GREEK AND ROMAN COMEDY
|This document was originally published in The Development of the Drama. Brander Matthews. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1912. pp. 74-106.
THE law of the theater, as M. Brunetière has formulated it, is that the drama must deal with an exercise of the human will, and that therefore a struggle of some sort is an essential element in the pleasure we take in a play. A clear understanding of this law is helpful in any question of classification--for example, in the difficult attempt sharply to set off tragedy from melodrama and comedy from farce. If the obstacle against which the will of the hero finally breaks itself is absolutely insurmountable, the Greek idea of fate, for example, the Christian decree of Providence, or the modern scientific doctrine of heredity, then we have tragedy pure and simple. If the obstacle is not absolutely insurmountable, being no more than a social law, something of man's own making and therefore not finally inexorable then we have the serious drama. If the obstacle is only the desire of another human being, then the result of the contention of these two characters is likely to give us comedy. And if the obstacle is merely one of the minor conventions of society, then we may have farce. But as there is no hard-and-fast line separating these several obstacles which the several heroes are struggling to overcome, so the different types of play may shade into one another, until it is often difficult to declare the precise classification. Who shall say that the 'Comedy of Errors' is not, in fact, essentially a farce? Or that the Elizabethan tragedy-of-blood is not essentially a melodrama?
Although the true dramatist cannot but conceive both the incidents of his play and its personages at the same moment, yet we are accustomed to consider tragedy and comedy nobler than melodrama and farce, because in the former the characters themselves seem to create the situations of the plot and to dominate its structure; whereas in the latter it is obvious rather that the situations have evoked the characters, and that these are realized only in so far as the conduct of the story may cause them to reveal the characteristics thus called for. Comedy, then, appears to us as a humorous piece, the action of which is caused by the clash of character on character; and this is a definition which fits THE MISANTHROPE, THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, THE SCHOOL FOR SCANDAL, and THE GENDRE DE M. POIRIER. In all these comedies the plot, the action, the story, is the direct result of the influence of the several characters on one another.
A consideration of the history of dramatic literature will show that comedy of this standard is very infrequent indeed, since the humorous piece is always tending either to stiffen into drama, as in FROUFROU, for example, or to relax into farce, as in THE RIVALS. Satisfactory as the definition seems on the whole, and useful as it is in aiding us to perceive clearly the true limitations of comedy, we must not insist upon applying it too severely or we shall find that we have erased from the list of the writers of comedy the names of two of the greatest masters of stage-humor, Shakespeare and Aristophanes, from neither of whom have we a single comic play the action of which is caused solely by the clash of character on character. The delightful fantasies of Shakespeare fall into another class, which we may term romantic-comedy, and in which we find the comic plot sustained and set off by a serious plot only artificially joined to it. The imaginative exuberance of Aristophanes displayed itself not in any form fairly to be called comedy, but rather in what may be described as lyrical-burlesque.
THREE of the most important phases of Greek tragedy are preserved for us in the extant dramas of Aeschylus, of Sophocles, and of Euripides. Other tragic writers there were, whose works are now lost forever; but these three were ever held to be the foremost, and we are fortunate in having the finest of their plays. Three phases there were also in Greek comedy, although less clearly distinguished; and here we have not been so lucky. To represent an early stage of its evolution, we have half a score of the lyrical-burlesques of Aristophanes; but only a single play of his survives even to suggest to us the kind of comic drama which was acceptable in a second period when other humorous playwrights rivaled him. The third epoch, illustrated by the noble name of Menander, can be but guessed at, since we have not the complete manuscript of even a single play. * Yet an attempt to trace in outline the development of the Greek comic drama is not an altogether impossible task, despite our deficiency in illustrative examples.
Comedy seems to have sprung into being at the vintage-festival of the Greek villagers, when all was jovial gaiety and jesting license in honor of Dionysus. "On public occasions," so a recent historian of the origin of art has reminded us, "the common mood, whether joy or sorrow, is often communicated even to those who were originally possessed by the opposite feeling; and so powerful is infection of excitement that a sober man will join in the antics of his drunken comrades--yeilding to a drunkenness by induction." And these seasons of contagious revelry were exactly suited to a development of the double desire of mankind for personation--one man seeking to get outside of his own individuality and to assume a character not his own, while another finds his satisfaction rather in the observation of this simulation, in being a sympathetic spectator when actions are represented not proper to the actor's own character.
So it came to pass that there were companies of young fellows, often disguised grossly as beasts or birds, who broke out into riotous phallic dances, enjoyed equally by those who looked on and by those who took part. In time the dancers grouped themselves in rival bands, the leaders of which indulged in a give-and-take of banter and repartee, certainly vulgar and personal, and probably as direct and artless as the chop-logic dialogues of the medieval quack-doctor and his jack-pudding, or of the modern ring-master and circus clown. The happy improvisation of this carnival spirit which happened to delight the crowd one year would surely be repeated the next year deliberately, perhaps only to evoke an unexpected retort with which it would thereafter be conjoined in what might prove to be the nucleus of a comic scene of some length. Thus a species would tend to appear, as the tradition was handed down from season to season, enriching itself constantly with the accretions of every venturesome jester. However frail this framework might be, it would be likely to contain a rough realization of the more obvious types of rural character; and almost from the beginning there would be abundant and irreverent parody of heroic legend and of religious myth.
Then in time this inchoate medley of ribald song and phallic dance and abusive repartee would come to feel the influence of the other dramatic species, the origin of which was quite as humble; it would come to feel the influence of tragedy as this had been organized at last with its chorus and its three actors. Indeed, the same native instinct which led the Greeks to regulate tragedy and to attach it to a festival of the state would suggest, sooner or later, that comedy should also be adopted by the city. And this is what happened in time, although Greek comedy, when taken over by the authorities, was apparently far less advanced and far more archaic than Greek tragedy had been when first officially regulated. In the earlier dramatic poems of Aeschylus we perceive tragedy not yet developed out of the dithyramb and struggling to find its own form; and so in the earlier comedies of Aristophanes we discover not only a primitive but a very peculiar stage of the evolution of the comic drama.
CLOSE as Aeschylus, with his dominating chorus, sometimes seems to the earlier rustic lyric, Aristophanes is even closer. His work is often so formless, his story sometimes so disconnected, his plot so carelessly put together, as to force us to the conclusion that the Greeks had not yet perceived the need in the comic drama for that unity which is so striking a characteristic of their greater tragedies. Owing to this slowness of the Greeks in evolving a type of pure comedy, as they had already evolved a type of pure tragedy, the works of Aristophanes impress us with their strangeness and their inequality. Aristophanes himself, as we see him in his plays, appears to us in three aspects, each of which is seemingly incompatible with either of the others.
First of all, he is indisputably one of the loftiest lyric poets of Greece, with a surpassing strength of wing for his imaginative flights, and with a surprising sweep of vision when he soars on high. Secondly, he is the bitterest of satirists, abounding in scorching invective for his political opponents, and never refraining from any violence, any malignity, or any unfair accusation that would help the cause he had at heart. Thirdly, he is a riotous and exuberant humorist, a forerunner of Rabelais, reveling in sheer fun for its own sake, heartily enjoying every laugh he could call forth from the spectators, and ready at any moment to descend to any depth to evoke it again. It is to his possession of these triple gifts that we may ascribe the variety of opinions held about Aristophanes. The gifts themselves seem incongruous and discordant, and the result of their exercise in a single comic play is sometimes confusing. It is the privilege of great genius, as Voltaire maintained, and, "above all, of a great genius opening a new path, to have great faults."
What seem to us the faults of Aristophanes are partly due to his having opened a new path,--to the fact that comedy, as he understood it, had not yet disentangled itself from the phallic dance out of which it had blossomed. On the modern stage, so we have been told, there are three kinds of dancing, the graceful, the ungraceful, and the disgraceful;--and there need be no doubt as to which adjective can best be applied to the comic chorus of the Greeks. There were not a few lapses into vulgarity on the part of the Attic audiences; and there was at times--as a historian of Greek literature has admitted--"a great deficiency in that elegance and chastity of taste" which we are wont to associate with the names of Athens.
Aristophanes is a lyrist in all his plays, and a satirist also; but only intermittently is he a comic dramatist, concerned especially with the presentation of humorous characters immeshed in amusing complications. He can be a comic dramatist when he chooses, full of ingenuity in the invention of droll situations; but he does not often choose,--preferring the satire of real individuals to the presentation of ideal characters. This satire of real individuals is so abundant in his plays that we may see in them the Greek equivalent to a collection of caricature-cartoons from a modern comic newspaper. Like most modern caricaturists, Aristophanes is a bitter partisan, seeking rather to drive his point home than to be fair toward his unfortunate model. In most of his plays the victims of his invective are politicians; but sometimes he lays his scourge across the shoulders of a philosopher whose influence he dreads, or of an author whose verses he detests. Thus, in THE CLOUDS, it is Socrates who is held up to ridicule, and in THE FROGS it is Euripides. Perhaps THE FROGS is as typical of the lyrical-burlesque of Aristophanes as any other.
The play opens with the entrance of Dionysus and his slave Xanthias (personated by the first and second actors) into the circular orchestra. As the patron of the theater Dionysus is saddened by the thought that there is now no good dramatist alive, and he has determined to go down to Hades to bring back Euripides. For this perilous journey he had disguised himself as Heracles, and has come to get the advice of that hero himself. When he has knocked at one of the doors of the dressing-house at the back of the circular orchestra, Heracles (the third actor) comes forth and tells him of the various ways of getting to the nether world. After the demigod has withdrawn, Xanthias complains of the weight of the bundles with which he is burdened. Just then a funeral procession passes before the dressing-house, which formed a low background for the figures in the orchestra; and Dionysus tries in vain to get the bundles carried by the dead man (apparently played by a fourth actor), who refuses the unsatisfactory fee, saying "I'd see myself alive first."
Neither in the orchestra itself nor on the front of the dressing-house was there any attempt at scenery, although by the time of Aristophanes the dressing-house itself may have become a permanent erection, possessing a certain architectural dignity. But the Greek dramatist, tragic or comic, made no effort to realize to the eyes of the spectators the places where the action was supposed to happen; and as he did not particularize, they never gave a thought to mere locality. Thus the Athenian orchestra, like the stage of the Elizabethan theater two thousand years later, was a neutral ground in which actions were exhibited, and which might be here, there, and anywhere, as the plot required. Without any strain on the imagination, the orchestra which had been tacitly accepted as representing an open space in front of the abode of Heracles is immediately thereafter assumed to represent the shores of the Styx. Charon (the third actor again) comes in, rowing his boat,--and if we may snatch a suggestion from modern burlesque, it is quite possible that part of the joke here lay in the obvious make-believe of Charon's skiff, which was perhaps but a bottomless framework hung by a strap from his shoulders as he walked forward pretending to paddle.
Charon goes to the side of the orchestra where Dionysus and Xanthias are standing, and allows the god to step into his boat, but refuses to take the slave,--who thereupon agrees to rejoin his master by walking around. As Charon puts off with Dionysus, who pretends to help with the rowing, part of the chorus enter, dressed as frogs. These inhabitants of the sunless marsh hoarsely chant a characteristic lyric as Charon and Bacchus propel the boat through the midst of them. Then, as the two voyagers arrive on the other side of the orchestra, the chorus of frogs croaks itself off. Dionysus pays his fare to Charon, who paddles off to the place whence he came,--probably from behind the dressing-house. Dionysus, left alone, calls for Xanthias, who runs around the outer circle of the orchestra to rejoin his master. And when the two are together again the orchestra thereafter is supposed to represent Hades, the under world.
Scared by the strange specters he now pretends to see, Dionysus appeals for protection to his own priest, whose seat was among the spectators and always in the center of the front row. In this daring unconventionality we may see an anticipation of the modern comedian who leans across the footlights to make fun of the leader of the musicians; just as the attire of Dionysus, doubtfully disguised as Heracles, had elements of humorous incongruity not unlike those observable in the funny man of today who wears a high hat when attired in a Roman toga.
Then to the sound of the flute there revels into the orchestra the full chorus, impersonating votaries of Bacchus, happy shades of those who had been duly initiated into the mysteries. While the two visitors look on with humorous comment, the chorus circles in and out with song and dance. In the song a lofty lyric strain is broken into by typical jests, local hits, and personal allusions. In the dance there is a joyous parody of those who took part in the mystic orgies. At last Dionysus gets the chorus to tell him which is the gate of Pluto's realm; and he knocks at one of the doors of the dressing-house, declaring himself to be Heracles. Then the door flies open and out rushes the gate-keeper, Aeacus (the third actor), who violently berates the sham Heracles for the misdeeds of the real demigod on his visit to Hades. Dionysus recoils in terror, and the gate-keeper goes to summon assistance.
The frightened Dionysus then transfers his lion-skin and club to Xanthias, who is to masquerade as Heracles. But when a maid-servant of Proserpine's (the third actor again) appears to invite Heracles in to a sumptuous banquet, Dionysus insists upon taking back the emblems of the demigod--only once more to yield them up swiftly when two eating-house keepers (the third and fourth actors) assail the false Heracles with bullying demands for damage done on the demigod's previous visit. Then the gate opens again, and Aeacus bids his aids seize the false Heracles, who protests his innocence--and proffers his slave to be tortured in proof of his assertion. Thereupon Dionysus declares himself, but Xanthias maintains his claim, so Aeacus has them flogged alternately to discover which is the god,--he being the one who will not feel the pain of the blows. Although they cry out, both stand the test so well that the puzzled Aeacus takes them within for Pluto and Proserpine to decide which is truly the god.
The chorus, left alone, turns to the spectators and becomes the mouthpiece of the satiric dramatist, delivering what is called the parabasis, and what is in fact a personal address of Aristophanes to his fellow-citizens assembled in the theater,--an address not unlike our latter-day after-dinner speech on themes of the hour, now jocularly personal and now raising itself into genuine eloquence. In the modern drama there is nothing exactly corresponding to the parabasis, although it is sometimes like the topical song of a modern burlesque and sometimes it resembles rather the prologue of a comedy of Ben Jonson's or Dryden's, not prefixed to the play, however, but injected into the middle of it. Like these prologues often, and like the topical songs generally, the parabasis had nothing to do with the plot of the play.
When the parabasis is concluded, Aeacus and Xanthias return, having fraternized as fellow-servants, delighting to spy on their masters. The noise of a quarrel is heard; and Aeacus explains that this is Euripides disputing with Aeschylus, whose seat at a table he wishes to usurp. Aeacus further declares that as Dionysus is the patron of tragedy, Pluto intends to let the newcomer decide the dispute. The two slaves withdraw; and the chorus chants a lyric description of the coming contest.
Then Dionysus comes back with Aeschylus (the second actor) and Euripides (the third actor); and we are made to see another characteristic feature of Aristophanic lyric-burlesque,--the agon, the dispute, which has almost the formality of a trial at law. Aeschylus and Euripides set forth in turn their views of tragic art, with much satiric distortion of each other's theories, and with much comic perversion of each other's verses. There is incessant cut-and-thrust in the dialogue, and apparently there is also opportunity for frequent parody of the actors who had played the parts from which quotations are made. There is frank burlesque in the use of scales, by which the best lines of the opposing poets are weighed in turn; but Dionysus is still in doubt when Pluto (a fourth actor) enters to ask for his decision. Unable to make a choice on literary grounds, Dionysus asks the advice of the rival dramatists about the contemporary political conditions of Athens; and as he finds Aeschylus to be the wiser counselor and the nobler, it is the elder poet that he resolves to take back with him to earth. Pluto, after authorizing the departure of Aeschylus, and after bidding the chorus to escort him triumphantly, withdraws with Euripides, delaying a moment to invite Dionysus to remain for a feast. Once more the chorus circles around; and then, accompanied by Aeschylus, it trails out of the orchestra.
THE FROGS is a delightful example of the lyrical-burlesques of Aristophanes, co-mingled of poetry and of personalities, generous in parody, abundant in fun, and rich in artistic criticism,--but thin in plot and meager in dramatically humorous situations such as later comic dramatists have delighted to devise. It represents an early period of literature, when the several species are as yet imperfectly differentiated; and it is in fact almost as lyric and as satiric as it is dramatic. The story is straggling and the structure is loose. Yet a lyrical-burlesque of this sort was exactly suited to performance at the Dionysiac festival, when the season was held to sanction every conceivable license, and when the people of Athens were so conscious of their freedom that they were ready to laugh at jokes against themselves.
But as soon as the Athenians were shorn of their liberties the play of this type became quite impossible. The tyrants would no longer tolerate it; and perhaps the people would no longer relish it. Personalities were prohibited and satire was pruned. The comic dramatist became cautious and hesitating, and he was forced to seek his theme in private life and not in public affairs. This was fatal to lyrical-burlesque; but it hastened the development of a true comic drama. The plays of Aristophanes were the product of special conditions which have never been repeated, and this is why he stands in a class by himself; he has had no imitators and no followers. Modern comedy owes nothing to his example; and even the comedy of Menander, which was evolved from the comedy of Aristophanes, seems to have speedily become something wholly dissimilar.
THE comedy of Aristophanes was a medley of boisterous comic-opera and of lofty lyric poetry, of vulgar ballet and of patriotic oratory, of indecent farce and of pungent political satire, of acrobatic pantomime and of brilliant literary criticism, of cheap burlesque and of daringly imaginative fantasy. Obviously most of these elements have no necessary relation to the drama, and one by one they were eliminated. The political personalities had to go first; then the lyric poetry and the imaginative fantasy. THE PLUTUS of Aristophanes himself seems to be a specimen of this uncertain transition stage, in which the humorous poet is sadly shorn of his exuberance. He is not content to deal with the commonplaces of every-day life; and the theme he treats is really a fable, or rather an apolog. Yet in PLUTUS the absence of the more extravagant elements of his lyrical-burlesques brings the later play closer to comedy as we now understand it than were the earlier pieces.
In the course of a few years after Aristophanes, Greek comedy still further simplified itself. It gave up the parabasis, always an undramatic excrescence; and it surrendered the chorus, thus abandoning at once the ballet and the opera. It made up for the loss of these things by elaborating the more dramatic elements, by relying more upon the delineation of character, and by giving more thought to the building up of the plot and to the invention of comic situations. It responded also to the influence of the more realistic treatment of life which Euripides had introduced into tragedy. Indeed, it is quite possible that there was a fairly close agreement in method and in attitude between Euripides, the last of the great writers of Greek tragedy, and Menander, the first of the great writers of Greek comedy.
In the plays of Aeschylus, we see the lyric and the dramatic existing side by side, and the drama has not succeeded in making the song subservient. In the plays of Sophocles, we find the lyric fused with the dramatic, welded into it, made helpful to the tragic story. In the plays of Euripides, we discover that the chorus lingers, like an atrophied organ which the dramatist dared not amputate out of regard for tradition. In the plays of Menander, we not that the needful operation has taken place. At the hands of Euripides the chorus serves only to fill out the lyric interludes of the dramatic action; and it is this entr'acte music that Menander omits. Greek tragedy had been lyric in its origin, and was perforce poetic; whereas Greek comedy, after Aristophanes, was free to be prosaic, as was needful in dealing more directly with the facts of every-day existence. As De Quincey says, it is ever "the acknowledged duty of comedy to fathom the coyness of human nature, and to arrest the fleeting phenomena of human demeanor."
Unfortunately for us, no play of Menander's has survived. * We have a few fragments of scenes; we have many quoted sentences; we have the Latin adaptations of Plautus and Terence: but we have not a single play complete by which we could make up our own minds as to his dramaturgical skill. * We can judge of him as a poet and a moralist by means of the lines preserved here and there by his admirers. But although we have one play of Terence's which seems to have been derived without admixture from Menander, this is really not enough to justify any judgment as to his play-making faculty. We do not know much more about Menander as a dramatist than we should know about Shakespeare as a dramatist, if his works were altogether lost, and if all we had left were, first, the librettos of the French operas which had been founded on his plots, and, second, the extracts in some dictionary of 'Familiar Quotations.' We are at liberty to guess that Menander found compensation for his sinking from the lyric heights of Aristophanes by not descending into the depths of base vulgarity in which the earlier poet reveled. We may surmise that his plays were often genuine comedies rather than mere farces,--in that he sought the truth of life itself rather than the boisterous laughter evoked by exaggeration. Certainly his contemporaries continually testify to the veracity of his scenes. "On the stage," as Chamfort declared, "the aim is effect; but the difference between the good dramatist and the bad is that the former seeks effect by reasonable means, while for the latter any and all means are excellent."
In other words, the plays of Menander seem to have been an anticipation of the modern comedy-of-manners. The plots were ingenious and plausible, and they were peopled with characters common in Athens at that time;--the miserly father, the spendthrift son, the intriguing servant, the braggart soldier, the obsequious parasite, the woman of pleasure,--and here in this last type we find the most marked difference between Menander and Molière, for example. In modern comedy, as in modern society, women occupy many conspicuous positions; but in Athens respectable women took no part in social life, remaining at home and caring for their households. In Greek comedy, therefore, women are little seen, and those who do appear belong to the less respectable classes. It was impossible for Menander to treat such a theme as served Molière in THE FEMMES SAVANTES, Sandeau in MADEMOISELLE DE LA SEIGLIÈRE, and Ibsen in THE DOLL'S HOUSE; and here, no doubt, is the most serious limitation of Greek comedy. To Menander himself the deprivation is most injurious, since he obviously possessed the delicacy of perception that would have enabled him to handle feminine character with insight and subtlety. His prevailing tone, as Professor Jebb notes, is "that of polite conversation, not without passages of tender sentiment, grave thought, or almost tragic pathos."
Although the chorus had disappeared in Menander's day, the tradition of the mask still survived. The mask was probably a pasteboard head not unlike those now seen in our comic pantomimes; and a great variety of them had been modeled for use in comedy, each of which served to declare at once the character of the wearer and to announce on his first appearance whether, for instance, he was a dutiful young man or a wanton prodigal. Indeed, there were said to be ten distinct masks available for the several young men of the play, nine for the old men, and seven for the slaves. In a theater so vast as that in Athens it would have been impossible for the spectators to perceive the changing expression and the mobility of feature which on the modern stage add so much to our enjoyment. Probably, moreover, the Athenian of old was no more annoyed by the facial rigidity of the masked characters than our children today are disturbed by the unchanging countenance of Mr. Punch and Mrs. Judy and of Mr. Punch's other wooden-headed friends.
THE Greeks were clever and witty; they were admirably qualified for comedy; and their language was likewise easy and flexible. The Romans who conquered them and who fell captive to their charm were a more serious people, not so likely to appreciate the comic drama; and their language was a lapidary tongue, grave and concise and a little lacking in lightness and fluidity. Latin reflects perfectly the sanity, the solidarity, the robust common sense, of the race that spoke it. Although there was always a certain austerity among the Romans, a certain deficiency in humor, they had early shown their appreciation of the primitive comic play which had been developed by their neighbors, the Etrurians. These Atellan fables seem to have been little better than crude farces, not unlike the rough rustic plays of the Grecian vintage-festivals out of which the Greek comedy had been evolved. The themes of these little pieces were probably as vulgar as the fragments of dialogue that have been preserved; and the chief characters were broadly marked rural types, the memory of which may have survived through the empire and through the middle ages to emerge again in certain of the personages of the Italian comedy-of-masks.
However low in language these early attempts might be, and however rude in art, they could have served as a root out of which a genuine Latin comedy might have been developed, if the Romans had really wanted such a thing. But before this coarse Italic humor had a chance to raise itself into literature, it was thrust aside, and its place was taken by Latin adaptations of Greek comedy. The native comic drama that had proved its power to please the populace did not die of this neglect,--indeed, it seems to have had a sturdy vitality; but it was deprived of the chance of artistic development, and no specimens of it have been preserved. It survived humbly in the shadow of its important Greek rival; and yet, long after all the traces of Latin perversion of the Attic drama had disappeared, the coarser Oscan play showed signs of existence in the nooks and corners of the peninsula. Being unliterary, a drama of this primitive type rarely gets itself recorded, even though it continues to please the uncultivated public.
The earlier Roman attitude toward the arts had been a little contemptuous; but this changed when they began to apprehend the beauty of Greek civilation. Having discovered that Greek culture was valuable, the Romans, being a practical people, proceeded at once to import it, wholesale, and in the original package. Their dramatists became adapters, taking the plots of the plays of Menander and of Menander's clever contemporaries, and transferring these into Latin, leaving the scene in Athens, but inserting an abundance of allusions to Roman manners. They kept the types of character which the Athenian dramatist had observed and which often had only rare counterparts in Rome; the braggart coward, for example, was a Greek and not a Roman,--the Greek had no stomach for fighting, whereas the Roman had shortened his sword and enlarged his boundaries. As a result this Latin comic drama was singularly unreal,--as unreal as certain English adaptations from the French and German, in which we feel a blank incongruity between the foreign code of manners on which the story is conditioned and the supposedly Anglo-Saxon characters by which it has to be carried out.
Nor was this the sole disadvantage under which Latin comedy labored, for the circumstances of its performances were also disastrous. Plays were provided regularly three times a year by the city authorities, and also at regular intervals when a high functionary took office or when a great dignitary died. The actors were often slaves, who might expect a beating if they failed to be applauded, and who might hope for their freedom if they succeeded in pleasing the public. The performances took place in huge theaters modeled upon that in Athens, except that two important changes were made: the orchestra, being no longer needed for the dance of the chorus, was reserved for the seats of the more important officials,--and therefore, in order that these spectators might see, the dressing-house was lowered and brought forward, so that its roof might serve as a stage. But of these officials and of the members of the upper circles there were few likely often to be present; and owing to this absence of the more cultivated public, a Roman audience did not represent all the classes of the community like an Athenian audience--and like the London and Parisian audiences to which Shakespeare and Molière were to appeal.
The audience which the Latin dramatist had to try to please was the roughest and most stubborn of any known to the history of the theater. It contained chiefly men of the lower orders--and very few of these were natives, for the Roman was serving abroad as a soldier or settled as a colonist, while his city was filled with a riffraff of rustics and strangers, uncouth barbarians many of them, prisoners of war, and freedmen, ignorant and brutal, knowing just enough Latin to make it serve as a lingua franca. Any delicacy would be wasted on a crowd like this; and no jest could be too gross or too violent to amuse coarse creatures whose chief joy had been in the bloody sports of the arena. Sometimes Gresham's law seems as imperative in the drama as in finance; the lower tends to drive out the higher,--at least, we all know that the theaters of New York have a barren fortnight when a huge circus comes to town. It is no wonder Terence complained that one of his plays was twice deserted by the spectators, who were suddenly tempted away by the report of more violent delights elsewhere.
BEFORE a mob of this sort, the Latin dramatist sought especially to make his plot clear, and he was afraid of no reiteration to avoid misunderstanding. He could not count on any intelligence of comprehension, and so we find at the beginning of one of his plays a prologue in which is set forth the exact situation at the opening of the story, and which then proceeds to tell in advance what the plot was going to be, returning finally to explain again the state of affairs at the moment when the action was to open. It is doubtful whether all the prologues as we have them are the work of Plautus himself; and it is true that this explanation may have been distended simply to allow more time for the turbulent folk still standing to find seats, or at least to settle themselves in their places. But even if the prologue is thus made to serve as a substitute for the overture of the modern theater, there is something pitiful in the precise prolixity of Plautus, so afraid that the most stupid may fail to catch some essential point. Yet the attitude of the Roman dramatist is only an exaggeration of that recommended by the old London stage-manager who said that if you want the British public to understand anything, you must tell them you are going to do it, next you must tell them you are doing it, and at last you must tell them you have done it,--"and then, confound 'em, perhaps they'll understand you!"
The stage was a mere strip of platform in front of a wide architectural background. In the later Roman theaters, in that of Orange for instance, this rear wall had become a stately elevation with three elaborate doorways and with decorative statuary. But even in the time of Plautus this background, although only a temporary erection of wood, contained doors which served to designate the homes of certain of the characters. In THE CAPTIVES, for example, the speaker of the prologue tells the spectators explicitely that a father who has lost his son dwells in the house on the right, and that another father who has also lost his son lives in the house on the left; and two of the doors in the rear wall were sufficient to represent these two domociles.
The actors did nor wear masks. Many of their speeches were accompanied by a soloist on the flute. Some of these passages were declaimed to this accompaniment, thus resembling the recitative of modern opera; and some were actually sung to set tunes. Indeed, we are told that sometimes a singer came forward to the side of the actor to deliver these lyrical passages while the comedian merely made the appropriate gestures,--a convention which seems to us monstrous, but which in itself is perhaps no more absurd than the full orchestra accompanying the song of Amiens far in the depths of the Forest of Arden.
The first duty of the Roman dramatist was to be so clear that the stupid spectators could not fail to follow the successive situations; and his second obligation, even more difficult, was to move to mirth his miscellaneous and uneducated audience. Although in theory Roman comedy was only Greek comedy written in Latin, and although Roman comedy was therefore supposed to deal with Athenian life and manners, as a matter of fact the Latin dramatists managed to get into their plays not a little of the local color of their own city. Plautus especially, not knowing himself much about Athenian life and manners, and well aware that his uncultivated Roman audience knew still less and cared nothing at all,--Plautus dealt very freely with his Greek original.
The scene of his plays is always supposed to be in Athens, but Plautus continually draws on his own intimate knowldege of the Roman populace. He had a thorough acquaintance with the speech, the methods, the every-day actions, of the very class from which was collected the audience to which he appealed. It was his object to make this audience laugh, and he could do it by showing them as they lived, by local allusions, by a humorous reproduction of their sayings and their doings. Plautus no more tries deliberately to mirror Athenian habits and deeds than Shakespeare--in giving us Dogberry and Verges--tried to mirror the ways of speech and the judicial customs of Sicily. In spite of his professed Greek original, Plautus was really giving a picture of low life in Rome, as broadly humorous and as fundamentally veracious as the picture of low life in New York which was visible in Mr. Harrigan's comic dramas, such as SQUATTER SOVEREIGNTY for example.
Here Plautus was apparently availing himself of the direct methods of the earlier native comedy of the Italians, of the Atellan fables, and of Fescennine satire; and this is just what a born dramatist would do instinctively, even though he had to follow a foreign plot. There is no denying that Plautus was a born dramatist,--born out of time, unfortunately, and fallen upon evil days. The circumstances of the theater did not encourage or even permit his full development. But even if he was taking over his plot from Menander, he was strikingly fresh in his sketches of life among the lowly as he knew it in Rome. He was vulgar, no doubt, but vulgarity was perhaps what his rude audience most relished; and although frank and plain-spoken, he was not as indecorous as Aristophanes, and he was never so indecent as Wycherley. He had a hearty gaiety as well as a broad humor; indeed, in comic force, in vis comica, in the sheer power of compelling laughter, he can withstand a comparison even with Molière, the greatest of all comic dramatists.
THIS comic force is just what was lacking in Terence. Where Plautus was plebeian in his point of view, Terence was patrician. Plautus was a practical playwright, and Terence was a cultivated man-of-letters. Plautus was invaluable for the information he has indirectly given us about the life of the Roman populace; Terence was valuable chiefly because his scholarly translations have preserved for us not a few of the best of Menander's comedies. Plautus dealt freely with the works of the Greek dramatists, knowing that his audience was eager to be amused by bold buffoonery, whild Terence sought to give a high literary polish to his faithful renderings of Greek plays of a graceful elegance, although he knew they were to be acted before spectators incapable of appreciating either elegance or grace. It is no wonder that the comedies of the later writer failed; he lacked the instinct of the born dramatist, who cannot help feeling the pulse of his contemporaries and responding to their unspoken demands. Terence had to wait for a fit audience until his plays were performed in the Italian Renaissance before an assembly of cultivated scholars, abundantly capable of appreciating his refinement.
It has been suggested that there was in Menander something of the well-bred ease of the man of the world, such as we see it in Thackeray, and that in Terence there is rather the terseness and high finish of Congreve. Certainly Terence is like Congreve in that he was of importance rather as a man-of-letters than as a dramatist. He was essentially a stylist, concerned rather with his manner than with his matter. Indeed, as his comedies dealt with the life of Athens, which he did not know at first hand, and not with the life of Rome, which he could not help but knowing, and in the language of which he was writing, he cannot be acquitted of unreality and artificiality. He had at times a haughty melancholy of his own; and he resented the stupidity of the public, incapable of seeing the surpassing merit of his transparent translations. But he had no roots in the soil; he was not only content to be an imitator: he was even proud of being second-hand; and what he strove for was at best but a reflected glory. This was indeed the fatal defect of the Latin drama,--that the Romans were satisfied with a colonial attitude in all matters of art. They had conquered the Greeks politically; but the Greeks had taken them captive intellectually. Instead of developing the native drama, and elevating it into literature by giving it form and substance, they preferred to dwell in servile deference to the greater Greeks.
A dramatic literature is necessarily conditioned by the audience for which it is intended. A mob of lewd fellows of the baser sort will demand plays fitted to their low likings; and this is one reason why the Romans, with all their ability, failed to have a worthy dramatic literature--their theater was abandoned to the vulgar. On the other hand, there is danger also if the dramatist is forced to please only the cultivated, who are ever prone to apply personal and dilettante standards; and it is this which accounts for the sterility of the Weimar theater when it was controlled by Goethe. But in the Elizabethan theater, although the rude and boisterous groundlings filled the yard, there were city madams in the rooms above, and there were gallants sitting on the stage itself; and altogether the playwright had before him a representative public. So Molière, inventing certain of his comedies for the court of the king, always counted on bringing them out later in his own theater for the joy of the burghers of Paris. Yet it may be doubted whether any audience to be found in Paris under Louis XIV, or in London under Elizabeth, was as carefully trained to understand and appreciate, or was as delicately discriminating in its taste, as those which in Athens flocked to behold the tragedies of Sophocles and the comedies of Menander.
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* Since the publication of this article, the complete text of Dyskolos, a play by Menander, the leading writer of New Comedy, has been rediscovered. It is the only example of New Comedy to have survived in its entirety. A few long fragments by Menander have survived as well from such plays as The Arbitration, The Girl from Samos, The Shorn Girl, and The Hero.