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The Latin Theatre - The Latin Theatre Tragedy

( Originally Published 1902 )



Third century B.C.: Livius Andronicus and the earliest tragedies—The first actors—The Canticum—Naevius—Ennius—Second century B. C.: Ludi circenses and Ludi scenici—Marcus Pacuvius : his plays—Resurrection of chorus of Greek Tragedy—Lucius Accius, creator of the national tragedy—Performance of Greek plays in the original text—First century B.C.: arrest of dramatic production—The Medea of Ovid, and the Thyestes of Varius—First century of the. Christian era—Pomponius Secundus—Seneca and his tragedies—Curiatius Maternus.

ALTHOUGH the Greek language was known in Italy long before the third century, it was only practised by the Romans after that date. In the first instance, the great personages sent out from Rome as ambassadors employed it as the diplomatic language ; then the submission of Tarentum and other Greek colonies in 265 B.C. contributed to its diffusion among the conquerors. Finally, the annexation of Sicily in 241 led to the definite introduction of Greek literature into the Roman world. The earliest performance of a tragedy, the work of Livius Andronicus, in Rome, took place during the year following the First Punic War. This author, a native of Tarentum, left his own country after the capture of that city, and- arrived in Rome towards 272 B.C. There he employed his knowledge of the two languages for the translation of Greek tragedies into Latin. He showed a preference for such as lent themselves to a spectacular display that would excite the interest of the masses. The first performance of a complete work in this style took place in 240 B.C., and it is believed that the author himself took a part. Livius Andronicus not only created the drama in Rome, but must further be credited with initiating the profession of the actor, a task which cost him long and painful effort.

His first expounders were young men of good family, but they soon tired of the trade. Livius Andronicus was then obliged to seek his collaborators among the freed men and the slaves. He moulded them to their new vocation, and eventually constituted them into a regular company. The low social condition of these first actors was in great measure the cause of the ostracism from which the Roman stage was always to suffer.

Livius substituted for the chorus of the Greek Tragedy the canticum or lyric monody. The canticum, according to Livy, consisted of a few verses interspersed in the course of the play. At the outset these were interpreted by the singer who uttered the sounds, the actor who explained the words of the singer by dance and gesture, and the flute-player or accompanist. In fact, the Roman drama of those days closely resembled our own opéra comique, where we have a part to be spoken and parts to be sung. The only apparent difference between the two styles of composition is that in the Roman plays some verses were intended to be sung, while others were simply to be recited. It was more especially in Comedy that the canticum occupied the first place.

Of the works of Livius Andronicus nothing re-mains but the titles of a few plays : the Ajax, the Helena, the Hermione, the Aegisthus, the Tereus, of which we do not even know the Hellenic origins. All that can be affirmed is' that the author set him-self to reproduce the most dramatic of the Greek legends upon the stage.

Naevius, a contemporary of Livius, and a native of Campania, translated or imitated the tragedies of Aeschylus or Euripides, and aimed at perfecting the style of his predecessor ; but he often falls into bombast and triviality. The date of his birth is unknown ; it is only certain that Livius Andronicus was in the zenith when Naevius produced his first tragedy, that is, in the year 235 B.C. Exiled from Rome in 205, he withdrew to Utica, where he died in 203. Naevius was particularly distinguished as a writer of comedies. He was the inventor of the togata, or comedy of the toga, in which the characters were Roman.

Ennius, who belongs to the same school, was born at Rudiae, a town of Calabria, in 240 B.C., and was the friend of Scipio Africanus. This writer is known particularly by his translations of Euripides. He adapted more than twenty tragedies for the Latin theatre, the most celebrated being the Andromache, the Hecuba, and the Medea.

This last work is an almost literal translation of the drama of Euripides. His rôle of imitator deprives the plays of Ennius of any character of originality, but this poverty of conception was redeemed by the excellence of his style.

Ennius was undoubtedly a good poet, nevertheless his talent did not justify the high opinion he formed of his own value, for he compared himself with the utmost sincerity to Homer. He died at Rome in 170 B.C.

Ennius was further distinguished as a writer of comedies, and Terence owns that he was much indebted to him.

The Ludi circenses (or gladiatorial games) always attracted the Romans more powerfully than the Ludi scenici (or theatrical representations properly so-called). Familiarised from an early period with the combats of gladiators or of animals, the spectators would perforce find little pathos in the most terrible situations of the drama, in comparison with the appalling butcheries of the circus. And for this very reason the complete development of Tragedy in Rome was always hampered with difficulties.

Yet from the middle of the second century, the pronounced taste of the upper classes for intellectual pleasures prevailed with the lower orders, and they also became interested in Tragedy. The second century was thus an epoch peculiarly propitious to the development of the dramatic type, and Pacuvius and Accius stamped it with their genius.

Marcus Pacuvius, nephew of Ennius, was a native of Brundusium. The date of his birth is unknown, but he died at Tarentum in 130 B.C. at a very advanced age. Pacuvius wrote some twenty tragedies ; the most famous, entitled Dulorestes, treats of the misfortunes of Orestes driven from his father's house. The author traces the story of his wanderings through the world, his return to Argos, and vengeance upon his father's murderers. In choosing his subject, Pacuvius was inspired by several passages of the Iphigeneia among Me Tauri of Euripides, as well as by the Oresteia of Aeschylus. Among his predecessors the canticum, or lyric monody, occupied a very secondary position. Pacuvius gave it a much greater importance, so that some of his songs could only be executed by choruses as important as those of the Greek Tragedy. Pacuvius, indeed, approximated to this type of drama by the very nature of his monodies, the singers being charged (as in the Greek theatre) with the expression of the emotions to which the play had given rise in the minds of the spectators. Although Pacuvius borrowed all his subjects from the Greeks (except the Paullus), his compositions were none the less original in their treatment and in the vigour of the characters. I t is a matter of regret that his qualities should be spoiled by the exaggerated solemnity of his style.

Lucius Accius is regarded as the creator of the true Roman Tragedy : the Praetexta, or national drama, the subjects of which are drawn from contemporary history. The form and character of the praetexta were modelled upon Greek Tragedy, but the tone was less sublime.

Accius was the son of a freed man ; he was born in Rome probably about 165 B.C. The exact date of his death is unknown ; but he lived to a very advanced age. He was the friend of the more powerful men of his day, including Decimus Brutus. Accius wrote more than fifty plays, among them Brutus, Decius, Marcellus, which were all praetextae, tragedies with an exclusively Roman subject. His other dramas were more or less loose translations, or at least imitations, of Greek plays, borrowed either from Sophocles, as The Trachinian Maidens ; from Euripides, as .The Phoenician Women ; or from Aeschylus, as Prometheus Unbound, Philoctetes, The Argonauts. Aeschylus was, however, the Greek author most studied by Accius, and the translations of his works were more especially appreciated by the Romans. Quintilian says of Accius, ' that he was remarkable, like Pacuvius, for the seriousness of his thought and the weight of his expressions.' He might have added that Accius excelled Pacuvius in the elegance and variety of his style. It should be noted that at the end of the second century, at the epoch namely of the Jugurthine War (110-102 B.C.), tragedies were being played in the original Greek as well as these translated or adapted pieces.

By the time of Cicero, B.C. 83-43, the vein of tragic authorship was exhausted ; the plays of Naevius and Ennius, and above all of Pacuvius and Accius, were again put upon the boards, and interpreted very clearly by the famous actor Esopus.

During the reign of Augustus (B.C. 30-14 A.D.), Asinius Pollio is cited as the author of tragedies which, according to Horace, were acted on the stage. But the two best-known compositions of this period were the Medea of Ovid and the Thyestes of Varius, tragedies that are unfortunately lost to us. The Medea is the only dramatic composition of Ovid, and seems to have been the work of which he was the most proud : ` Thanks to my pains,' he says, ` tragedy has acquired a more elevated style. I have made kings to speak with a becoming dignity. I have restored the majesty of the buskin.' The Medea of Ovid was doubtless a copy of the Medea of Euripides, the Latin poet being, from his turn of mind, peculiarly apt to seize upon and render the strength and beauty of the Greek play. The exact nature of the Thyestes of Varius is also unknown, and whether or no it had a Greek origin. Whether the Medea and the Thyestes were ever played is again a much disputed question. The best critics of to-day incline to the opinion that they were not acted, but were simply written for the benefit of the men of letters who gathered to admire the beauties of the two tragedies at the public readings so much in vogue at that period. However this may have been, the two tragedies were reckoned the finest dramatic productions of the Latin genius.

Pomponius Secundus (A. D. 14-37) lived in the reign of Tiberius. Little is known of his life or works. The title only of one of his plays is extant : Aeneas, which no doubt was a Roman drama.

In the reign of Nero (A.D. 54-68), Tragedy achieved considerable distinction, owing to the talent of Seneca.

Seneca, the philosopher, was born at Cordova in 2 or 3 A.D. He came in extreme youth to Rome, where he studied rhetoric and philosophy, and soon became famous for his eloquence. At a later period Agrippina appointed him tutor to Nero, whose evil instincts he amused himself by flattering. He even wrote an apologia for the parricide, but eventually fell into disgrace with the tyrant, who commanded that his veins should be opened (A.D. 65). Seneca composed a number of tragedies imitated from the Greek. The only surviving works are : (I) Medea ; (2) Hippolytus, from which Racine borrowed more than once ; (3) Agamemnon, a subject imitated by Nepomucène Lemercier at the end of the eighteenth century ; (4) The Trojan Women ; (5) The Raging Hercules ; (6) Thyestes ; (7) The Phoenician Women, or The Thebaisc ; (8) Oedipus, an imitation of Sophocles' Oedipus the King; (9) Hercules on Oeta ; (i o) Octavia. All these compositions display great talent for form on the author's part, together with much psychological observation. But the characters only make speeches, and indulge in long descriptions and repetitions to an extent that renders the plays insipid. Although dramatic performances were still given under Nero, it is improbable that the plays of Seneca were intended to be acted, for the author makes for effects of style far more than for theatrical effects.

Tacitus commends the poet Curiatius Maternus, who was already distinguished in the time of Nero as the author of a tragedy of Greek origin called Medea.

In the reign of Vespasian this writer attained a certain celebrity by his two national tragedies, Domitius and Cato, with another called Thyestes, imitated from Seneca.

Generally speaking, after the reign of Augustus, the performances became less and less frequent. The dramas of Seneca were, however, played from time to time as late as the fifth century of the Christian era.



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