Pagina-afbeeldingen
PDF
ePub

EURIPIDES : HELEN.

141

Evadne are affectingly beautiful, although she is so unexpectedly introduced into the drama. Literally, indeed, may we say of her, that she jumps into the play, for without even being mentioned before she suddenly appears first of all on the rock, from which she throws herself on the burning pile of Capaneus.

The Heraclidæ is a very poor piece; its conclusion is singularly bald. We hear nothing more of the self-sacrifice of Macaria, after it is over: as the determination seems to have cost herself no etruggle, it makes as little impression upon others. The Athenian king, Demophon, does not return again; neither does lolaus, the companion of Hercules and guardian of his children, whose youth is so wonderfully renewed. Hyllus, the noble-minded Heraclide, never even makes his appearance; and nobody at last remains but Alcmene, who keeps up a bitter altercation with Eurystheus. Euripides seems to have taken a particular pleasure in drawing such implacable and rancorous old women: twice has he exhibited Hecuba in this light, pitting her against Helen and Polymestor. In general, we may observe the constant recurrence of the same artifice and motives is sure symptom of mannerism. We have in the works of this poet three instances of women offered in sacrifice, which are moving from their perfect resignation : Iphigenia, Polyxena, and Macaria; the voluntary deaths of Alceste and Evadne belong in some sort also to this class. Suppliants are in like manner a favourite subject with him, because they oppress the spectator with apprehension lest they should be torn by force from the sanctuary of the altar. I have already noticed his lavish introduction of deities towards the conclusion.

The merriest of all tragedies is Helen, a marvellous drama, full of wonderful adventures and appearances, wbich are evidently better suited to comedy. The invention on which it is founded is, that Helen remained concealed in Egypt (so far went the assertion of the Ægyptian priests), while Paris carried off an airy phantom in her likeness, for which the Greeks and Trojans fought for ten long years. By this contrivance the virtue of the heroine is saved, and Menelaus, (to make good the ridicule of Aristophanes on the beggary of Euripides' beroes,) appears in rags as a beggar, and in nowise dissatisfied with his condition. But this man.

142

EURIPIDES :

RHESUS-CYCLOPS.

ner of improving mythology bears a resemblance to the Tales of the Thousand and One Nights.

Modern philologists have dedicated voluminous treatises, to prove the spuriousness of Rhesus, the subject of which is taken from the eleventh book of the Iliad. Their opinion is, that the piece contains such a number of improbabilities and contradictions, that it is altogether unworthy of Euripides. But this is by no means a legitimate conclusion. Do not the faults which they censure unavoidably follow from the selection of an intractable subject, so very inconvenient as a nightly enterprise? The question respecting the genuineness of any work, turns not so much on its merits or demerits, as rather on the resemblance of its style and peculiarities to those of the pretended author. The few words of the Scholiast amount to a very different opinion: “Some have considered this drama to be spurious, and not the work of Euripides, because it bears many traces of the style of Sophocles. But it is inscribed in the Didascaliæ as his, and its accuracy with respect to the phenomena of the starry heaven betrays the hand of Euripides." I think I understand what

.

I is here meant by the style of Sophocles, but it is rather in detached scenes, than in the general plan, that I at all discern it. Hence, if the piece is to be taken from Euripides, I should be disposed to attribute it to some eclectic imitator, but one of the school of Sophocles rather than of that of Euripides, and who lived only a little later than both. This Ỉ infer from the familiarity of many of the scenes, for tragedy at this time was fast sinking into the domestic tragedy; whereas, at a still later period, the Alexandrian age, it fell into an opposite error of bombast.

The Cyclops is a satiric drama. This is a mixed and lower species of tragic poetry, as we have already in passing asserted. The want of some relaxation for the mind, after the engrossing severity of tragedy, appears to have given rise to the satiric drama, as indeed to the after-piece in general. The satiric drama never possessed an independent existence; it was thrown in by way of an appendage to several tragedies, and to judge from that we know of it, was always considerably shorter than the others. In external form it resembled Tragedy, and the materials were in like manner mythological. The distinctive mark was a chorus consisting of satyrs, who

EURIPIDES : ANCIENT DRAMA CONCLUDED,

143

accompanied with lively songs, gestures, and movements, such heroic adventures as were of a more cheerful hue, (many in the Odyssey for instance; for here, also, as in many other respects, the germ is to be found in Homer,) or, at least, could be made to wear such an appearance.

The proximate cause of this species of drama was derived from the festivals of Bacchus, where satyr-masks was a common disguise. In mythological stories with which Bacchus had no concern, these constant attendants of his were, no doubt, in some sort arbitrarily introduced, but still not without a degree of propriety. As nature, in her original freedom, appeared to the fancy of the Greeks to teem everywhere with wouderful productions, they could with propriety people with these sylvan beings the wild landscapes, remote from polished cities, where the scene was usually laid, and enliven them with their wild animal frolics. The composition of demigod with demi beast formed an amusing contrast. We have an example in the Cyclops of the manner in which the poets proceeded in such subjects. It is not unentertaining, though the subject matter is for the most part contained in the Odyssey; only the pranks of Silenus and his band are occasionally a little coarse. We must confess that, in our eyes, the great merit of this piece is its rarity, being the only extant specimen of its class wbich we possess. In the satiric dramas Eschylus must, without doubt, have displayed more boldness and meaning in his mirth; as, for instance, when he introduced Prometheus bringing down fire from heaven to rude and stupid man; while Sophocles, to judge from the few fragments we have, must have been more elegant and moral, as when he introduced the goddesses contending for the prize of beauty, or Nausicaa offering protection to the shipwrecked Ulysses. It is a striking feature of the easy unconstrained character of life among the Greeks, of its gladsome joyousness of disposition, which knew nothing of a starched and stately dignity, but artist-like admired aptness and gracefulness, even in the most insignificant trifles, that in this drama called Nausicaa, or The Washerwomen," in which, after Homer, the princess at the end of the washing, amuses herself at a game of ball with her maids, Sophocles himself played at ball

, and by his grace in this exercise acquired much applause. The great poet, the respected Athenian citizen, the

44

TILE ALEXANDRIAN SCIOL ARS.

man who had already perhaps been a General, appeared publicly in woman's clothes, anil as, on account of the feebleness of his voice, he could not play the leading part of Nausicaa, took perhaps the mute under part of a maid, for the sake of giving to the representation of his piece the slight ornament of bodily agility.

The history of ancient tragedy ends with Euripides, although there were a number of still later tragedians; Agathon, for instance, whom Aristophanes describes as fragrant with ointment and crowned with flowers, and in whose mouth Plato, in his Symposium, puts a discourse in the taste of the sophist Gorgias, full of the most exquisite ornaments and empty tautological antitheses. He was the first to abandon mythology, as furnishing the natural materials of tragedy, and occasionally wrote pieces with purely fictitious names, (this is worthy of notice, as forming a transition towards the new comedy,) one of which was called the Flower, and was probably therefore neither seriously affecting nor terrible, but in the style of the idyl, and pleasing.

The Alexandrian scholars, among their other lucubrations, attempted also the composition of tragedies; but if we are to iudge of them from the only piece which has come down to us, the Alexandra of Lycophron, which consists of an endiess monologue, full of prophecy, and overladen with obscure mythology, these productions of a subtle dilettantism must have been extremely inanimate and untheatrical, and every way

devoid of interest. The creative powers of the Greeks were, in this department, so completely exhausted, that they were forced to content themselves with the repetition of the works of their ancient masters.

[ocr errors]
[blocks in formation]

а

The Old Comedy proved to be completely a contrast to Tragedy

Parody— Ideality of Comedy the reverse of that of Tragedy-Mirthful Caprice-Allegoric and Political Signification—The Chorus and its

Parabases. We now leave Tragic Poetry to occupy ourselves with an entirely opposite species, the Old Comedy. Striking as this diversity is, we shall, however, commence with pointing out a certain symmetry in the contrast and certain relations between them, which have a tendency to exhibit the essential character of both in a clearer light. In forming a judgment of the Old Comedy, we must banish every idea of what is called Comedy by the moderns, and what went by the same name among the Greeks themselves at a later period. These two species of Comedy differ from each other, not only in accidental peculiarities, (such as the introduction in the old of real names and characters,) but essentially and diametrically. We must also guard against entertaining such a notion of the Old Comedy as would lead us to regard it as the rude beginnings of the more finished and cultivated comedy of a subsequent age*, an idea which many, from the unbridled licentiousness of the old comic writers, have been led to entertain. On the contrary the former is the genuine poetic species; but the New Comedy, as I shall show in due course, is its decline into prose and reality.

We shall form the best idea of the Old Comedy, by con

* This is the purport of the section of Barthelemy in the Anacharsis on the Old Comedy: one of the poorest and most erroneous parts of his work. With the pitiful presumption of ignorance, Voltaire pronounced a sweeping condemnation of Aristophanes, (in other places, and in his Philo. sophical Dictionary under Art. Athée), and the modern French critics have for the most part followed his example. We may, however, find the foundation of all the erroneous opinions of the moderns on this subject, and the same prosaical mode of viewing it, in Plutarch's parallel between Aristopbanes and Menander.

« VorigeDoorgaan »