Euripides and His Age/Chapter 8
THE ART OF EURIPIDES : IDEAL FORM AND SINCERE SPIRIT : PROLOGUE : MESSENGER : "DEUS EX MÂCHINÂ"
Euripides was so much besides a poet that we sometimes tend to regard him exclusively as a great thinker or a great personality and forget that it is in his poetry that he lives. A biography like that which we have attempted to sketch is of little value except as a kind of clue to guide a reader through the paths of the poet's own work. It is only by reading his plays that we can know him; and unfortunately, owing to the two thousand odd years that have passed since his death, we must needs approach them through some distorting medium. We read them either in a foreign language, as a rule most imperfectly understood, or else in a translation. It is hard to say by which method a reader who is not a quite good Greek scholar will miss most. A further difficulty occurs about the translations. I need not perhaps apologize for assuming normally in the present volume the use of my own. There has been lately, since the work of Verrall in England and Wilamowitz in Germany, a far more successful effort made to understand the mind of Euripides, while the recent performances of his plays in London and elsewhere have considerably increased our insight into his stagecraft. Consequently we can now see that the older translations, even when verbally defensible and even skilful, are often seriously inadequate or misleading. A comparison of Dr. Verrall's English version of the Ion with practically any of its predecessors will illustrate this point.
The greatest change that has come over our study of Greek civilization and literature in the last two generations is this: that we now try to approach it historically, as a thing that moves and grows and has its place in the whole life-history of man. The old view, sometimes called classicist, was to regard the great classical books as eternal models; their style was simply the right style, and all the variations observable in modern literature were, in one degree or another, so many concessions to the weakness of human nature. There is in this view an element of truth. The fundamental ideals which have produced results so singularly and so permanently successful cannot be lightly disregarded. Books that are still read with delight after two thousand years are certainly, in some sense, models to imitate. But the great flaw in the classicist view, as regards the ancient literature itself, was that it concentrated attention on the external and accidental; on the mannerism, not the meaning; on the temporary fashion of a great age, not on the spirit which made that age great. A historical mind will always try, by active and critical use of the imagination, to see the Greek poet or philosopher in his real surroundings and against his proper background. Seen thus he will appear, not as a stationary "ancient" contrasted with a "modern," but as a moving and striving figure, a daring pioneer in the advance of the human spirit, fore-doomed to failure because his aims were so far greater than his material resources, his habit of mind so far in advance of the world that surrounded him. We seem in ancient Greece to be moving in a region that is next door to savagery, and in the midst of it to have speech with men whom we might gladly accept as our leaders or advisers if they lived now.
Meantime there are screens between us and these men; the screens of a foreign language, a strange form of life, different conventions in art. It is these last that we must now deal with, for we shall find it hard ever to understand Greek tragedy if we expect from it exactly what we expect from a modern or Elizabethan play.
One would have to make no such preface if we were dealing with the form of Greek Drama that immediately succeeded the great age of Tragedy. There arose in the fourth century, B.C., a kind of play that we could understand at once, the so-called New Comedy of Menander and Philemon. New Comedy is neither tragic nor comic, but, like our own plays, a discreet mixture of both. It has no austere religious atmosphere. Its interest—like ours—is in love and adventure and intrigue. It has turned aside from legend and legendary Kings and Queens, and operates, as we do, with a boldly invented plot and fictitious characters, drawn mostly from everyday life. The New Comedy dominated the later Attic stage and called into life the Roman. It was highly praised and immensely popular. It was so easy in its flow and it demanded so little effort. Yet, significantly enough, it has passed away without leaving a single complete specimen of its work in existence. When after ages were exerting themselves to save from antiquity just that minimum of most precious things that must not be allowed to die, it was the greater and more difficult form of drama that they preserved.
Let us try to see and to surmount the difficulties. Every form of art has its conventions. Think, for instance, of the conventions of modern Opera. Looked at in cold blood, from outside the illusion, few forms of art could be more absurd, yet, I suppose, the emotional and artistic effect of a great opera is extraordinarily high. The analogy may help us in the understanding of Greek tragedy.
Let us remember that it is at heart a religious ritual. We shall then understand—so far as it is necessary for a modern reader to think of such things—the ceremonial dress, the religious masks, the constant presence or nearness of the supernatural. We shall understand, perhaps, also the formal dignity of language and action. It is verse and, like all Greek verse, unrhymed; but it is not at all like the loose go-as-you-please Elizabethan verse, which fluctuates from scene to scene and makes up for its lack of strict form by extreme verbal ornamentation. In Greek tragic dialogue the metrical form is stiff and clear; hardly ever could a tragic line by any mistake be taken for prose; the only normal variation is not towards prose but towards a still more highly wrought musical lyric. Yet inside the stiff metrical form the language is clear, simple and direct. A similar effect can, in my opinion, only be attained in English by the use of rhyme. You must somehow feel always that you are in the realm of verse, yet your language must always be simple. In blank verse the language has to be tortured a little, or it will read like prose.
Now all this sounds highly conventional; that it is. And artificial and unreal? That it is not. We are apt at the present moment of taste to associate together two things that have no real connexion with one another—sincerity of thought and sloppiness of form. Take on the one hand dramatic poems like Swinburne's Locrine, written all in rhymed verse and partly in sonnets, or George Meredith's Modern Love, which is all in a form of sonnet. These are works of the most highly-wrought artistic convention; their form is both severe and elaborate; in that lies half their beauty. But the other half lies in their sincerity and delicacy of thought and their intensity of feeling. They are sincere but not formless. Of the other extreme, which is formless without being sincere, I need give no examples. The reader can think of the worst-written novel he knows and it will probably satisfy the conditions. In Greek tragedy we have the element of formal convention extremely strong; we have also great subtlety and sincerity.
This quality of sincerity is, perhaps, the very first thing that should be pointed out to a reader who is beginning Greek tragedy. Coming in the midst of so much poetical convention it takes a modern reader by surprise; he expected romantic idealism and he finds clear character-drawing. I once read a critic who argued that Euripides had low ideals of womanhood because, in the critic's carefully pondered judgment, Medea was not a perfect wife. Even Coleridge complained that the Greek tragedians could not make a heroine interesting without "unsexing her." Such criticisms imply a conception of drama in which the women are conventionally seen through a roseate mist of amatory emotion. We mean to be in love with the heroine, and in order that she may be worthy of that honour the author must endow her with all the adorable attributes. The men in such plays suffer much less from beautification, but even they suffer. This spurious kind of romanticism implies chiefly an indifference to truth in the realm of character; it is generally accompanied by an indifference to truth in other respects. It leads stage-writers to look out for the effect, not the truth; to write with a view to exciting the audience instead of expressing something which they have to express. It leads in fact to all the forms of staginess. Now from Greek tragedy this kind of falseness is almost entirely absent. "It has no utter villains, no insipidly angelic heroines. Even its tyrants generally have some touch of human nature about them; they have at least a case to state. Even its virgin martyrs are not waxen images." The stories are no doubt often miraculous; the characters themselves are often in their origin supernatural. But their psychology is severely true. It is not the psychology of melodrama, specially contrived to lead up to "situations." It is that of observed human nature, and human nature not merely observed but approached with a serious almost reverent sympathy and an unlimited desire to understand. Mr. Bernard Shaw, in his Quintessence of Ibsenism (1913), writes of a new element brought into modern drama by the Norwegian school. "Ibsen was grim enough in all conscience; no man has said more terrible things; and yet there is not one of Ibsen's characters who is not, in the old phrase, the temple of the Holy Ghost, and who does not move you at moments by the sense of that mystery." Allowing for the great difference of treatment and the comparative absence of detail in the ancient drama, this phrase would, I think, be true of all the great Greek tragedians. In Euripides it is clear enough. Jason, as well as Medea, Clytemnestra as well as Electra, even satirized characters like Menelaus in the Trojan Women or Agamemnon in the Iphigenia in Aulis, are creatures of one blood with ourselves; they are beings who must be understood, who cannot be thrust beyond the pale; and they all "move us at moments by the sense of that mystery." But it holds in general for the other tragedians too, for the creators of Creon and Antigone, of Prometheus and Zeus. "What poet until quite modern times would have dared to make an audience sympathize with Clytemnestra, the blood-stained adulteress, as Aeschylus does? Who would have dared, like Sophocles, to make Antigone speak cruelly to her devoted sister, or Electra, with all our sympathies concentrated upon her, behave like a wild beast and be disgusted with herself for so doing? (Soph. Elec. 616 ff.)."
But what we have now to realize is that this sincerity of treatment takes place inside a shell of stiff and elaborate convention.
At the very beginning of a play by Euripides we shall find something that seems deliberately calculated to offend us and destroy our interest: a Prologue. It is a long speech with no action to speak of; and it tells us not only the present situation of the characters—which is rather dull—but also what is going to happen to them—which seems to us to spoil the rest of the play. And the modern scholastic critic says in his heart, "Euripides had no sense of the stage."
Now, since we know that he had a very great sense of the stage and enormous experience also, let us try to see what value he found in this strange prologue. First, no doubt it was a convenience. There were no playbills to hand round, with lists of the dramatis personae. Also, a Greek tragedy is always highly concentrated; it consists generally of what would be the fifth act of a modern tragedy, and does not spend its time on explanatory and introductory acts. The Prologue saved time here. But why does it let out the secret of what is coming? Why does it spoil the excitement beforehand? Because, we must answer, there is no secret, and the poet does not aim at that sort of excitement. A certain amount of plot-interest there certainly is: we are never told exactly what thing will happen but only what sort of thing; or we are told what will happen but not how it will happen. But the enjoyment which the poet aims at is not the enjoyment of reading a detective story for the first time; it is that of reading Hamlet or Paradise Lost for the second or fifth or tenth. When Hippolytus or Oedipus first appears on the stage you know that he is doomed; that knowledge gives an increased significance to everything that he says or does; you see the shadow of disaster closing in behind him, and when the catastrophe comes it comes with the greater force because you were watching for it.
"At any rate," the modern reader may persist: "the prologue is rather dull. It does not arrest the attention, like, for instance, the opening scenes of Macbeth or Julius Caesar or Romeo and Juliet." No; it does not. Shakespeare, one may suppose, had a somewhat noisy audience, all talking among themselves and not disposed to listen till their attention was captured by force. The Greek audience was, as far as we can make out, sitting in a religious silence. A prayer had been offered and incense burnt on the altar of Dionysus, and during such a ritual the rule enjoined silence. It was not necessary for the Greek poet to capture his audience by a scene of bustle or excitement. And this left him free to do two things, both eminently characteristic of Greek art. He could make his atmosphere and he could build up his drama from the ground.
Let us take the question of building first. If you study a number of modern plays, you will probably find that their main "effects" are produced in very different places, though especially of course at the fall of each curtain. A good Greek play moves almost always in a curve of steadily increasing tension—increasing up to the last scene but one and then, as a rule, sinking into a note of solemn calm. It often admits a quiet scene about the middle to let the play take breath; but it is very chary indeed of lifting and then dropping again, and never does so without definite reason. In pursuance of this plan, Euripides likes to have his opening as low-toned, as still, as slow in movement, as he can make it: its only tension is a feeling of foreboding or of mystery. It is meant as a foundation to build upon, and every scene that follows will be higher, swifter, more intense. A rush of excitement at the opening would jar, so to speak, the whole musical scheme.
And this quiet opening is especially used to produce the right state of mind in the audience—or, as our modern phrase puts it, to give the play its atmosphere. Take almost any opening: the Suppliant Women, with its band of desolate mothers kneeling at an altar and holding the Queen prisoner while she speaks: the Andromache, the Heracles, the Children of Heracles almost the same—an altar and helpless people kneeling at it—kneeling and waiting: the Trojan Women with its dim-seen angry gods; the Hecuba with its ruined city walls and desolate plain and the ghost of the murdered Polydorus brooding over them; the Hippolytus with its sinister goddess, potent and inexorable, who vanishes at the note of the hunting horn but is felt in the background throughout the whole play; the Iphigenîa, with its solitary and exiled priestess waiting at the doors of her strange temple of death. Most of the prologues have about them something supernatural; all of them something mysterious; and all of them are scenes of waiting, not acting—waiting till the atmosphere can slowly gain its full hold. Regarded from this point of view I think that every opening scene in Greek tragedy will be seen to have its significance and its value in the whole scheme of the play. Certainly the prologue generally justifies itself in the acting.
And when the prologue is over and the action begins, we need not expect even then any rapid stir or bustle. Dr. Johnson has told us that a man who should read Richardson for the story might as well hang himself; the same fate might overtake one who sate at Greek tragedies expecting them to hurry at his bidding. The swift rush will come, sure enough, swift and wild with almost intolerable passion; but it will not come anywhere near the first scenes. We shall have a dialogue in longish speeches, each more or less balanced against its fellow, beautiful no doubt and perhaps moving, but slow as music is slow. Or we shall have a lyrical scene, strophe exactly balanced against antistrophe, more beautiful but slower still in its movement, and often at first hearing a little difficult to follow. Poetry is there and drama is there, and character and plot interest; but often they are unrolled before you not as things immediately happening, but as things to feel and reflect upon. It is a bigger world than ours and every movement in it is slower and larger.
And when the poet wants to show us the heroine's state of mind his method will be quite different from ours. We should rack our brains to compose a "natural" dialogue in which her state of mind would appear, or we should make her best friend explain what she is like, or we should invent small incidents to throw light upon her. And our language would all the time be carefully naturalistic; not a bit—or, if the poet within us rebels, hardly a bit—more dignified than the average diction of afternoon tea. The ancient poet has no artifice at all. His heroine simply walks forward and explains her own feelings. But she will come at some moment that seems just the right one; she will come to us through a cloud, as it were, of musical emotion from the Chorus, and her words when she speaks will be frankly the language of poetry. They will be none the less sincere or exact for that.
When Phaedra in the Hippolytus has resolved to die rather than show her love, much less attempt to satisfy it, and yet has been so weakened by her long struggle that she will not be able to resist much longer, she explains herself to the Chorus in a long speech:
O Women, dwellers in this portal seat
Of Pelops' land, looking towards my Crete,
How oft, in other days than these, have I
Through night's long hours thought of man's misery
And how this life is wrecked! And, to mine eyes,
Not in man's knowledge, not in wisdom, lies
The lack that makes for sorrow. Nay, we scan
And know the right—for wit hath many a man—
But will not to the last end strive and serve.
For some grow too soon weary, and some swerve
To other paths, setting before the right
The diverse far-off image of Delight,
And many are delights beneath the sun. . . .
It is not the language that any real woman ever spoke, and it is not meant to be. But it is exactly the thought which this woman may have thought and felt, transmuted into a special kind of high poetry. And the women of the Chorus who are listening to it are like no kind of concrete earthly listeners; they are the sort of listeners that are suited to thoughts rather than words, and their own answer at the end comes not like a real comment but like a note of music. When she finishes, defending her resolve to die rather than sin:
O'er all this earth
To every false man that hour comes apace
When Time holds up a mirror to his face,
And marvelling, girl-like, there he stares to see
How foul his heart.—Be it not so with me!
Ah, God, how sweet is virtue and how wise,
And honour its due meed in all men's eyes!
"A commonplace?" "A not very original remark?" There is no need for any original remark; what is needed is a note of harmony in words and thought, and that is what we are given.
At a later stage in the play we shall come on another fixed element in the tragedy, the Messenger's Speech. It was probably in the ritual. It was expected in the play. And it was—and is still on the stage—immensely dramatic and effective. Modern writers like Mr. Masefield and Mr. Wilfred Blunt have seen what use can be made of a Messenger's speech. Now for the understanding of the speech itself, what is needed is to read it several times, to mark out exactly the stages of story told, and the gradual rising of emotion and excitement up to the highest point, which is, as usual, near the end but not at the end. The end sinks back to something like calm. It would take too long to analyse a particular Messenger's speech paragraph by paragraph, and the printed page cannot, of course, illustrate the constant varieties of tension, of pace and of emphasis that are needed. But I find the following notes for the guidance of an actor opposite the Messenger's Speech in an old copy of my Hippolytus. Opposite the first lines comes, "Quiet, slow, simple." Then "quicker." "Big" (at "O Zeus . . . hated me.") Then "Drop tension: story." "Pause: more interest." "Mystery." "Awe; rising excitement." "Excitement well controlled." "Steady excitement; steady; swifter." "Up: excitement rising." "Up; but still controlled." "Up; full steam; let it go." "Highest point." "Down to quiet." "Mystery." "Pause." "End steady: with emotion." These notes have, of course, no authority: as they stand they are due partly to my own conjecture, partly to observation of a remarkable performance. But they have this interest about them. They grow out of the essential nature of the speech and probably would, in their general tenour, be accepted by most students; and further, some very similar scheme would suit not only almost every Messenger's Speech, but also, with the necessary modifications, almost every Greek tragedy as a whole. The quiet beginning, the constant rise of tension through various moods and various changes of tone up to a climax; the carefully arranged drop from the climax to the steady close, without bathos and without any wrecking of the continuity.
But there is another point about Messengers that can be more easily illustrated. Their entrance in Euripides is nearly always carefully prepared. The point is of cardinal importance and needs some explanation. In mere literature it is the words that matter; in dramatic literature it is partly the words, and partly the situation in which they are uttered. A Messenger's Speech ought not only to be a good story in itself, but it ought to be so prepared and led up to that before the speaker begins we are longing to hear what he has to say. An instance of a Messenger's speech with no preparation is in Sophocles' Oedipus, The King. (I do not at all suggest that preparation is needed; very likely the situation itself is enough.) Oedipus has rushed into the house in a fury of despair, and the Messenger simply walks out of the house crying
O ye above this land in honour old
Exalted, what a tale shall ye be told,
What sights shall see and tears of horror shed. . . .
Contrast with this the preparation in the Hippolytus (1153 ff.). Hippolytus, cursed, and of course wrongfully cursed, by his father, Theseus, has gone forth to exile. His friends and the women of the Chorus have been grieving for him: Theseus has refused to listen to any plea. Then
That cometh, full of haste and woe-begone.
We are all watching; a man in great haste enters. Observe what he says.
King Theseus? Is he in this dwelling? Speak!
Our suspense deepens. The Leader evidently has hesitated in her answer; she wants to ask a question. . . . But at this moment the door opens and she falls back:
Through the gate comes Theseus, wrapped in gloom, evidently trying still to forget Hippolytus. The Henchman crosses his path.
To thee, yea, and to every man, I ween,
From Athens to the marches of Trozên.
Will Theseus guess? Will he see that this is one of his son's servants? At any rate he shows no sign of so doing.
The sister cities of my sovranty?
Outstretched, a hairsbreadth this side of the dark.
The forbidden name is spoken; there is evidently a moment of shock, but how will Theseus take the news? Will he soften?
He had like mine defiled, who sought his life?
Stung by the taunt the Henchman answers boldly.
Curse of thy lips. . . . The boon of the great Sire
Is granted thee, O King, and thy son slain.
Will Theseus turn in fury on the speaker? Or will he even now soften? Neither.
I called thee Father. Thou hast heard my prayer.
The shock is heavy but he recovers his calm, and with it comes the horrible conviction that his curse was just and the gods have struck dead a guilty man.
How did he die? Speak on. How closed the snare
Of Heaven to slay the shamer of my blood?
Then the Messenger begins his story.
Such preparations are regular in Euripides. In the Electra, Orestes has gone forth to find King Aegisthus, and if possible slay him. Electra is waiting in her hut, a drawn sword across her knees, sworn to die if Orestes fails. How is the Messenger brought on? First the Leader of the Chorus thinks she hears a noise in the distance; she is not sure. . . . Yes; a noise of fighting! She calls Electra, who comes, the sword in her hand. The noise increases; a cry; cheering. Something has happened, but what? The cheers sound like Argive voices; "Aegisthus's men!" cries Electra; "then let me die!" The Chorus restrain her. "There is no Messenger; Orestes would have sent a Messenger." "Wait, wait!" cries the Leader, holding her arm: and a man rushes in, shouting, "Victory! Orestes has slain Aegisthus, and we are free" (747-773).
That seems enough, but even now Euripides has not extracted his full effect from the situation. Electra, steeped to the lips in fears and suspicions, recoils from the man. "Who are you? . . . It is a plot!" She must get the sword. . . . The Man bids her look at him again; he is her brother's servant; she saw him with Orestes an hour ago. She looks, remembers, and throws her arms round the man's neck. "Tell me again. Tell me all that happened." And so the Messenger begins.
This art of preparation belongs, of course, to the modern stage as much as to the ancient, or more. So do the similar arts of making the right juncture between scenes, of arranging the contrasts and clashes, and especially of so ending each scene as to make the spectator look eagerly for the next move. He must be given just enough notion of the future to whet his appetite; not enough to satisfy it. These are general rules that apply to all good drama. They can all be studied in Mr. Archer's book, Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship. In ancient times they were more developed by Euripides than by his predecessors, but that is all we need say.
Prologue; Set Speech; Messenger; there still remain two stumbling-blocks to a modern reader of Greek tragedies, the Deus ex Mâchinâ (or "God from the Machine") and the Chorus.
About the appearance of the god we need say little. We have seen above that an epiphany of some Divine Being or a Resurrection of some dead Hero seems to have been an integral part of the old ritual and thus has its natural place in tragedy. His special duty is to bring the action to a quiet close and to ordain the ritual on which the tragedy is based—thus making the performance itself a fulfilment of the god's command (see above p. 66). The actual history of this epiphany is curious. As far as our defective evidence allows us to draw conclusions we can make out that Aeschylus habitually used a divine epiphany, but that he generally kept it for the last play of a trilogy; that he often had a whole galaxy of gods, and that, with some exceptions, his gods walked the floor of earth with the other actors. (The evidence for this is given in Miss Harrison's Themis, pp. 347 ff.) Sophocles, moving towards a more "natural" and less ritual tragedy, used the divine epiphany comparatively little. Euripides, somewhat curiously for one so hostile to the current mythology, intensified this ritual element in drama as he did all the others. And he used it more and more as he grew older. He evidently liked it for its own sake.
There is one view about the Deus ex Mâchinâ which needs a word of correction. It is widely entertained and comes chiefly from Horace's Ars Poetica. It takes the Deus as a device—and a very unskilful one—for somehow finishing a story that has got into a hopeless tangle. The poet is supposed to have piled up ingenious complications and troubles until he cannot see any way out and has to cut the knot by the intervention of something miraculous—in this case, of a machine-made god. Now devices of this sort—the sudden appearance of rich uncles, the discovery of new wills, or of infants changed at birth and the like—are more or less common weaknesses in romantic literature. Hence it was natural that Horace's view about Euripides's god should be uncritically accepted. But as a matter of fact it is a mere mistake. It never in any single case holds good—not even in the Orestes. And there are some plays, like the Iphigenîa in Tauris, in which, so far from the god coming to clear up a tangled plot, the plot has to be diverted at the last moment so as to provide an excuse for the god's arrival. Euripides evidently liked a supernatural ending, and when he had to do without a real god—as in the Medea and the Hecuba—he was apt to end with winged chariots and prophecies. Can we in the least understand what he gained by it?
We must remember one or two things. The epiphany was in the ritual. It was no new invention in itself; the only new thing, apparently, was an improved piece of stage machinery enabling the god to appear more effectively. Further, if we try to put ourselves into the minds of fifth century Greeks, there was probably nothing absurd, nothing even unlikely, in supposing the visible appearance of a god in such an atmosphere as that of tragedy. The heroes and heroines of tragedy were themselves almost divine; they were all figures in the great heroic saga and almost all of them—the evidence is clear—received actual worship. If Orestes or Agamemnon is present on the stage, it is not surprising that Apollo should appear to them. It is, I think, chiefly due to the mistake of over-emphasizing the realism of Euripides that recent writers—myself at one time included—have been so much troubled over these divine epiphanies.
I suspect, also, that we are troubled by a difference of convention about the way in which supernatural beings ought to speak. We moderns like them to be abrupt, thunderous, wrapped in mystery. We expect the style of ancient Hebrew or Norse poetry. Probably a Greek would think both barbaric. At any rate the Greek gods, both in Euripides and elsewhere, affect a specially smooth and fluent and lucid utterance.
And apart from the artistic convention there is a historical consideration which we must never forget, though we are constantly tempted to do so. A well-educated Athenian of the fifth century before Christ was, after all, not as securely lifted above what he called "primaeval simplicity" as a similar man in Western Europe in the eighteenth or nineteenth century after. He was just beginning, with great daring and brilliance, to grasp at something like a philosophic or scientific view of the world; but his hold was very precarious and partial, and when it slipped he fell unsuspectingly into strange abysses. A visible god in the theatre laid probably no more strain on his credulity than, say, a prophetic dream on ours.
However, the above considerations are only pleas in mitigation of sentence. They tend to show that the Deus ex Mâchinâ was not in itself ridiculous to the contemporaries of Euripides; we must go further and try to see why he liked it. The best way is simply, with our antecedent prejudices removed, to read and re-read some of the best epiphany scenes; those, for instance, which close the Electra, the Hippolytus, the Rhesus or the Andromache. We have already seen in the Electra how the poet can use his gods for delivering his essential moral judgment on the story; the condemnation of revenge, the pity for mankind, the opening up of a larger atmosphere in which the horror through which we have just passed falls into its due resting-place. In the Hippolytus the sheer beauty of the Artemis scene speaks for itself and makes a marvellous ending. Notably it attains an effect which could scarcely be reached in any other way, a strange poignant note amid the beauty, where mortal emotion breaks against the cliffs of immortal calm. After many words of tenderness Artemis finishes (1437 ff.):
Farewell! I may not watch man's fleeting breath,
Nor stain mine eyes with the effluence of death.
And sure that terror now is very near. . . .
Of soiling men. Thou wilt not grieve in heaven
For our long love. . . . Father, thou art forgiven;
It was Her will; I am not wroth with thee. . . .
I have obeyed her all my days!
Of course the epiphany does not give what our jaded senses secretly demand, a strong "curtain." It gives the antique peaceful close. The concrete men and women whom we have seen before us, striving and suffering, dissolve into the beautiful mist of legend; strife and passion and sharp cries sink away into the telling of old fables; then the fables themselves have their lines of consequence reaching out to touch the present world and the thing that we are doing now: to make it the fulfilment of an ancient command or prophecy, to give it a meaning that we had never realized; and thus we are awakened to the concrete theatre and the audience and the life about us not with a shock but gradually, like one lying with his eyes half shut and thinking about a dream that has just gone.
I do not for a moment say that the divine epiphany is the right, or even the best, way of ending any tragedy; I only plead that if we use our imaginations we can find in it a very rare beauty and can understand why one of the greatest of the world's dramatists held to it so firmly.