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The Latin Theatre - The Theatre Of Antiquity And The Modern Stage

( Originally Published 1902 )

IN FRANCE.—Ancient Tragedy at the Odéon and the Comédie-Française—Les Erynnies of Leconte de Lisle in;the Roman theatre of Orange—Adaptation of the plays of Aristophanes, Plautus, and Terence to the French stage.

IN ENGLAND. —Tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides in London and Dublin —Performances of Greek and Latin plays in Schools and Universities —Open-air theatre at Bradfield College—The Pantomime.


THE year 1844 was in France the signal for the definite adoption in the leading theatres of a style forgotten for three hundred years ; which style, moreover, even in the sixteenth century, had flourished only in the private theatres of a few colleges. This was the Ancient Drama, under the form of translations or adaptations from the original text, in the setting of the Greek tragedies of the fifth century B.C.

The first impulse to the movement was given by MM. Paul Meurice and Vacquerie, who, on May 21, 1844, produced the Antigone of Sophocles (almost literally translated) with Greek costumes and accessories.

Encouraged by the success of the Sophocles play, M. Hippolyte Lucas produced at the Odéon, March 16, 1847, a tragedy entitled Alceste, an adaptation from Euripides.

In 1858 the Comédie-Française gave the first night' of Sophocles' Oedipus the King, translated by M. Lacroix, the success of which was considerable.

In 1873 the distinguished poet Leconte de Lisle obtained a representation at the Odéon of his famous tragedy, Les Erynnies, a very original work, the subject of which was taken from the trilogy of Aeschylus—The Agamemnon, The Eumenides, The Libation Bearers. The play of the French poet has all the sombre majesty as well as the force of the original. Far from modifying the horror of the Antique Drama, Leconte de Lisle has exaggerated it by making his Erynnies a condensation of all that was most violent in the Greek theatre, and suppressing whatever in Aeschylus' tragedy had palliated the barbarism of the other parts. The play had a great success in Paris. But this was far exceeded by the effect produced by Les Erynnies upon the thirty thousand spectators who witnessed it at Orange on the site of the great Roman open-air theatre. For some years past the Antigone and the OEdipe Roi from Sophocles have been included in the repertory of the House of Molière, where they are enacted with a thoroughly Greek mise en scène. The part of Oedipus, colossally interpreted by Mounet-Sully, is one of the finest creations of this great tragedian. In the Antigone his success is shared by another great artist, Mme. Bartet. The Antigone and Oedipe Roi thus rank among the choicest spectacles of the first theatre in Europe.

The last Greek tragedy performed at the Odéon was Les Perses from Aeschylus, played in 1896.

The comedies of Aristophanes have likewise been put under contribution for the French stage. A Lysistrata, adapted by M. Donnay from the Greek original, was played in 1891 at the Eden Theatre (now done away with), and obtained a certain success, thanks to the masterly interpretation of Madame Réjane, who took the principal part. The Odéon also gave some performances of Plutus in December 1896, an adaptation from the Greek comedy, by M. Paul Gavault. This piece of ancient comedy was unfortunately presented in the garb of modern comedy, and even in the vernacular ; hence it was debased to the level of mere parody, and met with only a moderate success.

Of late years several experiments have been made in translating, or rather in adapting, the plays of Plautus and Terence for the stage, but the Latin comedies received a very different reception from the public from that accorded to the Greek drama.

On January 8, 1897, an attempt was made to perform two pieces in the same evening at the Odéon : Le Cable, the Rudens of Plautus, and La Belle-Mère, the Hecyra of Terence. But both these plays, notwithstanding the clever adaptations of M. Jean Destrem for the first, and of M. Marcel Luguet for the second, fell flat, and failed to interest the audience.


The plea made in 1844 at the Odéon in favour of the resuscitation of the Ancient Drama was echoed on the other side of the Channel, and in 1845 the Covent Garden Theatre, in London, gave an English version of the Antigone of Sophocles, approximating as nearly as possible to the appointments of the old tragic stage. The experiment was successfully repeated several times. From London the play passed over to the Theatre Royal of Dublin, where the well-known actress, Helen Faucit (Lady Martin) obtained a real triumph. This encouraging result induced the manager of the Dublin theatre to bring out Iphigeneia in Aulis, from Euripides, which was also favourably received. And in 1876 some very successful performances of the Antigone were given at the Crystal Palace, when Miss Genevieve Ward acted the part of Antigone. Notwithstanding these successes, there were no further revivals of Greek plays in the theatres of Great Britain. The year 1881, however, saw the revival of Greek drama in the original text, as performed in several universities and colleges. The first impulse was given by the performance of the Agamemnon of Aeschylus, at Oxford, where the now well-known actor, Benson, made his first success upon the stage. In 1882 the University of Cambridge responded with the performance of the Ajax of Sophocles, and since then Greek plays have been given annually in one or other of the colleges.

Perhaps the most interesting of all these plays are the performances at Bradfield College, Berkshire. Here the Warden, Dr. Gray, has constructed an open-air theatre, modelled on that of Dionysus at Athens. The seats are cut out of a chalk-pit on the slope of the hill, and small mats are provided for the spectators. The effect of the outdoor performance, with all its Greek accessories, is most striking. In 1890 and 1898 the Antigone of Sophocles was performed ; in 1892 and 1900 the Agamemnon of Aeschylus; in 1895 the Alcestis of Euripides (which was also given in 1881, in the College dining-hall).

Greek comedy is acted as well as Greek tragedy in the Universities. Cambridge, in 1883, gave The Birds of Aristophanes, with splendid stage accessories ; and on subsequent occasions The Frogs, The Knights, and The Wasps have been successfully performed under similar conditions.

Nor are the comedies of Plautus and Terence less popular than the Greek plays, especially in the public schools. Performances of these authors are frequently given in the original text. At Westminster School, in particular, it is an ancient custom (dating back to the sixteenth century) to give an annual representation of a comedy by Terence.

We may conclude this chapter with some mention of the Pantomime, which now takes an important place on the English stage, and is to some extent the descendant of the Roman Pantomime. John Rich, one of the earliest managers of the Covent Garden Theatre, was the first to introduce this style, which is now a national institution. After a few preliminary harlequinades, John Rich presented, on December 20, 1723, a true Grand Panto-mime, called The History of Dr. Faustus, which achieved considerable success. From this date the Pantomime became one of the regular forms of English drama. Many of the principal theatres are annually given up at Christmas, and for the five or six weeks following, to this style of performance, which perhaps exceeds all others in popularity. The mise-en-scène at the Drury Lane Theatre, in London, is magnificent, and in the provinces Bristol is noted for its effective scenery and rich costumes.

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