The Theatre In Greece - Tragedy In The Fourth Century B.C.

( Originally Published 1902 )

The poets of the decadence—Inauguration of the Theatre of Dionysus—Magnificence of performances—Tragic contests of fourth century—Admirable interpretation of Classical Tragedy—Definite cessation of dramatic production at the close of the fourth century—Position of the actor in the fourth century : his social prestige.

THE fourth century is a period of decadence in Tragedy. The plays of this epoch are distinguished by a total lack of force and originality in the characters.

Carcinus and his three sons, and later on Theodectes of Phaselis, and Chaeremon, attempted the rejuvenation of Tragedy by elaboration of style, but their endeavours remained sterile. The plays of the decadent poets (which are usually distinguished by their sententious and philosophical character) lived but for a day, with the exception of the Philoctetes of Theodectes, and the Oeneus of Chaeremon, which obtained some success at the time, and are the only works of interest that remain to us from this school.

From 360 B.C., and to the end of the reign of Alexander, Classical Tragedy enjoyed an extra-ordinary popularity at Athens as well as in the other Greek cities, nearly all of which then had their theatres. The inauguration of the Theatre of Dionysus, moreover, took place towards the middle of the fourth century. The auditorium contained nearly 30,000 persons. This theatre afforded every convenience for the comfort of the spectators. There were numerous exits, water-courses to carry away the rain, and even vast porticos where the audience could take refuge if a storm came on. Behind the orchestra (where the evolutions of the chorus took place) were buildings of the same elevation as the auditorium. These contained boxes in which the actors robed themselves ; and there were even rooms in which they could be domiciled. The façade of the auditorium represented a palace adorned with magnificent columns. Against this façade was placed a long narrow platform twelve feet in height, on which the performance took place. The model of this building was employed at Epidaurus, Ephesus, and Sicyon, for the construction of theatres containing a far larger number of spectators.

The luxuriousness of the mise en scène in the fourth century was quite unparalleled. Plutarch tells us that the expenses of representing a single play of Sophocles at Athens, at this period, amounted to the enormous sum of L100,000 of our currency.

Justin the historian reproaches the Athenians with their incredible extravagance upon these occasions. The drama at this period was, moreover, interpreted by the most famous of all the Greek actors: Polus of Aegina, Aristodemus, Neoptolemus, Thessalus, and Athenodorus. It was doubtless owing to their immense talent, as well as to the splendour of the staging, that classical pieces had such an extraordinary vogue ; those of Euripides in particular, which by their brilliancy totally obscured the other dramatic productions of this era.

An inscription, discovered some years ago at Athens, gives valuable data as to the nature of the Dionysiac gatherings in the years 341 and 340 B.C. From it we may conclude that the Satyric Drama was at that period completely separated from Tragedy. The Dionysia began with the representation of a single satyric drama ; next, the works of one of the grand tragic poets of the last century were given. Since the dramaturgists of the day were regarded as feeble imitators of Euripides, it was customary to fall back upon the older plays. Thus in 341 the pièce de fond was the Iphigeneia of Euripides ; in 340, his Orestes. When the satyric drama and the ancient tragedy had been played, the performance of new works was proceeded with. In the fourth century the number of poets competing was still three, but the rate of plays varied from year to year. During the early part of the fourth century, it is believed that each poet presented four independent tragedies. But in the later part there was a distinct falling-off in dramatic production. In 341 B. C. nine tragedies only were produced for competition. In 340 there were only six, and so on, to the close of the fourth century.

The middle of the fourth century must be regarded as the golden age of Greek actors. At that era they were frequently permitted (as did Garrick with the plays of Shakespeare) to modify classical pieces to suit their fancy, and even to perform adaptations of them, under pretext of improvement. Lycurgus promulgated a law which put an end to this abuse. The great actor Polus was celebrated at this period for his interpretation of the parts of Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Electra. Theodorus and Aristodemus often took the part of Antigone, and the character of Ajax was magnificently rendered by Timotheus.

From the close of the fourth century the composition of new tragedies ceased at Athens, the older plays alone being given at the Dionysia, which lasted down to the Roman era. In the third century the centre of literary activity was, moreover, shifted from Athens to Alexandria.

From the fifth century the position of the actors had continually improved. At the outset they were not even mentioned by name at the competitions, but from the middle of the fifth century they figure alongside of the choregus and the poets, a prize having been established at this time for their benefit.

Instead of being chosen by the poets, they were henceforth State officials. As early as the time of Aeschylus, Cleander and Mynniscus of Chalcis, who interpreted his tragedies, were enjoying a good position in Athenian society in virtue of their fame as actors. Under Sophocles, the troops of comedians formed actual confraternities, each member of which was held to participate in the sacred character, and in consequence acquired a kind of inviolability. Cleidemides and Tlepolemus were the favourite actors of Sophocles.

Callipides represented the younger generation of actors, whose delivery, according to Aristotle, lacked stateliness and dignity, and was considerably overdone. This innovation excited the greatest indignation among the older actors, who hurled the epithet of ` apes' at their successors. Nicostratus, an actor of this period, was proverbial for the excellence of his diction.

The position of the actor attained its highest prestige in the fourth century. In that era flourished Polus of Aegina, who taught elocution to Demosthenes ; Neoptolemus, the intimate friend of Philip; Aristodemus, who three times held the office of ambassador. All these actors received enormous emoluments. Demosthenes tells us that Polus received one Attic talent for two performances, i.e. about L20 of our money for each representation—a vast sum for those times.

Aristodemus, in his provincial tours, was paid in the same proportion. Ere long the pride of the principal actors knew no bounds ; and one named Theodorus would not brook the entry of any inferior actor before his own appearance on the stage.

In this connection we must remember that the first actors were bound to play secondary parts whenever their services were thought necessary. Accordingly, weak parts were unknown upon the Greek stage.

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