Euripides and His Age/Chapter 3
LIFE CONTINUED: WHAT IS A GREEK TRAGEDY?: EURIPEDES' EARLY PLAYS: "ALCESTIS" AND "TELEPHUS"
To the public of the present day a play is merely an entertainment, and it was the same to the Elizabethans. Shakespeare can say to his audience "Our true intent is all for your delight," and we feel no particular shock in reading the words. The companies were just noblemen's servants; and it was natural enough that if Lord Leicester's players did not amuse Lord Leicester's guests, they should be sent away and others hired. If they too proved dull, the patron could drop the play altogether and call for tumblers and dancing dogs.
To a playwright of the twelfth century, who worked out in the church or in front of it his presentation of the great drama of the Gospel, such an attitude would have seemed debased and cynical. However poor the monkish players or playwright might be, surely that which they were presenting was in itself enough to fill the mind of a spectator. To them, as the great mediævalist, Gaston Paris, puts it, "the universe was a vast stage, on which was played an eternal drama, full of tears and joy, its actors divided between heaven, earth and hell; a drama whose end is foreseen, whose changes of fortune are directed by the hand of God, yet whose every scene is rich and thrilling." The spectator was admitted to the councils of the Trinity; he saw the legions of darkness mingling themselves with the lives of humanity, tempting and troubling, and the saints and angels at their work of protection or intercession; he saw with his own eyes the kiss of Judas, the scourging and crucifixion, the descent into Hell, the resurrection and ascension; and, lastly, the dragging down to red and bloody torment of the infinite multitudes of the unorthodox or the wicked. Imagine what passed in the minds of those who witnessed in full faith such a spectacle! [Poésie du Moyen Age I, Essay I.]
Now, in spite of a thousand differences of social organization and religious dogma, the atmosphere of primitive Greek tragedy must have been most strangely similar to this. It is not only that, like the mediæval plays, Greek tragedy was religious; that it was developed out of a definite ritual; not even that the most marked links of historical continuity can be traced between the death-and-resurrection ritual of certain Pagan "saviours" and those of the mediæval drama. It is that the ritual on which tragedy was based embodied the most fundamental Greek conceptions of life and fate, of law and sin and punishment.
When we say that tragedy originated in a dance, ritual or magical, intended to represent the death of the vegetation this year and its coming return in triumph next year, the above remarks may seem hard to justify. But we must remember several things. First, a dance was in ancient times essentially religious, not a mere capering with the feet but an attempt to express with every limb and and sinew of the body those emotions for which words, especially the words of simple and unlettered men, are inadequate (see p. 229). Again, vegetation is to us an abstract common noun; to the ancient it was a personal being, not "it" but "He." His death was as our own deaths, and his re-birth a thing to be anxiously sought with prayers and dances. For if He were not re-born, what would happen? Famine, and wholesale death by famine, was a familiar thought, a regularly returning terror, in these primitive agricultural villages. Nay, more, why must the cycle of summer and winter roll as it does? Why must "He" die and men die? Some of the oldest Greek philosophers have no doubt about the answer: there has been "Hubris" or "Adikia," Pride or Injustice, and the result thereof must needs be death. Every year He waxes too strong and commits "Hubris," and such sin has its proper punishment. "The sun shall not transgress his measures," says Heraclitus; "if he does he shall be pursued by Erinyes, till justice be re-fulfilled." It is the law of all existing things. "They all pay retribution for injustice, one to another, according to the Ordinance of Time" (Heraclitus, fr. 94, Anaximander, fr. 9). And the history of each year's bloom was an example of this refluent balance. The Year Daemon—Vegetation Spirit or Corn God or whatever we call him—waxes proud and is slain by his enemy, who becomes thereby a murderer and must in turn perish at the hands of the expected avenger, who is at the same time the Wronged One re-risen. The ritual of this Vegetation Spirit is extraordinarily widespread in all quarters of the globe, and may best be studied in Dr. Frazer's Golden Bough, especially in the part entitled, "The Dying God." Dionysus, the daemon of tragedy, is one of these Dying Gods, like Attis, Adonis, Osiris.
The Dionysiac ritual which lay at the back of tragedy, may be conjectured in its full form to have had six regular stages: (1) an Agôn or Contest, in which the Dæmon fights against his enemy, who—since it is really this year fighting last year—is apt to be almost identical with himself; (2) a Pathos, or disaster, which very commonly takes the shape of a "Sparagmos," or Tearing in pieces; the body of the Corn God being scattered in innumerable seeds over the earth; sometimes of some other sacrificial death; (3) a Messenger, who brings the news; (4) a Lamentation, very often mixed with a Song of Rejoicing, since the death of the Old King is also the accession of the new; (5) the Discovery or Recognition of the hidden or dismembered god; and (6) his Epiphany or Resurrection in glory.
This ritual of Dionysus, being made into a drama and falling into the hands of a remarkable set of creative artists, developed into what we know as Greek tragedy. The creative passion of the artist gradually conquered the emotion of the mere worshipper.
Exactly the same development took place in mediæval drama, or rather it was taking place when new secular influences broke in and destroyed it. The liturgical plays first enacted the main story of the New Testament; then they emphasized particular parts—there is a beautiful play, for instance, on the Massacre of the Innocents; then they developed imaginatively scenes that are implied but not mentioned in the Gospel, such as the experiences of the Magdalen when she lived "in joy," her dealings with cosmetic-sellers and the like; then, ranging right outside the Gospel histories, they dealt with the lives of St. Nicholas, St. Antony or any person who provided a good legend and had some claim to an atmosphere of sanctity.
In the same way Greek tragedy extended its range first to embrace the histories of other Heroes or Daemons—the difference is slight—who were essentially like Dionysus: Pentheus, Lycurgus, Hippolytus, Actaeon and especially, I should be inclined to add, Orestes. Then it took in any heroes to whose memory some ritual was attached. For the play is, with the rarest and most doubtful exceptions, essentially the enactment of a ritual, or rather of what the Greeks called an "aition"—that is, a supposed historical event which is the origin or "cause" of the ritual. Thus the death of Hippolytus is the "aition" of the lamentation-rite performed at the grave of Hippolytus; the death of Aias is the "aition" of the festival called Aianteia; the death of Medea's children, the "aition" of a certain ritual at Corinth; the story of Prometheus the "aition" of a certain Fire-festival in Athens. The tragedy, as ritual, enacts its own legendary origin.
There is then a further extension of the theme, to include a very few events in recent history. But we must observe that only those events were chosen which were felt to have about them some heroic grandeur or mystery; I think we may even say, only those events which, like the Battle of Salamis or the Fall of Miletus, had been made the subject of some religious celebration.
However that may be, the general temper of tragedy moved strongly away from the monotony of fixed ritual. The subjects thus grew richer and more varied; the mode of representation loftier and more artistic. What had begun as almost pure ritual ended by being almost pure drama. By the time Euripides began to write the master-tragedian Aeschylus had already lifted Greek drama to its highest level: whole generations have read his plays without even suspecting the ritual form that lies behind them. Aeschylus had also made the whole performance much longer and more impressive: he composed three continuous tragedies forming a single whole and followed by the strange performance called a Satyr-play. The wild element of revelry which was proper to Dionysus worship, with its bearded dancing half-animal satyrs, had been kept severely away from the stage during the three tragedies and must burst in to have its fling when they were finished. The other tragedians do not seem to have written in trilogies, and Euripides at any rate moved gradually away from satyr-plays. In their stead he put a curious sort of pro-satyric tragedy, a play in the tragic convention and free from the satyric coarseness, but containing at least one half-comic figure and preserving some fantastic quality of atmosphere.
On the Great Festival of Dionysus each year—and sometimes on other festivals—this ritual of tragedy was solemnly performed in the theatre of the god. Like most Greek festivals the performance took the form of a competition. The ground of this custom was, I suspect, religious. It was desired to get a spirit of "Nikê," or victory, into the celebration, and you could only get this by means of a contest. The Archon, or magistrate, in charge of the festival selected three poets to compete, and three rich men to be their "Chorêgoi," that is, to provide all the expenses of the performance. The poet was then said to have "obtained a chorus," and his work now was to "teach the chorus." At the end of the festival a body of five judges, somewhat elaborately and curiously chosen, awarded a first, second and third prize. Even the last competitor must have a kind of "victory"; any mention of "failure" at such a time would be ill-omened.
This, in rough outline, was the official mould in which our poet's creative activity had to run. The record of his early work is, as we had reason to expect, terribly defective. But we do happen to know the name and subject of the first play for which he "was granted a chorus." It was called the Daughters of Pelias. Its story was based on the old ritual of the Year-god, who is cut to pieces or scattered like the seed, and then restored to life and youth. Medea, the enchantress maiden from the further shores of the Friendless Sea, had fled from her home with the Greek adventurer Jason, the winner of the Golden Fleece. She came with him to Thessaly, where his uncle Pelias was king. Pelias had usurped Jason's ancestral crown and therefore hated him. The daughters of Pelias doubtless sneered at Medea and encouraged Jason's growing distaste for his barbarian prize. The savage woman determined at one blow to be rid of Pelias, to punish his daughters, and reconquer Jason's love. She had the power of renovating the life of the old. She persuaded the daughters of Pelias to try her method on their father, with the result that he died in agony, and they stood guilty of a hideous murder. Medea, we may conjecture, was triumphant, till she found she had made Jason a ruined man and taught him really to hate her. The play is characteristic in two ways. It was clearly based on the old ritual, and it treated one of Euripides' great subjects, the passions of a suffering and savage woman.
The Daughters of Pelias was produced in 455, when the poet was twenty-nine, just a year after the death of Aeschylus and thirteen years after the first victory of Sophocles. Euripides' own first victory—we do not know the name of the successful play—did not come till 442, a year before Sophocles' masterpiece, the Antigone.
We have only two examples, and those not certain, of Euripides' work before that time. The Cyclops is a satyr-play pure and simple, and the only complete specimen of its class. It is probably earlier than the Alcestis, and is interesting because it shows Euripides writing for once without any arrière pensée, or secondary intention. It is a gay and grotesque piece, based on Homer's story of Odysseus in the Cyclops' cave. The farcical and fantastic note is firmly held, so that the climax of the story, in which the monster's eye is burnt out with a log of burning wood, is kept unreal and not disgusting. The later Euripides would probably have made it horrible and swung our sympathies violently round to the side of the victim.
The Rhesus has come down to us in a very peculiar condition and is often considered spurious. We know, however, that Euripides wrote a Rhesus, and tradition says that he was "very young" when he wrote it. My own view—explained in the preface to my translation—would make it probably a very early pro-satyric play which was produced after the poet's death and considerably rewritten. It is a young man's play, full of war and adventure, of spies in wolf-skins and white chargers and gallant chivalry. That is not much like the Euripides whom we know elsewhere; but his mark is upon the last scene, in which the soldiers stand embarrassed and silent while a solitary mother weeps over her dead son. The poetry of the scene is exquisite; but what is most characteristic is the sudden flavour of bitterness, the cold wind that so suddenly takes the heart out of joyous war. Some touch of that bitter flavour will be found hereafter in every play, however beautiful or romantic, that comes from the pen of Euripides.
Up to the year 438, when the poet was forty-six, the records, as we have said, almost fail us. But in that year he produced a set of four plays, The Cretan Women, Alcmaeon in Psôphis, Telephus, and, in place of a satyr-play, the Alcestis. The last is still extant and is very characteristic of the master's mind. The saga told how Admetus, a king in Thessaly, was fated to die on a certain day, but, in return for his piety of old, was allowed to find a substitute to die for him. His old father and mother refused; his young wife, Alcestis, gladly consented to die. Amid exquisite songs of mourning she is carried to her grave, when the wild hero, Heracles, comes to the house seeking hospitality. Admetus, with primitive courtesy, conceals what has happened and orders him to be given entertainment. The burial is finished when Heracles, already revelling and drunken and crowned with flowers, learns the truth. Sobered at the touch he goes out into the night to wrestle with Death amid the tombs and crush his ribs for him till he yields up his prey. One sees the fantastic satyr note. The play is not truly tragic; it touches its theme tenderly and with romance. But amid all the romance Euripides cannot keep his hand from unveiling the weak spot in the sacred legend. Alcestis, no doubt, is beautiful, and it was beautiful of her to die. But what was it of Admetus to let her die? An ordinary playwright would elude the awkward question. Admetus would refuse his wife's sacrifice and she would perform it against his will or without his knowledge. We should somehow save our hero's character. Not so Euripides. His Admetus weeps tenderly over his wife, but he thinks it entirely suitable that she should die for him. The veil is not removed from his eyes till his old father, Pheres, who has bluntly refused to die for anybody, comes to bring offerings to Alcestis' funeral. A quarrel breaks out between the two selfish men, brilliantly written, subtle and merciless, in which Admetus's weakness is laid bare. The scene is a great grief to the purely romantic reader, but it just makes the play profound instead of superficial.
All the plays of 438 are, in different ways, typical of their author. And we will spend a little time on each. The Alcmaeon in Psôphis was what we should call a romance. Alcmaeon was the son of that Eriphyle who betrayed her husband to death for the sake of a charmed necklace which had once belonged to Harmonia, the daughter of Ares. Alcmaeon slew his mother and became in consequence mad and accursed. Seeking purification he fled to the land of Psôphis, where the King cleansed him and gave him the hand of his daughter Arsinoë, who duly received the necklace. However, Alcmaeon's sin was too great for any such cleansing. He wandered away, all the earth being accursed to him, till he should find some land that had not been in existence at the time of his sin and was consequently unpolluted. He discovered it in some alluvial islands, just then making their appearance at the mouth of the River Acheloüs. Here he at last found peace and married the daughter of Acheloüs, Callirrhoë. She asks for the necklace and Alcmaeon goes back to get it from Arsinoë. He professes to need it for his own purification and she willingly gives it him; then she finds that he really wants it for his new bride, and in fury has him murdered on his road home. A romantic and varied story with one fine touch of tragic passion.
The Telephus also deserves special mention. It had apparently the misfortune to be seen by Aristophanes, then a boy about sixteen. At any rate the comedian was never able to forget it, and we know it chiefly from his parodies. It struck out a new style in Attic drama, the style of adventure and plot-interest, which threw to the winds the traditional tragic dignities and pomps. The usual convention in tragedy was to clothe the characters in elaborate priestly dress with ritual masks carefully graduated according to the rank of the character. Such trappings came to Tragedy as an inheritance from its old magico-religious days, and it never quite succeeded in throwing them off, even in its most vital period. It is very difficult for us to form a clear notion what the ordinary Greek tragedy looked like in 438, and how much we should have noticed any great change of dressing in the Telephus. But there was a change which raised a storm of comment. Telephus was a King of Mysia, not very far from the Troad. The Greeks in sailing for Troy had missed their way and invaded Telephus' country by mistake. He had fought them with great effect but had been wounded by Achilles with his magic spear. The wound would not close, and an oracle told Telephus "the wounder shall heal." The Greeks were back in Greece by this time, planning a new invasion of Troy. The king goes, lame and disguised as a beggar, into the heart of the Greek army and into Agamemnon's palace. Euripides, since the king had to be a beggar, dressed him as a beggar, with rags and a wallet. It is hard to see how he could possibly have done otherwise, but we may surmise that his beggar's dress was a little more realistic and less merely symbolical than his audience expected. In any case, though critics were shocked, the practice established itself. Telephus and Philoctêtes were afterwards regularly allowed to dress in "rags," even in the work of Sophocles.
There were great scenes owing to the boldness of the ragged and intrusive stranger. The Greek chieftains proposed to kill him, but granted him at last the right of making one speech to save his life. He seems to have spoken beside, or over, the headsman's block. And the case he had to plead was characteristic of Euripides. The Greeks considered quite simply that Telephus was their enemy and must be destroyed on their next expedition. The beggar explained that Telephus had found his country ravaged and was bound to defend it. Every man among the Greeks would have done the same; there is nothing to blame Telephus for. At the end of this scene, apparently, the beggar was discovered. It is Telephus himself speaking! They fly to their spears. But Telephus has snatched up the baby prince, Orestes, from his cradle and stands at bay; if one of his enemies moves the child shall die. Eventually they accept his terms and make peace with him. A fine melodrama, one would guess, and a move in the direction of realism—a direction which Euripides only followed within certain strict limits. But we find two marks of Euripides the philosopher. The beggar who pleads for reasonable justice towards the national enemy strikes a note which Euripides himself often had to sound afterwards. It was not for nothing that Aristophanes in his Acharnians, thirteen years later, used a parody of this scene in order to plead the dangerous cause of reasonableness towards Sparta. The other mark is a curious tang of sadness at the close. The Greeks demand that Telephus, so brave and resourceful, shall be their ally against Troy. But his wife is a Trojan princess and he refuses. He consents reluctantly to show the army the road to his wife's fatherland and then turns away.
The remaining play of the trilogy performed in 438 strikes a chord that proved more dangerous to Euripides. The Cretan Women told the story of Aëropê, a Cretan princess who secretly loved a squire or young soldier. Her intrigue is discovered, and her father gives her to a Greek sailor to throw into the sea. The sailor spares her life and takes her to Greece. The story as it stands is a common ballad motive and not calculated to disturb any one. But the disciple of the sophists did not leave these romances where he found them. He liked to think them out in terms of real life. The songs in which Aëropê poured out her love were remembered against Euripides after his death. It was all very well to sympathize in a remote artistic way with these erring damsels; but Euripides seemed to come too near raising an actual doubt whether the damsel had done anything so very wrong at all, that respectable people should want to murder her. Euripides is, as a matter of fact, not loose but highly austere in his moral tone. But next to religion itself, the sphere of sexual conduct has always been the great field for irrational taboos and savage punishments, and the sophists naturally marked it as a battle-field. The kings of Egypt commonly married their sisters, and did so on religious grounds: to a Greek such marriage was an unspeakable sin. There is a problem here, and Euripides raised it sharply in a play, Aeolus, based on the old fairy-tale of the King of the winds who dwells as a patriarch on his floating island with his twelve sons married to his twelve daughters. "Canst face mine eyes, fresh from thy deed of shame?" says the angry father in this play; and his son answers, "What is shame, when the doer feels no shame?" Euripides also treated several times legends where a god became the lover of a mortal maiden, and, as we shall see in the Ion, he loved to rouse sympathy for the maiden and contempt for the god (p. 121). In one case he even treats, through a mist of strange religious mysticism, the impossible amour of Pasiphaë of Crete with the Cretan Bull-god. It is interesting, however, to observe that there is in Euripides no trace of sympathy for the one form of perverted indulgence on which the ancient tone was markedly different from ours. It is reserved for the bestial Cyclops and Laius the accursed.
Adventure, brilliance, invention, romance and scenic effect; these together with delightful lyrics, a wonderful command over the Greek language, and a somewhat daring admixture of sophistic wisdom which sometimes took away a spectator's breath, were probably the qualities which the ordinary public had felt in Euripides' work up to the year 438. They perhaps felt also that these pleasant gifts were apt to be needlessly marred by a certain unintelligible note of discord. It was a pity; and, as the man was now forty-six, he ought surely to have learnt how to smooth it out!
It was not smoothness that was coming.
- The above is the present writer's re-statement, published in Miss Harrison's Themis, pp. 341 ff., of the orthodox view of the origin of tragedy. See also Cornford From Religion to Philosophy, first few chapters. The chief non-Dionysiac theory is Professor Ridgeway's, who derives tragedy directly from the funeral cult of individual heroes: Origin of Tragedy, Cambridge, 1910.