Page:Euripides the Rationalist.djvu/101

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Now when it was announced that this man intended to present in the theatre the story of Alcestis, what did the Athenians expect? Suppose a parallel case among ourselves. It must needs be inexactly parallel, but we can make the resemblance sufficient. Suppose that once a year that part of the inhabitants of London, which frequents the clubs and reads the magazines, were accustomed to assemble for the purpose of witnessing plays in which the stories of the Bible were presented after the manner of Samson Agonistes, with variations according to the taste of the composer, but in the same general spirit of acceptation and reverence. And suppose it then given out that the management had decided to exhibit a play entitled (let us say) The Herdsmen of Gadara or The Shunammite, and written by Professor T..... H..... What sort of a piece would the audience anticipate, and what motive could they attribute to the author? It was a thing incredible in itself that Euripides intended to send his Athenian hearers, with devotion warmed and faith exalted, to the next celebration of those Apolline rites in which, as he tells us[1], this miraculous legend was a familiar theme. It was certain beforehand that his object must be precisely the contrary; and the only question open would be, what means he would find of conveying his known sentiments, and how far he would venture to go. His methods of attack are many. It would not for example have been easy to deal with the legend of Alcestis after the fashion of the Heraclidae, in which, though the chief personages are all of them 'gods', that is to say objects of existing cults, the story, which is in effect a satire on the barbarity of ancient religion and ancient manners, is rigorously stripped of every supernatural incident except one. This incident is reported by a speaker, who pointedly distinguishes it from the rest of his narrative as 'hearsay' and not guaranteed by his own observation![2] There is this way, and there are many others. What way the poet would take in his Alcestis could not be known; but the point from which he started was known and given, unless it were to be imagined that he had suddenly changed his mind, an imagination which, as we shall see hereafter, a few lines of the actual commencement would be enough to correct.

The use of disguise was therefore artistically safe, safe, that is,

  1. Alc. 445–452.
  2. Heraclidae, 817.