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“AN AUDIENCE IN ATHENS, DURING THE REPRESENTATION OF THE AGAMEMNON," BY SIR W. B. RICHMOND, R.A. The front rows of the seats in the theatre were reserved for the priests, the Priest of Dionysus occupying a specially carved armchair in

the middle. The Athens theatre held 30,000 people.


Photo: Brogi.

AMPHITHEATRE AT SYRACUSE IN SICILY, ONE OF HE MOST PERFECT RUINS OF A GREEK THE CRE IN EXISTENCE The photograph indicates the immense size of that great theatre. Sicily was one of the earliest Greek colonies, and Æschylus died there

in 456 B.C.

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ture as in their sculpture, the Greeks achieved the beauty of simple directness—of sheer truth.

Three facts should be particularly borne in mind. The Greeks were a small people living in a number of City States, each with a few thousand inhabitants, and all of them on the sea. Athens was the most remarkable and most interesting of these States, and by far the greater part of the Greek literature that has come down to us was produced in one small city, far less in area and with a far smaller population than a London suburb. The second fact is that certainly eighty per cent. of Greek literature has been lost. All that exists was preserved in Alexandria. The third fact is that the wars waged by the Greeks against the Persians occasioned the birth of European patriotism. The fear of the barbarian not only stimulated love of country, but also caused the Greeks to regard themselves as the guardians of culture against barbarian destruction.

The Greek spirit means the love of unadorned beauty, simplicity, truth, freedom, and justice, the dislike of exaggeration, sentimentality, and elaboration.

The old-world stories summarised in the preceding chapter are the substance of Greek romantic literature. Evolved in the dawn of European life, sung by wandering bards, repeated and elaborated from generation to generation, they were first, as has already been related, written out in Hesiod and Homer. In these same stories the great Greek dramatists found the plots of their plays.

It is remarkable in how few years the great Athenian drama was produced. Æschylus gained his first prize in 484 B.C., and the Medea of Euripides, the crowning achievement of his career was produced in 431 B.C. Fifty-three years were sufficient for the complete development of what has been described as “the greatest work of art the world has ever witnessed.” A similar remarkable development characterised the drama in Elizabethan England. All the plays of Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Massinger, Webster, and Heywood were written in thirty-eight years!

§ 2

The Greek Theatre

Like the beginnings of mediæval drama in England, those of early Greek drama were religious. They grew out of the ritual dance performed in the spring-time before the shrines of Dionysus, the Bacchus of the Romans, and the intimate connection with the god of vineyards and fruitfulness remained unimpaired in the great days of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The front row of the seats in the theatre in Athens was reserved for the priests, the Priest of Dionysus occupying a specially carved armchair in the middle. All citizens were expected to attend and in the days of Pericles at the height of the power and glory of Athens the price of their seats was given them by the state. The Athens theatre held 30,000 people. Everyone went to the theatre. It was a national duty.

All the plays performed were the result of competitions held by the Government, which was also what we should call the Church, and the companies which acted them were paid for by wealthy men. If you wished to compete—and there could only be three competitors each year—you had first to be given a chorus, that is to say, some wealthy man would pay for a company which would act the play you were going to write. Because the idea of failure would have been ill-omened in what was a religious ceremony everybody received a prize in the competition.

The practice of the theatre developed as the great tragic period represented by the three authors named above took its course. At the beginning all the action took place in the circular space of the orchestra, and the “scene,” as it was called, was not a stage, but merely a tent in which the actors changed their clothes, and which could be used, as the similar curtains at the back of an Elizabethan theatre were used, to represent a door or a gateway or whatever veiled the action from the spectators, because in Greek drama, unlike in our modern plays, everything in the nature of what we should call incident took place “off.” In the plays of Æschylus the characters in the chorus occupied this orchestral space, and for that reason, as well as because the chorus was the element from which tragedy as a whole sprang, the chorus had a prominent part in the action of the play. As theatrical technique developed the scene became a slightly raised platform at the back of the orchestra from which the speeches of the actors were generally delivered, the chorus remaining in the orchestra below and tending, therefore, as in most of the plays of Euripides, to become rather a means of commentary on the action than part of it.

The relaxation from tragic tension which in Shakespeare is got for the most part by comic relief was provided in Greek plays by the choral odes and dances. Compare, for instance, Macbeth with the Hippolytus of Euripides. In Macbeth, unusually for Shakespeare, Duncan is killed in the Greek manner “off” the stage. Macbeth, in fact, in its earlier scenes and in its emotional context represents more closely than any other of Shakespeare's plays the Greek way of handling a subject. The tension which the audience must feel as a distracted dialogue between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, when the murder is done, is relieved by the knocking at the gate and the comic scene of the porter. In Hippolytus, on the other hand, when Phædra goes off the stage to hang herself, the relief from the tension is not got through any comic relief, which would have been foreign to the whole Greek mode of thinking in drama, but by the ritual dance and the song of the chorus which take the mind of the audience straight away from the tragic reality to the realms of romance,

The Dress of Actors

The actors, like Japanese actors to-day, wore large masks which had probably something of the effect of a megaphone and

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