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Structure of Theatre unfit for New Comedy.
as Themistocles rescued Greece from slavery, so Epicurus from unreason.” He loved the choicest sensual enjoyments : Phædrus, in a fragmentary narrative, describes him as an effeminate voluptuary even in his exterior; his amours with the courtesan Glycera are notorious. The Epicurean Philosophy, which placed the supreme happiness of life in the benevolent affections, but neither stimulated to heroic activity, nor excited any desire of it in the mind, was likely to flourish after the loss of the glorious freedom of the old times: it was well adapted to console the cheerful mild-tempered Greeks for that loss. It suits the comic poet, perhaps, better than any other system, aiming, as he does, at producing only temperate impressions, without wishing to excite any strong indignation at human frailties; and so the Stoic Philosophy best suits the tragedian. On the other hand, it is easy to conceive how the Greeks, at the æra of lost freedom, came to conceive a passion for the new style of Comedy, which diverted their sympathy from universal human nature and political events, to domestic and personal interests.
The Greek Theatre was originally constructed for higher kinds of the drama: we do not wish to overlook the inconveniences and the disadvantages which its structure occasioned to the New Comedy. The frame was too wide, the picture could not fill it. The Greek stage lay under the open sky; it showed little or nothing of the interior of the houses'. The New Comedy, therefore, must needs have the street for its scene.
This occasions many incongruities; the people come frequently out of the houses to tell their secrets to each other in the street. It is true, the poets also saved themselves the trouble of shifting the scenes, by supposing the families concerned in the action to be next-door neighbours. It may also be alleged in justification, that the Greeks, like all southern nations, lived a good deal out of their small private dwellings in the open air. The chief disadvantage which this arrangement drew after it was the restriction of the female characters of the drama. With that due observance of costume which belongs to the essence of New Comedy, the exclusion of unmarried females and of young women in general was inevitable, because of the retired life the female sex led in Greece. None appear but aged matrons, maid-servants, or girls of light reputation. Hence, besides the loss of agreeable scenes of life, arises the inconvenience, that very often the whole play turns upon a marriage with, or a passion for a person, whom we never once get sight of.
1 To answer this purpose in some measure, the eccyclema was put in requisition, which in the opening scene of the Clouds no doubt exhibited Strepsiades and his son in their beds. Julius Pollux also mentions, among the decorations of the New Comedy, a kind of tent-awning, shed, or pent-house, with a door-way, which originally represented stabling, beside the middle building, but afterwards was turned to a variety of uses. Here, therefore, or in the eccyclema, were held those feasts, which, in the new comedies, sometimes took place before the eyes of the spectators. Considering their southern way of life, it was perhaps not so unnatural to feast with open doors as it would be in our climate. But no modern commentator, so far as I know, has hitherto set in a proper light the theatrical arrangement of the plays of Plautus and Terence.
Athens, usually the fictitious as well as the actual scene, was the centre of a small territory, and not to be compared with our own capital cities in extent and population. Republican equality did not admit of any marked distinction of rank; there was no proper nobility; all were neither more nor less than citizens, poorer or richer, who for the most part had no other occupation than the superintendence of their own property. Hence, in the Attic New Comedy, the contrasts which arise from diversity of tone and cultivation are pretty much out of the question; it confines itself to the middle ranks, and has an air of town or—if I may so express myself—small-town life, which does not please those who would have Comedy pourtray the manners of a court, and the exquisite refinement or corruption of monarchical capitals.
In the intercourse between the sexes, the Greeks knew nothing of the gallantry of modern Europe, nor of that love which is combined with enthusiastic veneration. All resolved itself into sensual passion or matrimony. The latter, as Grecian manners and government were constituted, was a duty, a matter of convenience, rather than of affection. The legislature was strict only in one single point, namely, in securing purity of extraction, which alone was legitimate. Citizenship was a great privilege, the more valuable in proportion as the citizens were fewer, whose number they did not willingly suffer to increase beyond a certain point. Therefore marriages with foreign women were invalid. The intercourse with a wife, whom in many cases the husband had never seen before he married her, who spent her whole life in the interior of the house, could afford but little entertainment; this they sought among women who
had lost all claim to strict respect, and were foreigners without property, freed slaves, and the like. With such women as these the easy morality of the Greeks considered almost every thing allowable, especially to young unmarried men. This kind of life, consequently, is much more freely displayed by the ancient comedians of the new school, than we think decorous. Their comedies, like all comedies in the world, diligently end with matrimony (with this catastrophe, it seems, seriousness finds its way into life, but the matrimony is often only a means of propitiating a father after the irregularities of an illicit amour. But sometimes the amour is turned into a lawful connexion, by means of a discovery that the supposed foreigner or slave is by birth a free-woman of Athens. It is worthy of remark, that the first germ of the New Comedy sprang up in the fruitful genius of the same poet as brought the old species to perfection. The “Cocalus” of Aristophanes, his last play, described a seduction, a recognition, and all the circumstances afterwards imitated by Menander.
This sketch brings pretty nearly into view the whole round of characters; they may be almost reckoned up, so few are they, and of such perpetual recurrence. The strict and parsimonious, or the mild and easy-tempered father, the latter not unfrequently under the dominion of his wife, and making common cause against her with his son; the fond and sensible, or morose and domineering housewife, proud of her dowry; the young man, light-minded, rakish, but otherwise frank and amiable, capable also of a true attachment in a love which was sensual in its origin; the girl of light character, either quite corrupted at the very first, vain, sly, and selfish, or still good-natured and susceptible of better feelings; the simple and rude, and the cunning slave, the latter helping his young master to cheat the old man, and using all sorts of knavery to get money for the gratification of his own appetites; (on this character I shall presently speak more at large, as he plays a principal part;) the flatterer, or officious parasite, who is ready to say and do all imaginable things in the prospect of a good meal; the sycophant, a person whose occupation it was to annoy honest people with all sorts of legal pettifoggery, and who also let himself out on hire for such employment; the gasconading soldier returned from foreign service, mostly a coward and a simpleton, but passing
himself off for somebody, by boasting of his exploits abroad; lastly, a female attendant, or pretended mother, who preaches very indifferent morality to the girl she has in her charge; and the slave-dealer, who speculates on the extravagant passions of young people, and knows no other regard than that of his own profit. The two last characters, with their revolting coarseness, are, to our feelings, a real blot upon the Grecian Comedy ; but, from the nature of its materials, they could not be dispensed with.
The knavish servant is generally also the merry-maker, who avows his own sensuality and unprincipled maxims with
complacent exaggeration, and makes fun of the other persons, perhaps also with side-speeches to the audience. Hence the comic servants of the moderns; but I doubt whether, as our manners are, there is propriety and truth in borrowing such characters from the ancients. The Greek servant was a slave, given up for life to the sovereign will of his master, and often liable to the severest treatment. A person thus deprived by the constitution of society of all his natural rights may be pardoned if he makes cunning his trade; he is in a state of warfare with his oppressor, and artifice is his natural weapon. A modern servant, who is free to choose his situation and his master, is evidently a worthless rascal, if he helps the son to play off a deceit upon the father. As for the self-avowed sensuality which gives a comic cast of expression to servants and other persons of mean rank, this motive may still be used without hesitation : he to whom life grants few privileges has also less required of him, and may frankly avow vulgar sentiments, without giving offence to our moral feelings. The better off servants are in real life, the less suitable are they to Comedy; it redounds, perhaps, to the glory of this soft age of ours, that we have lived to see, in our “family picture, plays and novels, right honest virtuous servants, fitter to excite tears than laughter.
The repetition of the same character was confessed by the Greek comedians in their frequent use of the same names, which are also names partly expressive of character.
In this they acted with more propriety than many modern comedians, who, for the sake of characteristic novelty, rack themselves with efforts for complete individuality, by which, in general, nothing is gained, but that the attention is diverted from the main busi
ness, and dissipated amongst minor features. And yet, after all, they imperceptibly relapse into the old well-known characters. It is better to lay on the character at once with a certain breadth of colouring, and leave the actor free scope for play, that, according to the exigencies of the composition in each instance, he may define the character more exactly, and make it more individual. Perhaps also, in this point of view, the use of masks may be excused, which, like all the rest in the management of the Greek theatre, (for instance, the playing under the open sky,) though originally calculated for other species of the drama, were still retained, and might well seem a greater inconvenience in New Comedy, than in Old and in Tragedy. But certainly it was incongruous with the spirit of this kind of drama, that while the representation approached real nature with a more illusive resemblance, the masks deviated more widely from nature than in Old Comedy, being drawn with overcharged features, and in the style of caricature. Surprising as this is, it is too expressly and formally testified to admit of a doubt?. As it was forbidden to bring portraits of real persons on the stage, they were in perpetual alarm, after the loss of their freedom, lest accident should betray them into some resemblance, especially to one of their Macedonian governors, and they adopted this way of evading the danger. But this exaggeration was scarcely without its meaning. Thus we find it stated, that an uneven profile, with one eyebrow raised and the other depressed, denoted a quarrelsome and pragmatical temper*, as we may in fact observe that persons who often look at any thing with an anxious exactness get accustomed to distortions of this kind.
The masks in New Comedy, among other advantages, have this, that as the character is unavoidably repeated, they give the spectator to understand at first sight what he has to expect. I have witnessed at Weimar a representation of Terence's Adelphi, quite in the antique costume, which, under Goethe's superintendence, furnished us with a truly Attic
2 See Platonius, in Aristoph. ed. Küster, p. xi.
3 See Julius Pollux in his section on comic masks. Compare Platonius as above, and Quinctil. xi. 3. The reader will recollect the strange discovery which Voltaire flattered himself he had made, as mentioned above in the Third Lecture. (Note 6, p. 172.)