1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Drama/7

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Drama
7. Greek Drama

7. Greek Drama


Whatever elements the Greek drama may, in the sources from which it sprang, have owed to Egyptian, or Phrygian, or other Asiatic influences, its development was independent and self-sustained. Not only in its beginnings, but Religious origin. so long as the stage existed in Greece, the drama was in intimate connexion with the national religion. This is the most signal feature of its history, and one which cannot in the same degree or to the same extent be ascribed to the drama of any other people, ancient or modern. Not only did both the great branches of the Greek drama alike originate in the usages of religious worship, but they never lost their formal union with it, though one of them (comedy) in its later growth abandoned all direct reference to its origin. Hellenic polytheism was at once so active and so fluid or flexible in its anthropomorphic formations, that no other religious system has ever with the same conquering force assimilated to itself foreign elements, or with equal vivacity and variety developed its own. Thus, the worship of Dionysus, introduced into Greece by the Phoenicians as that of the tauriform sun-god whom his worshippers adored with loud cries (whence Bacchus or Iacchus), and the god of generation (whence his phallic emblem) and production, was brought into connexion with the Dorian religion of the sun-god Apollo. Apollo and his sister, again, corresponded to the Pelasgian and Achaean divinities of sun and moon, whom the Phoenician Dionysus and Demeter superseded, or with whose worship theirs was blended. Dionysus, whose rites were specifically conducted with reference to his attributes as the wine-god, was attended by deified representations of his original worshippers, who wore the skin of the goat sacrificed to him. These were the satyrs. Out of the connected worships of Dionysus, Bacchus, Apollo and Demeter sprang the beginnings of the Greek drama.

“Both tragedy and comedy,” says Aristotle, “originated in a rude and unpremeditated manner—the first from the leaders of the dithyramb, and the second from those who led off the phallic songs.” This diversity of origin, and the distinction jealously maintained down to the latest times between the two branches of the dramatic art, even where they might seem to come into actual contact with one another, necessitate a separate statement as to the origin and history of either.

The custom of offering thanks to the gods by hymns and dances in the places of public resort was first practised by the Greeks in the Dorian states, whose whole system of life was organized on a military basis. Hence the Origin of tragedy. dances of the Dorians originally taught or imitated the movements of soldiers, and their hymns were warlike chants. Such were the beginnings of the chorus, and of its songs (called paeans, from an epithet of Apollo), accompanied first by the phorminx and then by the flute. A step in advance was taken when the poet with his trained singers and dancers, like the Indian sŭtra-dhāra, performed these religious functions as the representative of the population. From the Doric paean at a very early period several styles of choral dancing formed themselves, to which the three styles of dance in scenic productions—the tragic, the comic and the satyric—are stated afterwards to have corresponded. But none of these could have led to a literary growth. This was due to the introduction among the Dorians The dithyramb. of the dithyramb (from δῖος, descended from Zeus, and θρίαμβος, the Latin triumphus), originally a song of revellers, probably led by a flute-player and accompanied by the music of other Eastern instruments, in which it was customary in Crete to celebrate the birth of Bacchus (the doubly-born) and possibly also his later adventures. The leader of the band (coryphaeus) may be supposed to have at times assumed the character of the wine-god, whose worshippers bore aloft the vineclad thyrsus. The dithyramb was reduced to a definite form by the Lesbian Arion (fl. 610), who composed regular poems, turned the moving band of worshippers into a standing or “cyclic” chorus of attendants on Dionysus—a chorus of satyrs, a tragic or goat chorus—invented a style of music adapted to the character of the chorus, and called these songs “tragedies” or “goat-songs.” Arion, whose goat-chorus may perhaps have some connexion with an early Arcadian worship of Pan, associated it permanently with Dionysus, and thus became the inventor of “lyrical tragedy”—a transition Lyrical tragedy. stage between the dithyramb and the regular drama. His invention, or the chorus with which it dealt, was established according to fixed rules by his contemporary Stesichorus. About the time when Arion introduced these improvements into the Dorian city of Corinth, the (likewise Dorian) families at Sicyon honoured the hero-king Adrastus by tragic choruses. Hence the invention of tragedy was ascribed by the Sicyonians to their poet Epigenes; but this step, significant for the future history of the Greek drama, of employing the Bacchic chorus for the celebration of other than Bacchic themes, was soon annulled by the tyrant Cleisthenes.

The element which transformed lyrical tragedy into the tragic drama was added by the Ionians. The custom of the recitation of poetry by wandering minstrels, called rhapsodes (from ῥάβδος, staff, or from ῤάπτειν, to piece The rhapsodes. together), first sprang up in the Ionia beyond the sea; to such minstrels was due the spread of the Homeric poems and of subsequent epic cycles. These recitations, with or without musical accompaniment, soon included gnomic or didactic, as well as epic, verse; if Homer was a rhapsode, so was the sententious or “moral” Hesiod. The popular effect of these recitations was enormously increased by the metrical innovations of Archilochus (from 708), who invented the trochee and the iambus, the latter the arrowy metre which is the native form of satirical invective—the species of composition in which Archilochus excelled—though it was soon used for other purposes also. The recitation of these iambics may already have nearly approached to theatrical declamation. The rhapsodes were welcome guests at popular festivals, where they exercised their art in mutual emulation, or ultimately recited parts, perhaps the whole, of longer poems. The recitation of a long epic may thus have resembled theatrical dialogue; even more so must the alternation of iambic poems, the form being frequently an address in the second person. The rhapsode was in some sense an actor; and when these recitations reached Attica, they thus brought with them the germs of theatrical dialogue.

The rhapsodes were actually introduced into Attica at a very early period; the Iliad, we know, was chanted at the Brauronia, a rural festival of Bacchus, whose worship had early entered Attica, and was cherished among its rustic Invention of the tragic drama. population. Meanwhile the cyclic chorus of the Dorians had found its way into Attica and Athens, ever since the Athenians had recognized the authority of the great centre of the Apolline religion at Delphi. From the second half of the 6th century onwards the chorus of satyrs formed a leading feature of the great festival of Dionysus at Athens. It therefore only remained for the rhapsodic and the cyclic—in other words, for the epic and the choral—elements to coalesce; and this must have been brought about by a union of the two accompaniments of religious worship in the festive rites of Bacchus, and by the domestication of these rites in the ruling city. This occurred in the time of Peisistratus, perhaps after his restoration in 554. To Thespis (534), said to have been a contemporary of the tyrant and a native of an Attic deme (Icaria), the invention of tragedy is accordingly ascribed. Whether his name be that of an actual person or not, his claim to be regarded as the inventor of tragedy is founded on the statement that he introduced an actor (ὑποκριτής, originally, “answerer”), doubtless, at first, generally the poet himself, who, instead of merely alternating his recitations with the songs of the chorus, addressed his speech to its leader—the coryphaeus—with whom he thus carried on a species of “dialogue.” Or, in other words, the leader of the chorus (coryphaeus), instead of addressing himself to the chorus, held converse with the actor. The chorus stood round its leader in front of the Bacchic altar (thymelē); the actor stood with the coryphaeus, who had occupied a more elevated position in order to be visible above his fellows, on a rude table, or possibly on a cart, though the wagon of Thespis may be a fiction, due to a confusion between his table and the wagon of Susarion. In any case, we have here, with the beginnings of dialogue, the beginning of the stage. It is a significant minor invention ascribed to Thespis, that he disguised the actor’s face first by means of a pigment, afterwards by a mask. In the dialogue was treated some myth relating to Bacchus, or to some other deity or hero. Whether or not Thespis actually wrote tragedies (and there seems no reason to doubt it), Phrynichus and one or two other poets are mentioned as having carried on choral tragedy as set on foot by him, and as having introduced improvements into its still predominating lyrical element. The step which made dramatic action possible, and with which the Greek drama thus really began, was, as is distinctly stated by Aristotle, taken by Aeschylus. He added a second actor; and, by reducing the functions of the chorus, he further established the dialogue as the principal part of tragedy. Sophocles afterwards added a third actor, by which change the preponderance of the dialogue was made complete.

If the origin of Greek comedy is simpler in its nature than that of Greek tragedy, the beginnings of its progress are involved in more obscurity. Its association with religious worship was not initial; its foundations lay in popular Origin of comedy. mirth, though religious festivals, and those of the vintage god in particular, must from the first have been the most obvious occasions for its exhibition. It is said to have been “invented” by Susarion, a native of Doric Megaris, whose inhabitants were famed for their coarse humour, which they communicated to their own and other Dorian colonies in Sicily, to this day the home of vivacious mimic dialogue. In the rural Bacchic vintage festivals bands of jolly companions (κῶμος, properly a revel continued after supper) went about in carts or afoot, carrying the phallic emblem, and indulging in the ribald licence of wanton mirth. From the song sung in these processions or at the Bacchic feasts, which combined the praise of the god with gross personal ridicule, and was called comus in a secondary sense, the Bacchic reveller taking part in it was called a comus-singer or comoedus. These phallic processions, which were afterwards held in most Greek cities, and in Athens seem to have early included a “topical” speech as well as a choral song, determined the character of Old Attic comedy, whose most prominent feature was an absolute licence of personal vilification.

Thus independent of one another in their origin, Greek tragedy and comedy never actually coalesced. The “satyr-drama,” though in some sense it partook of the nature of both, was in its origin as in its history connected with The satyr-drama. tragedy alone, whose origin it directly recalled. Pratinas of Philus, a contemporary of Aeschylus in his earlier days, is said to have restored the tragic chorus to the satyrs; i.e. he first produced dramas in which, though they were the same in form and theme as the tragedies, the choric dances were different and entirely carried on by satyrs. The tragic poets, while never writing comedies, henceforth also composed satyr-dramas; but neither tragedies nor satyr-dramas were ever written by the comic poets, and it was in conjunction with tragedies only that the satyr-dramas were performed. The theory of the Platonic Socrates, that the same man ought to be the best tragic and the best comic poet, was among the Greeks Tragi-comedy. never exemplified in practice. The so-called “hilaro-tragedy” or “tragi-comedy” of later writers, perhaps in some of its features in a measure anticipated by Euripides,[1] in form nowise differed from tragedy; it merely contained a comic element in its characters, and invariably had a happy ending. It is an instructive fact that the serious and sentimental element in the comedy of Menander and his contemporaries did far more to destroy the essential difference between the two great branches of the Greek dramatic art.

Periods of Greek Tragedy.—The history of Greek—which to all intents and purposes remained Attic—tragedy divides itself into three periods.

I. The Period before Aeschylus (535-499).—From this we have but a few names of authors and plays—those of the former being (besides Thespis) Choerilus, Phrynichus and Pratinas, all of whom lived to contend with Aeschylus for the tragic prize. To each of them certain innovations are ascribed—for instance the introduction of female characters to Phrynichus. He is best remembered by the overpowering effect said to have been created by his Capture of Miletus, in which the chorus consisted of the wives of the Phoenician sailors in the service of the Great King.

II. The Classical Period of Attic Tragedy—that of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and their contemporaries (499-405). To this belong all the really important phases in the progress of Greek tragedy, which severally connect themselves with the names of its three great masters. They may be regarded as the representatives of successive generations of Attic history and life, though of course in these, as in the progress of their art itself, there is an unbroken continuity.

Aeschylus (525-456) had not only fought both at Marathon and at Salamis against those Persians whose rout he celebrated with patriotic price,[2] but he had been trained in the Eleusinian mysteries, and strenuously asserted the Aeschylus. value of the institution most intimately associated with the primitive political traditions of the past—the Areopagus.[3] He had been born in the generation after Solon, to whose maxims he fondly clung; and it was the Dorian development of Hellenic life and the philosophical system based upon it with which his religious and moral convictions were imbued. Thus even upon the generation which succeeded him, and to which the powerful simplicity of his dramatic and poetic diction seemed strange, the ethical loftiness of his conceptions and the sublimity of his dramatic imagination fell like the note of a mightier age. To us nothing is more striking than the conciliatory tendencies of his conservative mind, and the progressive nature of what may have seemed to his later contemporaries antiquated ideals.

Sophocles (495-405) was the associate of Pericles, and an upholder of his authority, rather than a consistent pupil of his political principles; but his manhood, and perhaps the maturity of his genius, coincided with the great Sophocles. days when he could stand, like his mighty friend and the community they both so gloriously represented, on the sunny heights of achievement. Serenely pious as well as nobly patriotic, he nevertheless treats the myths of the national religion in the spirit of a conscious artist, contrasting with lofty irony the struggles of humanity with the irresistible march of its destinies. Perhaps he, too, was one of the initiated; and the note of personal responsibility which is the mystic’s inner religion is recognizable in his view of life.[4] The art of Sophocles may in its perfection be said to typify the greatest epoch in the life of Athens—an epoch conscious of unequalled achievements, but neither wholly unconscious of the brief endurance which was its destiny.

Euripides (480-406), as is the fate of genius of a more complex kind, has been more variously and antithetically judged than either of his great fellow-tragedians. His art has been described as devoid of the idealism of theirs, Euripides. his genius as rhetorical rather than poetical, his morality as that of a sophistical wit. On the other hand, he has been recognized not only as the most tragic of the Attic tragedians and the most pathetic of ancient poets, but also as the most humane in his social philosophy and the most various in his psychological insight. At least, though far removed from the more naïf age of the national life, he is, both in patriotic spirit and in his choice of themes, genuinely Attic; and if he was “haunted on the stage by the daemon of Socrates,” he was, like Socrates himself, the representative of an age which was a seed-time as well as a season of decay. His technical innovations corresponded to his literary characteristics; but neither in the treatment of the chorus, nor in his management of the beginning and the ending of a tragedy, did he introduce any radical change. To Euripides the general progress of dramatic literature nevertheless owes more than to any other ancient poet. Tragedy followed in his footsteps in Greece and at Rome. Comedy owed him something in the later phases of the very Aristophanes who mocked him, and more in the human philosophy expressed in the sentiments of Menander; and, when the modern drama came to engraft the ancient upon its own crude growth, his was directly or indirectly the most powerful influence in the establishment of a living connexion between them.

The incontestable pre-eminence of the three great tragic poets was in course of time acknowledged at Athens by the usage allowing no tragedies but theirs to be performed more than once, and by the prescription that one The great tragic masters and their contemporaries. play of theirs should be performed at each Dionysia, as well as by the law of Lycurgus (c. 330) which obliged the actors to use, in the case of works of the great masters, authentic copies preserved in the public archives. Yet it is possible that the exclusiveness of these tributes is not entirely justifiable; and not all the tragic poets contemporary with the great writers were among the myriad of younglings derided by Aristophanes. Of those who attained to celebrity Ion of Chios (d. before 419) seems to have followed earlier traditions of style than Euripides; Agathon, who survived the latter, on the other hand, introduced certain innovations of a transnormal kind both into the substance and the form of dramatic composition.[5]

III. Of the third period of Greek tragedy the concluding limit cannot be precisely fixed. Down to the days of Alexander the Great, Athens had remained the chief home of tragedy. Though tragedies must have begun to be The successors of the great masters at Athens. acted at the Syracusan and Macedonian courts, since Aeschylus, Euripides and Agathon had sojourned there—though the practice of producing plays at the Dionysia before the allies of Athens must have led to their holding similar exhibitions at home—yet before the death of Alexander we meet with no instance of a tragic poet writing or of a tragedy written outside Athens. An exception should indeed be made in favour of the tyrant Dionysius of Syracuse, who (like Critias in his earlier days at Athens) was “addicted to” tragic composition. Not all the tragedians of this period, however, were Athenians born; though the names of Euphorion, the son of Aeschylus, Iophon, the son of Sophocles, and Euripides and Sophocles, the nephew and the grandson respectively of their great namesakes, illustrate the descent of the tragic art as an hereditary family possession. Chaeremon (fl. 380) already exhibits tragedy on the road to certain decay, for we learn that his plays were written for reading.

Soon after the death of Alexander theatres are found spread over the whole Hellenic world of Europe and Asia—a result to which the practice of the conqueror and his father of celebrating their victories by scenic performances The Alexandrians. had doubtless contributed. Alexandria having now become a literary centre with which even Athens was in some respects unable to compete, while the latter still remained the home of comedy, the tragic poets flocked to the capital of the Ptolemies; and here, in the canon of Greek poets drawn up by command of Ptolemy Philadelphus (283-247), Alexander the Aetolian undertook the list of tragedies, while Lycophron was charged with the comedies. But Lycophron himself was included in all the versions of the list of the seven tragic poets famed as the “Pleias” who still wrote in the style of the Attic masters and followed the rules observed by them. Tragedy and the dramatic art continued to be favoured by the later Ptolemies; and about 100 b.c. we meet with the curious phenomenon of a Jewish poet, Ezechiel, composing Greek tragedies, of one of which (the Exodus from Egypt) fragments have come down to us. Tragedy, with the satyr-drama and comedy, survived in Alexandria beyond the days of Cicero and Varro; nor was their doom finally sealed till the emperor Caracalla abolished theatrical performances in the Egyptian capital in a.d. 217.

Thus Greek tragedy is virtually only another name for Attic; nor was any departure from the lines laid down The tragedy of the great masters. by its three great masters made in most respects by the Roman imitators of these poets and of their successors.

Tragedy was defined by Plato as an imitation of the noblest life. Its proper themes—the deeds and sufferings of heroes—were familiar to audiences intimately acquainted with the mythology of the national religion. To such Subjects of Greek tragedy. themes Greek tragedy almost wholly confined itself; and in later days there were numerous books which discussed these myths of the tragedians. They only very exceptionally treated historic themes, though one great national calamity,[6] and a yet greater national victory,[7] and in later times a few other historical subjects,[8] were brought upon the stage. Such veiled historical allusions as critical ingenuity has sought not only in passages but in the entire themes of other Attic tragedies[9] cannot, of course, even if accepted as such, stamp the plays in which they occur as historic dramas. No doubt Attic tragedy, though after a different and more decorous fashion, shared the tendency of her comic sister to introduce allusions to contemporary events and persons; and the indulgence of this tendency was facilitated by the revision (διασκυή) to which the works of the great poets were subjected by them, or by those who produced their works after them.[10] So far as we know, the subjects of the tragedies before Aeschylus were derived from the epos; and it was a famous saying of this poet that his dramas were “but dry scraps from the great banquets of Homer”—an expression which may be understood as including the poems which belong to the so-called Homeric cycles. Sophocles, Euripides and their successors likewise resorted to the Trojan, and also to the Heraclean and the Thesean myths, and to Attic legend in general, as well as to Theban, to which already Aeschylus had had recourse, and to the side or subsidiary myths connected with these several groups. These substantially remained to the last the themes of Greek tragedy, the Trojan myths always retaining so prominent a place that Lucian could jest on the universality of their dominion. Purely invented subjects were occasionally treated by the later tragedians; of this innovation Agathon was the originator.[11]

Thespis is said to have introduced the use of a “prologue” and a “rhesis” (speech)—the former being probably the opening speech recited by the coryphaeus, the latter the dialogue between him and the actor. It was a natural result Construction. of the introduction of the second actor that a second rhesis should likewise be added; and this tripartite division would be the earliest form of the trilogy,—three sections of the same myth forming the beginning, middle and end of a single The Aeschylean trilogy. drama, marked off from one another by the choral songs. From this Aeschylus proceeded to the treatment of these several portions of a myth in three separate plays, connected together by their subject and by being performed in sequence on a single occasion. This is the Aeschylean trilogy, of which we have only one extant example, the Oresteia—as to which critics may differ whether Aeschylus adhered in it to his principle that the strength should lie in the middle—in other words, that the interest should centre in the second play. In any case, the symmetry of the trilogy The tetralogy. was destroyed by the practice of performing after it a satyr-drama, probably as a rule, if not always, connected in subject with the trilogy, which thus became a tetralogy, though this term, unlike the other, seems to be a purely technical expression invented by the learned.[12] Sophocles, a more conscious and probably a more self-critical artist than Aeschylus, may be assumed from the first to have elaborated his tragedies with greater care; and to this, as well as to his innovation of the third actor, which materially added to the fulness of the action, we may attribute his introduction of the custom of contending for the prize with single plays. It does not follow that he never produced connected trilogies, though we have no example of such by him or any later author; on the other hand, there is no proof that either he or any of his successors ever departed from the Aeschylean rule of producing three tragedies, followed by a satyr-drama, on the same day. This remained the third and last stage in the history of the construction Complicated actions. of Attic tragedy. The tendency of its action towards complication was a natural progress, and is emphatically approved by Aristotle. This complication, in which Euripides excelled, led to his use of prologues, in which one of the characters opens the play by an exposition of the circumstances under which its action begins. This practice, though ridiculed by Aristophanes, was too convenient not to be adopted by the successors of Euripides, and Menander transferred it to comedy. As the dialogue increased in importance, so the dramatic significance of the chorus diminished. While in Aeschylus it mostly, and in Sophocles occasionally, takes part in the action, its songs could not but more and more approach the character of lyrical intermezzos; and this they openly assumed when Agathon began the practice of inserting choral songs (embolima) which had nothing to do with the action of the play. In the general contrivance of their actions it was only natural that, as compared with Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides should exhibit an advance in both freedom and ingenuity; but the palm, due to a treatment at once piously adhering to the substance of the ancient legends and original in an effective dramatic treatment of them, must be given to Sophocles. Euripides was, moreover, less skilful in untying complicated actions than in weaving them; hence his frequent resort[13] to the expedient of the deus ex machina, which Sophocles employs only in his latest play.[14]

The other distinctions to be drawn between the dramatic qualities of the three great tragic masters must be mainly based upon a critical estimate of the individual genius of each. In the characters of their tragedies, Aeschylus Characters. and Sophocles avoided those lapses of dignity with which from one point of view Euripides has been charged by Aristophanes and other critics, but which, from another, connect themselves with his humanity. If his men and women are less heroic and statuesque, they are more like men and women. Aristotle objected to the later tragedians that, compared with the great masters, they were deficient in the drawing of character—by which he meant the lofty drawing of lofty character. In Diction. diction, the transition is even more manifest from the “helmeted phrases” of Aeschylus, who had Milton’s love of long words and sonorous proper names, to the play of Euripides’ “smooth and diligent tongue”; but to a sustained style even he remained essentially true, and it was reserved for his successors to introduce into tragedy the “low speech”—i.e. the conversational language—of comedy. Upon the whole, however, the Euripidean diction seems to have remained the standard of later tragedy, the flowery style of speech introduced by Agathon finding no permanent favour.

Finally, Aeschylus is said to have made certain reforms in tragic costume of which the object is self-evident—to have improved the mask, and to have invented the cothurnus Improvements in costume, &c. or buskin, upon which the actor was raised to loftier stature. Euripides was not afraid of rags and tatters; but the sarcasms of Aristophanes on this head seem feeble to those who are aware that they would apply to King Lear as well as to Telephus.

Periods of Greek Comedy.—The history of Greek comedy is likewise that of an essentially Attic growth, although Sicilian comedy was earlier in date than her Attic sister or descendant. The former is represented by Epicharmus (fl. 500), and by the names of one or two other poets. It probably had a chorus, and, dealing as it did in a mixture of philosophical discourse, antithetical rhetoric and wild buffoonery, necessarily varied in style. His comedies were the earliest examples of the class distinguished as motoriae from the statariae and the mixtae by their greater freedom and turbulence of movement. Though in some respects Sicilian comedy seems to have resembled the Middle rather than the Old Attic comedy, its subjects sometimes, like those of the latter, coincided with the myths of tragedy, of which they were doubtless parodies. The so-called “mimes” of Sophron (fl. 430) were dramatic scenes from Sicilian everyday life, intended, not for the stage, but for recitation, and classed as “male” and “female” according to the sex of the characters.

Attic comedy is usually divided into three periods or species.

I. Old comedy, which dated from the complete establishment of democracy by Pericles, though a comedy directed against Themistocles is mentioned. The Megarean farcical entertainments had long spread in the rural districts The Old comedy. of Attica, and were now introduced into the city, where from about 460 onwards the “comus” became a matter of public concern. Cratinus (c. 450-422) and Crates (c. 449-425) first moulded these beginnings into the forms of Attic art. The final victory of Pericles and the democratic party may be reckoned from the ostracism of Thucydides (444); and so eagerly was the season of freedom employed by the comic poets that already four years afterwards a law—which, however, remained only a short time in force—limited their licence. Cratinus,[15] an exceedingly bold and broad satirist, apparently of conservative tendencies, was followed by Eupolis (446-after 415), every one of whose plays appears to have attacked some individual,[16] by Phrynichus, Plato and others; but the representative of old comedy in its fullest development is Aristophanes (c. 444-c. 380), a comic poet of unique and unsurpassed genius. Dignified by the acquisition of a chorus (more numerous—twenty-four to twelve or afterwards fifteen—though of a less costly kind than Aristophanes. the tragic) of masked actors, and of scenery and machinery, as well as by a corresponding literary elaboration and elegance of style, Old Attic comedy nevertheless remained true both to its origin and to the purposes of its introduction into the free imperial city. Its special season was at the festival of the Lenaea, when the Athenians could enjoy the fun against one another without espying strangers; but it was also performed at the Great Dionysia. It borrowed much from tragedy, but it retained the phallic abandonment of the old rural festivals, the licence of word and gesture, and the audacious directness of personal invective. These characteristics are not features peculiar to Aristophanes. He was twitted by some of the older comic poets with having degenerated from the full freedom of the art by a tendency to refinement, and he took credit to himself for having superseded the time-honoured cancan and the stale practical joking of his predecessors by a nobler kind of mirth. But in daring, as he likewise boasted, he had no peer; and the shafts of his wit, though dipped in wine-lees and at times feathered from very obscene fowl, flew at high game.[17] He has been accused of seeking to degrade what he ought to have recognized as good[18]; and it has been shown with complete success that he is not to be taken as an impartial or accurate authority on Athenian history. But partisan as he was, he was also a genuine patriot; and his very political sympathies—which were conservative, like those of the comic poets in general, not only because it was the old families upon whom the expense of the choregia in the main devolved—were such as have often stimulated the most effective political satire. Of the conservative quality of reverence he was, however, altogether devoid; and his love for Athens was that of the most free-spoken of sons. Flexible even in his religious notions, he was, in this as in other respects, ready to be educated by his times; and, like a true comic poet, he could be witty at the expense even of his friends, and, it might almost be said, of himself. In wealth of fancy[19] and in beauty of lyric melody, he has few peers among the great poets of all times.

The distinctive feature of Old, as compared with Middle comedy, is the parabasis, the speech in which the chorus, moving towards and facing the audience, addressed it in the name of the poet, often abandoning all reference to the The parabasis. action of the play. The loss of the parabasis was involved in the loss of the chorus, of which comedy was deprived in consequence of the general reduction of expenditure upon the comic drama, culminating in the law of the personally aggrieved dithyrambic poet Cinesias (396).[20] But with the downfall of the independence of Athenian public life, the ground had been cut from under the feet of its most characteristic representative. Already in 414, in the anxious time after the sailing of the Sicilian expedition, the law of Syracosius had prohibited the comic poets from making direct reference to current events; but the Birds had taken their flight above the range of all regulations. The catastrophe of the city (405) was preceded by the temporary overthrow of the democracy (411), and was followed by the establishment of an oligarchical “tyranny” under Spartan protection; and, when liberty was restored (404), the citizens for a time addressed themselves to their new life in a soberer spirit, and continued (or passed) the law prohibiting the introduction by name of any individual as one of the personages of a play. The change to which comedy had to accommodate itself was one which cannot be defined by precise dates, yet it was not the less inevitable in its progress and results. Comedy, in her struggle for existence, now chiefly devoted herself to literary and social themes, such as the criticism of tragic poets,[21] and the literary craze of women’s rights,[22] and the transition to Middle comedy accomplished itself. Of the later plays of Aristophanes, three[23] are without a parabasis, and in the last of those preserved to us which properly belongs to Middle comedy[24] the chorus is quite insignificant.

II. Middle comedy, whose period extends over the remaining years of Athenian freedom (from about 400 to 338), thus differed in substance as well as in form from its predecessor. It is represented by the names of thirty-seven writers The Middle Comedy. (more than double the number of poets attributed to Old comedy), among whom Eubulus, Antiphanes and Alexis are stated to have been pre-eminently fertile and successful. It was a comedy of manners as well as character, although its ridicule of particular classes of men tended to the creation of standing types, such as soldiers, parasites, courtesans, revellers, and—a favourite figure already drawn by Aristophanes[25]—the self-conceited cook. In style it necessarily inclined to become more easy and conversational and to substitute insinuation for invective; while in that branch which was devoted to the parodying of tragic myths its purpose may have been to criticize, but its effect must have been to degrade. This species of the comic art had found favour at Athens already before the close of the great civil war; its inventor was the Thasian Hegemon, whose Gigantomachia was amusing the Athenians on the day when the news arrived of the Sicilian disaster.

III. New comedy, which is dated from the establishment of the Macedonian supremacy (338), is merely a further development of Middle, from which indeed it was not distinguished till the time of Hadrian. If its favourite types were The New Comedy. more numerous, including the captain (of mercenaries)—the original of a long line of comic favourites—the cunning slave, &c., they were probably also more conventional. New comedy appears to have first constituted love intrigues the main subject of dramatic actions. The most famous of the sixty-four writers said to have belonged to this period of comedy were Philemon (fl. from 330), Menander (342-329) and his contemporary Philemon and Menander. Diphilus. Of these authors we know something from fragments, but more from their Latin adapters Plautus and Terence. As comedians of character, they were limited by a range of types which left little room for originality of treatment; in the construction of their plots they were skillful rather than varied. In style, as well as to some extent in construction, Menander seems to have taken Euripides as his model, infusing into his comedy an element of moral and sentimental reflection, which refined if it did not enliven it.

New comedy, and with it Greek comedy proper, is regarded as having come to an end with Posidippus (fl. c. 280). Other comic writers of a later date are, however, mentioned, among them Rhinthon of Tarentum (fl. c. 300), whose Decay of comedy. mixed compositions have been called by various names, among them by that of “phlyacographies” (from phlyax, idle chatter). He was succeeded by Sopater, Sotades and others; but the dramatic element in these often obscene, but not perhaps altogether frivolous, travesties is not always clearly ascertainable. It is certain that Greek comedy gradually ceased to be productive; and though even in its original form it long continued to be acted in imperial Rome, these are phases of its history which may here be passed by.

The religious origin of the Attic drama impresses itself upon all its most peculiar features. Theatrical performances were held at Athens only at fixed seasons in the early part of the year—at the Bacchic festivals of the country Results of religious origin of Attic drama. Dionysia (vintage), the Lenaea (wine-press), probably at the Anthesteria, and above all, at the Great Dionysia, or the Dionysia par excellence, at the end of March and beginning of April, when in her most glorious age Athens was crowded with visitors from the islands and cities of her federal empire. As a part of religious worship, the performances took place in a sacred locality—the Lenaeum on the south-eastern declivity of the Acropolis, where the first wine-press (lenos) was said to have been set up, and where now an altar of Bacchus (thymele) formed the centre of the theatre. For the same reason the exhibitions claimed the attendance of the whole population, and room was therefore provided on a grand scale—according to the Platonic Socrates, for “more than 30,000” spectators (see Theatre). The performances lasted all day, or were at least, in accordance with their festive character, extended to as great a length as possible. To their religious origin is likewise to be attributed the fact that they were treated as a matter of state concern. The expenses of the chorus, which in theory represented the people at large, were defrayed on behalf of the state by the liturgies (public services) of wealthy citizens, chosen in turn by the tribes to be choragi (leaders, i.e. providers of the chorus), the duty of training being, of course, deputed by them to professional persons (chorodidascali). Publicly appointed and sworn judges decided between the merits of the dramas produced in competition with one another; the successful poet, performers and choragus were crowned with ivy, and the last-named was allowed at his own expense to consecrate a tripod in memory of his victory in the neighbourhood of the sacred Bacchic enclosure. Such a monument—one of the most graceful relics of ancient Athens—still stands in the place where it was erected, and recalls to posterity the victory of Lysicrates, achieved in the same year as that of Alexander on the Granicus. The dramatic exhibitions being a matter of religion and state, the entrance money (theoricum), which had been introduced to prevent overcrowding, was from the time of Pericles provided out of the public treasury. The whole population had a right to its Bacchic holiday; neither women, nor boys, nor slaves were excluded from theatrical spectacles at Athens.

The religious character of dramatic performances at Athens, and the circumstances under which they accordingly took place, likewise determined their externals of costume and scenery. The actor’s dress was originally the festive Costume and scenery. Dionysian attire, of which it always retained the gay and variegated hues. The use of the mask, surmounted, high over the forehead, by an ample wig, was due to the actor’s appearing in the open air and at a distance from most of the spectators; the several species of mask were elaborated with great care, and adapted to the different types of theatrical character. The cothurnus, or thick-soled boot, which further raised the height of the tragic actor (while the comedian wore a thin-soled boot), was likewise a relic of Bacchic costume. The scenery was, in the simplicity of its original conception, suited to open-air performances; but in course of time the art of scene-painting came to be highly cultivated, and movable scenes were contrived, together with machinery of the ambitious kind required by the Attic drama, whether for bringing gods down from heaven, or for raising mortals aloft.

On a stage and among surroundings thus conventional, it might seem as if little scope could have been left for the actor’s art. But, though the demands made upon the Attic actor differed in kind even from those made upon his Actors. Roman successor, and still more from those which the histrionic art has to meet in modern times, they were not the less rigorous. Mask and buskin might increase his stature, and the former might at once lend the appropriate expression to his appearance and the necessary resonance to his voice. But in declamation, dialogue and lyric passage, in gesticulation and movement, he had to avoid the least violation of the general harmony of the performance. Yet it is clear that the refinements of by-play must, from the nature of the case, have been impossible on the Attic stage; the gesticulation must have been broad and massive; the movement slow, and the grouping hard, in tragedy; and the weighty sameness of the recitation must have had an effect even more solemn and less varied than the half-chant which still lingers on the modern stage. Not more than three actors, as has been seen, appeared in any Attic tragedy. The actors were provided by the poet; perhaps the performer of the first parts (protagonist) was paid by the state. It was again a result of the religious origin of Attic dramatic performances and of the public importance attached to them, that the actor’s profession was held in high esteem. These artists were as a matter of course free Athenian citizens, often the dramatists themselves, and at times were employed in other branches of the public service. In later days, when tragedy had migrated to Alexandria, and when theatrical entertainments had spread over all the Hellenic world, the art of acting seems to have reached an unprecedented height, and to have taken an extraordinary hold of the public mind. Synods, or companies, of Dionysian artists abounded, who were in possession of various privileges, and in one instance at least (at Pergamum) of rich endowments. The most important of these was the Ionic company, established first in Teos, and afterwards in Lebedos, near Colophon, which is said to have lasted longer than many a famous state. We likewise hear of strolling companies performing in partibus. Thus it came to pass that the vitality of some of the masterpieces of the Greek drama is without a parallel in theatrical history; while Greek actors were undoubtedly among the principal and most effective agents of the spread of literary culture through a great part of the known world.

The theory and technical system of the drama exercised the critical powers both of dramatists, such as Sophocles, and of the greatest among Greek philosophers. If Plato touched the subject incidentally, Aristotle has in his Poetics Writers on the theory of the drama. (after 334) included an exposition of it, which, mutilated as it is, has formed the basis of all later systematic inquiries. The specialities of Greek tragic dramaturgy refer above all to the chorus; its general laws are those of the regular drama of all times. The theories of Aristotle and other earlier writers were elaborated by the Alexandrians, many of whom doubtless combined example with precept; they also devoted themselves to commentaries on the old masters, such as those in which Didymus (c. 30 b.c.) abundantly excelled, and collected a vast amount of learning on dramatic composition in general, which was doomed to perish, with so many other treasures, in the flames kindled by religious fanaticism.


  1. Alcestis; Orestes.
  2. Persae.
  3. Eumenides.
  4. Antigone; Oedipus Rex.
  5. Anthos.
  6. Phrynichus, Capture of Miletus.
  7. Id., Phoenissae; Aeschylus, Persae (Persae-trilogy?).
  8. Moschion, Themistocles; Theodectes, Mausolus; Lycophron, Marathonii; Cassandrei; Socii; Philiscus, Themistocles.
  9. Aeschylus, Septem c. Thebas; Prometheus Vinctus; Danais-trilogy; Sophocles, Antigone; Oedipus Coloneus; Euripides, Medea.
  10. Quite distinct from this revision was the practice against which the law of Lycurgus was directed, of “cobbling and heeling” the dramas of the great masters by alterations of a kind familiar enough to the students of Shakespeare as improved by Colley Cibber and other experts. The later tragedians also appear to have occasionally transposed long speeches or episodes from one tragedy into another—a device largely followed by the Roman dramatists, and called contamination by Latin writers.
  11. Anthos (The Flower).
  12. One satyr-drama only is preserved to us, the Cyclops of Euripides, a dramatic version of the Homeric tale of the visit of Odysseus to Polyphemus. Lycophron, by using the satyr-drama (in his Menedemus) as a vehicle of personal ridicule applied it to a purpose resembling that of Old Attic Comedy.
  13. Ion; Supplices; Iphigenia in Tauris; Electra; Helena; Hippolytus; Andromache.
  14. Philoctetes.
  15. Archilochi; Pytine (The Bottle).
  16. Maricas (Cleon); Baptae (Alcibiades); Lacones (Cimon).
  17. Knights.
  18. Clouds.
  19. Birds.
  20. Strattis, The Choricide (against Cinesias).
  21. Aristophanes, Frogs; Phrynichus, Musae; Tragoedi.
  22. Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae.
  23. Lysistrata; Thesmophoriazusae; Plutus II.
  24. Plutus.
  25. Aeolosicon.
Drama
7. Greek Drama