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CHAPTER V.

EXTERNAL CONDITIONS—CHOICE OF FABLE.

It is unnecessary to dwell here at any length on the external conditions of representation to which Athenian tragedy owed much of its peculiar form—the size of the open theatre, the performance by daylight, the small number of the actors, the continual presence of the chorus. These and other circumstances may be said to have conspired with the genius of Greek art to combine grandeur with simplicity and unity. The addition of the third actor, with which Sophocles is credited, enabled him to add something of complexity without introducing confusion.[1]

But there is one limitation, of a less absolute kind, to which attention may be particularly directed—that of the choice of subject.

The time when an audience would cry, on seeing a new hero, "This has nothing to do with Bacchus," was indeed long since passed. But so also was the period of novel enterprises, in which a drama like the Persæ had been possible. After that brief excursion into the region of contemporary history, tragedy had returned within the cycle of Hellenic legend. The art in fact stood on the border-line between two worlds: that of heroic tradition, which to the people's imagination was still real, and which they had begun to connect with existing political relations, and that of philosophic thought, which was still in that early phase which can be contented with imaginative expression. When the fables were no longer believed, when philosophy was attaining clearness, the native air of tragedy was spent (See above, c. 3, p. 16.)

It was impossible all at once to make a new beginning and to leap, theatre and all, out of the age of Pericles into that of Lessing and Goethe. There are isolated scenes and speeches in Euripides, which might seem to give promise of a dramatic art more comprehensive and more real than had been known hitherto, an art in which "the whole tragedy and comedy of life," of which Plato wrote, would be represented in the light of true ideas, without the inconvenient trappings of mythology. But these are, after all, but splendid patches on an inharmonious work, the occasional springing of a plant, "which bears a golden flower, but not in this soil."

The very narrowness of his range, indeed, gave to the ancient poet a capital advantage in point of reality. Greek tragedy not only took shape and growth directly from the spirit of the time, but dealt with subjects of the most vital interest. For to the Athenians of the time of Cleisthenes or of Miltiades, and later still, the local or neighbouring hero was a living power, present in their midst, whose destinies were inseparably bound up with the national existence. Hence the imagination of the ancient spectator met the poet half-way and conspired with him in the production of an atmosphere of illusion. For, as Aristotle puts it, "what is possible is credible, and what once happened was clearly possible." Whereas the utmost that can be said for a modern fable is that "the story is extant, and written in very choice Italian."

The protagonist of modern fiction is a shadowy being, who is to us only what the poet makes him. Even in going to hear an historical play we think of it chiefly as a work of imagination. Very different was the eager expectation with which the Athenians awaited the coming on of Theseus or of Heracles. Yet these objects of reverence were sufficiently removed in time to give scope for a free handling of the fables concerning them; a freedom used more deliberately by Sophocles than by Shakespeare.

Let it be imagined for a moment that in the sixteenth century the Warwicks and Talbots, the Cliffords and the Suffolks, of English history, had been universally believed to be of divine origin; that their real presence had been then supposed to affect the fortunes of the parishes in which their bones were laid, and to influence affairs of state;—that whole counties had claimed to be related to them by blood. And let it be further imagined that the merest outline of their life-history was generally known, so that the poet was as free to mould their destinies as those of Posthumus, Imogen, or Prospero. Then we may have some hint of the difference in regard to opportunities for affecting popular feeling, between Greek tragedy and the Elizabethan drama.

But it is not less true that, while the modern dramatist has even an embarrassing range of choice, in the traditions of all nations, in classical poetry and in popular fiction, the Greek tragedian was bound within the sphere of national heroic legend. And the fables which this contained, however numerous and varied in detail, tended to ring the changes on a few striking incidents which had been impressed on the rude fancy of a primitive time. The avenger of blood, the outcast homicide, the fulfilment of the curse, the return of the exile, the recognition of the stranger, the protection of the suppliant, the purification of the polluted, the horrors of incest and parricide, are topics which continually recur. These ancient and often grotesque conceptions the poet had to make the vehicle of his art in holding up his ideal mirror to a more refined and reflective age. It would be a flagrant misconception to credit him with the invention of his fable. The story of Œdipus, for example, could never have been invented by Sophocles. What he has done is to make the weird tale a Page:Sophocles (Classical Writers).djvu/42 Page:Sophocles (Classical Writers).djvu/43 Page:Sophocles (Classical Writers).djvu/44 Page:Sophocles (Classical Writers).djvu/45 Page:Sophocles (Classical Writers).djvu/46



  1. For a full outline of this part of the subject the reader is again referred to Mr. Jebb's Primer of Greek Literature.