Tragedies of Euripides (Way)/Introduction

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INTRODUCTION.


THE CHORUS.


In Aristotle's Treatise on (Dramatic) Poetry, the following passage occurs: "The dramatist's conception of the chorus should be as of one of the actors in the drama, as contributing to the complete effect; accordingly the chorus must take part in the action, not in the manner of Euripides, but in the manner of Sophocles." The genuineness of the reading has been disputed[1]; but, assuming it to be correct, the meaning of the writer is somewhat ambiguous. Did he mean, "It does this indeed in Euripides, but not so artistically as in Sophocles," or, "It does not do this in Euripides, but it does in Sophocles?" We are not much helped by a comparison of the extant plays of these two poets; for, while, out of the seven plays of Sophocles, in three the chorus are in such close sympathy with the "hero," that their fortunes are in a manner bound up with his, in two[2] they are warmly sympathetic; and in two[3] they are, though interested as spectators, yet but coldly sympathetic with the chief actor. In the eighteen plays of Euripides we find that in eleven the chorus similarly share the fortunes of the chief actors, and render them all possible aid; in four[4] they are warmly sympathetic, and sharers in their plot; while in three[5] they are (by reason of their personality) simply interested spectators, stirred only to occasional sympathy. If, therefore, we apply the critic-philosopher's words, in their plain sense, to the personality of the chorus, and to their part as subordinate actors, it would seem to follow that his conclusions were based upon a survey of these two poets' dramatic works more complete than is possible to us. But this is not the sense in which they are usually applied by those who compare the merits of Euripides and Sophocles, to the disadvantage of the former. Passing by the part taken by the chorus in the ordinary and the lyrical dialogues, they fasten upon the choral odes (technically known as stasima) which divide act from act, and maintain that, whereas these were previously integral parts of every play, expanding, idealizing, or emphasizing the thought suggested by the foregoing dialogue, and so contributing to the vital unity of the play, in Euripides they became mere ornamental interludes, either wholly irrelevant to the dramatic context, or connected with it only slightly and occasionally. We will presently consider whether this view is borne out by an examination of his eighteen extant tragedies: but we remark at the outset, that it is directly opposed to the view of Aristotle, who, in the two sentences which immediately follow the somewhat ambiguous one already quoted, adds what is not ambiguous at all, viz.: "But as for the other dramatists, the choral odes are no more relevant to the particular plays in which they occur than to any other tragedy. Accordingly, these chorus-chants of theirs are mere interludes (embolima is the technical expression), the example of introducing which was first set by Agathon."

Now this testimony of Aristotle is of capital importance to a right view of the question; for, not only had he access to the complete works of these dramatists, but he was in a position to judge, not merely of their literary merits, but of their effect when acted, with all the stage-accessories, the music, the effects of delivery and action, designed by their authors. We may take it, moreover, that he represented, not an individual judgment, but the high-water mark of Greek dramatic criticism in the hundred years following the death of Euripides.

If, therefore, those who find fault with the choral odes of Euripides are to derive support from Aristotle at all, it must be by reading into his words some meaning which they do not incontestably bear. The only phrase which affords an opening for such a liberty, is that which occurs in the doubtful text, "not in the manner of Euripides." And, in the absence of corroborating testimony from Aristotle, they are compelled to fall back upon the extant plays to substantiate their contention. But in the pages of our scholar-critics the reader will seek in vain for any detailed analysis of these choral odes: he will be met by general allegations, and by one or two instances given with wearisome iteration, from which he is expected to infer that, as is the sample, so is the mass. It is time, then, in the interests of fair play, and of literary justice, to sift these accusations by means of an analysis of the eighteen extant tragedies. I do not propose to go through each choral ode (that would require a long treatise, and would be superfluous in a work which places the odes themselves before the reader), but simply to summarize, in a catalogue raisonné of the plays, the results of a detailed examination of the subjects of the odes.

The point in dispute, then, being the dramatic relevance of the choral odes, we may define this as the criterion of dramatic relevance, that the sentiments of the ode spring directly from the dramatic situation to which the action of the play has brought us, and are filled with the emotions which it is calculated to excite. Adopting this, then, as our touchstone, we may arrange the plays in four groups:—

I.—Plays in which all choral odes are closely relevant to the immediate dramatic context.

Under this head fall half the extant tragedies of Euripides, viz.:

1. Rhesus B.C. 450 (cir.) 6. Suppliants B.C. 420.
2. Alcestis B.C. 439. 7. Children of Herakles
3. Medea B.C. 431. B.C. 415 (cir.)
4. Hippolytus B.C. 429. 8. Orestes B.C. 408.
5. Ion B.C. 425 (cir.) 9. Bacchanals B.C. 406.

The appended dates show that plays of this class were confined to no particular period of his life, but were pretty evenly distributed over his whole career.

II.—Plays in which the choral odes are closely relevant, either to the dramatic context, or to the enveloping action. By the term "enveloping action," is implied the course of events out of which the situation of the play has been developed, or to which it is leading.

Under this head fall:

1.The Iphigeneia at Aulis, in which one choral ode refers to the enveloping action of the future (751–800).
2.The Daughters of Troy, in which one choral ode refers to enveloping action of the past (511–567).
3.The Madness of Herakles, in which one ode refers to enveloping action of the past (359–424).
4.The Hecuba, in which one ode refers to the enveloping action of the past (905–952), and one to that of the future (444–472).

In none of the above cases (with the exception of Iphigeneia at Aulis, 751–800, where the reader is left to infer the connection) is the entire ode irrelevant to the immediate dramatic context: the concluding portion, generally the Epode, furnishes the connecting link, or specific application.

Euripides does not stand alone in this widening of the application of the choral ode: both Aeschylus and Sophocles furnish similar instances, e.g., the opening chants in the Agamemnon and the Antigonê.

III.—Plays in which some of the choral odes are relevant to features of the legend of which the action of the drama is an episode. Here the dramatic relevance consists in the fact that the present situation is the outcome of the past event, either by the doom of the Gods or through natural causes.

Under this head fall:

1.The Phoenician Maidens, in which occur one such chant (638–675), and half of another (1019–1043).
2.Iphigeneia at Aulis, which contains one (1036–1079).
3.The Andromachê, which contains two (274–308 and 1009–1046).
4.The Electra, which contains two (432–486, 699–745).
5.The Daughters of Troy, which contains half an ode of this class (795–819).

In these, as in those of II, the connection with the dramatic context is indicated somewhere in the ode.

Sophocles' Trachiniæ (498–532) furnishes a similar example.

IV.—Plays which contain choral odes of which the relevance is not at first sight obvious.

Under this head fall:

1.The Helen, which contains one such chorus (1301–1368).

Here the relevance is twofold, (a) To a great parallel: then a Goddess, the daughter of a Goddess, was lost, and the search of those who loved her was long baffled: now a woman, the daughter of a God, has been long lost, and the search of him who loved her has been long baffled, (b) To an obscure cause: may the Goddess, the story of whose afflictions is recalled by those of Helen, have been offended by some sin of omission or commission on her part?[6]

2.The Iphigeneia in Taurica, which contains one such chorus (1234–1283).

Here the relevance is again twofold, (a) It was the oracle of Delphi that had led Orestes to Taurica: his obedience to it had redeemed him from the persecution of the haunting furies, had plucked him from the brink of death, and had restored to him a sister. The misgivings which had troubled him, the murmurings which had broken from him, when it seemed as if the God had betrayed him to his destruction, had been found baseless. Those who had seen all this might well take as their theme the institution of an oracle so strikingly vindicated, (b) But again, the same oracle had superseded the ancient divination by dreams; and here, once more, the Oracle, which has guided Orestes aright, has triumphed over the Dream (44–55), which has misled Iphigeneia almost fatally; and thus yet another attempt of Earth, the ancient sender of dreams, to recover her lost prerogative, has failed. The decree of Zeus is ratified, and the right of Apollo is maintained, as against the old nature-worship.

It may be noted also, that, the barbarian king being close at hand, a non-compromising chant ("speaking to those who can understand," in Pindar's phrase), which shall convey no hint of the situation to hostile ears, is required by dramatic propriety.

3.The Madness of Herakles, in which half a chorus is of this nature (637–672).

Here we have an expansion of the idea contained in the parodos, or entrance-song of the chorus (107–129), and in the first choral ode (436–441), the special relevance being therefore to the character of the chorus, who cannot but feel that it is their own impotence, the infirmity of age, which has denied to them all share in the great deliverance, and that all they can now do is to extol him who has achieved it.

The relevance of the three foregoing odes, it will be seen, is not so much to the immediate context, as to some idea, or leit-motif, which dominates the whole play.

It will have been perceived that II, III, and IV are not mutually exclusive.

There are, again, a few choral odes which, though relevant to their own dramatic context, yet admit of more general application; and to these some writers have applied the stricture of Aristotle, that "they are no more relevant to the particular plays in which they occur, than to any other tragedy." Such are, the ode in the Medea on the perils of parentage (1081–1113), that in the Hippolytus on the despotic tyranny of Love (1268–1282), and the strophe and antistrophe (543–573) in Iphigeneia at Aulis, deprecating unbridled passion, the baleful effects of which have been seen in the sin of Paris. But, in the first place, we have already seen that Aristotle himself did not regard these, or any odes whatever of Euripides, as meriting that censure, which he reserved for later poets; and no wonder, for in three plays of Sophocles there are no fewer than six choral odes[7] against which the same objection could as reasonably be urged. Secondly, to admit such a contention would be to lay down as a literary canon the absurd rule that the perfect dramatist may not descant on the emotions, experiences, and aims, which are the master-springs of action and passion in human life, except with exclusive reference to the particular persons or situations which illustrate them in each case.

We may, therefore, justly object to such odes being called in any sense irrelevant.

To sum up the results of our examination, we find that, out of nearly ninety choral chants[8] in the eighteen extant tragedies of Euripides, more than seventy are closely relevant to the dramatic context: five dwell mainly on the events which have led up to the present situation, or which will result from it: eight point to remoter causes or parallels: and three can be shown to be relevant to some dominant idea, or leit-motif, of the play.

Now, in every such instance of divergence from strict conformity to general precedent, the reader will find that there is an artistic reason for it. It would take too long to show this in detail, nor should it be necessary: but, speaking generally, we shall find it attributable to (1) the relation of the chorus to the actors, or (2) the nature of the immediate situation.

1. The personality of the chorus. In the Phœnician Maidens, the Iphigeneia at Aulis, and the Andromachê, the chorus is so constituted, that its members, though profoundly impressed by the events passing before them, are but slightly interested in the personages of the drama, who are comparative strangers to them. Hence they are inclined to dwell upon what does concern themselves as much as the actors, the workings of fate, the fulfilment of the Gods' doom, the far issues involved: only in the climax of the tragedy is their attention arrested, as it were in spite of themselves, by actual present developments. But, it may be objected, is not this very thing to be regarded as an artistic fault in Euripides? Not if we bear in mind the true function of the chorus, which is, not to furnish a running comment, necessary or superfluous, on act after act, but to impress on the spectators the deep lessons of the play, to strengthen faith, to quicken sympathy, to purge men of their selfishness (as Aristotle suggests) by the operation of pity and fear.[9] The fact that the chorus in The Phœnician Maidens are strangers enables them to take an impartial view of the question at issue, and to pronounce on the side of justice. This is precisely what we miss in Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes, where they breathe no word hinting the faintest disapproval of the injustice and perjury of their king, which have brought about the war.

In the Iphigeneia at Aulis, the aloofness of the chorus invests the heroine with a certain majesty of loneliness in her awful trial, which throws her heroism into stronger relief, and reminds us that the Alpine summits of duty must be scaled alone.

So, in the Andromachê, the cautious reticence of the chorus, who, as subjects of the royal house, dare not utter their sentiments,[10] imparts to the heroine a forlorn grandeur, which stimulates the spectators' sympathy and admiration.

In the Electra, the protagonists, daring a deed without a name, enter a valley of shadows of death where human experience has no chart for guidance, where human wisdom can but tremble, and human conscience shudder; and those who so fearfully and doubtingly watch them must hark back for light and leading to memories of glories marred by the sin now to be expiated, of link on link of ancient retribution to be consummated now.

In the Daughters of Troy and the Hecuba, on the other hand, the. chorus are themselves as much involved in the action of the drama as the chief actors, and the real protagonist, the martyr whose sufferings comprehend all partial woes, is neither Hecuba, nor Polyxena, nor Andromache, but Troy, whose past agony of leaguer and sack, and whose imminent fate in the persons of her exile-children, are designedly impressed upon the spectators.

2.—The nature of the immediate situation. "Fools," says Hesiod, "who know not how much greater is the half than the whole!" It is the inferior artist who does not know when reticence best befits, when silence is more eloquent than speech. There are in tragedy, situations which not only call for no comment, but where comment is sacrilege. One illustration may suffice. An act closes with a situation like that in which Polyxena is torn from her mother's arms (Hecuba, 443). What should the chorus say? They feel instinctively that this is the beginning of the end, the first of the final strokes of doom for Troy's exiles, and with shuddering anticipation they chant the lost ones' song of foreboding.

But it is not in these exceptional choral odes only, but in many, very many, of those which are closely relevant to the dramatic situation, that we find a certain element which is comparatively lacking in those of Aeschylus and Sophocles. It was a distinctive feature of Euripides' genius that every dramatic situation was to him fraught with a suggestiveness which kindled his imagination, which stirred his human sympathy, which flashed upon his soul revelations of the problems of existence. Hence his choral odes are generally in themselves beautiful poems, interesting apart from their context. Doubtless the new departure was welcomed by the Athenian audience generally, who, after having, in the course of two generations, listened to some hundreds of formally relevant odes, must have become fairly expert in forecasting what an average chorus would sing, and might be spared the reproach of "decadence" in taste, if they longed for a little relief from the too-obvious comment, the inevitable moralizing. They were somewhat in the position of our fathers who, after enduring for two generations the bards who boasted Pope for their master, and held his style to be the "last word" in English poetry, hailed with glad surprise the strange freshness of Cowper's note, and ere long wondered to find themselves still so young in spirit as to be enthralled by the romance of Scott and Byron. The new style was, of course, not without its dangers: it was a bow of Ulysses which only the master-hand could bend. It became a snare to weaker men, in whom talent and graceful play of fancy took the place of genius and inspired imagination. So Agathon and his successors wrote the pretty poems which the great critic was soon to brand as empty of the soul of tragedy. The style of Euripides was the style of Euripides, not of a school of imitators. But that his innovation was, in his hands, not perfectly legitimate, it has been left to Schlegel and his disciples to detect, with a penetration which has discerned that which eluded the judicial acumen of Aristotle, and even the keen-eyed hatred of Aristophanes.[11]

 

THE DEUS EX MACHINA.


In no fewer than half of the extant tragedies of Euripides we find the intervention of a God introduced at the end of the play.[12] In every case the deity speaks "from the machina," a stage contrivance by which the actor appeared to be throned upon clouds, or to be hovering in a winged chariot, or some similar device. From the fact that in the fourteen extant plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles only one such intervention occurs, we may fairly conclude that this was a distinctive feature of Euripides' work. This practice of his is by some scholars cited as a mark of his inferiority as an artist, as though he constructed his plots so clumsily as to get them into so hopeless a tangle at the end of the play that poetic justice could be secured only by violent supernatural interference. Now, whatever may have been the dramatist's motive, we may affirm unhesitatingly that it was not this. True, in two plays of Euripides, as in one of Sophocles, a God does intervene when the action has reached an impasse, the result of which threatens to be a contradiction of the legend on which the play is based, and an outrage on the spectators' sense of justice. But in no one case is this deadlock the direct outcome of the action. In the Philoctetes of Sophocles, the spectators would not have been surprised if the hero had finally yielded to the prayer of Neoptolemus; their surprise may well have been that he still hardened his heart. To some readers, his conceding, without the slightest demur, to a word from Herakles, that which he had not the magnanimity to grant to the almost irresistible persuasiveness of Neoptolemus' repentance and pleading, comes as a somewhat "lame and impotent conclusion:" he seems a smaller man. a less heroic hero. So, in the Orestes, the hero "holds the trump card," in having Hermionê's life at his mercy: it was to be expected that Menelaus would yield, and indeed he does not refuse to do so. Orestes simply loses patience with his shifty hesitation; and his precipitating a catastrophe averted in the end only by Apollo's intervention is directly counter to the natural outcome of the plot. Again, in the Iphigeneia in Taurica, the escape of the heroine and her friends is, in the natural course of events, as much assured as in the very similar situation in the Helen: the adverse wind is a pure contretemps. Thus both poets appear to have made a gratuitous difficulty, purposely staving off the natural dénouement, sacrificing dramatic probability to, we may surely assume, a higher object.

In the remaining seven plays which end with a divine intervention, there is no knot to untie.[13] The introduction of the deity takes place in each after the dénouement is effected. What the God does is to speak the epilogue, so to say, of the piece in the form of prophecy or ordinance. His intervention serves, not to save the credit of the dramatist, but to bring home to the spectators the religious significance of this, and, by inference, of every drama of human destiny.

The poet's object we may conceive to have been twofold:—1. To remind the audience that, if their deities were real beings, they were as real for them as for the men of the heroic age. The average Greek believed implicitly in the historical truth of the story of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and remembered that not only were the heroes guarded and guided at every turn by the Immortals, but that the consummation of the Iliad, the burial of Hector, and that of the Odyssey, the reconciliation of Odysseus with his subjects, were alike brought about by the intervention of deities, of Hermes and Athena respectively. What the modern girds at as the chronique scandaleuse of Olympus, bore a very different aspect to the average Greek. Instead of degrading the Gods, it elevated man. They thought of their ancestors, the founders of cities and institutions, as sons of God, and of themselves as of one family with the Heavenly Ones. It was, therefore, natural that the Gods should intervene in crises of the fate of the nation or its founders. Had not ancient heroes of the blood of Gods fought for them at Marathon? Had not Pan himself been the herald of that victory? Had not Athena's presence and voice kindled the onset at Salamis? The age of miracles was, for the average Greek, in no sense past, and it did him good to be reminded of this. Homer was his "Shorter Catechism," and when the boy at school learnt from the Odyssey how

"The Gods in the bodies of outland strangers veil from sight
Their godhead, and pass through cities, and mark who doeth aright;
And they stand by the tyrant unseen, beholding mischief and spite,"

his master did not explain to him that this was but an old-world fable. And that a dramatist who may himself have held higher and worthier views of the Deity should here have conformed to popular conceptions, is evidence, not of inconsistency, but of wisdom. "He fed them with milk, and not with strong meat." To help men to be honest and true, to be haters of injustice and jealous for the right, the old faith was better than the new scepticism.

2. His second object may well have been to make men better patriots, by recalling to the spectators' minds the divine origin of their race, their city, their religious institutions, and their national policy. In seven out of the nine plays in which the deus ex machinâ appears, the speech of the deity has special reference to Athens and her future.[14] In the Ion, Athena proclaims the divine origin of the Ionian race, and foretells the greatness of her colonial empire. In the Suppliants, the foreign policy of Athens is vindicated, and Athena puts her for ever in the right as against Argos. In the Iphigeneia in Taurica, the Orestes, and the Electra, the origin of some of her religious institutions, particularly of the sacred court of the Areopagus, is stamped with divine sanction. In the Helen, a passing allusion makes an island on the Attic coast holy ground. In the Rhesus, the Muses are proclaimed authors of the inspiration of the poets and religious teachers of Athens, and the rites of the Mysteries are declared to have been taught from heaven.

Each such drama, in which the storm and stress of human struggle and suffering is closed by a note of peace and divine assurance and far-reaching promise, became an object-lesson in patriotism. Athens would seem better worth living for and dying for, when men realized that they held her in joint-possession with Gods, when they recognised that, in guarding as a sacred trust her immemorial institutions, in celebrating her splendid festivals, they were sealing to themselves the blessings intertwined with these, when they grasped the thought that in planning, toiling, and fighting for her, they were fellow-workers with Athena, Apollo, and the Twin Brethren.

As M. Decharme acutely observes,[15] "Aristotle, who regards the introduction of supernatural machinery as perfectly legitimate 'for whatever is outside the limits of the action of a given play.'[16] that is to say, for the enunciation of events which are to follow it, as for those which have preceded it, has no word of condemnation for this dramatic combination of human agency with divine. That it was a mere stage-trick, a playwright's shift, has been revealed to the wisdom of the modern critic only."

 

  1. Hartung would read "in the manner of Euripides or in the manner of Sophocles."
  2. Trachiniæ and Electra.
  3. Oedipus Coloneus, and Antigonê.
  4. Medea, Hippolytus, Orestes, Electra.
  5. Phœnician Maidens, Iphigeneia at Aulis, and Andromachê.
  6. For a full discussion of the question, the reader is referred to Prof. Moulton's Ancient Classical Drama, pp. 181–2.
  7. Oed. Rex, 863–910; Oed. Col., 668–719, 1211–1248; Antigone, 332–375, 781–801, 1115–1152.
  8. This enumeration includes, to avoid confusing the English reader, the parodoi, or processional chants with which the chorus enters the theatre, which are always relevant to the situation, generally commencing with an explanation of their presence there.
  9. Aristotle's words are:—"It (Tragedy) effects, by means of pity and fear, the purgation (or purification) of such emotions." The question of the precise meaning of this clause has given rise to much learned discussion, and to somewhat esoteric interpretation. The reader who wishes to acquaint himself with the most recent conclusions of English scholarship, will find them ably set forth in Prof. Butcher's Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Art. The simple interpretation which I have hazarded above assumes that selfishness is the special taint from which our pity and fear need to be purified. These emotions are too apt to be based on solicitude for ourselves or our friends. Hence Tragedy, which takes men out of themselves, till they are "wrought to sympathy with hopes and fears they heeded not," may, by teaching men to feel pity and fear apart from all selfish considerations, be said to tend to the purification of the springs of these emotions within us.
  10. They receive a significant hint with respect to this very thing from Hermionê, at the outset (l. 154).
  11. Aristophanes' very hostile criticism of the choral odes of Euripides is based on quite different grounds, viz., certain verbal mannerisms, and the character of the music to which they were set.
  12. Ion, Hippolytus, Suppliants, Andromachê, Electra, Helen, Orestes, Iphigeneia in Taurica, Rhesus.
  13. I do not except the Hippolytus, since Theseus could have been enlightened without the appearance of Artemis. So the scepticism of Ion and the anger of Theoklymenus (Helen) are minor issues, devices to bring about the appearance of the deity, which is an object in itself.
  14. Cranmer's prophecy at the end of Hen. VIII may serve as a literary parallel. Its effect, however, on the most enthusiastic Elizabethan audience, could be scarcely comparable with the impression made by such utterances as these on the Athenians.
  15. Euripide et l'Esprit de son Théâtre, p. 401.
  16. Aristotle in one instance only takes exception to the employment of supernatural machinery by Euripides. The introduction of Medea's dragon-car is, in his judgment, a violation of dramatic propriety, "because it is used to effect the denouement." The inference is obvious, that he did not regard the other instances of divine intervention as open to the same objection.