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The Theatre In Greece - Sophocles, Euripides, And Classical Tragedy

( Originally Published 1902 )

Sophocles: character of his plays—First introduction of love in Tragedy—Dissolution of the Trilogy—Innovations on the stage—Tragedies and Satyric Dramas by this poet—Euripides : importance of love in his plays-The Telephus, and realism on the stage—The Medea, and first studies of women—Other plays : Helena, Andromache ; the Romantic Drama—Innovations in staging—Characteristics of the style of Euripides—Tragic poets of the second order; attempt at reform of the Drama—Rule of the Three Unities and its modifications—Last Tetralogies—Lenaean contests at the end of the fifth century—Rural Dionysia—Theatre of Dionysus in fifth century.

IN the Tragedy of Sophocles, as with Aeschylus, religious sentiment invariably occupies the first place. Sophocles is the poet of mystery, and like his predecessor, his themes are derived from the gloomiest of the Greek legends.

Aeschylus recounted the dramas of Argos. Sophocles treated of the misfortunes of Thebes, and he too raised the problems of sovereign justice. But in his hands Tragedy underwent important modifications. The first innovation bears on the dramatic conception, love making its first appearance on the stage, from which Aeschylus had ruthlessly banished woman and her foibles. He also reduced the importance of the chorus, together with the lyrical character imparted to it by his predecessors, in order that he might concentrate interest upon the development of character. His pieces, instead of being restricted, as in the period of Aeschylus, to four divisions, present a varying number, amounting to six in Oedipus the King and to seven in the Antigone. He also dissolved the Trilogy, and the three tragedies offered for competition are henceforward independent of each other. This innovation was adopted by the younger poets. In 467 B. C., one year, namely, after the first tragic victory of Sophocles, the young poet Aristias presented a group of independent plays.

Stage-management also underwent important modification under Sophocles. He introduced a third actor, thus giving more liberty to the poet and more vigour to the action. The serious diction and gesture, so dear to Aeschylus, gave place to a more expressive performance. The actor, whose personality is brought prominently forward, strives to give an exact imitation of life. In his delivery, his intonations, and his gestures, he always keeps real life in view. The art of elocution at this time accordingly suffered a complete revolution.

The principal quality of the actor was his excellence in elocution. Vulgar pronunciation of a word, or the slightest provincialism, exposed him to the derision of the audience. Callipides, Theodorus, Aristodemus, Polus, wrote for the stage at the end of the fifth century and during the first part of the fourth. According to most ancient authorities, the actors were paid by the State : all such payments being made through the archon.

Following the example of Aeschylus in the Choephori, and improving on his original, Sophocles introduced nurses and tutors on the stage as secondary characters, who acted the part of confidants, and were largely utilised by the classical theatre of the seventeenth century.

One hundred and thirty plays are attributed to Sophocles, of which an enormous number of fragments are extant, but only seven complete tragedies have been preserved : the Ajax, the Antigone, Oedipus the King, The Trachinian Maidens, the Electra, the Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus. The two last were written in advanced age, but still bear the stamp of his genius.

The moral of all these plays is the necessity of suffering as expiation ; they made practical application of the dogma of purification through suffering.

Sophocles also composed about twenty satyric dramas, the most celebrated being the Boon-Companions. Schlegel says that the style of Sophocles is characterised by a ` complete proportion and harmonious sweetness.'

With Euripides, born in 480 B.C., the Drama passes almost at a bound into the province of realism. ` I have drawn men as they ought to be,' said Sophocles ; ` Euripides describes them as they are.' If Aeschylus and Sophocles were the painters of heroism, Euripides was inclined essentially towards human foibles, and in this direction he is in some sort the creator of the modern theatre. Sophocles had already introduced love, but had not dared to let it speak ; whereas Euripides makes it the pivot of his dramas, leaving divine justice aside, and reducing the part of the gods to a mere mechanism, especially in the climax. The most typical of his earlier plays, and that which made the greatest impression on his contemporaries, is the Telephus (438 B.C.), for in this he made the first step towards melodrama, as well as giving the first illustration of realistic staging.

In the Medea (431 B.C.), Euripides enters upon the question of tragic love ; it is the inauguration of those astonishing studies of woman which dazzled, and at the same time aggrieved, his contemporaries. Such are the Medeas, the Phaedras, the Clytaemnestras which have elicited the admiration of posterity. To these violent creations we must oppose the Iphigeneia in Aulis, which is redolent of freshness and ideal beauty, and gave Racine's Iphigénie to the stage.

Between 420 and 408 B.C. Euripides composed The Suppliant Women, the Cresphontes, The Captive Women of Troy, the Palamedes, the Orestes, which contain some allusions to the struggle between Athens and Sparta (Peloponnesian War), and in which he gives full scope to his scepticism, emphasising his defiance of the State and the procedure of the Government ; attacking with equal violence the wealthy classes and the extreme democrats ; giving free vent to his hatred of life with its social and political complications. The Phoenician Women and the Alcestis are also among the more remarkable of his tragedies. The Helena (which with the lost Andromeda dates from the last years of his life—B.C. 412) contains all the elements of the Romantic Drama.

This poet also introduced some changes in the staging. The slasima became conventional. The number of episodes, which till now had been variable, was fixed at four, that is six parts with the prologue and exodus. To Euripides, again, is attributed the multiplication on the stage of pedagogues, who played the part of counsellors. But his most important innovation is the appearance of the Deus ex machinâ, the god who appeared in the clouds at the end of the piece, and whose commentaries and explanations form an epilogue to the play.

Most of the works of Euripides terminate in this manner ; more particularly the Andromache, the Orestes, the Electra, the Helena, and the Iphigeneia among the Tauri. In various other plays, the conclusion assumes the form of a prophecy.

The style of Euripides is at once quiet and picturesque ; but he often sacrifices general effects to the perfection of particular passages. He served as model to Seneca and to Racine. Although Euripides has been described as the bitter enemy of the fair sex, it should be noted that he prefers women to men in the composition of his choruses ; of his twenty tragedies, fifteen contain choruses for women.

Two tragic poets of the second order must be mentioned. These are Agathon and Carcinus, contemporary with Sophocles and Euripides, who distinguished themselves at the end of the fifth century by their attempts to reform the Drama. Agathon was, in fact, the first author who ventured to choose his subject outside the limits of mythology and history, and for this reason his tragedy, The Flower (the personages in which were purely fictitious), must be regarded as a kind of social play. He it was, moreover, who led the way for the division of the Drama into acts, by substituting for the slasima a new kind of song—the embolima (or interludes)—which had no relation with the subject of the play.

While the tragic poets recognised from the outset the necessity of the ` rule of the three unities,' they endeavoured as far as possible to escape from its limitations. Thus, when the attention of the spectators was to be transferred from earth to the celestial regions, they had recourse to a kind of double painting, consisting of two scenes super-posed, the one for gods and the other for men. If the action was to be transferred to a distant country, the tale of the messengers was substituted for the irregularity of an actual removal. So, too, the rigours of the unity of time were modified by some-what conventional rules. They had actually two kinds of duration : the duration of the episodes, which was absolute, and the duration of the choruses, which was altogether imaginary.

After the death of Aeschylus, the custom of composing Tetralogies fell into disuse. In fact, three tetralogies only can be mentioned during the latter part of the fifth century : the Pandionid, written by Philocles, nephew to Aeschylus ; the Oedipodeia, composed by Meletus, the accuser of Socrates ; and a third, which was the work of Plato, but was never represented, since the writer suddenly determined to abandon poetry for philosophy.

As already stated, we have no information about the character of the Lenaea with reference to Tragedy during the first three-quarters of the fifth century. It is not even known whether contests were held during the whole of this period. But it is certain that from 416 B.C. the representation of tragedies became a regular part of the Lenaean ceremonies. These took place between January 15 and February 15 (by our calendar), and presented the character of a domestic festival, strangers being for the most part rigorously excluded. The ceremony consisted in a procession of minor importance, with the performance of tragedies, and especially of comedies. The number of tragedies that had to be brought forward has not been determined, nor do we know how many poets were allowed to take part in the competition. There is, however, good reason to suppose that each competitor might offer only a single piece, the tragedies being for the most part the work of poets of the second order, or of young authors.

By the end of the fifth century, the Drama had become so popular with the Greeks, that nearly all the cities of Attica had organised dramatic representations at their rural Dionysia. These festivals took place at the time of year that corresponds with our month of December, and the amusements of the stage were especially in vogue at Salamis, Eleusis, and in the Piraeus. The poets rarely gave new works at these rural Dionysia. They contented themselves with enacting the tragedies that had been successful at Athens. The performances were really a competition between different companies of actors, who played the pieces in vogue at the moment.

As already pointed out, the Lenaeum or Sanctuary of Dionysus was chosen from the time of Thespis for the scene of the dramatic representations. As early as 499 B.C. the construction of a stone theatre was begun there, although it remained unfinished for a century and a half. Huge wooden buildings were temporarily erected upon the space reserved for the future theatre, and throughout the fifth century the finest tragedies of Greece were played in these provisional buildings, which were doubtless removed by degrees as the stone construction was proceeded with.' We have no details as to the nature of the buildings used for theatrical performances before the completion of the theatre of Dionysus. It is, however, known that the chief pre-occupation of the Greeks in arranging their dramatic spectacles, was that the audience might see what was taking place in the orchestra. And since the view of the stage was regarded as a matter of secondary importance, it follows that it must have been of very narrow dimensions.

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