Ancient Greek Theatre & Culture
He it was dwelt here in Thebes, where from the sowing of the dragon’s teeth grew up a crop of earth-born giants; for of these Ares saved a scanty band, and their children’s children people the city of Cadmus.
Hence sprung Creon, son of Menoeceus, king of this land; and Creon became the father of this lady Megara, whom once all Cadmus’ race escorted with the glad music of lutes at her wedding, in the day that Heracles,
The Electra of Euripides has the distinction of being, perhaps, the best abused, and, one might add, not the best understood, of ancient tragedies. “A singular monument of poetical, or rather unpoetical perversity;”
“the very worst of all his pieces;” are, for instance, the phrases applied to it by Schlegel. Considering that he judged it by the standards of conventional classicism, he could scarcely have arrived at any different conclusion. For it is essentially, and perhaps consciously, a protest against those standards. So,
indeed, is the tragedy of The Trojan Women; but on very different lines. The Electra has none of the imaginative splendour, the vastness, the intense poetry, of that wonderful work.
It is a close-knit, powerful, well-constructed play, as realistic as the tragic conventions will allow, intellectual and rebellious. Its psychology reminds one of Browning, or even of Ibsen.
To a fifth-century Greek all history came in the form of legend; and no less than three extant tragedies, Aeschylus’ Libation-Bearers (456 B.C.), Euripides’ Electra (413 B.C.), and Sophocles’
Electra (date unknown: but perhaps the latest of the three) are based on the particular piece of legend or history now before us.
It narrates how the son and daughter of the murdered king, Agamemnon, slew, in due course of revenge, and by Apollo’s express command, their guilty mother and her paramour.
The Medea, in spite of its background of wonder and enchantment, is not a romantic play but a tragedy of character and situation.
It deals, so to speak, not with the romance itself, but with the end of the romance, a thing which is so terribly often the reverse of romantic.
For all but the very highest of romances are apt to have just one flaw somewhere, and in the story of Jason and Medea the flaw was of a fatal kind.
The wildness and beauty of the Argo legend run through all Greek literature, from the mass of Corinthian lays older than our present Iliad, which later writers vaguely associate with the name of Eumêlus,
to the Fourth Pythian Ode of Pindar and the beautiful Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. Our poet knows the wildness and the beauty; but it is not these qualities that he specially seeks.
He takes them almost for granted, and pierces through them to the sheer tragedy that lies below.
Yes, spectators, our madness is quite different from that of Sacas.
He is not a citizen, and would fain be one at any cost; we, on the contrary, born of an honourable tribe and family and living in the midst of our fellow-citizens, we have fled from our country as hard as ever we could go.
It’s not that we hate it; we recognize it to be great and rich, likewise that everyone has the right to ruin himself paying taxes; but the crickets only chirrup among the fig-trees for a month or two,
I pray to the gods for release from this drudgery,this watch-keeping, measured in years, sprawled here
elbows bent, doglike, on top of Agamemnon’s house.I contemplate the congregation of the stars at night,as they bring both winter cold and summer heat to men,
bright masters, constellations splendid in the sky,as in their turns they wane and rise to dominance.
And now I watch for the beacon’s flame, the fire’sgleam, bringing word from Troy, a message of
the city captured; for a woman’s sanguine heart 10will have it so, her counsel more a man’s.
And when I keep this restless bed of mine,all wet with dew, unblessed with watchful dreams, for fear stands guard in place of sleep and keepsmy lids from meeting in security – why thenI make up my mind to sing, or hum a tune,and hope to manufacture so anantidote to myinsomnia, lamenting in tears the fate of this house,administered now far less well than before.
I would good fortune now might bring release from toil 20with the flare of the beacon fire alight in the night.O welcome, ligh
THE TROJAN WOMEN
udged by common standards, the Troädes is far from a perfect play; it is scarcely even a good play. It is an intense study of one great situation, with little plot, little construction,
little or no relief or variety. The only movement of the drama is a gradual extinguishing of all the familiar lights of human life,
with, perhaps, at the end, a suggestion that in the utterness of night, when all fears of a possible worse thing are passed,
there is in some sense peace and even glory. But the situation itself has at least this dramatic value, that it is different from what it seems.
The consummation of a great conquest, a thing celebrated in paeans and thanksgivings
the very height of the day-dreams of unregenerate man—it seems to be a great joy, and it is in truth a great misery. It is conquest seen when the thrill of battle is over,
and nothing remains but to wait and think. We feel in the background the presence of the conquerors, sinister and disappointed phantoms; of the conquered men, after long torment,
O Bromius, unnumbered are the toils I bear because of thee, no less now than when I was young and hale; first, when thou wert driven mad by Hera and didst leave the mountain nymphs, thy nurses; next, when
IFIGENEIA TIS TAVRIS
The Iphigenia in Tauris is not in the modern sense a tragedy; it is a romantic play, beginning
in a tragic atmosphere and moving through perils and escapes to a happy end. To the archaeologist the cause of this lies in the ritual on which the play is based.
All Greek tragedies that we know have as their nucleus something which the Greeks called an Aition—a cause or origin.
They all explain some ritual or observance or commemorate some great event.
Nearly all, as a matter of fact, have for this Aition a Tomb Ritual, as, for instance, the Hippolytus has the worship paid by the Trozenian Maidens at that hero’s grave.
The use of this Tomb Ritual may well explain both the intense shadow of death that normally hangs over the Greek tragedies, and also perhaps the feeling of the Fatality, which is, rightly or wrongly, supposed to be prominent in them.
For if you are actually engaged in commemorating your hero’s funeral, it follows that all through the story, however bright his prospects may seem, you feel that he is bound to die; he cannot escape.
A good many tragedies, however, are built not on Tomb Rituals but on other sacred Aitia: on the foundation of a city, like the Aetnae, the ritual of the torch- race,
like the Prometheus; on some great legendary succouring of the oppressed, like the Suppliant Women of Aeschylus and Euripides.
First in my prayer I honour the goddess who, first of allthe gods, herself gave prophecy, yes, Gaia; then Themis,her daughter, who, according to the myth, succeeded tothe seat of prophecy;
and in the third allotment, noforce put forth, her sister willing, Phoebe took her place,another child of Earth and yet another of the Titan breed.And she it was that gave the privilege to Apollo asa birthday gift,
who there by took himself the name of Phoebus.Accordingly, he left behind the seas of Delos and its reefsto find safe landfall on the busy coasts of Attica and come
to this place to make his home beneath Parnassus’ mount.The children of Hephaestus were his escort then, who did him mighty honour; and they it was that made the road for him, transformed this savage land and made it tame.
The people gave him honours when he came, along with Delphus, lord and guiding master of the land.
Lysistrata is the greatest work by Aristophanes. This blank and rash statement is made that it may be rejected.
But first let it be understood that I do not mean it is a better written work than the Birds or the Frogs, or that (to descend to the scale of values that will be naturally imputed to me) it
has any more appeal to the collectors of “curious literature” than the Ecclesiazusae or the Thesmophoriazusae. On the mere grounds of taste I can see an at least equally good case made out for the Birds.
That brightly plumaged fantasy has an aerial wit and colour all its own.
But there are certain works in which a man finds himself at an angle of vision where there is an especially felicitous union of the aesthetic and emotional elements which constitute the basic qualities of his uniqueness.
We recognize these works as being welded into a strange unity, as having a homogeneous texture of ecstasy over them that surpasses any aesthetic surface of harmonic colour,
though that harmony also is understood by the deeper welling of imagery from the core of creative exaltation.
And I think that this occurs in Lysistrata. The intellectual and spiritual tendrils of the poem are more truly interwoven, the operation of their centres more nearly unified; and so the work goes deeper into life.