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9. Downfall of the Classical Drama

The ignoble end of the Roman—and with it of the ancient classical—drama has been already foreshadowed. The elements of dance and song, never integrally united with the dialogue in Roman tragedy, were now altogether separated from it. While it became customary simply to recite tragedies to the small audiences who continued (or, as a matter of courtesy, affected) to appreciate them, the pantomimus commended itself to the heterogeneous multitudes of the Roman theatre and to an effete Pantomimus. upper class by confining the performance of the actor to gesticulation and dancing, a chorus singing the accompanying text. The species was developed with extraordinary success already under Augustus by Pylades and Bathyllus; and so popular were these entertainments that even eminent poets, such as Lucan (d. A.D. 65), wrote the librettos for these fabulae salticae (ballets), of which the subjects were generally mythological, only now and then historical, and chiefly of an amorous kind. A single masked performer was able to enchant admiring crowds by the art of gesticulation and movement only. In what direction this art tended, when suiting itself to the most abnormal demands of a recklessly sensual age, may be gathered from the remark of one of the last pagan historians of the empire, that the introduction of pantomimes was a sign of the general moral decay of the world which began with the Mimus. beginning of the monarchy. Comedy more easily lost itself in the cognate form of the mimus, which survived all other kinds of comic entertainments because of its more audacious immorality and open obscenity. Women took part in these performances, by means of which, as late as the 6th century, a mima acquired a celebrity which ultimately raised her to the imperial throne, and perhaps occasioned the removal of a disability which would have rendered her marriage with Justinian impossible.

Meanwhile, the regular drama had lingered on, enjoying in all its forms imperial patronage in the days of the literary revival under Hadrian (117-138); but the perennial taste for the spectacles of the amphitheatre, which The drama and the Christian Church. was as strong at Byzantium as it was at Rome, and which reached its climax in the days of Constantine the Great (306-337), under whom the reaction set in, determined the downfall of the dramatic art. It was not absolutely extinguished even by the irruptions of the northern barbarians; but a bitter adversary had by this time risen into power. The whole authority of the Christian Church had, without usually caring to distinguish between the nobler and the looser elements in the drama, involved all its manifestations in a consistent condemnation (as in Tertullian’s De spectaculis, 200 c.), comprehended them all in an uncompromising anathema. When the faith of that Church was acknowledged as the religion of the Roman empire, the doom of the theatre was sealed. It died hard, however, both in the capitals and in many of the provincial centres of East and West alike. At Rome the last mention of spectacula as still in existence seems to date from the sway of the East-Goths under Theodoric and his successor, in the earlier half of the 6th century. In the capital and provinces of the Eastern empire the decline and fall of the stage cannot be similarly traced; but its end is authoritatively assigned to the period of Saracen invasions which began with the Omayyad dynasty in the 7th century.

It cannot be pretended that the doom which thus slowly and gradually overtook the Roman theatre was undeserved. The remnants of the literary drama had long been overshadowed by entertainments such as both earlier and later Roman emperors—Domitian and Trajan as well as Galerius and Constantine—had found themselves constrained to prohibit in the interests of public morality and order, by the bloody spectacles of the amphitheatre and by the maddening excitement of the circus. The art of acting had sunk into pandering to the lewd or frivolous itch of eye and ear; its professors had, in the words of a most judicious modern historian, become “a danger to the peace of householders, as well as to the peace of the streets”; and the theatre had contributed its utmost to the demoralization of a world. The attitude taken up by the Christian Church towards the stage was in general as unavoidable as its particular expressions were at times heated by fanaticism or distorted by ignorance. Had she not visited with her condemnation a wilderness of decay, she could not herself have become—what she little dreamt of becoming—the nursing mother of the new birth of an art which seemed incapable of regeneration.

Though already in the 4th century scenici had been excluded from the benefit of Christian sacraments, and excommunication had been extended to those who visited theatres instead of churches on Sundays and holidays, while the clergy Survival of the mimes. were absolutely prohibited from entering a theatre, and though similar enactments had followed at later dates—yet the entertainments of the condemned profession had never been entirely suppressed, and had even occasionally received imperial patronage. The legislation on the subject in the Codex Theodosianus (accepted by both empires in the earlier part of the 5th century) shows a measure of tolerance indicating a conviction that the theatrical profession could not be suppressed. Gradually, however, as they lost all footing in the centres of civic life, the mimes and their fellows became a wandering fraternity, who doubtless appeared at festivals when their services were required, and vanished again into the depths of the obscurity which has ever covered that mysterious existence—the strollers’ life. It was thus that these strange intermediaries of civilization carried down such traditions as survived of the acting drama of pagan antiquity into the succeeding ages.