism, that attaches to dignity.
A national art quality exists, as is axiomatic, upon a basis and by virtue of a corresponding public state of mind; each influencing the other, but the public state of mind being the force that shapes the art, rather than the reverse. The spirit of simplicity dominated Greece through many centuries of her grandeur. In Rome it endured until Rome grew rich. Its coexistence in the case of the two peoples was no more than a coincidence; they arrived at their common simplicity through wholly different processes.
In Greece, beauty was understood. Action and adornment were restrained because their value was found to be multiplied by sparing use; because, too, any excess of them detracted from the great qualities of line and proportion. In Greece, moreover, beauty dissociated from subject or sentiment could always find an appreciative reception; the Hellenic mind loved beauty for its own sake. And that is the cause of the reserve that governs the best Greek art.
Early Rome, too, instilled into her children the spirit of simplicity. Not, however, with any understanding of the relation of simplicity to beauty and dignity. War and lust for conquest made the early Roman stern; and simplicity, attached to a very real asceticism, was thrust upon him by the uncompromising hand of poverty. But, after a few centuries of fattening on loot and tribute, what of Rome? Stupidity, degeneracy and vulgarity.
Loot and tribute! In respect to riches both material and mental, other peoples' contributions to Rome's destiny were of a degree of importance sometimes under-rated. Her monumental physical structure was built from taxes gathered by the mailed hand. In respect to her thought, expressed in essays, poems, orations, letters, commentaries or whatsoever other form, the ex-tent of other nations' contribution to Rome's apparent originality is, at first glance, less evident. Upon Greek foundations of narrative structure, metre, and form in general, Roman writings are built, Romanised though they be in subject-matter—but Rome's sterility of invention in that field is suited rather to the discussion of literary men than of dance-lovers.
But sculpture is pertinent. The first so-called Roman art was accomplished by carving Roman faces upon thickened figures in Greek poses, executing them in Greek technique of modelling, and naming them Roman gods and senators. Later the Greek simplicity of modelling was discarded; to replace it there was achieved an ostentatious mediocrity. The Pompeian frescoes? The good ones were painted by Greeks, brought across for the purpose. And the vivacious little statues found in Pompeii express the same artistic-ally witty point of view.
In the field of material gain and convenience Rome's contribution to the world is not to be questioned. But water-supply, paving, land laws and fortifications are not related to questions of taste. It is Roman taste of which one tries to form a conception, in order to explain, at least in part, the disappointing history of dancing under the Caesars. And the mere direction of attention to Rome's relation to the arts anticipates the story of her treatment of the dance, leaving only details to be told.
First in chronology is found the dancing symbolical of war. Then comes a simple religious choreography, under the Salic priests, supplementing the ritual of sacrifice. As time goes on Greek dances are transplanted, with the degree of success to be expected among a race whose minds, though active, are pleased only by material power, gain, and ostentation: by a process of atrophy following non-appreciation, the symbolism disappears from symbolic dances and the ideal of beauty from the purely beautiful dances. They became at best a display of agility to amuse rustics. More generally they fell into the service of sex allurement; not the suggestive merely, nor the provocative, but unbridled depiction of what should not be revealed and of things that should not exist. This condition of affairs is more than hinted in works of some of the much-read Latin writers, stated by archaeologists, and confirmed by certain Pompeian statues.
Such offences, despite the resentment they arouse in the feelings of any naturally constituted person, might be partially pardoned by the dance-lover if they contributed anything to the dance. But absolutely they do not. There is latent drama and good drama in sex relationships; but not one accent of its valid expression can be traced to dances of obscenity. The dancer who gives himself over to obscenity loses, every time, the things that made him a dancer: form, truth and beauty of movement and posture. Where the art of dancing is appreciated, artists avoid obscene suggestion. Where it is not, many are forced to it in order to make a living. However, even where the art is appreciated, obscenity furnishes the incompetent a means of pretence of an artist's career; for obscenity is sure of a mixed following of rabblement, some in rags and some in velvet.
Among the Romans themselves, actual participation in the dance was not popular. Propriety forbade so close an association with an art disfigured and dirtied, the Roman reviling as unclean the image soiled by his own hand. From Spain, Greece and Syria people were brought to dance before gourmands and wasters, de-graded to the level of their patrons' appreciation, and discarded when they had exhausted the scope of novel-ties suitable to the demand. Several centuries of Roman employment of dancers contributed not one step, gesture or expression to the art ; the plastic and graphic records show only that which is Greek, or, on the other hand inane, vulgar, or degenerate. To the latter levels sank the Ludiones and the Saturnalia; instituted as religious celebrations, ending as orgies.
It is vaguely asserted that the Roman stage amplified the Greek scope of pantomime. And, notwithstanding the many reasons to distrust such a statement, there were two artists whose work may have been of a class to justify it. They were Pylades and Bathyllus, natives respectively of Silicia and Alexandria. Their names live in the impression they produced. Of the character of their work it is impossible to learn any-thing explicit; "softly dancing Bathyllus" is as concrete a reference as anything to be found about them in writings of their period. So it is impossible to know whether their great popularity was due to merit, or to ingenious compliance with the taste of their adopted city. Their record, therefore, must stand as the story of a furor, and not necessarily as that of artistic achievement.
"The rivalries of Pylades and Bathyllus occupied the Romans as much as the gravest affairs of state. Every Roman was a Bathyllian or a Pyladian," De 1'Aulnaye writes. Vuillier presents a more graphic image of their hold on public attention: "Their theatrical supporters, clad in different liveries, used to fight in the streets, and bloody brawls were frequent throughout the city." For the endless quarrelling and intriguing between the two, Pylades was once taken to task by the emperor. The answer was that of a lofty artist or a publicity-seeking gallery-player, let him decide who can: "Caesar, it is well for you that the people are occupied with our quarrels; their attention is in that way diverted from your actions."
His arrogance directed itself impartially toward ruler and subject. Representing the madness of Hercules—he combined pantomime with dancing—he shot arrows into the audience. Octavius being present on such an occasion refrained from any expression of disapproval. Was he afraid of offending his people by so much as an implied criticism of their favourite? It is not unlikely. When, unable to control his impatience with Pylades' unsettling influence, the emperor banished him, a revocation of the decree was made imperative by signs of a popular insurrection!
Not the least of the instances of Pyladian insolence was his interruption of the action of a play to scold his audience. During a performance of Hercules some one complained loudly that the movement was extravagant. Pylades tore off his mask and shouted back, "I am representing a madman, you fools!"
So much for Pylades and Bathyllus. The jealous, hypertemperamental artist who allows nothing to interfere with the effect of the work to which he is consecrated sometimes falls into eccentricities of conduct. Such eccentricities are copied to admiration by impudent incompetents; and, contrary to P. T. Barnum's aphorism, some of them do "fool all the people all the time"—especially if those people themselves lack the clear vision of simplicity. Impudence to emperors and "shooting up" audiences may mean the utmost of either sincerity or hypocrisy; choice of opinion is free. Certainly the Roman Empire's political intrigues reveal a profound and practical knowledge of the science of publicity; it is an ancient profession.
Artists, advertisers or both, it matters not at all, Pylades and Bathyllus failed to lift dancing from the mire. The self-styled "Eternal City," the Rome of the Caesars, held it down to her level till her rotted hands could cling no longer, yet treated it from first to last with scorn. Horace, who never allowed his wit to lead him into danger of offending any except those without influence on his patron Maecenas, repeatedly uses association with dancers as a synonym of disreputability. Cicero takes a fling at the art; Sallust attacks a lady for dancing with a degree of skill unbecoming a virtuous woman. With the logic of a father who locked up his children so that they should not teach bad manners to their parents, successive emperors banished dancers for doing their work according to the taste of their patrons.
Rome's inability to move her imagination on a high plane had decayed her, muscle, brain and bone; wealth slipped away, and all of her that was respected was her remote past. In the meantime she had imposed upon Europe her laws and prejudices. Ears trained to credulous attention were those that heard her complaint of the depravity of dancing complaint given colour by the obscenity of the only secular dancing known to Europeans (outside of Spain) in the time of the empire's decadence. With such a combined force of misrepresentation against it, its restoration to a proper position among the great arts was destined to be postponed a thousand years. To this day there persists to its in-jury an echo of its early defamation.
Yet in the hour of humiliation, the dance gained the respect of the only earthly power that might reasonably hope, in such an extremity, to save it from a miserable end. It was taken under the protection of the Christian Church.