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The Latin Theatre - The Theatre In The First Centuries Of The Christian Era

( Originally Published 1902 )



First century of the Christian era : the Pantomime its character and points of relation with the Greek theatre—Its immorality—Second century A.D.: Vergilius Romanus and the comedy of Menander—Popularity of the Pantomime : protests of the Church against the Theatre—Third and fourth centuries : the Theatre in the East : the Exodus of Ezekiel—The Christian dramas of Apollinarius and of S. Gregory Nazienzenus—The Theatre in the Western Empire—Cultivation of the Pantomime—Position of the actors—Occasional performances of the plays of Plautus, Terence, Seneca—Actresses in the literary repertory—Fifth century : representations of the Eunuch and the Amphitryo in Rome—Desertion of the theatres ; gladiatorial games—Last performances of literary plays —Vestiges of the Mimes in the ninth century—Total disappearance of dramatic spectacles—The Accademia dei Litterati and Latin Comedy —Sixth and seventh centuries in the East : the Hippodrome of the Lower Empire—Religious character of the play, and other details.

FROM Tiberius to the end of the Empire, Comedy properly so-called disappeared, to make way for the Mimes of the preceding century and for a new class of play, the Pantomime.

At the beginning this new mode was a kind of Mime, in which poses and gestures constituted the fundamental portion of the play. Words occupied a secondary place, and eventually disappeared altogether. Only the music was preserved, and in order that the audience might understand the gestures of the actors, little books were distributed in Greek text, intelligible only to the learned and to the upper classes. Later on the mask—rejected by the Mime—was adopted, and a chorus was employed to accompany the comedian with their voices, and to explain the multiple gestures by which the actors created the different characters in turn. Moreover, there was a company of mute players. The libretto left almost unlimited liberty of detail. Sometimes the music broke off to enable the actor to finish his fioritura and variations. Sometimes, on the other hand, the comedian paused, or left the stage, while the story was taken up by the recitative and the instruments.

This style of play was so much relished by the public that the whole Greek Theatre, Satyric Drama included, was translated into Pantomime. This was accordingly of two kinds : serious and light pantomime. The actor Pylades became famous in the first style, Bathyllus in the second.

By the close of the first century of the Christian era, Pantomime reached a revolting degree of immorality. The poets Martial and Juvenalwhose writings date from this epoch—tell us that `when one of the characters of the pantomime had to expiate a crime, the director borrowed a criminal from a neighbouring prison, who was tortured before the eyes of the public.' They add that the stage was at times transformed into a scene of genuine debauch. And yet it was at this period that the position of actor, which had been some-what degrading, enjoyed a certain consideration.

In the second century of our era there appears to have been an attempt to resuscitate the comedies of Menander. Pliny the younger, in fact, mentions in his letters a poet named Vergilius Romanus, who wrote some comedies in the style of this author. The plays of Vergilius were unsuccessful, and he had no imitators.

The Gladiatorial Games and the immoralities of the Pantomime were rivals in the public favour. The Church, on the other hand, was not slack in using her influence to declaim, in the name of morality, against these prostitutions of the stage. She had even some interest in its total disappearance, seeing that the Drama had issued from paganism, and was still directly connected with it.

In proportion as Christianity became grafted upon the Roman Empire, the bishops redoubled their severity with regard to the patrons of the play, and above all to the actors. It was decreed at the Council of Arles (314 A.D.) that ` by mounting the stage the actors of Comedy gave their support to the worship of the false gods, and deserted their faith.' They were in consequence threatened with excommunication if they persisted in this heretical profession.

When in 330 A.D. Constantine transported the seat of the Roman Empire to Constantinople, the Mime and Pantomime became, both in this city and in Antioch (the ancient capital of Syria), the favourite spectacle of the people, and the immorality of these performances yielded nothing to those of Rome. Again the Church put forth all her strength to attack the Theatre, and decreed that the Roman senators should not marry actresses ; at a later time this law was abrogated by Justinian.

At the close of the fourth century the function of actor had become so despicable that, in 394 A.D., the Emperor Theodosius published a law, by the terms of which ` images of actors should, out of respect for his person, be removed to a distance from his statues.

The rise of Christianity had nevertheless provoked some essays in Christian Drama, and these first signs of resurrection of the stage, under the auspices of the new religion, came from the East.

The first drama in which the subject was taken from the Scriptures is the Exodus, or departure of the Israelites from Egypt under their leader and prophet Moses. The principal characters are Moses, Zipporah, and God speaking from the burning bush. Moses delivers the prologue or introduction in a speech of eighty lines, and his rod is turned into a serpent on the stage. The author of this piece is Ezekiel, a Jew, who is supposed to have lived at the end of the second century ; the exact date of the composition is uncertain. The interest of the question lies in the almost universally admitted fact that the Exodus issued from Palestine, and that consequently the taste for the theatre had, at the commencement of the Christian era, penetrated to these obscure regions. Clement of Alexandria and Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea (in Palestine), have preserved numerous fragments of this work, which have been added to the collection of manuscripts entitled Poetae Christiani Graeci.

Between 361 and 363 A.D. the Emperor Julian interdicted the study of Greek and Latin letters to Christians, and Apollinarius, Bishop of Laodicea, and a famous scholar of the day, set himself to the composition of tragedies and comedies after the manner of Menander and Euripides, the subjects being drawn from the Old and New Testaments—hoping thus to obviate the disastrous effect of the Emperor's decree.

Later on he was accused of heresy, and his works were destroyed. After the death of Julian the Apostate, the Christians wrote a few comedies, but none of these are extant. At the same period S. Gregory Nazianzenus, Archbishop of Constantinople, composed several sacred dramas, among them The Passion of Christ, the only one that has come down to us. It is tolerably certain that these pieces, written in verse on the model of the Greek tragedies, were never played in the theatres of Constantinople, but were simply designed as readings for the students in the Christian schools.

In the Empire of the West, on the contrary, there was no such attempt to revive the serious drama under any form whatsoever. The Panto-mime had always been the favourite entertainment of the people, and this style of play was so highly appreciated even by the aediles that when, according to the Latin historian, Ammianus Marcellinus (died 390 A.D.), `at a period when Rome was menaced with famine, all strangers—including the most learned professors—were obliged to leave the city, three thousand ballet-dancers of different nationalities were authorised to remain.' It is to be noted that this love of the theatre was shared by Christians as well as pagans. The actors were regarded as indispensable ministers to the pleasures of the people, to such a point that the functions of the comedian were legally hereditary in families, and obligatory from generation to generation. Thanks, however, to the energy of S. Ambrose, a law was passed at the end of the fourth century, which enabled the actors to escape from this slavery by publicly embracing the Christian religion.

This passion for pantomime was carried even further in Africa.

There were, however, some few revivals of the old repertory in Rome and in the Roman provinces. During the first four centuries the tragedies of Seneca were played from time to time, as well as the comedies of Plautus and Terence ; but these performances were the recreation of the lettered, that is to say, of an infinitesimal minority.

At the close of the fourth century, real actresses made their appearance in the plays of Terence, and contributed by their acting to the success of the comedy.

At the commencement of the fifth century, under the reign of Valentinian iii., the Eunuch and the Amphitryo were still represented at Rome. S. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, complains of it in the De Civitate Dei. In the provinces at the same period the Christians had abjured the theatre, out of hatred for paganism, and the playhouses were falling into ruins. Still, the poet Sidonius Apollinaris (died 482 A.D.) speaks of the Pantomime as an entertainment in full vigour. He even gives a description of a pantomime acted in a theatre at Narbonne, in which the most immoral tales of mythology were explained by the aid of obscene gestures.

Otherwise, the mass of the Roman populace no longer cared about dramatic entertainments. Its affections were entirely transferred to the Ludi circenses, or horse-and-chariot races, and combats of animals. At Rome and at Ravenna some few theatres were still standing, but they were not kept up. Salvian, historian and Gallic priest, tells us in his De Providentia Dei that at the close of the fifth century, the barbarian Emperor Theodoric had to restore the theatre of Marcellus in Rome ; and it was probably at the same epoch that the last representations of literary plays were given there.

The seventh century doubtless witnessed the disappearance of the Gladiatorial Games, as well as of the Theatre properly so-called,. It seems, how-ever, that there were vestiges of the Mimes in the ninth century, for Leo iv., elected pope in 847 A.D., protests, in an instruction to the faithful, against songs that had a mimic character. At this point our information as to the fortunes of the theatre ceases, for the period of the foreign invasions.

From this epoch onwards the Drama, as it were annihilated under the attacks of Christianity, must be held to have expired. And yet this same religion in the twelfth century was to undertake the resurrection of that which it had effectually ruined.

As for Latin Comedy, it was destined to be resuscitated in Italy only in 1470, by the initiative of the literary society, the Accademia dei Litterati, which in that year produced the plays of Plautus and Terence in Rome.

At Constantinople the Mime and Pantomime were completely abandoned from the fifth century, public taste being all in favour of the entertainments of the Hippodrome. From this date the hippodrome may be regarded as the only theatre of the Lower Empire, but it was not till the sixth and seventh centuries, in the reigns of Marcian, Anastasius, Theodora, and Justinian ; of Maurice, of Phocas, and of Heraclius, that the passion for chariot-races became a frenzy. The Hippodrome in Constantinople, a magnificent building of its kind, founded by the Emperor Septimius Severus, was about 400 yards in length and nearly 70 yards broad, and the tiers were capable of containing one hundred thousand spectators. A point to be noted is, that under its new aspect the play had preserved something of the religious character of the Ancient Drama. Before the commencement of the races the Emperor rose in his tribune, and taking in his hand a fold of the imperial mantle, signed the cross over his people. As with the Athenians, a place of honour was reserved in the theatre for the high priest, the Greek patriarch namely, surrounded by all his clergy. The choristers of the church of S. Sophia joined with the Byzantine choirs in singing religious hymns to the glory of the Holy Trinity, the Blessed Virgin, the virtues of the Emperor, and the dexterity of the drivers. As on the days of dramatic contests in Athens, so in Constantinople the days of the races were public holidays. All classes of society, strangers from every part of the East, ambassadors from foreign nations, were invited to the function. At each performance there were four chariot-races, with interludes between each, consisting either of pantomimic scenes, played by proper comedians, or of acrobatic exercises. At certain festivals, and to commemorate the ancient Greek and Latin rejoicings, the heads of parties transformed themselves into actors, and as in the early days of Sicilian comedy, launched quips and insults at one another like the Greeks of the sixth century B.C. at the close of the vintage, when they celebrated Dionysus. The spectators usually furnished themselves with provisions for the Hippodrome, but from time to time the Emperor offered a kind of banquet to one hundred thousand guests, who threw themselves greedily upon the heaps of vegetables, ham, and fruits.

Such were the theatrical distractions of Constantinople ; and as in Rome the gory spectacles of the Amphitheatre had arrested the development of Tragedy, so under the Lower Empire the unbridled passion of the Greek and Roman populace for the chariot races made any kind of dramatic literature impossible.

The entertainments at the Hippodrome began to lose their importance in the tenth century, and by the fourteenth the theatre was in ruins.



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