A History of Ancient Greek Literature/Chapter 9





Looking at the Drama of Sophocles as a finished product, without considering its historical growth, we are constantly offended by what seem to be inexplicable pieces of conventionalism. From some conventional elements, indeed, it is singularly free. There are one or two traditional ficelles—oracles, for instance, and exposure of children; but on the whole the play of incident and character is as true as it is unostentatious. There is no sham heroism, no impossible villainy, no maudlin sentiment. There is singular boldness and variety of plot, and there is perfect freedom from those pairs of lovers who have been our tyrants since modern drama began.

One group of alleged conventions may be at once set aside. We must for the present refuse to listen to those who talk to us of masks and buskins and top-knots and sacerdotal dress, repeat to us the coarse half-knowledge of Pollux and Lucian, show us the grotesques of South Italy and the plasterer's work of Pompeian degradation, compile from them an incorrect account of the half-dead Hellenistic or Roman stage—the stage that competed with the amphitheatre—and bid us construct an idea of the drama of Euripides out of the ghastly farrago. It is one of the immediate duties of archæological research to set us right again where archæological text-books have set us so miserably wrong.

Still our undoubted literary tradition does contain strong elements of conventionalism. The characters are all saga-people;[1] they all speak in verse; they tend to speak at equal length, and they almost never interrupt except at the end of a line. Last and worst, there is eternally present a chorus of twelve or fifteen homogeneous persons—maidens, matrons, elders, captives, or the like—whose main duty is to minimise the inconvenience of their presence during the action, and to dance and sing in a conventional Doric dialect during the intervals. The explanation of this is, of course, historical.

We have seen above (p. 99) how the Silenus-choir of the Centaur-like followers of Dionysus was merged into the Satyr-choir of wild mountain-goats in the suite of the Arcadian mountain-god Pan. 'Tragos' is a goat; 'tragikos choros' a goat-choir; and 'tragôidia' a goat-song. The meaning of the word only changed because the thing it denoted changed. Tragedy developed from the Dorian goat-choirs of the Northern Peloponnese—those of Arîon at Corinth, and of the precursors of Pratînas at Phlius, and those which the tyrant Cleisthenes suppressed at Sikyon for "celebrating the sufferings of Adrastus."[2]

Of course, other influences may also have helped. There was a mimetic element in the earliest popular poetry, and we hear of 'drômena' (things performed) —the word lies very near 'drâma' (performance)—in many religious cults. The birth of Zeus was acted in Crete; his marriage with Hera, in Samos, Crete, and Argos. There were sacred puppets, 'Daidala,' at Platæa. The 'Crane-Dance' of Delos showed Theseus saving the children from the Labyrinth; and even the mysteries at Eleusis and elsewhere made their revelations more to mortal eyes by spectacle than to mortal ears by definite statement.

The first step in the transformation of the goat-choir took place on Attic soil, when the song poetry of the Dorian met the speech poetry of Ionia. A wide-spread tradition tells us that Thespis of the village Icaria was the first poet who, "to rest his dancers and vary the entertainment," came forward personally at intervals and recited to the public a speech in trochaic tetrameters, like those metrical harangues which Solon had declaimed in the market-place.[3] His first victory was in 534 B.C. His successors were Choirilus and a foreigner who performed in Attica, Pratinas of Phlius.

The choir were still satyrs at this stage. What was the poet? Probably he represented the hero of the play, the legendary king or god. An old saying, not understood afterwards, speaks of the time "when Choirilus was a king among satyrs." But if the poet represented one character, why should he not represent more? If he came on first, say, as the King Lycurgus, let him change his dress during the next song and re-enter as the priest whom Lycurgus has scorned; next time he may be a messenger announcing the tyrant's death. All that is needed is a place to dress in. A section of the round dancing-floor ('orchêstra') is cut off; a booth or 'skênê' is erected, and the front of it made presentable. Normally it becomes a palace with three doors for the actor-poet to go in and out of. Meantime the character of the dancing is somewhat altered, because there is no longer a ring to dance in; the old ring-dance or 'cyclic chorus' has turned into the 'square' chorus of tragedy.

Of course, the choir can change costume too: Pratînas once had a choir representing Dymanian dancing girls. But that was a more serious business, and seems to have required a rather curious intermediate stage. There are titles of plays, such as The Huntsmen-Satyrs,* Herald- Satyrs,* Wrestler-Satyrs.* Does not this imply[4] something like the Maccus a Soldier, Maccus an Innkeeper, of the Italian 'Atellanæ,' like The Devil a Monk in English? The actor does not represent a soldier simply; he represents the old stage buffoon Maccus pretending to be a soldier. The choir are not heralds; they are satyrs masquerading as such. It is the natural end of this kind of entertainment to have the disguise torn off, and the satyrs, or Maccus, or the Devil, revealed in their true characters. In practice the tragic choirs were allowed three changes of costume before they appeared as satyrs confessed. That is, to use the language of a later time, each performance was a 'tetralogy'—three 'tragedies' ('little myths,' Aristotle calls them by comparison with the longer plays of his own day), followed by a satyric drama. The practice did not die till the middle period of Euripides. His Cyclops is the one satyr-play extant, while his Alkêstis is a real drama acted as a concluding piece to three tragedies.

The Greek word for actor, 'hypocritês' means 'answerer.' The poet was really the actor; but if he wanted to develop his solitary declamation into dialogue, he needed some one to answer him. The chorus was normally divided into two parts, as the system of strophe and antistrophe testifies. The poet perhaps took for answerers the leaders of these two parts. At any rate, 'three actors' are regularly found in the fully-developed tragedy. The old round choir consisted of fifty dancers and a poet: the full tragic company of forty-eight dancers, two 'answerers,' and a poet. That was all that the so-called 'chorêgus'—the rich citizen who undertook the expenses of the performance—was ever bound to supply; and munificent as this functionary often was in other respects, his 'parachorêgêmata,' or gifts of supererogation, never took the form of a fourth actor in the proper sense. Nor did he provide four changes of costume for the whole forty-eight dancers; they appeared twelve at a time in the four plays of the tetralogy. The tradition says loosely that Thespis had one actor, Æschylus two, and Sophocles three, though sometimes it is Æschylus who introduced the third. As a matter of fact, it was the state, not the poet, which gave fixed prizes to the actors, and settled the general conduct of the Dionysus Feast. Accordingly, when we find an ancient critic attributing particular scenic changes to particular poets, this as a rule only means that the changes appeared to him to occur for the first time in their works. A mutilated inscription[5] seems to give us the date of some important alteration or ratification of stage arrangements. It admitted Comedy to the great Dionysia; it perhaps established the 'three actors,' perhaps raised the tragic chorus from twelve to fifteen, and perhaps made the palace-front scene a permanency. The poets tended naturally to retire from acting. Æschylus ceased in his later life. Sophocles is said to have found his voice too weak. The profession of actor must have been established before 456 B.C., when we first find the victorious actors mentioned officially along with the poet and the 'chorêgus.'

The chorus was the main substance of the tragedy. Two main processes were needed to make a complete performance: the 'chorêgus' ' provided a chorus,' the poet 'taught the chorus'—those were the difficult things. The mere composition was a matter of detail, which any good poet was ready to do for you. All the technical terms are formed with reference to the chorus. The 'prologue' is all that comes before their entrance; an 'episodion' is the 'entry to' the chorus of any fresh character; the close of the play is an 'exodus,' because they then depart. But the chorus was doomed to dwindle as tragedy grew. Dialogue is the essence of drama; and the dialogue soon became, in Aristotle's phrase, 'the protagonist.' We can see it developing even in our scanty remains. It moves from declaimed poetry to dramatic speech; it grows less grand and stiff, more rapid and conversational. It also increases in extent. In the Suppliants of Æschylus (before 470 B.C.) the chorus are really the heroines of the play. They are singing for two-thirds of it. They are present from the first line to the last. In the Philoctêtês of Sophocles (409 B.C.) they are personally unimportant, they do not appear till the play is well in train, and their songs fill about one-sixth of the whole. This is one reason why the later plays are so much longer than the earlier: they were quicker to act.

There was, however, another influence affecting the musical side of tragedy in a very different manner. The singing gradually ceased to be entirely in the hands of the chorus. The historical fact is that with the rise of the Athenian Democracy the chorus ceased to be professional. It consisted of free burghers who undertook the performance of the public religious dances as one of their privileges or duties.[6] The consequence was that the dancing became less elaborate. The metres and the singing had to be within the capabilities of the average musical man. But meanwhile the general interest in music was growing deeper, and the public taste more exacting in its demands. The average choir-song lost its hold on the cultivated Athenian of the war time. If he was to have music, let him have something more subtle and moving than that, something more like the living music of the dithyramb, which was now increasingly elaborate and professional. So while between Æschylus and the later plays of Sophocles the musical side of the drama is steadily falling back, between the earlier and later plays of Euripides it is growing again. But it is no longer the music of the chorus. Euripides used 'answerers' who were also trained singers; he abounds in 'monodies' or solos. In the Medea (431 B.C.) the lyrical part is about a fifth of the whole; in the Ion (414 B.C.) it is nearly half, but the monodies and part-songs amount to half as much again as the choir-songs. In the Orestes (408 B.C.) the solo parts are three times as long as the choral parts. One apparent exception to this rule really illustrates its meaning. The Bacchæ, one of the very latest plays, has a large choral element and no monodies. Why? Because when Euripides wrote it he had migrated to Macedonia, and apparently had not taken his operatic actors with him. Macedonia had no drama; but it had a living dithyramb with professional performers, and it was they who sang in the Bacchæ.

This upward movement of the satyr-song was due to various causes—to the spiritual crises that ennobled the Athenian people; to the need for some new form of art to replace the dying epos as a vehicle for the heroic saga; to the demand made by Dionysus-worship for that intensity of emotion which is almost of necessity tragic. The expropriated satyrs were consigned, with their quaint old-world buffoonery, to a private corner at the end of the three tragedies, and the comic element was left to develop itself in a separate form of art.

To us in our reflective moods comedy and tragedy seem only two sides of the same thing, the division between them scarcely tangible; and so thought the Athens of Menander. But historically they are of different pedigree. Tragedy springs from the artistic and professional choir-song; comedy, from the mumming of rustics at vintage and harvest feasts. "Tragedy arose from the dithyramb," says Aristotle; "comedy, from the phallic performances." These were celebrated in honour of the spirits of fructification and increase in man, beast, or herb, which were worshipped under various names in different parts of Greece. It was Dionysus at Acharnæ, in Rhodes, and in Delos. It was the sisters Dâmia and Auxêsia in Ægina; Demeter in some parts of Attica; Pan in the Northern Peloponnese. It is always a shock to the modern imagination to come upon the public establishment of such monstrously indecent performances among a people so far more simple and less self-indulgent than ourselves. But, apart from possible elements of unconscious hypocrisy on our own part, there are many things to be borne in mind. In dealing with those elements in human nature which are more permanent than respectable, the characteristic Greek method was frank recognition and regulation. A pent-up force becomes dangerous; let all natural impulses be given free play in such ways and on such occasions as will do least damage. There were the strictest laws against the abuse of these festivals, against violence, against the undue participation of the young; but there was, roughly speaking, no shame and no secrecy. We have, unfortunately, lost Aristotle's philosophy of comedy. It was in the missing part of the Poetics. But when he explains the moral basis of tragedy as being "to purge our minds of their vague impulses of pity and terror" by a strong bout of these emotions; when he justifies 'tumultuous' music as affording a 'purgation' of the wild emotional element in our nature which might else break out in what he calls 'enthousiasmos'; it is easy to see that the licences in comedy might be supposed to effect a more obvious and necessary purgation.[7] Besides this, we must not forget that there was always present in Greece an active protest against these performances; that even absolute asceticism was never without its apostles; and, lastly, that where religion gives sanctity to a bad custom it palsies the powers of the saner intellect. Without a doubt many a modest and homely priestess of Dionysus must have believed in the beneficial effects both here and hereafter of these ancient and symbolical processions.

One of the characteristics of the processions was 'parrhêsia' ('free speech'); and it remained the proud privilege of comedy. You mocked and insulted freely on the day of special licence any of those persons to whom fear or good manners kept you silent in ordinary life. In some of the processions this privilege was specially granted to women. As soon as comedy began to be seriously treated, the central point of it lay in a song, written and learned, in which the choir, acting merely as the mouthpiece of the poet, addressed the public on 'topical' subjects. This became the 'parabasis' of the full-grown comedy. For the rest, the germ of comedy is a troop of mummers at the feast of Dionysus or some similar god, who march with flute and pipe, sing a phallic song, and amuse the onlookers with improvised buffoonery. They are unpaid, unauthorised. It was not till about 465 B.C. that public recognition was given to the 'kômoi,' or revel-bands, and 'komôidia' allowed to stand by the side of 'tragôidia.' It came first at the Lenæa, afterwards at other Dionysiac festivals. But it was not till the beginning of the Peloponnesian War that two gifted young writers, Eupolis and Aristophanes, eventually gave the Old Comedy an artistic form, wove the isolated bits of farce into a plot, and more or less abolished or justified the phallic element.[8] After that comedy develops even more rapidly than tragedy. The chorus takes a more real and lifelike part in the action; its inherent absurdity does much less harm, and it disappears more rapidly. The last work of Aristophanes is almost without chorus, and marks the intermediate development known as the Middle Comedy, tamer than the Old, not so perfect as the New. Then comes, in weaker hands, alas! and brains less 'dæmonic,' the realisation of the strivings of Euripides, the triumph of the dramatic principle, the art that is neither tragic nor comic but both at once, which aims self-consciously at being "the imitation of life, the mirror of human intercourse, the expression of reality."[9] This form of art once established lasted for centuries. It began shortly after 400 B.C., when public poverty joined with artistic feeling in securing the abolition of the costly chorus, and when the free libel of public persons had, after long struggles and reactions, become finally recognised as offensive. It reached its zenith with Menander and Philêmon about 300 B.C.; while inscriptions of various dates about 160 have recently taught us that even at that time five original comedies a year were still expected at the great Dionysia, besides the reproduction of old ones. It is a curious irony of fortune that has utterly obliterated, save for a large store of 'fragments' and a few coarse Latin adaptations, the whole of this exceptionally rich department of ancient literature.


Phrynichus, son of Polyphradmon (fl. 494 B.C.)

The least shadowy among the pre-Æschylean dramatists is Phrynichus. Tradition gives us the names of nine of his plays, and tells us that he used the trochaic tetrameter in his dialogue, and introduced women's parts. We hear that he made a play on the Capture of Milêtus;* that a fine was put on him for doing so, and notice issued that the subject must not be treated again. The fall of Milêtus was a national grief, and perhaps a disgrace; at any rate, it involved party politics of too extreme a sort. Phrynichus had better fortune with his other play from contemporary history, the Phœnissæ;* its chorus representing the wives of Xerxes' Phœnician sailors, and its opening scene the king's council-chamber, with the elders waiting for news of the great war. He won the prize that time, and probably had for 'chorêgus' Themistocles himself, the real, though of course unmentioned, hero of the piece. It is the lyrics that we most regret to have lost, the quaint obsolete songs still hummed in the days of the Peloponnesian War by the tough old survivors of Marathon, who went about at unearthly hours of the morning—

"Lights in their hands, old music on their lips,
Wild honey and the East and loveliness."[10]

A certain grace and tenderness suggested by our remains of Phrynichus enable us to realise how much Æschylus's grand style is due to his own character rather than to the conditions of the art in his time; though it remains true that the Persian War did for tragedy what the Migrations seem to have done for Homer, and that Phrynichus and Æschylus are both of them 'men of Marathon.'

  1. The best known exception is the Flower* (or Antheus) of Agathon. Agathon left Athens (about 407) at the age of forty, when he had already won a position inferior only to that of Sophocles and Euripides, but before his individual originality and his Socratic or Platonic spirit had a permanent effect on the drama. Aristophanes had assailed him vehemently in the Thesmophoriazusæ and Gerytades*—a testimony to his 'advanced' spirit in art.
  2. Hdt. v. 67.
  3. Aristotle does not mention Thespis; and the pseudo-Platonic dialogue Minos says expressly that tragedy did not start, "as people imagine," with Thespis, nor yet with Phrynichus, but was much older. See Hiller in Rh. Mus. xxxix. 321.
  4. W. M. Herakles, i. p. 88.
  5. C. I. A. ii. 971.
  6. Resp. Ath. i. 13.
  7. The definition in frag. 3, Vahlen, says this directly: "ἡδονὴ and γέλως are to be so purged by comedy." But is the whole passage a genuine quotation, or is it rather a deduction of Aristotle's views?
  8. Abolished in the Clouds, justified in the Lysistrata.
  9. Cic. de Repub. iv. 11, quoting a Peripatetic (?).
  10. Aristoph. Vesp. 220.