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Theban eagle. The Dithyrambus itself, the fountain of Attic tragedy, was of foreign invention, and as old as Archilochus. The very verse of their tragedy was not their own; for the dancing Trochaic, the speech-like and natural Iambic metre, and the Anapastic which formed the transitions between them, were forms of verse invented by the Ionians. Even their chorus moved to foreign music: its strophe to the spirited Doric, its antistrophe to the pompous Phrygian, and its epode to the impassioned Lydian harmony. Nor did their stage heroes disdain to wear the Cretan buskin and the Persian girdle. Yet, if all these circumstances can be called debts of the Attic Tragic Muse, it must be owned that she repaid them to the world with usury.
The temple of Bacchus was the first established theatre of the Attic drama, and a thymele, or altar, in its orchestra, continued to be even occasionally used for sacrifice; but the Bacchic songs and dances which gave birth to dramatic art, were long anterior to any theatre, and must have been coeval with the worship of the god in Greece. The general name for Bacchic poetry was Dithyrambus; but the word, in its stricter sense, meant the hymn of the Cyclic chorus, who danced round the altar of sacrifice, whilst the Phallic strains were sung by columns of worshippers in procession to and from the temple. Both were accompanied by flutes, and both were of a revelling spirit; but the Dithyrambus was mythological, whilst the Phallic songs were full of ribaldry and personal ridicule. The former poetry was chiefly appropriated to that high festival of the Nysæan Bacchus, which was celebrated in the month Anthesterion, which began in the middle of our February, when the Athenian Queen, or Archon's wife, attended by fourteen illustrious dames, presided at the mysteries, and personated the bride of the god. The latter songs took their names from the Phallus, that was paraded at the city festival, held a month later, in honour of the younger Bacchus. Virgins accompanied that ceremony, carrying fruits in golden baskets; but neither the statue nor the songs much accorded with our notions of virgin delicacy. From these Phallic canticles, Aristotle deduces Attic Comedy. On the other hand, he ascribes the origin of Tragedy to the Dithyrambus, a great branch of Greek lyric poetry, apparently coinciding in several traits with that of the odes of Pindar. It had the same division into choral parts, and was partly adapted to the same description of harmonies.
Comedy came later than Tragedy upon the Attic stage; and it is an interesting fact in the history of Sicily, that that island carries off the palm from Athens herself, as to the prior production of the gayer drama: for the Sicilian Epicharmus, a contemporary of Eschylus, was the first writer of regular comedy. With Epicharmus's reputation, though his writings are lost, all to a few fragments, it would be in vain to compare that of Susurion, or of the other old Attic improvisatori. But still, in the works of Aristophanes, Athens had an original comedy, as native and characteristic as national comedy could be. Its spirit has an Athenian hardiness, that could not have been caught from abroad. No doubt, it is probable, when the Athenians lost their liberty, and when their new comic writers were obliged to be unpersonal and unpolitical, that they would look back to, and refine upon, the Sicilian school. At that later epoch, the stage pleasantry of Athens became such as we may conceive to have suited the taste of the court of Syracuse, and of the aristocracy of Rome. But the elder Attic Comedy cannot be suspected of having studied foreign exemplars. If Epicharmus was imitated by Plautus,
he could have been no model for the bold and allegorical Aristophanes, whose comedy stands unique in the drama. It would have shook to pieces any other frame of society than that of democratical Athens, and could have fulminated only in the widest atmosphere of Freedom.
Attic tragedy, as we have seen, was lyrical in its origin, and it continued to retain its chorus or lyrical part; though Euripides, the third great master of tragic art, seems to have found the chorus a burthensome appendage. Euripides had evidently more modern-like conceptions of tragic interest than his predecessors. He deduces pitiable and terrible situations, not so much, as Eschylus and Sophocles did, from destiny warring on human will, as from the direct agency of human passions. Unable, however, to get rid of the chorus, he left a drama less perfect, with relation to its kind, than that of Sophocles, who blended and balanced the choral and stage parts of his pieces into perfect harmony.
It must fairly be acknowledged, that if we dip into Greek tragedy, expecting to find that varied and flexible expression of nature which belongs to the best genius of our own stage, we shall be disappointed. The Greeks employed more resources of art to affect the imagination in the drama than we do: they employed not only the poetry of thought and imagery, but the expressiveness of vocal and instrumental melody, -of rhythmically measured motion and gesticulation; and in their masks we may fairly say that they introduced the poetry of sculpture. Where dramatic language was thus to be harmonized with so many impressions on the senses, some sacrifice of its freedom and fulness in the developement of human nature was to be expected; and, accordingly, it is not so minutely illustrative of passion and character as our own stage. Greek tragedy studied to produce ideal and general impressions of grace and grandeur. I am far from thinking that Augustus Schlegel is right in denying it to have been any thing analogous to the opera; for, if we exchange harmony for melody, the two entertainments coincide at least in musical luxury. But I admire the justice of his remark, that we are not to confound the idealism of the Greek stage with vagueness in the conception of character, for its personages have a remarkably simple intelligibility. But the individuality of life was so far from imitated, that the actors' features were not shown. To have seen a familiar face representing a god or a hero, would have broken the spectator's illusion that he was contemplating the ideal picture of mythology; and the masks were accordingly designated by general classes, according to the youth, or age, or sex, or rank of life which they represented. The form of godlike and heroic characters was also elevated by the buskin, and artificially enlarged according to the height, a process which we can conceive to have been gracefully effected only by a people so exquisitely skilled as the Greeks were in sculpture and human proportion. Thus ideal in its conceptions, colossal in its scale of exhibition, and religious in its spirit, Athenian tragedy was, comparatively with ours, more a feast to the imagination, than a mirror held up to nature. The choral parts are apt to tire us by interrupting the dramatic with advices, consolations, and reflections. But the fancy of the Greek mind listened to them, entranced by native melodies, by symmetrical movements, and by imposing forms. Though the dramatic plot was simpler than ours, it had still terrific situations, and electrifying bursts of passion; and though the lights and shades of human character were not minutely marked, yet its main and simple shape was distinctly traced, flowing into outlines of strength and majesty. I long
to illustrate these truths by descriptive references to particular tragedies, yet it will be necessary to crave patience for a few farther explanatory details.
The Greek theatre was not, as with us, a daily entertainment, but was opened only for some days during the Dionysiac city and country festivals. During the grand Anthesterian festival, it appears that neither tragedy nor comedy was performed, though the Dithyrambus, as has been already mentioned, belonged to that solemnity. The theatre opened in the morning; the spectators brought their cushions, and even refreshments, along with them; and plays were acted all day long, each trilogy, or suite of three tragedies, being followed by a satyric drama or farce, till the five judges awarded the prize to the successful candidate. Every competitor, before bringing forward his pieces, had first of all to submit them to the Archon; if he and his assessors judged them worthy of entering the lists, a chorus was awarded to them at the public expense, and the people pitched upon the rich citizen who was to defray the expense of the choral performers. Nor did the trouble of the author end with composing his play; he had to instruct the stage and orchestra players in their rehearsals, and frequently himself took a part in the representation. It was held derogatory to no man's dignity to appear on the stage of Athens; and she counted among her play-writers, not merely literary men, but public functionaries and commanders of armies. From this ambition and contest arose the immense literary wealth of the Attic stage. It ultimately counted 250 tragedies of the first class, 500 of the second, and an equal number of comedies. Of all that wealth what a wreck now only remains! It is true we have some of the works of those writers who are acknowledged to have been the master-dramatists; but the Greek stage teaches us no moral more impressively than the perish. ableness of human glory, from the records of its own devastation.
It is now generally admitted that the grand or Dionysiac theatre of Athens stood on the south-eastern angle of the hill of the Acropolis; and that Stuart was mistaken when he thought he had discovered its ruins in those which are now judged to have belonged to the Odeion of Herodes. That the former place was the site of the Dionysiac theatre, is strongly attested by the choragic monuments still existing in that quarter; and a statue of Bacchus, which once adorned a small temple in the vicinity of the theatre, is now placed in the British MuseThe hollow in the slope of the hill still indicates a place where the seats of the spectators must have been excavated. It was the custom of the Greeks to build their theatres on the side of a hill, not, as a refined speculator has imagined, for the purpose of commanding a view of fine rural scenery, since the height of the stage wall must have shut out the prospect beyond it from one half of the spectators, but for saving the subconstruction of seats, as the ground thus facilitated their being raised in ascending semicircles. Though the seats, however, rose upon a hollow slope, it is impossible to imagine the orchestra, the dromos, and the stage, with its flanking walls, to have been situated any where but on even ground at the bottom. If we may believe Plato, the Dionysiac theatre could contain thirty thousand spectators, so that its diameter could not have been much less than four hundred and fifty feet. It is unnecessary to say, that, with such dimensions, it was uncovered above; nor had the Greeks recourse, like the Romans, to tempo
rary awnings. When showers came on, they had a double portico behind the scenes, to which they could retire. That Eumenic portico, as it was called, had an open walk in the midst of it, embellished with trees or shrubbery, and was the rehearsal-ground of the chorus. The day-light and open air, instead of our covered and candle-light system of acting, were indispensable for exhibitions intended to animate a whole people.
As only the scantiest vestiges of that mighty theatre remain, the moderns have been obliged to compile their conceptions of it chiefly from Vitruvius and Julius Pollux, and from the traces of other old theatres which are supposed to have been built upon the same model. Among the works on this subject, I am not aware that Mr. Genelli's has been surpassed by any other in elaborate research or in knowledge of architecture. I quote his name, however, wishing only to refer generally to his authority, and not intending to descend mi.. nutely into his architectural disquisitions.
In sketching my conception of the Greek theatre, I shall begin with its highest ground, or that which was farthest from the stage. The entire outline of the building, as it lay on the hollow of a hill, and on a portion of the plain ground below, must have been that of a semicircle with its arch upwards, joined to a pretty broad parallelogram at its basis. Between the apex of the semicircle and the rocks of the Acropolis above it, it is scarcely conceivable but that some communication was opened; yet it must have been very narrow, in order to prevent the escape of sound from below. The main entrances to the theatre were at the opposite ends of the parallelogram below the spectators' semicircle, or at the right and left extremities of the Dromos, or course, which ran in front of the stage and its flanking walls. The spectators' or upper part of the theatre was inclosed by a massive semicircular wall, and a portico within it, which served as a station for the servants attending their masters to the play, and also as another lounging-place for the spectators, independent of the garden portico behind the stage buildings, which has been already mentioned. Inside of that wall and portico the benches descended (for we suppose ourselves looking down upon the stage) in concentric semicircles, which diminished as they approached and embraced the protruding crescent of the orchestra. The curvature of the seat-rows thus inclined the faces of all the spectators towards the centre of the building, so that the terminating seats on the right and left were duly opposite to each other, like those of our boxes nearest the stage. The entire amphitheatre of seats was divided into belts or stripes by passages sweeping round them in profile, and again into wedge-like masses by flights of steps that radiated upwards from the lowest to the highest benches. Twelve feet lower than the lowest benches, yet still projecting into their convexity, came the crescent of the flat orchestra, which was never occupied by any spectators. In the middle of the basis-line of that orchestral crescent was the Thymele, a slight square elevation with steps, and a platform, which was the rallying point of the chorus. Around this thymele the dances of the chorus described a small circle, the one half of which was within the orchestral crescent towards the spectators, the other behind the thymele, and stretching nearly to the front stage. A part of the orchestra-ground therefore entered into the dromos. After inclosing the spectators and the interior orchestral crescent in one vast semicircle, the walls of the theatre ceased to describe a curve,
and ran on straight to join the right and left extremities of the Paraskenia, or flanking buildings of the stage; of course they thus formed the two ends of the Dromos, and the continuity of their masonry was interrupted only by the two grand and opposite entrances to the theatre. Those entrances, it is clear from Vitruvius, were covered above. The stage ground, with its flanks, or Paraskenia, formed a line as broad as the amphitheatre of spectators; but the stage itself was a trifle narrower than the orchestra, to which it was duly opposite. The level of the stage was the same as that of the lowest benches, consequently as many feet higher than the orchestra; but the whole wall of the stage ground rose to the same height as the wall on the outside of the highest benches. To return to the stage, it was connected with the orchestra by stairs; for though the choral and stage performers had a generally distinct locality, it is evident that there was a connexion in acting between the orchestra and the stage. The stage itself was twofold. One stage, called the Logeion, projected beyond the paraskenia, and, being meant merely for declamation, was constructed of wood, the better to reverberate the voice. Behind it, there was a chasm for holding the roll of the curtain; for that disguise, though it was seldom used, was drawn upwards by the Greeks, and not downwards, as by us. Immediately behind the logeion, lay the Proskenion, or proper stage, which, having often heavy plastic scenery to support, was made of stone. From the building behind, there were three entrances to the stage, and the rank of the characters was marked by the door from which they entered: the central and most superb one being allotted to royalty. A hall in the first floor of the stage-house contained the actors, whilst they stood ready to enter on their parts, and their dressing-rooms lay at its extremities. The back of the stage, as has been just mentioned, was not a mere wall, but a house of considerable height; and in like manner, its flanks were buildings of several stories, in the apartments of which, nearest to the stage, were kept the machines for moving its scenery. But, as the building behind was insufficient of itself to indicate the locality of the piece, there was a line of decorations in front of it, which properly constituted the scene. Those decorations were either plastic imitations of objects, chiefly in wood, or paintings on canvass and boards. The under decorations were plastic, the upper were flat pictures. The scenery, both on the sides and in the middle, was shifted by machines, which are minutely discussed by Genelli, but which it would be foreign to my purpose to describe. In general the Greek plays themselves show that there could not have been many changes of scene, and that the curtain was seldom necessary. But from the known fact, that the Greeks understood perspective, and from their anxiety to impress the senses, we may believe that the scenic effect of their stage was highly imposing. If Genelli be right, they spared not even the introduction of natural trees to adorn the landscape of Edipus Coloneus.
Almost every device which is known to the modern stage, was practised by the Greeks; and the dimensions, at least, of their theatres were favourable to illusion. Their Theologeion, or place of the conference of the gods, must have been an occasional scaffold, issuing from near the top of the stage-building, and surrounded with a picture of clouds. Infernal spirits and phantoms ascended from the Charonic steps at the extremity of the orchestra furthest from the stage, and beneath the lowest seats of the spectators. By our sceptical imaginations, the impressions made on a superstitious people by such representations, can be but