1902 Encyclopedia > Drama > Greek Drama

(Part 7)

Greek Drama

But whatever elements the GREEK drama may, in the sources from which it sprang, have owed to Egyptian, or Phrygian, or other Asiatic influences, its development was independent and self-sustained. Not only in its beginnings, but so long as the stage existed in Greece, the drama was in intimate connection with the national religion. This is the most signal feature of its history, and one which cannot in the same degree and to the same extent be ascribed to the drama of any other people, ancient or modern. Not only did both the great branches of the Greek drama alike originate in the usages of religious worship, but they never lost their formal union with it, though one of them (comedy) in his later growth abandoned all direct reference to its origin. Hellenic polytheism was at once so active and so fluid or flexible in its anthropomorphic formations, that no other religious system has ever so victoriously assimilated to itself foreign elements, or so vivaciously and variously developed its own. Thus, the worship of Dionysus, introduced into Greece by the Phaenicians as that of the tauriform sun-god whom his worshippers adored with loud cries (whence Bacchus or Iacchus) and the god of generation (whence his phallic emblem) and production, was brought into connection with the Dorian religion of the sun-god Apollo. Apollo and his sister, again, corresponded to the Pelasgian and Achaean divinities of sun and moon, whom the Phaenician Dionysus and Demeter superseded, or with whose worship theirs was blended. Dionysus, whose rites were specifically conducted with reference to his attributes as the wine-god, was attended by deified representations of his original worshippers, who wore the skin of the goat sacrificed to him. These were the satyrs. Out of the connected worships of Dionysus, Bacchus, Apollo, and Demeter sprang the beginnings of the Greek drama.

"Both tragedy and comedy," says Aristotle, "originated in a rude and unpremeditated’ manner,—the first from the leaders of the dithyramb, and the second from those who led off the phallic songs." This diversity of origin, and the distinction jealously maintained down to the latest times between the two branches of the dramatic art, even where they might seem to come into actual contact with one another, necessitate a separate statement as to the origin and history of either.

The custom of offering thanks to the gods by hymns and dances in the places of public resort was first practised by the Greeks in the Dorian states, whose whole system of life was organized on a military basis. Hence the dances of the Dorians originally taught or imitated the movements of soldiers, and their hymns were warlike chants. Such were the beginnings of the chorus, and of its songs (called paeans, from an epithet of Apollo), accompanied first by the phorminx and then by the flute. A step in advance was taken when the post with his trained singers and dancers, like the Indian s ú tra-dh á ra, performed these religious functions as the representative of the population. From the Doric paean at a very period several styles of choral dancing formed themselves, to which the three styles of choral dancing formed themselves, to which the three styles of dance in scenic productions—the tragic, the comic, and the satyric—are stated afterwards to have corresponded. But none of these could have led to a literary growth. This was due to the introduction among the Dorians of the dithyramb,—originally a song of revellers, probably led by a flute-player and accompanied by the music of other Eastern instruments, in which it was customary in Crete to celebrate the birth of Bacchus (the doubly-born) and possibly also his later adventures. The leader of the band (coryphaeus) may be supposed to have at times assumed the character of the wine-god, whose worshippers bore aloft the vine-clad thyrsus. The dithyramb was reduced to a definite form by the Lesbian Arion (fl.610), who composed regular poems, turned the moving band of worshippers into a standing or cyclic chorus, invented a style of music adapted to the character of the chorus—the tragic or goat style—and called these songs goats, or tragedies. Arion thus became the inventor of lyrical tragedy—a transition stage between the dithyramb and the regular drama. His invention, or the chorus with which it dealt, was established according to fixed rules by his contemporary Stesichorus. About the same time the Arion introduced these improvements into the Dorian city of Corinth, the (likewise Dorian Familes at Sicyon honoured the hero-king Adrastus by tragic choruses. Hence the invention of tragedy was ascribed by the Sicyonians to their poet Epigenes ; but this step, significant for the future history of the Greek drama, of employing the Bacchic chorus for the celebration of other than Bacchic themes, was soon annulled by the tyrant Clisthenes.

The element which transformed lyrical into the tragic drama was added by the Ionians. The custom of the recitations of poetry by wandering minstrels called rhapsodes (from rhabdos [Gk.], staff, or from rhapto [Gk.], to piece together) first sprang up in the Ionia beyond the sea ; to such minstrels was due the spread of the Homeric poems and of subsequent epic cycles. These recitations, with or without musical accompaniment, soon included gnomic or didactic, as well an epic, verse ; if Homer was a rhapsode, so was the sententious or "moral" Hesiod. The popular effect of these recitations was enormously increased by the metrical innovations of Archilochus (from 708), who invented the trochee and the iambus, the latter the arrowy metre which is the native form of satirical invective—the species of composition in which Archilochus excelled—though it was soon used for other purposes also. The recitation of these iambes may already have nearly approached to theatrical declamation. The rhapsodes were welcome guests at popular festivals, where they exercised their art in mutual emulation, or ultimately recited parts, perhaps the whole, of longer poems. The recitation of a long epic may thus have resembled theatrical dialogue ; that of alternating iambic poems, the form being frequently an address in the second person, even more so. The rhapsode was in some sense an actor ; and when those recitations reached Attica, they thus brought with them the germs of theatrical dialogue.

The rhapsodes were actually introduced into Attica at a very early period ; the Iliad, we know, was chanted at the Brauronia, a rural festival of Bacchus, whose worship had early entered Attica, and was cherished among its rustic population. Meanwhile the cyclic chorus of the Dorians had found it way into Attica and Athens, every since the Athenians had recognized the authority of the great centre of the Apolline religion at Delphi. It therefore only remained for the rhapsodic and the cyclic—in other words, for the epic and the choral—elements to coalesce; and this must have been brought about by a union of the two accompaniments of religious worship in the festive rites of Bacchus, and by the domestication of these rites in the ruling city. This occurred in the time of Pisistratus, perhaps after his restoration in 554. To Thespis (535), said to have been a contemporary of the tyrant and a native of a Diacrian deme (Icria), the invention of tragedy is according ascribed. Whether his name be that of an actual person or not, his claim to be regarded as the inventor of tragedy is founded on the statement that he introduced an actor for the sake of relieving the Dionysian chorus. This actor, the representative of the rhapsodes, and doubt, at first, generally the poet himself, instead of merely alternating his recitations with the songs of the chorus, addressed his speech to its leader—the coryphaeus—with whom he thus carried on a species of dialogue. The chorus stood round its leader upon the steps of the Bacchic altar (thymele), the actor was placed upon a table. This table is the predecessor of the stage, for the wagon of Thespis is a fiction, probably due to a confusion between his table and the wagon of Susarion. It is a significant minor invention ascribed to Thespis, that he disguised the actor’s face first by means of a pigment, afterwards by a mask. In the dialogue was treated a myth relating to Bacchus or some other deity or hero. Whether or not Thespis actually wrote tragedies (and there seems no reason to doubt it), and although both the cyclic chorus and rhapsodic recitation continued in separate use, tragedy was now in existence. The essential additions of afterwards made to its simple framework were remarkably few. Aeschylus added a second actor, and by reducing the functions of the chorus further established the dialogue as the principal part of the action. Sophocles added a third actor, by which change the preponderance of he dialogue was made complete.

If the origin of Greek comedy is simpler in its nature than that of Greek tragedy, the beginnings of its progress are involved in more obscurity. It is said to have been invented by Susarion, a native of Megaris, whose inhabitants were famed for their course humour, which they communicated to their colonies in Sicily. In this island, to this day the home of spontaneous mimicry, comedy was said to have arisen. In the rural Bacchic vintage-festivals bands of jolly companions (komos [Gk.], properly a revel continued after supper) went about it carts or afoot, carrying the phallic emblem, and indulging in the ribald licence of wanton mirth. From the song sung in these processions or at the Bacchic feasts, which combined the praise of the god with gross personal ridicule, and was called comus in a secondary sense, the Bacchic reveler-taking part in it was called a comus-singer or coaedus. These phallic processions, which were afterwards held at Athens as in all Greek cities, imparted their character to Old Attic comedy, whose essence was personal vilification.

Thus independent of one another in their origin, Greek tragedy and comedy never actually coalesced. The satyrdrama, though sense it partook of the nature of both, was in its origin as in its history connected with tragedy alone. Pratinas of Phlius, a contemporary of Aeschylus in his earlier days, is said to have restored the tragic chorus to the satyrs, i.e., he first produced dramas the same in form and theme as the tragedies, but in which the dances were different and entirely carried on by satyrs. The tragic poets, while never writing comedies, hence forth also composed satyr-dramas ; but neither tragedies nor satyr- dramas were ever written by the comic poets, and it was in conjuction with tragedies only that the satry-drama were performed. The theory of the Platonic Socrates, that the same man ought to be the best tragic and the best comic poet, was never exemplified in practice. The so-called hilaro-tragedy or tragic-comedy of later writers, thought in some of its features to have been anticipated by Euripides,1 in form nowise differed from tragedy ; it merely contained a comic element in its characters, and invariably had a happy ending. The serious and sentimental element in the comedy of Menander and his contemporaries did far more to destroy the essential difference between the two great branches of the Greek dramatic art.

The history of Greek—which virtually always remained Attic—tragedy divides itself into three periods.

I. The period before Aeschylus (535–499).—From this we have but a few names of authors and plays—those of the former being (besides Thespis) Chaerilus, Phrynichus, and Pratinas, all of whom lived to contend with Aeschylus for the tragic prize. To each of them certain innovations are ascribed—among the rest the introduction of female characters to Phrynichus.

II. The classical period of Attic tragedy—that of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and their contemporaries (499–405).—To this belong all the really important phases in the progress of Greek tragedy, which severally connect themselves with the names of its three great masters. They may be regarded ast he representatives of difference generations of Attic history and life, though of course in these, as in these, as in the progress of their art itself, there is an unbroken continuity. Aeschylus (525–456) had not only fought both at Marathon and at Salamis against those Persians whose rout he celebrated with patriotic pride,1 but he had been trained in the Eleusinian mysteries, and was a passionate upholder of the institution most intimately associated with the primitive political traditions of the past—the Areopagus.2 He had been born in the generation after Solon, to whose maxims he fondly clung ; he must have belonged to that anti democratical party which favoured the Spartan alliance, and it was the Dorian development of Hellenic life and the philosophical system based upon it with which his religious and moral convictions were imbued. Thus even upon the generation which succeeded him the chivalrous spirit and diction of his poetry, and the unapproached sublimity of his dramatic imagination, fell, as it falls upon later prosterity, like the note of mightier age. Sophocles (495–405) was the associate of Pericles, and an upholder of his authority rather than a consistent pupil of his political ideas ; but his manhood and perhaps the maturity of his genius coincided with the great days when he could stand, like his mighty friend and the community they both so gloriously represented, on the sunny heights of achievement. Serenely pious, he yet treats the myths of the national religion in the the spirit of a conscious artists, contrasting with lofty irony the struggles of humanity with the irrestible march of its destines. His art (which he described as having passed through three successive stages) may in its perfection be said to typify the watchful and creative calm of his city’s imperial epoch. Euripides (480 –406), as is the fate of genius of a more complex kind, has been more variously and antithetically judged than either of his great fellow-tragedians. His art has been called thinner and tamer than theirs, his genius rhetorical rather than poetical, his morality that of a sophistical wit. On the other hand, he has been recognized not only as the most of the Attic tragedians and the most pathetic of ancient poets, but also as the most humane in his social philosophy and the most various in his psychological insight. At least though far removed from the naïver age of the national life, he is, both in patriotic spirit and in his choice of themes, genuinely Attic ; and if he was "haunted on the stage by the daemon of Socrates," he was, like Socrates himself, the representative of an age which was a seed-time as well as a season of decay. To Euripides the general progress of dramatic literature owes more than to any other ancient poet. Tragedy followed in his footsteps in Greece and at Rome ; comedy owed him something in the style of the very Aristophanes who mocked him, and more in the sentiments, of Menander and when the modern drama came to engraft the ancient upon its own crude growth, his was directly or indirectly the most powerful influence in the establishment of a living connection between them.

The incontestable pre-eminence of the three great tragic poets was acknowleged at Athens by the usage allowing no tragedies but their to be more than once performed, and by the law of Lycurgus (c.330) which obliged the actors to use, in the case of works of the great masters, authentic copies preserved in the public archives. It is thus not impossible that the value of the latter Attic tragedy, of which the fertility continued considerable, has been under-rated. In all the names of 1400 tragedies and satyr-dramas are preserved ; and tragic poets are mentioned of whose plays no names are known. Among the more celebrated Attic tragedians contemporary with the great writers, Ion of Chios (d. before 419) seems to have followed earlier traditions of style than Euripides ; Agathon, who survived the latter, on the other hand, introduced certain innovations of a transnormal kind into the art of tragic composition.

III. Of the third period of Greek tragedy the concluding limit cannot be precisely fixed. Down to the days of Alexander the Great, Athens remained the chief home of tragedy. Though tragedies must have begun to be acted at the Syracusan and Macedonian courts, since Aeschylus, Euripides, and Agathon had sojourned there,—though the practice of producing plays at the Dionysia before the allies of Athens must have led to their holding similar exhibitions at home,—yet before the death of Alexander we meet with no instance of a tragic poet writing or a tragedy written outside Athens. An exception should indeed be made in favour of the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse, who (Like Critias in his earlier days at Athens) was "addicted to" tragic composition. Not all the tragedians of this period, however, were Athenians born, though the names of Euphorion, the son of Aeschylus, Iophon, the son of Sophocoles, and Euripides and Sophocles, the nephew and the grandson respectively of their great namesakes, illustrate the descent of the tragic art as an hereditary family possession. Chaeremon (fl. 380) already exhibits tragedy on the road to certain decay, for we learn that this plays were written for reading.

Soon after the death of Alexander theatres are found spread over the whole Hellenic world of Europe and Asia—a result to which the practice of the conqueror and his father of celebrating their victories by scenic performances had doubtless contributed. Alexandria having now become a literary centre with which even Athens was in some respects unable to compete, while the latter still remained the home of comedy, the tragic poet flocked to the capital of the Ptolemies ; and here, in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (283 –247) flourished the seven tragic poets famed as the "Pleias," who still wrote in the style and followed rules observed by the Attic masters. Tragedy and the dramatic art continued to be favoured by the later Ptolemies ; and about 100 B.C. we meet with the curious phenomenon of a Jewish poet, Ezechiel, composing Greek tragedies, of one of which (the Exodus from Egypt) fragments have come down to us. Tragedy, with the satyrdrama and comedy, survived in Alexandria beyond the days of Cicero and Varro, nor was their down finally sealed till the Emperor Caracalla abolished theatrical performances in the Egyptian capital in 217 A.D.

During the whole of its productive age Greek tragedy seems to have adhered to the lines laid down by its great Attic masters ; nor were these in most respects departed from by the Roman imitators of these poet and of their successors.

Tragedy was defined by Plato as an imitation of the noblest life. Its proper themes—the deeds and sufferings of heroes—were familiar to audiences intimately acquainted with the mythology of the national religion. To such themes Greek tragedy almost wholly confined itself ; and in later days there were numerous books which discussed these myths of the tragedians. They only very exceptionally treated historic themes, one great national calamity,1 and a yet greater national victory,2 and in later times a few other historical subjects,3 were brought upon the stage. Such veiled historical allusions as critical ingenuity has sought not only in passages but in the entire themes of other Attic tragedies4 cannot, of course, even if accepted as such, stamp the plays in which they occur as historic dramas. No doubt Attic tragedy, though after a different and more decorous fashion, shared, the tendency of her comic sister to introduce allusions to contemporary events and persons ; and the in indulgence of this tendency was facilitated by the revision (GREEK) to which the works of the great poets were subjected by them, or by those who produced their works after them.5 So far as we know, the subjects of the tragedies before Aeschylus were derived from the epos ; and it was a famous saying of this poet that his dramas were "but dry scraps from the great banquets of Homer"—an expression which may be understood as including the poems which belong to the so-called Homeric cycles. Sophocles, Euripides, and their successors likewise resorted to the Trojan, and also to the Heraclean and the Theasean myths, and to Attic legend in general, as well as to Theban, to which already Aeschylus had had recourse, and to the side or subsidiary myths connected with these several groups. These substantially remained to the last the themes of Greek tragedy, the Trojan myths always retaining so prominent a place that Lucian could jest on the universality of their dominion. Purely invented subjects were occasionally treated by the later tragedians ; of this innovation Agathon was the originator.6

Thespis is said to have introduced t use of a prologue and a rhesis (speech)—the former being probably the opening speech recited by this solitary actor, thee latter the dialogue between actor and chorus. It was a natural result of the introduction of the second actor that a second rhesis should likewise be added ; and this tripartite would be the earliest form of the trilogy,—three sections, of the same myth forming the beginning, middle, and end of a single drama, marked off from one another by the choral songs. From this Aeschylus proceeded to the treatment of these several portions of a myth in three separate plays, connected together by subject and by being performed in sequence on a single occasions. This is the Aeschylean trilogy, of which we have only one extant example, the Orestea,—as to which critics may differ whether Aeschylus adhered in it to his principle that the strength should lie in the middle—in other words, that the interest should centre in the second play. In any case, the symmetry of the trilogy was destroyed by the practice of performing after it a satyr-drama, probably, as a rule, if not always connected in subject with the trilogy, which thus became a tetralogy, though this term, unlike the other, seems to be a purely technical expression invented by the learned.7

Sophocles, a more conscious and probably a more self-critical artist than Aeschylus, may be assumed from the first to have elaborated his tragedies with greater care ; and to this, as well as to his innovation of the third actor, which materially added to the fullness of the action, we may attribute his introduction of the custom of contending for the prize with single plays. It does not follow that he never produced connected, though we have no example of such by him or any later author ; on the other hand, there is no proof that either he or any of his successors ever departed from the Aeschylean rule of producing three tragedies, followed by a satyr-drama, on the same day. This remained the third and last stage in the history of the construction of Attic tragedy. The tendency of its action towards complication was a natural progress and is approved by Aristotle. This complication, in which Euripides excelled, led to his use of prologues, in which one of the characters opens the play by an exposition of the circumstances under which its action begins. This practice, though ridiculed by Aristophanes, was too convenient not to be adopted by the successors of Euripides, and Menander transferred it to comedy. As the dialogue increased in importance, so the dramatic significance of the chorus diminished. While in Aeschylus it mostly, and in Sophocles occasionally, takes part in the action, its songs could not but more and more approach the character of lyrical intermezzos ; and this they openly assumed when Agathon began the practice of inserting choral songs (embolima) which had nothing to do with action of the play. In the general contrivance of their actions it was only natural that, as compared with Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides should exhibit an advance in both freedom and ingenuity ; but the palm due to a treatment at once piously adhering to the substance of the ancient legends and original in an effective dramatic treatment of them must be given to Sophocles. Euripides was, moreover, less skilful in untying complicated actions than in weaving them ; hence his frequent resort8 to the expedient of the dues ex machine, which Sophocles employs only in his latest play.9

The other distinctions to be drawn between the dramatic qualities of the three great tragic masters must be mainly based upon a critical estimate of the individual genius of each. In the characters of their tragedies, Aeschylus and Sophocles avoided those lapses of dignity with which from one point of view Euripides has been charged by Aristophanes and other critics, but which from another connect themselves with his humanity. If his men and women are less heroic and statuesque, they are more like men and women. Aristotle objected to the later tragedians that, compared with the great masters, they were deficient in the drawing of character—by which he meant the lofty drawing of lofty character. In diction, the transition is even more perceptible from the "helmeted phrases" of Aeschylus, who had Milton’s love of long words and sonorous proper names, to the play of Euripides’s "smooth and diligent tongue ;" but to a sustained style even he remained essentially true, and it was reserved for his successors to introduce into tragedy the "low speech"—i.e., the conversational language—of comedy. Upon the whole, however, the Euripidean diction seems to have remained the standard of later tragedy, the flowery style of speech introduced by Agathon finding no permanent favour.

Finally, Aeschylus is said to have made certain reforms in tragic costume of which the object is self-evident,—to have improved the mask, and to have invented the cothurnus or buskin, upon which the actor was raised to loftier stature. Euripides was not afraid of rags and tatters; but the sarcasms of Aristophanes on this head seem feeble to those who are aware that they would apply to King Lear as well as to Telephus.

The history of Greek comedy is likewise of that of an essentially Attic growth, although Sicilian comedy was earlier in date than her Attic sister or descendant. The former is represented by Epicharmus (fl.500), and by the names of one or two other poets. It probably had a chorus, and, dealing as it did in a mixture of a philosophical discourse, antithetical rhetoric, and wild buffoonery, necessarily varied in style. Though in some respects it seems to have resembled the middle rather than the Old Attic comedy, its subjects sometimes, like those of the latter, coincided with the myths of tragedy, of which they were doubtless parodies. The so-called mimes of Sophron (fl. 430) were dramatic scenes from Sicilian life, intended, not or the stage, but for recitation.

Attic comedy is usually divided into three periods or species, viz. :—

I. Old Comedy, which dates from the complete establishment of democracy by Pericles, though a comedy directed against Themistocles is mentioned. The Megarean farcical entertainments had long spread in the rural districts of Attica, and where now introduced into the city, where Cratinus and Crates (fl. 450) first moulded them into the forms of Attic art. The final victory of Pericles and the democratic party may be reckoned from the ostracism of Thucydides (444); and so eagerly was the season of freedom employed by the comic poets that already four year afterwards a law- which was, however, only a short time in force—limited their licence. Cratinus,1 an exceedingly bold and broad satirist, apparently of conservative tendencies, was followed by Eupolis (446-after 415), every one of whose plays appears to have attacked some individual,2 by Phrynichus, and others; but the representative of old comedy in its fullest development is Aristophanes (c. 444-c.380), a comic poet of unique and unsurpassed genius. Dignified by the acquisition of a chorus (though of a less costly kind than the tragic) of masked actors, and of scenery and machinery, and by a corresponding literary elaboration and elegance of style, Old Attic comedy nevertheless remained true both to its origin and to the purposes of its introduction into the free imperial city introduction into the free imperial city. It borrowed much from the tragedy, but it retained the Phallic abandonment of the old rural festivals, the licence of word and gesture, and the audacious directness of personal invective. These characteristics are not features peculiar to Aristophanes. He was twitted by some of the older comic poets with having degenerated from the full freedom of the art by tendency to refinement, and he took credit to himself for having superseded the time-honoured cancan and the stale practical joking of his predecessors by a nobler kind of mirth. But in boldness, as he likewise boasted, he had no peer ; and the shafts of his wit, though dipped in wine-less and at times feathered from very obscene fowl, flew at high game.3 He has been accused of seeking to degrade what he ought to have recognized as good ;4 and it has been shown with complete success that he is not to be taken as an impartial or accurate authority an Athenian history. But partisan as he was, he was also a genuine patriot ; and his very political sympathies—which were conservative—were such as have often stimulated the most effective political satire, because they imply an antipathy to every species of excess. Of the conservative quality of reverence he was, however, altogether devoid ; and his love for Athens was that of the most free-spoken of sons. Flexible even in his religious notion, he was in this as in other respects ready to be educated by his times ; and like a true comic poet, he could be witty at the expense even of his friends, and, it might almost be said, of himself. In wealth of fancy,5 and in beauty of lyric melody, he ranks high among the great poets of all times.

The distinctive feature of Old, as compared with Middle Comedy, is the parabasis, the speech in which the chorus, moving towards and facing the audience, addressed it in the name of the poet, often abandoning all reference to the action of the play. The loss of the parabasis was involved in the loss of the chorus, of which comedy was deprived in consequence of the general; reduction of expenditure upon the comic drama, culminating in the law of Cinesias (396).6 But with the downfall of the independence of Athenian public life, the ground had been cut from under the feet of its most characteristic representative. The catastrophe of the city (405) had been preceded by the temporary over throw of the democracy (411), and was followed by the establishment of an oligarchical "tyranny" under Spartan protection ; and when liberty was restored (404), the citizens for a time addressed themselves to their new life in a soberer spirit and continued (or passed) the law prohibiting the introduction by name of any individual as one of the personages of a play. The change to which comedy had to accommodate itself was one which cannot be defined by precise dates, yet it was not the less inevitable in its progress and results. Comedy, in her struggle for existence, now chiefly devoted herself to literary and social themes—such as the criticism of tragic poets,7 and the literary craze of women’s rights8—and the transition to Middle Comedy accomplished itself. Of the later plays of Aristophanes, three9 are without a parabasis, and in the last of those preserved to us10 the chorus is quite insignificant.

II. Middle Comedy, whose period extends over the remaining years of Athenian freedom, thus differed in substance as well as n form from its predecessor. It is represented by the names of thirty-seven writers (more than double the number of poets attributed to Old Comedy) among whom Eubulus, Antiphanes, and Alexis are stated to have been pre-eminently fertile and successful. It was a comedy of manners as well as character, although its ridicule of particular classes of men tended to the creation of standing types, such as parasites, courtesans, revelers, and—a favourite figure already drawn by Aristophanes11—the self-conceited cook. It style it necessarily inclined to become more easy and conversational ; while in that branch which was devoted to the parodying of tragic myths, its purpose may have been to criticize, but its must have been to degrade. This species of the comic art had found favour at Athens already before the close of the great civil war ; its inventor was the Thasian Hegemon, at whose Gigantomachia the Athenians were laughing on the day when the news arrived of the Sicilian disaster .

III. New Comedy, which is dated from the establishment of the Macedonian supremacy (338) is merely a further development of Middle. If its favourite types were more numerous, including the captain (of mercenaries)—the original of a long line of favourtes—the cunning slaves, &., they were probably also more conventional. New Comedy appears to have first constituted love intrigues the main subject of dramatic actions. The most famous of the 64 writers said to have belonged to this period of comedy were Philemon (fl. From 330), Menander (342-29), and his contemporary Diphilus. Of these authors we know something from fragments, but more from their Latin adapters Plautus and Terence. As comedians of character, they were limited by a range of types which left little room fro originally of treatment of treatment ; in the construction of their plots they were skilful rather than varied. In style, as well as to some extent in construction Menander took Euripides as his model, infusing into his comedy an element of moral and sentimental reflection, which refined if it did not enliven it. Yet it may be doubted whether either a high moral or a high artistic purpose animated this school of writers, and whether Epicurus in Landor’s dialogue does injustice to Menander in suspecting him of "enjoying the follies of men in our rotten state as flies enjoy fruit in its decay." Fate or chance were the directing powers of his dramatic actions.

New Comedy, and with it Greek comedy proper, is regarded as having come to an end with Posidippus (fl. C 280). Other comic writers of a later date are however, mentioned mixed compositions have been called by various names, among them by that of phlyacorgraphies (from phlyax, useless chatter). But Greek comedy ceased to be productive after it had been transplanted from Athens to Alexandria ; and though even in its original form it long continued to be acted in imperial Rome, these are phases of its history which may here be passed by.

The religious origin of the Attic drama impresses itself upon all its most peculiar features. Theatrical performances were held at Athens only at fixed seasons in the early part of the year—at the Bacchic festivals of the country Dionysia (vintage), the Lenaea (wine-press), probably at the Athesteria, and above all, at the Great Dionysia, or the Dionysia par excellence, at the end of March and beginning of April, when in her most glorious age Athens was crowded with visitors from the islands and cities of her federal empire. As a part of religious worship, the performances took place in a sacred locality—the Lenaeum on the south-eastern declivity of the Acropolis, where the first wine-press (lenos) was said to have been set up, and where now an altar of Bacchus (thymele) formed the centre of the theatre. For the same reason, the exhibitions claimed the attendance of the whole population, and room was therefore provided on a grand scale—according to the Platonic Socrates, for "more than 30,000"spectators. The performances lasted all day, or were at least, in accordance with their festive character, extended to as great a length as possible. To their religious origin is likewise to be attributed the fact that they were treated as a matter of state concern. The expenses of the chorus, which in theory represented the people at large, were defrayed on behalf of the state by the liturgies (public services) of wealthy citizens, chosen in turn by the tribes to be choragi (leaders, i.e., providers of the chorus), the duty of training being, of course, deputed by them to professional persons (chorodidascali). Publicity appointed and sworn judges decided between the merits of the dramas produced in competition with one another, the successful poet, performers, and choragus were crowned with ivy, and the last-named was allowed at his own expense to consecrate a tripod in memory of his victory in the neighbourhood of the sacred Bacchic enclosure. Such a monument—one of the most graceful relics of ancient Athens—still stands in the place where it was erected, and recalls to posterity the victory of Lysicrates, achieved in the same year as that of Alexander on the Granicus. The dramatic exhibitions being a matter of religion and state, the entrance money, (theoricum) which had been introduced to prevent overcrowding, was from the time of Pericles provided out of the public treasury. The whole population had a right to its Bacchic holiday ; neither women, nor boys, nor slaves were excluded from theatrical spectacles at Athens.

The religions characters of dramatic performances at Athens, and the circumstances under which they accordingly took place, likewise determined their externals of costume and scenery. The actor’s dress was originally the festive Dionysian attire, of which it always, retained the gay and variegated hues. The use of the mask was due to the actor’s appearing in the open air and at a distance from most of the spectators ; its several species were elaborated with great care, and adapted to the different types of theatrical character. The cothurnus, or thick-soled boot, which further raised the height of the tragic actor (while the comedian a thin-soled boot), was likewise a relic of Bacchic costume. The scenery was, in the simplicity of its original conception, suited to open-air performances ; but in course of time the art of scene-painting came to be highly cultivated, and movable scenes were contrived, together with machinery of the ambitious kind required by the Attic drama, whether for bringing gods down from heaven, or for raising mortals aloft.

On a stage and among surroundings thus conventional, it might seem as if little scope could have left for the actor’s art. But though the demands upon the Attic actor differed in kind even from those made upon the Attic actor differed in kind even from those made upon his Roman successor, and still more from those which the histrionic art has to meet in modern times, they were not the less rigorous. Mask and buskin might increase his stature, and the former might at once lend the appropriate expression to his appearance and the necessary resonance to his voice. But in declaration, dialogue, and lyric passage, in gesticulation and movement, he had to avoid the least violation of the general harmony of the performance. At the same time, the refinements of bye-play must, from the nature of the case, have been impossible on the Attic stage ; the gesticulation must have been broad and massive ; the movement slow and the grouping hard in tragedy ; and the recitation must have surpassed in its weighty sameness that half-chant of which the echoes have never wholly died out from the stage. Not more than three actors, as has been seen, appeared in any Attic tragedy. The actors were provided by the poet ; perhaps the performer of the first parts (protagonist) was paid by the state. It was again a result of the religious origin of Attic dramatic performances, and of the public importance attached to them, that the actor’s profession was held in high esteem. These artists were as a matter of course free Athenian citizens, often the dramatists themselves, and at times were employed in other branches of the public service. In later days, when tragedy had migrated to Alexandria, and when theatrical entertainments had spread over all the Hellenic world, the art of acting seems to have reached an unprecedented height, and to have taken an extraordinary hold of the public mind. Synods or companies of Dionysian artists abounded, who were in possession of various privileges, and in one instance at least (at Pergamus) of rich endowments. The most first in Teos, and afterwards in Lebedos, near Colophon, which is said to have lasted longer than many a famous state. We likewise hear of strolling companies performing in partibus. Thus it came to pass that the vitality of some of the master-pieces of the Greek drama is without a parallel in theatrical history ; while Greek actors were undoubtedly among the principal and most effective agents of the spread of literary culture through a great part of the known world.

The Theory and technical system of the drama exercised the critical powers both of dramatists, such as Sophocles, and of the greatest among Greek philosophers. If Plato touched the subject incidentally, Aristotle has in his Poetics (after 334) included an exposition of it, which, mutilated as it is, has formed the basis of all later systematic enquiries. The specialities of Greek tragic dramaturgy refer above all to the chorus ; its general laws are those of the regular drama all times. The theories of Aristotle and other earlier writers were elaborated by the Alexandrians, many of whom doubtless combined example with precept ; they also devoted themselves to commentaries of the old masters, such as those in which Didymus (c. 30 B.C.) abundantly excelled, and collected a vast amount of learning on dramatic composition in general, which was doomed to perish, with so many other treasures, in the flames kindled by religious fanaticism.

"The history of the Greek stage," says Sir Walter Scott, "is that of the dramatic art in general ;" and herein no doubt lies the broad distinction to be drawn between the drama of the Greeks and the isolated growths previously treated in this sketch. Yet though such is the case,—though in the Roman drama the native elements sink into insignificance when compared with those borrowed from the Greeks and though the literary element in the modern drama of the West is directly or indirectly derived from the same source—the Greek drama, both tragic and comic, had features of its own which it has been the principal aim of the foregoing brief account to it to mark. Tragedy never lost the traces of its religious origin ; and the festive purposes of comedy are most signally apparent in precisely the period of its productivity whose works are least congenial to modern feeling and taste. But such is the wonderful power of the highest kind of art, that the tragedy of the three great masters. Though its themes are so peculiar to itself that they have never been treated with the same effect by the numberless writers of other peoples who have essayed them, "hath ever been held the graves, moralist, and most profitable of all other poems ;" and such is the commanding claim of genius, that Aristophanes, who cultivated a species of comedy of an altogether eccentric kind, occupies an eminence in his branch of the drama hardly more contestable than the great tragic triad in theirs. What is Hecuba to us that we should weep for her,—or Antigone that our sympathy should accompany her on her holy errand, forbidden by human laws, but enjoined upon her by the behest of Zeus and of Justice dwelling with the gods below,—or Agamemnon that we should thrill will horror when his cries announce the wreaking of his doom? Why can we laugh at the ribald repartess of hid-seller and sausage-seller, careless of the merits of the former of these advanced politicians, and catch something of the dew of the rain-bringing maidens as it falls upon their beloved land, where the Bromian joy greets the advent of spring? Because in all these instance, and in every other, the art of the Greek drama, while winged by the individual power of genius, is at the same time true to its purposes as an art, and in harmony with Nature, who or to all.


FOOTNOTE. (p.404)

1 Alcestis; Orestes.

FOOTNOTE (p.405)

1. Persae.

2. Eumenides.

FOOTNOTE (p.406)

(1) Phrynichus, Capture of Miletus.

(2) Id., Phaenissae ; Aeschylus, Persae (Persae-trilogy?).

(3) Moschion, Themistocles ; Theodectes, Mausolus ; Lycophron, Marathonii ; Cassandrei; Socii ; Philiscus, Themistocles.

(4) Aeschylus, Septem v. Thebes ; Prometheus Vinctus ; Danaistrilogy ; Sophocles, Antigone ; Cedipus Coloneus ; Euripides, Medea.

(5) Quite distinct from this revision was the practice against which the law of Lycurgus was directed, of "cobbling and heeling" the dramas of the great masters by alterations of a kind familiar enough to the student of Shakespeare as improved by Colley Cibber. The later tragedians also appear to have occasionally transposed long speeches or episodes from one tragedy into another—a device largely followed by the Roman dramatists, and called contamination by Latin writer.

(6) Anthos (The Flower).

(7) One satyr-drama only is preserved to us, the Cyclops of Euripides, a dramatic version of the Homeric tale of the visit of Odysseus to Polyphemus. Lycophron , one of the poets of the Pleias, by using the satyr-drama (in his Menedemus) as a vehicle of personal ridicule, applied it to a purpose like that of Old Attic comedy.

(8) Ion ; Supplices ; Iphigenia in Tauris ; Electra ; Helena ; Hippolytus ; Andromache.

(9) Philoctetes.

FOOTNOTE (p. 407)

(1) Archilochi.

(2) Maricas (Hyperbolus) ; Baptae (Alcibiades) ; Lacones (Cimon), & c

(3) Knights.

(4) Clouds

(5) Birds.

(6). Strattis, Choricida.

(7) Aristophanes, Frogs ; Phyrnichus, Musae ; Tragaedi.

(8) Aristophanes Ecclesiazusae.

(9) Lysistrata ; Thesmophoriazusae ; Plustus II.

(10) Plutus.

(11) Aeolosicon.

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