principally on account of the light they would have thrown on the manners of the times, and the knowledge they might have afforded of the Athenian constitution, while the loss of the works of Eupolis is to be regretted, chiefly for the comic form in which they were delivered.
_Plutus_ was one of the earlier pieces of the poet, but as we have it, it is one of his last works; for the first piece was afterwards recast by him. In its essence it belongs to the Old Comedy, but in the sparingness of personal satire, and in the mild tone which prevails throughout, we may trace an approximation to the Middle Comedy. The Old Comedy indeed had not yet received its death-blow from a formal enactment, but even at this date Aristophanes may have deemed it prudent to avoid a full exercise of the democratic privilege of comedy. It has even been said (perhaps without any foundation, as the circumstance has been denied by others) that Alcibiades ordered Eupolis to be drowned on account of a piece which he had aimed at him. Dangers of this description would repress the most ardent zeal of authorship: it is but fair that those who seek to afford pleasure to their fellow-citizens should at least be secure of their life.
APPENDIX TO THE TWELFTH LECTURE.
As we do not, so far as I know, possess as yet a satisfactory poetical translation of Aristophanes, and as the whole works of this author must, for many reasons, ever remain untranslatable, I have been induced to lay before my readers the scene in the _Acharnians_ where Euripides makes his appearance; not that this play does not contain many other scenes of equal, if not superior merit, but because it relates to the character of this tragedian as an artist, and is both free from indecency, and, moreover, easily understood.
The Acharnians, country-people of Attica, who have greatly suffered from the enemy, are highly enraged at Dikaiopolis for concluding a peace with the Lacedaemonians, and determine to stone him. He undertakes to speak in defence of the Lacedaemonians, standing the while behind a block, as he is to lose his head if he does not succeed in convincing them. In this ticklish predicament, he calls on Euripides, to lend him the tattered garments in which that poet’s heroes were in the habit of exciting commiseration. We must suppose the house of the tragic poet to occupy the middle of the back scene.
‘Tis time I pluck up all my courage then, And pay a visit to Euripides.
Is Euripides within?
Within, and not within: Can’st fathom that?
How within, yet not within?
‘Tis true, old fellow. His mind is out collecting dainty verses,  And not within. But he’s himself aloft
Writing a tragedy.
Whose servant here can give such witty answers. Call him.
It may not be.
I say, you must though– For hence I will not budge, but knock the door down. Euripides, Euripides, my darling! 
Hear me, at least, if deaf to all besides. ‘Tis Dikaiopolis of Chollis calls you.
I have not time.
At least roll round. 
I can’t. 
Well, I’ll roll round. Come down I can’t; I’m busy.
What would’st thou with thy bawling.
What! you compose aloft and not below. No wonder if your muse’s bantlings halt. Again, those rags and cloak right tragical, The very garb for sketching beggars in!
But sweet Euripides, a boon, I pray thee. Give me the moving rags of some old play; I’ve a long speech to make before the Chorus, And if I falter, why the forfeit’s death.
What rags will suit you? Those in which old Oeneus, That hapless wight, went through his bitter conflict?
Not Oeneus, no,–but one still sorrier.
Those of blind Phoenix?
No, not Phoenix either; But another, more wretched still than Phoenix
Whose sorry tatters can the fellow want? ‘Tis Philoctetes’ sure! You mean that beggar.
No; but a person still more beggarly.
I have it. You want the sorry garments Bellerophon, the lame man, used to wear.
No,–not Bellerophon. Though the man I mean Was lame, importunate, and bold of speech.
I know, ‘Tis Telephus the Mysian.
Yes, Telephus: lend me his rags I pray you.
Ho, boy! Give him the rags of Telephus. There lie they; just upon Thyestes’ rags, And under those of Ino.
Here! take them.
DIKAIOPOLIS (_putting them on_).
Now Jove! who lookest on, and see’st through all,  Your blessing, while thus wretchedly I garb me. Pr’ythee, Euripides, a further boon,
It goes, I think, together with these rags: The little Mysian bonnet for my head;
“For sooth to-day I must put on the beggar, And be still what I am, and yet not seem so.”  The audience here may know me who I am,
But like poor fools the chorus stand unwitting, While I trick them with my flowers of rhetoric.
A rare device, i’faith! Take it and welcome.
“For thee. my blessing; for Telephus, my thoughts.”  ‘Tis well; already, words flow thick and fast. Oh! I had near forgot–A beggar’s staff, I pray.
Here, take one, and thyself too from these doors.
(_Aside_.) See’st thou, my soul,–he’d drive thee from his door Still lacking many things. Become at once A supple, oily beggar. (_Aloud_.) Good Euripides, Lend me a basket, pray;–though the bottom’s Scorch’d, ’twill do.
Poor wretch! A basket? What’s thy need on’t?
No need beyond the simple wish to have it.
You’re getting troublesome. Come pack–be off.
(_Aside_.) Faugh! Faugh!
(_Aloud_.) May heaven prosper thee as–thy good mother. 
Be off, I say!
Not till thou grant’st my prayer. Only a little cup with broken rim.
Take it and go; for know you’re quite a plague.
(_Aside_.) Knows he how great a pest he is himself? (_Aloud_.) But, my Euripides! my sweet! one thing more: Give me a cracked pipkin stopped with sponge.
The man would rob me of a tragedy complete. There–take it, and begone.
Well! I am going.
Yet what to do? One thing I lack, whose want Undoes me. Good, sweet Euripides!
Grant me but this, I’ll ask no more, but go– Some cabbage-leaves–a few just in my basket!
You’ll ruin me. See there! A whole play’s gone!
DIKAIOPOLIS (_seemingly going off_).
Nothing more now. I’m really off. I am, I own, A bore, wanting in tact to please the great. Woe’s me! Was ever such a wretch? Alas!
I have forgot the very chiefest thing of all. Hear me, Euripides, my dear! my darling. Choicest ills betide me! if e’er I ask
Aught more than this; but one–this one alone: Throw me a pot-herb from thy mother’s stock.
The fellow would insult me–shut the door. (_The Encyclema revolves, and Euripides and Cephisophon retire_.)
Soul of me, thou must go without a pot-herb! Wist thou what conflict thou must soon contend in To proffer speech and full defence for Sparta? Forward, my soul! the barriers are before thee. What, dost loiter? hast not imbibed Euripides? And yet I blame thee not. Courage, sad heart! And forward, though it be to lay thy head Upon the block. Rouse thee, and speak thy mind. Forward there! forward again! bravely heart, bravely.
 The Greek diminutive _epullia_ is here correctly expressed by the German _verschen_, but versicle would not be tolerated in English.–TRANS.
 Euripidion–in the German Euripidelein.–TRANS.
 A technical expression from the Encyclema, which was thrust out.
 Euripides appears in the upper story; but as in an altana, or sitting to an open gallery.
 Alluding to the holes in the mantle which he holds up to the light.
 These lines are from Euripides’ tragedy of _Telephus_.
 An allusion (which a few lines lower is again repeated) to his mother as a poor retailer of vegetables.
 See previous footnote.
Whether the Middle Comedy was a distinct species–Origin of the New Comedy–A mixed species–Its prosaic character–Whether versification is essential to Comedy–Subordinate kinds–Pieces of Character, and of Intrigue–The Comic of observation, of self-consciousness, and arbitrary Comic–Morality of Comedy–Plautus and Terence as imitators of the Greeks here cited and characterised for want of the Originals–Moral and social aim of the Attic Comedy–Statues of two Comic Authors.
Ancient critics assume the existence of a _Middle Comedy_, between the _Old_ and the _New_. Its distinguishing characteristics are variously described: by some its peculiarity is made to consist in the abstinence from personal satire and introduction of real characters, and by others in the abolition of the chorus. But the introduction of real persons under their true names was never an indispensable requisite. Indeed, in several, even of Aristophanes’ plays, we find characters in no respect historical, but altogether fictitious, but bearing significant names, after the manner of the New Comedy; while personal satire is only occasionally employed. This right of personal satire was no doubt, as I have already shown, essential to the Old Comedy, and the loss of it incapacitated the poets from throwing ridicule on public actions and affairs of state. When accordingly they confined themselves to private life, the chorus ceased at once to have any significance. However, accidental circumstances accelerated its abolition. To dress and train the choristers was an expensive undertaking; now, as Comedy with the forfeiture of its political privileges lost also its festal dignity, and was degraded into a mere amusement, the poet no longer found any rich patrons willing to take upon themselves the expense of furnishing the chorus.
Platonius mentions a further characteristic of the Middle Comedy. On account, he says, of the danger of alluding to public affairs, the comic writers had turned all their satire against serious poetry, whether epic or tragic, and sought to expose its absurdities and contradictions. As a specimen of this kind he gives the _Aeolosikon_, one of Aristophanes’ latest works. This description coincides with the idea of parody, which we placed foremost in our account of the Old Comedy. Platonius adduces also another instance in the _Ulysses_ of Cratinus, a burlesque of the _Odyssey_. But, in order of time, no play of Cratinus could belong to the Middle Comedy; for his death is mentioned by Aristophanes in his _Peace_. And as to the drama of Eupolis, in which he described what we call an Utopia, or Lubberly Land, what else was it but a parody of the poetical legends of the golden age? But in Aristophanes, not to mention his parodies of so many tragic scenes, are not the Heaven-journey of Trygaeus, and the Hell-journey of Bacchus, ludicrous imitations of the deeds of Bellerophon and Hercules, sung in epic and tragic poetry? In vain therefore should we seek in this restriction to parody any distinctive peculiarity of the so-called Middle Comedy. Frolicsome caprice, and allegorical significance of composition are, poetically considered, the only essential criteria of the Old Comedy. In this class, therefore, we shall rank every work where we find these qualities, in whatever times, and under whatever circumstances, it may have been composed.
As the New Comedy arose out of a mere negation, the abolition, viz., of the old political freedom, we may easily conceive that there would be an interval of fluctuating, and tentative efforts to supply its place, before a new comic form could be developed and fully established. Hence there may have been many kinds of the Middle Comedy, many intermediate gradations, between the Old and the New; and this is the opinion of some men of learning. And, indeed, historically considered, there appears good grounds for such a view; but in an artistic point of view, a transition does not itself constitute a species.
We proceed therefore at once to the New Comedy, or that species of poetry which with us receives the appellation of Comedy. We shall, I think, form a more correct notion of it, if we consider it in its historical connexion, and from a regard to its various ingredients explain it to be a mixed and modified species, than we should were we to term it an original and pure species, as those do who either do not concern themselves at all with the Old Comedy, or else regard it as nothing better than a mere rude commencement. Hence, the infinite importance of Aristophanes, as we have in him a kind of poetry of which there is no other example to be found in the world.
The New Comedy may, in certain respects, be described as the Old, tamed down; but in productions of genius, tameness is not generally considered a merit. The loss incurred by the prohibition of an unrestricted freedom of satire the new comic writers endeavoured to compensate by a mixture of earnestness borrowed from tragedy, both in the form of representation and the general structure, and also in the impressions which they laboured to produce. We have seen how, in its last epoch, tragic poetry descended from its ideal elevation, and came nearer to common reality, both in the characters and in the tone of the dialogue, but more especially in its endeavour to convey practical instruction respecting the conduct of civil and domestic life in all their several requirements. This utilitarian turn in Euripides was the subject of Aristophanes’ ironical commendation [Footnote: The _Frogs_, v. 971-991.]. Euripides was the precursor of the New Comedy; and all the poets of this species particularly admired him, and acknowledged him as their master.–The similarity of tone and spirit is even so great between them, that moral maxims of Euripides have been ascribed to Menander, and others of Menander to Euripides. On the other hand, among the fragments of Menander, we find topics of consolation which frequently rise to the height of the true tragic tone.
New Comedy, therefore, is a mixture of earnestness and mirth. [Footnote: The original here is not susceptible of an exact translation into English. Though the German language has this great advantage, that there are few ideas which may not be expressed in it in words of Teutonic origin, yet words derived from Greek and Latin are also occasionally used indiscriminately with the Teutonic synonymes, for the sake of variety or otherwise. Thus the generic word _spiel_ (play), is formed into _lustspiel_ (comedy), _trauerspiel_ (tragedy), _sing-spiel_ (opera), _schauspiel_ (drama); but the Germans also use _tragoedie_, _komoedie_, opera and drama. In the text, the author proposes, for the sake of distinction, to give the name of _lustspiel_ to the New Comedy, to distinguish it from the old; but having only the single term comedy in English, I must, in translating _lustspiel_, make use of the two words, _New Comedy_.–TRANS.] The poet no longer turns poetry and the world into ridicule, he no longer abandons himself to an enthusiasm of fun, but seeks the sportive element in the objects themselves; he depicts in human characters and situations whatever occasions mirth, in a word, what is pleasant and laughable. But the ridiculous must no longer come forward as the pure creation of his own fancy, but must be verisimilar, that is, seem to be real. Hence we must consider anew the above described _comic ideal_ of human nature under the restrictions which this law of composition imposes, and determine accordingly the different kinds and gradations of the Comic.
The highest tragic earnestness, as I have already shown, runs ever into the infinite; and the subject of Tragedy (properly speaking) is the struggle between the outward finite existence, and the inward infinite aspirations. The subdued earnestness of the New Comedy, on the other hand, remains always within the sphere of experience. The place of Destiny is supplied by Chance, for the latter is the empirical conception of the former, as being that which lies beyond our power or control. And accordingly we actually find among the fragments of the Comic writers as many expressions about Chance, as we do in the tragedians about Destiny. To unconditional necessity, moral liberty could alone be opposed; as for Chance, every one must use his wits, and turn it to his own profit as he best can. On this account, the whole moral of the New Comedy, just like that of the Fable, is nothing more than a theory of prudence. In this sense, an ancient critic has, with inimitable brevity, given us the whole sum of the matter: that Tragedy is a running away from, or making an end of, life; Comedy its regulation.
The idea of the Old Comedy is a fantastic illusion, a pleasant dream, which at last, with the exception of the general effect, all ends in nothing. The New Comedy, on the other hand, is earnest in its form. It rejects every thing of a contradictory nature, which might have the effect of destroying the impressions of reality. It endeavours after strict coherence, and has, in common with Tragedy, a formal complication and dénouement of plot. Like Tragedy, too, it connects together its incidents, as cause and effect, only that it adopts the law of existence as it manifests itself in experience, without any such reference as Tragedy assumes to an idea. As the latter endeavours to satisfy our feelings at the close, in like manner the New Comedy endeavours to provide, at least, an apparent point of rest for the understanding. This, I may remark in passing, is by no means an easy task for the comic writer: he must contrive at last skilfully and naturally to get rid of the contradictions which with their complication and intricacy have diverted us during the course of the action; if he really smooths them all off by making his fools become rational, or by reforming or punishing his villains, then there is an end at once of everything like a pleasant and comical impression.
Such were the comic and tragic ingredients of the New Comedy, or Comedy in general. There is yet a third, however, which in itself is neither comic nor tragic, in short, not even poetic. I allude to its portrait-like truthfulness. The ideal and caricature, both in the plastic arts and in dramatic poetry, lay claim to no other truth than that which lies in their significance: their individual beings even are not intended to appear real. Tragedy moves in an ideal, and the Old Comedy in a fanciful or fantastical world. As the creative power of the fancy was circumscribed in the New Comedy, it became necessary to afford some equivalent to the understanding, and this was furnished by the probability of the subjects represented, of which it was to be the judge. I do not mean the calculation of the rarity or frequency of the represented incidents (for without the liberty of depicting singularities, even while keeping within the limits of every-day life, comic amusement would be impossible), but all that is here meant is the individual truth of the picture. The New Comedy must be a true picture of the manners of the day, and its tone must be local and national; and even if we should see comedies of other times, and other nations, brought upon the stage, we shall still be able to trace and be pleased with this resemblance. By portrait-like truthfulness I do not mean that the comic characters must be altogether individual. The most striking features of different individuals of a class may be combined together in a certain completeness, provided they are clothed with a sufficient degree of peculiarity to have an individual life, and are not represented as examples of any partial and incomplete conception. But in so far as Comedy depicts the constitution of social and domestic life in general, it is a portrait; from this prosaic side it must be variously modified, according to time and place, while the comic motives, in respect of their poetical principle, are always the same.
The ancients themselves acknowledged the New Comedy to be a faithful picture of life. Full of this idea, the grammarian Aristophanes exclaimed in a somewhat affected, though highly ingenious turn of expression: “O life and Menander! which of you copied the other?” Horace informs us that “some doubted whether Comedy be a poem; because neither in its subject nor in its language is there the same impressive elevation which distinguished from ordinary discourse by the versification.” But it was urged by others, that Comedy occasionally elevates her tone; for instance, when an angry father reproaches a son for his extravagance. This answer, however, is rejected by Horace as insufficient. “Would Pomponius,” says he, with a sarcastic application, “hear milder reproaches if his father were living?” To answer the doubt, we must examine wherein Comedy goes beyond individual reality. In the first place it is a simulated whole, composed of congruous parts, agreeably to the scale of art. Moreover, the subject represented is handled according to the laws of theatrical exhibition; everything foreign and incongruous is kept out, while all that is essential to the matter in hand is hurried on with swifter progress than in real life; over the whole, viz., the situations and characters, a certain clearness and distinctness of appearance is thrown, which the vague and indeterminate outlines of reality seldom possess. Thus the form constitutes the poetic element of Comedy, while its prosaic principle lies in the matter, in the required assimilation to something individual and external.
We may now fitly proceed to the consideration of the much mooted question, whether versification be essential to Comedy, and whether a comedy written in prose is an imperfect production. This question has been frequently answered in the affirmative on the authority of the ancients, who, it is true, had no theatrical works in prose; this, however, may have arisen from accidental circumstances, for example, the great extent of their stage, in which verse, from its more emphatic delivery, must have been better heard than prose. Moreover, these critics forget that the Mimes of Sophron, so much admired by Plato, were written in prose. And what were these Mimes? If we may judge of them from the statement that some of the Idylls of Theocritus were imitations of them in hexameters, they were pictures of real life, in which every appearance of poetry was studiously avoided. This consists in the coherence and connexion of a drama, which certainly is not found in these pieces; they are merely so many detached scenes, in which one thing succeeds another by chance, and without preparation, as the particular hour of any working-day or holiday brought it about. The want of dramatic interest was supplied by the mimic element, that is, by the most accurate representation of individual peculiarities in action and language, which arose from nationality as modified by local circumstances, and from sex, age, rank, occupations, and so forth.
Even in versified Comedy, the language must, in the choice of words and phrases, differ in no respect, or at least in no perceptible degree, from that of ordinary life; the licences of poetical expression, which are indispensable in other departments of poetry, are here inadmissible. Not only must the versification not interfere with the common, unconstrained, and even careless tone of conversation, but it must also seem to be itself unpremeditated. It must not by its lofty tone elevate the characters as in Tragedy, where, along with the unusual sublimity of the language, it becomes as it were a mental Cothurnus. In Comedy the verse must serve merely to give greater lightness, spirit, and elegance to the dialogue. Whether, therefore, a particular comedy ought to be versified or not, must depend on the consideration whether it would be more suitable to the subject in hand to give to the dialogue this perfection of form, or to adopt into the comic imitation all rhetorical and grammatical errors, and even physical imperfections of speech. The frequent production, however, of prose comedies in modern times has not been owing so much to this cause as to the ease and convenience of the author, and in some degree also of the player. I would, however, recommend to my countrymen, the Germans, the diligent use of verse, and even of rhyme, in Comedy; for as our national Comedy is yet to be formed, the whole composition, by the greater strictness of the form, would gain in keeping and appearance, and we should be enabled at the very outset to guard against many important errors. We have not yet attained such a mastery in this matter as will allow us to abandon ourselves to an agreeable negligence.
As we have pronounced the New Comedy to be a mixed species, formed out of comic and tragic, poetic and prosaic elements, it is evident that this species may comprise several subordinate kinds, according to the preponderance of one or other of the ingredients. If the poet plays in a sportive humour with his own inventions, the result is a farce; if he confines himself to the ludicrous in situations and characters, carefully avoiding all admixture of serious matter, we have a pure comedy (_lustspiel_); in proportion as earnestness prevails in the scope of the whole composition, and in the sympathy and moral judgment it gives rise to, the piece becomes what is called Instructive or Sentimental Comedy; and there is only another step to the familiar or domestic tragedy. Great stress has often been laid on the two last mentioned species as inventions entirely new, and of great importance, and peculiar theories have been devised for them, &c. In the lacrymose drama of Diderot, which was afterwards so much decried, the failure consisted altogether in that which was new; the affectation of nature, the pedantry of the domestic relations, and the lavish use of pathos. Did we still possess the whole of the comic literature of the Greeks, we should, without doubt, find in it the models of all these species, with this difference, however, that the clear head of the Greeks assuredly never allowed them to fall into a chilling monotony, but that they arrayed and tempered all in due proportion. Have not we, even among the few pieces that remain to us, the _Captives_ of Plautus, which may be called a pathetic drama, the _Step-Mother_ of Terence, a true family picture; while the _Amphitryo_ borders on the fantastic boldness of the Old Comedy, and the _Twin-Brothers_ (_Menaechmi_) is a wild piece of intrigue? Do we not find in all Terence’s plays serious, impassioned, and touching passages? We have only to call to mind the first scene of the _Heautontimorumenos_. From our point of view we hope in short to find a due place for all things. We see here no distinct species, but merely gradations in the tone of the composition, which are marked by transitions more or less perceptible.
Neither can we allow the common division into _Plays of Character_ and _Plays of Intrigue_, to pass without limitation. A good comedy ought always to be both, otherwise it will be deficient either in body or animation. Sometimes, however, the one and sometimes the other will, no doubt, preponderate. The development of the comic characters requires situations to place them in strong contrast, and these again can result from nothing but that crossing of purposes and events, which, as I have already shown, constitutes intrigue in the dramatic sense. Every one knows the meaning of intriguing in common life; namely, the leading others by cunning and dissimulation, to further, without their knowledge and against their will, our own hidden designs. In the drama both these significations coincide, for the cunning of the one becomes a cross-purpose for the other.
When the characters are only slightly sketched, so far merely as is necessary to account for the actions of the characters in this or that case; when also the incidents are so accumulated, that little room is left for display of character; when the plot is so wrought up, that the motley tangle of misunderstandings and embarrassments seems every moment on the point of being loosened, and yet the knot is only drawn tighter and tighter: such a composition may well be called a Play of Intrigue. The French critics have made it fashionable to consider this kind of play much below the so-called Play of Character, perhaps because they look too exclusively to how much of a play may be retained by us and carried home. It is true, the Piece of Intrigue, in some degree, ends at last in nothing: but why should it not be occasionally allowable to divert oneself ingeniously, without any ulterior object? Certainly, a good comedy of this description requires much inventive wit: besides the entertainment which we derive from the display of such acuteness and ingenuity, the wonderful tricks and contrivances which are practised possess a great charm for the fancy, as the success of many a Spanish piece proves.
To the Play of Intrigue it is objected, that it deviates from the natural course of things, that it is improbable. We may admit the former without however admitting the latter. The poet, no doubt, exhibits before us what is unexpected, extraordinary, and singular, even to incredibility; and often he even sets out with a great improbability, as, for example, the resemblance between two persons, or a disguise which is not seen through; afterwards, however, all the incidents must have the appearance of truth, and all the circumstances by means of which the affair takes so marvellous a turn, must be satisfactorily explained. As in respect to the events which take place, the poet gives us but a light play of wit, we are the more strict with him respecting the _how_ by which they are brought about.
In the comedies which aim more at delineation of character, the dramatic personages must be skilfully grouped so as to throw light on each other’s character. This, however, is very apt to degenerate into too systematic a method, each character being regularly matched with its symmetrical opposite, and thereby an unnatural appearance is given to the whole. Nor are those comedies deserving of much praise, in which the rest of the characters are introduced only, as it were, to allow the principal one to go through all his different probations; especially when that character consists of nothing but an opinion, or a habit (for instance, _L’Optimiste_, _Le Distrait_), as if an individual could thus be made up entirely of one single peculiarity, and must not rather be on all sides variously modified and affected.
What was the sportive ideal of human nature in the Old Comedy I have already shown. Now as the New Comedy had to give to its representation a resemblance to a definite reality, it could not indulge in such studied and arbitrary exaggeration as the old did. It was, therefore, obliged to seek for other sources of comic amusement, which lie nearer the province of earnestness, and these it found in a more accurate and thorough delineation of character.
In the characters of the New Comedy, either the _Comic of Observation_ or the _Self-Conscious_ and _Confessed Comic_, will be found to prevail. The former constitutes the more refined, or what is called High Comedy, and the latter Low Comedy or Farce.
But to explain myself more distinctly: there are laughable peculiarities, follies, and obliquities, of which the possessor himself is unconscious, or which, if he does at all perceive them, he studiously endeavours to conceal, as being calculated to injure him in the opinion of others. Such persons consequently do not give themselves out for what they actually are; their secret escapes from them unwittingly, or against their will. Rightly, therefore, to portray such characters, the poet must lend us his own peculiar talent for observation, that we may fully understand them. His art consists in making the character appear through slight hints and stolen glimpses, and in so placing the spectator, that whatever delicacy of observation it may require, he can hardly fail to see through them.
There are other moral defects, which are beheld by their possessor with a certain degree of satisfaction, and which he even makes it a principle not to get rid of, but to cherish and preserve. Of this kind is all that, without selfish pretensions, or hostile inclinations, merely originates in the preponderance of the animal being. This may, without doubt, be united to a high degree of intellect, and when such a person applies his mental powers to the consideration of his own character, laughs at himself, confesses his failings or endeavours to reconcile others to them, by setting them in a droll light, we have then an instance of the _Self- Conscious_ Comic This species always supposes a certain inward duality of character, and the superior half, which rallies and laughs at the other, has in its tone and occupation a near affinity to the comic poet himself. He occasionally delivers over his functions entirely to this representative, allowing him studiously to overcharge the picture which he draws of himself, and to enter into a tacit understanding with the spectators, that he and they are to turn the other characters into ridicule. We have in this way the _Comedy of Caprice_, which generally produces a powerful effect, however much critics may depreciate it. In it the spirit of the Old Comedy is still at work. The privileged merry-maker, who, under different names, has appeared on almost all stages, whose part is at one time a display of shrewd wit, and at another of coarse clownishness, has inherited something of the licentious enthusiasm, but without the rights and privileges of the free and unrestrained writers of the Old Comedy. Could there be a stronger proof that the Old Comedy, which we have described as the original species, was not a mere Grecian peculiarity, but had its root and principle in the very nature of things?
To keep the spectators in a mirthful tone of mind Comedy must hold them as much as possible aloof from all moral appreciation of its personages, and from all deep interest in their fortunes, for in both these cases an entrance will infallibly be given to seriousness. How then does the poet avoid agitating the moral feeling, when the actions he represents are of such a nature as must give rise sometimes to disgust and contempt, and sometimes to esteem and love? By always keeping within the province of the understanding, he contrasts men with men as mere physical beings, just to measure on each other their powers, of course their mental powers as well as others, nay, even more especially. In this respect Comedy bears a very near affinity to Fable: in the Fable we have animals endowed with reason, and in Comedy we have men serving their animal propensities with their understanding. By animal propensities I mean sensuality, or, in a still more general sense, self-love. As heroism and self-sacrifice raise the character to a tragic elevation, so the true comic personages are complete egotists. This must, however, be understood with due limitation: we do not mean that Comedy never portrays the social instincts, only that it invariably represents them as originating in the natural endeavour after our own happiness. Whenever the poet goes beyond this, he leaves the comic tone. It is not his purpose to direct our feelings to a sense of the dignity or meanness, the innocence or corruption, the goodness or baseness of the acting personages; but to show us whether they act stupidly or wisely, adroitly or clumsily, with silliness or ability.
Examples will place the matter in the clearest light. We possess an involuntary and immediate veneration for truth, and this belongs to the innermost emotions of the moral sense. A malignant lie, which threatens mischievous consequences, fills us with the highest indignation, and belongs to Tragedy. Why then are cunning and deceit admitted to be excellent as comic motives, so long as they are used with no malicious purpose, but merely to promote our self-love, to extricate one’s-self from a dilemma, or to gain some particular object, and from which no dangerous consequences are to be dreaded? It is because the deceiver having already withdrawn from the sphere of morality, truth and untruth are in themselves indifferent to him, and are only considered in the light of means; and so we entertain ourselves merely with observing how great an expenditure of sharpness and ready-wittedness is necessary to serve the turn of a character so little exalted. Still more amusing is it when the deceiver is caught in his own snare; for instance, when he is to keep up a lie, but has a bad memory. On the other hand, the mistake of the deceived party, when not seriously dangerous, is a comic situation, and the more so in proportion as this error of the understanding arises from previous abuse of the mental powers, from vanity, folly, or obliquity. But above all when deceit and error cross one another, and are by that means multiplied, the comic situations produced are particularly excellent. For instance, two men meet with the intention of deceiving one another; each however is forewarned and on his guard, and so both go away deceived only in respect to the success of their deception. Or again, one wishes to deceive another, but unwittingly tells him the truth; the other person, however, being suspicious, falls into the snare, merely from being over-much, on his guard. We might in this way compose a sort of comic grammar, which should show how the separate motives are to be entangled one with another, with continually increasing effect, up to the most artificial complication. It might also point out how that tangle of misunderstanding which constitutes a Comedy of Intrigue is by no means so contemptible a part of the comic art, as the advocates of the fine-spun Comedy of Character are pleased to assert.
Aristotle describes the laughable as an imperfection, an impropriety which is not productive of any essential harm. Excellently said! for from the moment that we entertain a real compassion for the characters, all mirthful feeling is at an end. Comic misfortune must not go beyond an embarrassment, which is to be set right at last, or at most, a deserved humiliation. Of this description are corporeal means of education applied to grown people, which our finer, or at least more fastidious age, will not tolerate on the stage, although Molière, Holberg, and other masters, have frequently availed themselves of them. The comic effect arises from our having herein a pretty obvious demonstration of the mind’s dependence on external things: we have, as it were, motives assuming a palpable form. In Comedy these chastisements hold the same place that violent deaths, met with heroic magnanimity, do in Tragedy. Here the resolution remains unshaken amid all the terrors of annihilation; the man perishes but his principles survive; there the corporeal existence remains, but the sentiments suffer an instantaneous change.
As then Comedy must place the spectator in a point of view altogether different from that of moral appreciation, with what right can moral instruction be demanded of Comedy, with what ground can it be expected? When we examine more closely the moral apophthegms of the Greek comic writers, we find that they are all of them maxims of experience. It is not, however, from experience that we gain a knowledge of our duties, of which conscience gives us an immediate conviction; experience can only enlighten us with respect to what is profitable or detrimental. The instruction of Comedy does not turn on the dignity of the object proposed but on the sufficiency of the means employed. It is, as has been already said, the doctrine of prudence; the morality of consequences and not of motives. Morality, in its genuine acceptation, is essentially allied to the spirit of Tragedy.
Many philosophers have on this account reproached Comedy with immorality, and among others, Rousseau, with much eloquence, in his _Epistle on the Drama_. The aspect of the actual course of things in the world is, no doubt, far from edifying; it is not, however, held up in Comedy as a model for imitation, but as a warning and admonition. In the doctrine of morals there is an applied or practical part: it may be called the Art of Living. Whoever has no knowledge of the world is perpetually in danger of making a wrong application of moral principles to individual cases, and, so with the very best intentions in the world, may occasion much mischief both to himself and others. Comedy is intended to sharpen our powers of discrimination, both of persons and situations; to make us shrewder; and this is its true and only possible morality.
So much for the determination of the general idea, which must serve as our clue in the examination of the merits of the individual poets.
Plautus and Terence as Imitators of the Greeks, here examined and characterized in the absence of the Originals they copied–Motives of the Athenian Comedy from Manners and Society–Portrait-Statues of two Comedians.
On the little of the New Comedy of the Greeks that has reached us, either in fragments or through the medium of Roman imitations, all I have to say may be comprised in a few words.
In this department Greek literature was extremely rich: the mere list of the comic writers whose works are lost, and of the names of their works, so far as they are known to us, makes of itself no inconsiderable dictionary. Although the New Comedy developed itself and flourished only in the short interval between the end of the Peloponnesian war and the first successors of Alexander the Great, yet the stock of pieces amounted to thousands; but time has made such havoc in this superabundance of talented and ingenious works, that nothing remains in the original but a number of detached fragments, of which many are so disfigured as to be unintelligible, and, in the Latin, about twenty translations or recasts of Greek originals by Plautus, and six by Terence. Here is a fitting task for the redintegrative labours of criticism, to put together all the fragmentary traces which we possess, in order to form from them something like a just estimate and character of what is lost. The chief requisites in an undertaking of this kind, I will take upon myself to point out. The fragments and moral maxims of the comic writers are, in their versification and language, distinguished by extreme purity, elegance, and accuracy; moreover, the tone of society which speaks in them breathes a certain Attic grace. The Latin comic poets, on the other hand, are negligent in their versification; they trouble themselves very little about syllabic quantity, and the very idea of it is almost lost amidst their many metrical licences. Their language also, at least that of Plautus, is deficient in cultivation and polish. Several learned Romans, and Varro among others, have, it is true, highly praised the style of this poet, but then we must make the due distinction between philological and poetical approbation. Plautus and Terence were among the most ancient Roman writers, and belonged to an age when a book-language had hardly yet an existence, and when every phrase was caught up fresh from the life. This _naïve_ simplicity had its peculiar charms for the later Romans of the age of learned cultivation: it was, however, rather the gift of nature than the fruit of poetical art. Horace set himself against this excessive partiality, and asserted that Plautus and the other comic poets threw off their pieces negligently, and wrote them in the utmost haste, that they might be the sooner paid for them. We may safely affirm, therefore, that in the graces and elegances of execution, the Greek poets have always lost in the Latin imitations. These we must, in imagination, retranslate into the finished elegance which we perceive in the Greek fragments. Moreover, Plautus and Terence made many changes in the general plan, and these could hardly be improvements. The former at times omitted whole scenes and characters, and the latter made additions, and occasionally ran two plays into one. Was this done with an artistic design, and were they actually desirous of excelling their Grecian predecessors in the structure of their pieces? I doubt it. Plautus was perpetually running out into diffuseness, and he was obliged to remedy in some other way the lengthening which this gave to the original; the imitations of Terence, on the other hand, from his lack of invention, turned out somewhat meagre, and he filled up the gaps with materials borrowed from other pieces. Even his contemporaries reproached him with having falsified or corrupted a number of Greek pieces, for the purpose of making out of them a few Latin ones.
Plautus and Terence are generally mentioned as writers in every respect original. In Romans this was perhaps pardonable: they possessed but little of the true poetic spirit, and their poetical literature owed its origin, for the most part, first to translation, then to free imitation, and finally to appropriation and new modelling, of the Greek. With them, therefore, a particular sort of adaptation passed for originality. Thus we find, from Terence’s apologetic prologues, that they had so lowered the notion of plagiarism, that he was accused of it, because he had made use of matter which had been already adapted from the Greek. As we cannot, therefore, consider these writers in the light of creative artists, and since consequently they are only important to us in so far as we may by their means become acquainted with the shape of the Greek New Comedy, I will here insert the few remarks I have to make on their character and differences, and then return to the Greek writers of the New Comedy.
Among the Greeks, poets and artists were at all times held in honour and estimation; among the Romans, on the contrary, polite literature was at first cultivated by men of the lowest rank, by needy foreigners, and even by slaves. Plautus and Terence, who closely followed each other in time, and whose lifetime belongs to the last years of the second Punic war, and to the interval between the second and third, were of the lowest rank: the former, at best a poor day labourer, and the latter, a Carthaginian slave, and afterwards a freed man. Their fortunes, however, were very different. Plautus, when he was not employed in writing comedies, was fain to hire himself out to do the work of a beast of burthen in a mill; Terence was domesticated with the elder Scipio and his bosom friend Laelius, who deigned to admit him to such familiarity, that he fell under the honourable imputation of being assisted in the composition of his pieces by these noble Romans, and it was even said that they allowed their own labours to pass under his name. The habits of their lives are perceptible in their respective modes of writing: the bold, coarse style of Plautus, and his famous jests, betray his intercourse with the vulgar; in that of Terence, we discern the traces of good society. They are further distinguished by their choice of matter. Plautus generally inclines to the farcical, to overwrought, and often disgusting drollery; Terence prefers the more delicate shades of characterization, and, avoiding everything like exaggeration, approaches the seriously instructive and sentimental kind. Some of the pieces of Plautus are taken from Diphilus and Philemon, but there is reason to believe that he added a considerable degree of coarseness to his originals; from whom he derived the others is unknown, unless, perhaps, the assertion of Horace, “It is said that Plautus took for his model the Sicilian Epicharmus,” will warrant the conjecture that he borrowed the _Amphitryo_, a piece which is quite different in kind from all his others, and which he himself calls a Tragi-comedy, from that old Doric comedian, who we know employed himself chiefly on mythological subjects. Among the pieces of Terence, whose copies, with the exception of certain changes of the plan and structure, are probably much more faithful in detail than those of the other, we find two from Apollodorus, and the rest from Menander. Julius Caesar has honoured Terence with some verses, in which he calls him a half Menander, praising the smoothness of his style, and only lamenting that he has lost a certain comic vigour which marked his original.
This naturally brings us back to the Grecian masters. Diphilus, Philemon, Apollodorus, and Menander, are certainly four of the most celebrated names among them. The palm, for elegance, delicacy, and sweetness, is with one voice given to Menander, although Philemon frequently carried off the prize before him, probably because he studied more the taste of the multitude, or because he availed himself of adscititious means of popularity. This was at least insinuated by Menander, who when he met his rival one day said to him, “Pray, Philemon, dost thou not blush when thou gainest a victory over me?”
Menander flourished after the times of Alexander the Great, and was the contemporary of Demetrius Phalereus. He was instructed in philosophy by Theophrastus, but his own opinions inclined him to that of Epicurus, and he boasted in an epigram, “that if Themistocles freed his country from slavery, Epicurus freed it from irrationality.” He was fond of the choicest sensual enjoyments: Phaedrus, in an unfinished tale, describes him to us as even in his exterior, an effeminate voluptuary; and his amour with the courtesan Glycera is notorious. The Epicurean philosophy, which placed the supreme happiness of life in the benevolent affections, but neither spurred men on to heroic action, nor excited any sense of it in the mind, could hardly fail to be well received among the Greeks, after the loss of their old and glorious freedom: with their cheerful mild way of thinking, it was admirably calculated to console them. It is perhaps the most suitable for the comic poet, as the stoical philosophy is for the tragedian. The object of the comedian is merely to produce mitigated impressions, and by no means to excite a strong indignation at human frailties. On the other hand, we may easily comprehend why the Greeks conceived a passion for the New Comedy at the very period when they lost their freedom, as it diverted them from sympathy with the course of human affairs in general, and with political events, and absorbed their attention wholly in domestic and personal concerns.
The Grecian theatre was originally formed for higher walks of the drama; and we do not attempt to dissemble the inconveniences and disadvantages which its structure must have occasioned to Comedy. The frame was too large, and the picture could not fill it. The Greek stage was open to the heavens, and it exhibited little or nothing of the interior of the houses [Footnote: To serve this purpose recourse was had to the encyclema, which, no doubt, in the commencement of the _Clouds_, exhibited Strepsiades and his son sleeping on their beds. Moreover, Julius Pollux mentions among the decorations of New Comedy, a sort of tent, hut, or shed, adjoining to the middle edifice, with a doorway, originally a stable, but afterwards applicable to many purposes. In the _Sempstresses_ of Antiphanes, it represented a sort of workshop. Here, or in the encyclema, entertainments were given, which in the old comedies sometimes took place before the eyes of the spectators. With the southern habits of the ancients, it was not, perhaps, so unnatural to feast with open doors, as it would be in the north of Europe. But no modern commentator has yet, so far as I know, endeavoured to illustrate in a proper manner the theatrical arrangement of the plays of Plautus and Terence. [See the Fourth Lecture, &c., and the Appendix on the Scenic Arrangement of the Greek Theatre.]]. The New Comedy was therefore under the necessity of placing its scene in the street. This gave rise to many inconveniences; thus people frequently come out of their houses to tell their secrets to one another in public. It is true, the poets were thus also saved the necessity of changing the scene, by supposing that the families concerned in the action lived in the same neighbourhood. It may be urged in their justification, that the Greeks, like all other southern nations, lived a good deal out of their small private houses, in the open air. The chief disadvantage with which this construction of the stage was attended, was the limitation of the female parts. With that due observance of custom which the essence of the New Comedy required, the exclusion of unmarried women and young maidens in general was an inevitable consequence of the retired life of the female sex in Greece. None appear but aged matrons, female slaves, or girls of light reputation. Hence, besides the loss of many agreeable situations, arose this further inconvenience, that frequently the whole piece turns on a marriage with, or a passion for, a young woman, who is never once seen.
Athens, where the fictitious, as well as the actual, scene was generally placed, was the centre of a small territory, and in no wise to be compared with our capital cities, either in extent or population. Republican equality admitted of no marked distinction of ranks; there was no proper nobility: all were alike citizens, richer or poorer, and for the most part had no other occupation than the management of their several properties. Hence the Attic New Comedy could not well admit of the contrasts arising from diversity of tone and mental culture; it generally moves within a sort of middle rank, and has something citizen-like, nay, if I may so say, something of the manners of a small town about it, which is not at all to the taste of those who would have comedy to portray the manners of a court, and the refinement or corruption of monarchical capitals.
With respect to the intercourse between the two sexes, the Greeks knew nothing of the gallantry of modern Europe, nor the union of love with enthusiastic veneration. All was sensual passion or marriage. The latter was, by the constitution and manners of the Greeks, much more a matter of duty, or an affair of convenience, than of inclination. The laws were strict only in one point, the preservation of the pure national extraction of the children, which alone was legitimate. The right of citizenship was a great prerogative, and the more valuable the smaller the number of citizens, which was not allowed to increase beyond a certain point. Hence marriages with foreign women were invalid. The society of a wife, whom, in most cases, the husband had not even seen before his marriage with her, and who passed her whole life within the walls of her house, could not afford him much entertainment; this was sought among women who had forfeited all title to strict respect, and who were generally foreigners without property, or freed slaves, and the like. With women of this description the easy morality of the Greeks allowed of the greatest license, especially to young unmarried men. The ancient writers, therefore, of the New Comedy paint this mode of life with much less disguise than we think decorous. Their comedies, like all comedies in the world, frequently end with marriages (it seems this catastrophe brings seriousness along with it); but the marriage is often entered upon merely as a means of propitiating a father incensed at the irregularities of some illicit amour. It sometimes happens, however, that the amour is changed into a lawful marriage by means of a discovery that the supposed foreigner or slave is by birth an Athenian citizen. It is worthy of remark, that the fruitful mind of the very poet who carried the Old Comedy to perfection, put forth also the first germ of the New. _Cocalus_, the last piece which Aristophanes composed, contained a seduction, a recognition, and all the leading circumstances which were afterwards employed by Menander in his comic pieces.
From what has been said, it is easy to overlook the whole round of characters; nay, they are so few, and so perpetually recur, that they may be almost all enumerated. The austere and stingy, or the mild easy father, the latter not unfrequently under the dominion of his wife, and making common cause with his son against her; the housewife either loving and sensible, or scolding and domineering, and presuming on the accession she has brought to the family property; the young man giddy and extravagant, but frank and amiable, who even in a passion sensual at its commencement is capable of true attachment; the girl of light character, either thoroughly depraved, vain, cunning, and selfish, or still good-hearted and susceptible of better feelings; the simple and clownish, and the cunning slave who assists his young master in cheating his old father, and by all manner of knavish tricks procures him money for the gratification of his passions; (_as this character plays a principal part, I shall shortly make some further observations on it_;) the flatterer or accommodating parasite, who, for the sake of a good meal, is ready to say or do any thing that may be required of him the sycophant, a man whose business it was to set quietly disposed people by the ears, and stir up law-suits, for the conduct of which he offered his services; the gasconading soldier, returned from foreign service, generally cowardly and simple, but who assumes airs and boasts of his exploits abroad; and lastly, a servant or pretended mother, who preaches very indifferent morals to the young girl entrusted to her care; and the slave-dealer, who speculates on the extravagant passions of young people, and regards nothing but his own pecuniary advantage. The two last characters, with their revolting coarseness, are, to our feelings, a real blot in the Greek Comedy; but its very subject-matter rendered it impossible for it to dispense with them.
The knavish servant is generally also the buffoon, who takes pleasure in avowing, and even exaggerating, his own sensuality and want of principle, and who jokes at the expense of the other characters, and occasionally even addresses the pit. This is the origin of the comic servants of the moderns, but I am inclined to doubt whether, with our manners, there is propriety and truth in introducing such characters. The Greek servant was a slave, subject for life to the arbitrary caprice of his master, and frequently the victim of the most severe treatment. A man, who, thus deprived by the constitution of society of all his natural rights, makes trick and artifice his trade may well be pardoned: he is in a state of war with his oppressors, and cunning is his natural weapon. But in our times, a servant, who is free to choose his situation and his master, is a good- for-nothing scoundrel if he assists the son to deceive the father. With respect, on the other hand, to the open avowal of fondness of good eating and drinking which is employed to give a comic stamp to servants and persons in a low rank of life, it may still be used without impropriety: of those to whom life has granted but few privileges it does not require much; and they may boldly own the vulgarity of their inclinations, without giving any shock to our moral feelings. The better the condition of servants in real life, the less adapted are they for the stage; and this at least redounds to the praise of our more humane age, that in our “family picture” tales we meet with servants who are right worthy characters, better fitted to excite our sympathy than our derision.
The repetition of the same characters was as it were acknowledged by the Greek comic writers, by their frequent use of the same names, and those too in part expressive of character. In this they did better than many comic poets of modern times, who, for the sake of novelty of character, torture themselves to attain complete individuality, by which efforts no other effect generally is produced than that of diverting our attention from the main business of the piece, and dissipating it on accessory circumstances. And then after all they imperceptibly fall back again into the old well-known character. It is better to delineate the characters at first with a certain breadth, and to leave the actor room to touch them up more accurately, and to add the nicer and more personal traits, according to the requirements of each composition. In this respect the use of masks admits of justification; which, like many other peculiarities of the ancient theatre, (such as the acting in the open air,) were still retained, though originally designed for other departments of the drama, and though they seem a greater incongruity in the New Comedy than in the Old, and in Tragedy. But certainly it was unsuitable to the spirit of the New, that, while in other respects the representation approached nature with a more exact, nay, illusive resemblance, the masks deviated more from it than in the Old, being overcharged in the features, and almost to caricature. However singular this may appear, it is too expressly and formally attested to admit of a doubt. [Footnote: See Platonius, in _Aristoph. cur. Küster_, p. xi.] As they were prohibited from bringing portraits of real persons on the stage they were, after the loss of their freedom, very careful lest they should accidentally stumble upon any resemblance, and especially to any of their Macedonian rulers; and in this way they endeavoured to secure themselves against the danger. Yet the exaggeration in question was hardly without its meaning. Accordingly we find it stated, that an unsymmetrical profile, with one eyebrow drawn up and the other down, denoted an idle, inquisitive, and intermeddling busy- body, [Footnote: See _Jul. Pollux_, in the section of comic masks. Compare Platonius as above, and Quinctilian, 1. xi. c. 3. The supposed wonderful discovery of Voltaire respecting tragic masks, which I mentioned in the fourth Lecture, will hardly be forgotten.] and we may in fact remark that men, who are in the habit of looking at things with anxious exact observation, are apt to acquire distortions of this kind.
Among other peculiarities the masks in comedy have this advantage, that from the unavoidable repetition of the same characters the spectator knew at once what he had to expect. I once witnessed at Weimar a representation of the _Adelphi_ of Terence, entirely in ancient costume, which, under the direction of Goethe, furnished us a truly Attic evening. The actors used partial masks, cleverly fitted to the real countenance, [Footnote: This also was not unknown to the ancients, as it proved by many comic masks having in the place of the mouth a circular opening of considerable width, through which the mouth and the adjoining features were allowed to appear; and which, with their distorted movements, must have produced a highly ludicrous effect, from the contrast in the fixed distortion of the rest of the countenance.] and notwithstanding the smallness of the theatre, I did not find that they were in any way prejudicial to vivacity. The mask was peculiarly favourable for the jokes of the roguish slave: his uncouth physiognomy, as well as his apparel, stamped him at once as a man of a peculiar race, (as in truth the slaves were, partly even by extraction,) and he might therefore well be allowed to act and speak differently from the rest of the characters.
Out of the limited range of their civil and domestic life, and out of the simple theme of the characters above mentioned, the invention of the Greek comic writers contrived to extract an inexhaustible multitude of variations, and yet, what is deserving of high praise, even in that on which they grounded their development and catastrophe, they ever remained true to their national customs.
The circumstances of which they availed themselves for this purpose were generally the following:–Greece consisted of a number of small separate states, lying round about Athens on the coast and islands. Navigation was frequent, piracy not unusual, which, moreover, was directed against human beings in order to supply the slave-market. Thus, even free-born children might be kidnapped. Not unfrequently, too, they were exposed by their own parents, in virtue of their legal rights, and being unexpectedly saved from destruction, were afterwards restored to their families. All this prepared a ground-work for the recognitions in Greek Comedy between parents and children, brothers and sisters, &c., which as a means of bringing about the dénouement, was borrowed by the comic from the tragic writers. The complicated intrigue is carried on within the represented action, but the singular and improbable accident on which it is founded, is removed to a distance both of time and place, so that the comedy, though taken from every-day life, has still, in some degree, a marvellous romantic back-ground.
The Greek Comic writers were acquainted with Comedy in all its extent, and employed themselves with equal diligence on all its varieties, the Farce, the Play of Intrigue, and the various kinds of the Play of Character, from caricature to the nicest delicacy of delineation, and even the serious or sentimental drama. They possessed moreover a most enchanting species, of which, however, no examples are now remaining. From the titles of their pieces, and other indications, it appears they sometimes introduced historical personages, as for instance the poetess Sappho, with Alcaeus’s and Anacreon’s love for her, or her own passion for Phaon; the story of her leap from the Leucadian rock owes, perhaps, its origin, solely to the invention of the comic writers. To judge from their subject-matter, these comedies must have approached to our romantic drama; and the mixture of beautiful passion with the tranquil grace of the ordinary comic representation must undoubtedly have been very attractive.
In the above observations I have, I conceive, given a faithful picture of the Greek Comedy. I have not attempted to disguise either its defects or its limitation. The ancient Tragedy and the Old Comedy are inimitable, unapproachable, and stand alone in the whole range of the history of art. But in the New Comedy we may venture to measure our strength with the Greeks, and even attempt to surpass them. Whenever we descend from the Olympus of true poetry to the common earth, in other words, when once we mix the prose of a definite reality with the ideal creations of fancy, the success of productions is no longer determined by the genius alone, and a feeling for art, but the more or less favourable nature of circumstances. The figures of the gods of the Grecian sculptors stand before us as the perfect models for all ages. The noble occupation of giving an ideal perfection to the human form having once been entered upon by the fancy, all that is left even to an equal degree of inspiration is but to make a repetition of the same attempts. In the execution, however, of personal and individual resemblances, the modern statuary is the rival of the ancient: but this is no pure creation of art; observation must here come in: and whatever degree of science, profundity, and taste may be displayed in the execution, the artist is still tied down to the object which is actually before him.
In the admirable portrait-statues of two of the most celebrated comic writers, Menander and Posidippus (in the Vatican), the physiognomy of the Greek New Comedy appears to me to be almost visibly and personally expressed! Clad in the most simple dress, and holding a roll in their hands, they are sitting in arm-chairs with all the ease and self- possession which mark the conscious superiority of the master; and in that maturity of age which befits the undisturbed impartial observation which is requisite for Comedy, but yet hale and active, and free from all symptoms of decay. We recognise in them that corporeal vigour, which testifies at once to equal soundness both of mind and of temper; no lofty enthusiasm, but at the same time nothing of folly or extravagance; rather does a sage seriousness dwell on a brow wrinkled indeed, though not with care, but with the exercise of thought; while in the quick-searching eye, and in the mouth half curling into a smile, we have the unmistakable indications of a light playful irony.
Roman Theatre–Native kinds: Atellane Fables, Mimes, Comoedia Togata– Greek Tragedy transplanted to Rome–Tragic Authors of a former Epoch, and of the Augustan Age–Idea of a National Roman Tragedy–Causes of the want of success of the Romans in Tragedy–Seneca.
The examination of the nature of the Drama in general, as well as the consideration of the Greek theatre, which was as peculiar in its origin as in its maturity it was actually perfect, have hitherto alone occupied our attention. Our notice of the dramatic literature of most of the other nations, which principally call for consideration, must be marked with greater brevity; and yet, we are not afraid that we shall be accused in either case of either disproportionate length or conciseness.
And first, with respect to the Romans, whose theatre is in every way immediately attached to that of the Greeks, we have only, as it were, to notice one great gap, which partly arises from their own want of creative powers in this department, and partly from the loss, with the exception of a few fragments, of all that they did produce in it. The only works which have descended to us from the good classical times are those of Plautus and Terence, whom I have already characterised as _copyists_ of the Greeks.
Poetry in general had no native growth in Rome; it was first artificially cultivated along with other luxuries in those later times when the original character of Rome was being fast extinguished under an imitation of foreign manners. In the Latin we have an example of a language modelled into poetical expression, altogether after foreign grammatical and metrical forms. This imitation of the Greek was not accomplished easily and without force: the Graecising was carried even to the length of a clumsy intermixture of the two languages. Gradually only was the poetical style smoothed and softened, and in Catullus we still perceive the last traces of its early harshness, which, however, are not without a certain rugged charm. Those constructions, and especially those compounds which were too much at variance with the internal structure of the Latin, and failed to become agreeable to the Roman ear, were in time rejected, and at length, in the age of Augustus, the poets succeeded in producing the most agreeable combination of the peculiarities, native and borrowed. Hardly, however, had the desired equilibrium been attained when a pause ensued; all free development was checked, and the poetical style, notwithstanding a seeming advance to greater boldness and learning, was irrevocably confined within the round of already sanctioned modes of expression. Thus the language of Latin poetry flourished only within the short interval which elapsed between the period of its unfinished state and its second death; and as to the spirit also of poetry, it too fared no better.
To the invention of theatrical amusements the Romans were not led from any desire to enliven the leisure of their festivals with such exhibitions as withdraw the mind from the cares and concerns of life; but in their despondency under a desolating pestilence, against which all remedies seemed unavailing, they had recourse to the theatre, as a means of appeasing the anger of the gods, having previously been only acquainted with the exercises of the gymnasium and the games of the circus. The _histriones_, however, whom for this purpose they summoned from Etruria, were merely dancers, who probably did not attempt any pantomimic dances, but endeavoured to delight their audience by the agility of their movements. Their oldest spoken plays, the _Fabulae Atellanae_, the Romans borrowed from the Osci, the aboriginal inhabitants of Italy. With these _saturae_, (so called because first they were improvisatory farces, without dramatic connexion; _satura_ signifying a medley, or mixture of every thing,) they were satisfied till Livius Andronicus, somewhat more than five hundred years after the foundation of Home, began to imitate the Greeks; and the regular compositions of Tragedy and the New Comedy (the Old it was impossible to transplant) were then, for the first time, introduced into Rome.
Thus the Romans owed the first idea of a play to the Etruscans, of the effusions of a sportive humour to the Oscans, and of a higher class of dramatic works to the Greeks. They displayed, however, more originality in the comic than in the tragic department. The Oscans, whose language soon ceasing to be spoken, survived only in these farces, were at least so near akin to the Romans, that their dialect was immediately understood by a Roman audience: for how else could the Romans have derived any amusement from the _Atellanae_? So completely did they domesticate this species of drama that Roman youths, of noble families, enamoured of this entertainment, used to exhibit it on their festivals; on which account even the players who acted in the Atellane fables for money enjoyed peculiar privileges, being exempt from the infamy and exclusion from the tribes which attached to all other theatrical artists, and were also excused from military service.
The Romans had, besides, their own _Mimes_. The foreign name of these little pieces would lead us to conclude that they bore a great affinity to the Greek _Mimes_; they differed, however, from them considerably in form; we know also that the manners portrayed in them had a local truth, and that the subject-matter was not derived from Greek compositions.
It is peculiar to Italy, that from the earliest times its people have displayed a native talent for a merry, amusing, though very rude buffoonery, in extemporary speeches and songs, with accompanying appropriate gestures; though it has seldom been coupled with true dramatic taste. This latter assertion will be fully justified when we shall have examined all that has been accomplished in the higher walks of the Drama in that country, down to the most recent times. The former might be easily substantiated by a number of circumstances, which, however, would lead us too far from our object into the history of the Saturnalia and similar customs, Even of the wit which prevails in the dialogues of the _Pasquino_ and the _Marforio_ and of their apposite and popular ridicule on passing events, many traces are to be found even in the times of the Emperors, however little disposed they were to be indulgent to such liberties. But what is more immediately connected with our present purpose is the conjecture–that in these _Mimes_ and _Atellane Fables_ we have perhaps the first germ of the _Commedia dell’ arte_, the improvisatory farce with standing masks. A striking affinity between the latter and the _Atellanae_ consists in the employment of dialects to produce a ludicrous effect. But how would Harlequin and Pulcinello be astonished were they to be told that they descended in a direct line from the buffoons of the ancient Romans, and even from the Oscans!–With what drollery would they requite the labours of the antiquarian who should trace their glorious pedigree to such a root! From the figures on Greek vases, we know that the grotesque masks of the Old Comedy bore a dress very much resembling theirs: long trousers, and a doublet with sleeves, articles of dress which the Greeks, as well as the Romans, never used except on the stage. Even in the present day _Zanni_ is one of the names of Harlequin; and _Sannio_ in the Latin farces was a buffoon, who, according to the accounts of ancient writers, had a shaven head, and a dress patched together of gay parti- coloured pieces. The exact resemblance of the figure of Pulcinello is said to have been found among the frescoes of Pompeii. If he came originally from Atella, he is still mostly to be met with in the old land of his nativity. The objection that these traditions could not well have been preserved during the cessation for so many centuries of all theatrical amusements, will be easily got over when we recollect the licences annually enjoyed at the Carnival, and the Feasts of Fools in the middle ages.
The Greek Mimes were dialogues in prose, and not destined for the stage; the Roman were in verse, were acted, and often delivered extempore. The most celebrated authors of this kind were Laberius and Syrus, contemporaries of Julius Caesar. The latter when dictator, by an imperial request, compelled Laberius, a Roman knight, to appear publicly in his own Mimes, although the scenic employment was branded with the loss of civil rights. Laberius complained of this in a prologue, which is still extant, and in which the painful feeling of annihilated self-respect is nobly and affectingly expressed. We cannot well conceive how, in such a state of mind, he could be capable of making ludicrous jokes, nor how, with so bitter an example of despotic degradation [Footnote: What humiliation Caesar would have inwardly felt, could he have foreseen that, within a few generations, Nero, his successor in absolute authority, out of a lust for self-degradation, would expose himself frequently to infamy in the same manner as he, the first despot, had exposed a Roman of the middle rank, not without exciting a general feeling of indignation.] before their eyes, the spectators could take any delight in them. Caesar, on his part, kept his engagement: he gave Laberius a considerable sum of money, and invested him anew with the equestrian rank, which, however, could not re-instate him in the opinion of his fellow-citizens. On the other hand, he took his revenge for the prologue and other allusions by bestowing the prize on Syrus, the slave, and afterward the freedman and scholar of Laberius in the mimetic art. Of the Mimes of Syrus we have still extant a number of sentences, which, in matter and elegant conciseness of expression, are deserving of a place by the side of Menander’s. Some of them even go beyond the moral horizon of serious Comedy, and assume an almost stoical elevation. How was the transition from low farce to such elevation effected? And how could such maxims be at all introduced, without the same important involution of human relations as that which is exhibited in perfect Comedy? At all events, they are calculated to give us a very favourable idea of the Mimes. Horace, indeed, speaks slightingly of the literary merit of Laberius’ Mimes, either on account of the arbitrary nature of their composition, or of the negligent manner in which they were worked out. However, we ought not to allow our own opinion to be too much influenced against him by this critical poet; for, from motives which are easy to understand, he lays much greater stress on the careful use of the file, than on original boldness and fertility of invention. A single entire Mime, which time unfortunately has denied us, would have thrown more light on this question than all the confused notices of grammarians, and all the conjectures of modern scholars.
The regular Comedy of the Romans was, for the most part, _palliata_, that is, it appeared in a Grecian costume, and represented Grecian manners. This is the case with all the comedies of Plautus and Terence. But they had also a _comoedia togata_; so called from the Roman dress which was usually worn in it. Afranius is celebrated as the principal writer in this walk. Of these comedies we have no remains whatever, and the notices of them are so scanty, that we can-not even determine with certainty whether the togatae were original comedies of an entirely new invention, or merely Greek comedies recast with Roman manners. The latter case is the more probable, as Afranius lived in a period when Roman genius had not yet ventured to try a flight of original invention; although, on the other hand, it is not easy to conceive how the Attic comedies could, without great violence and constraint, have been adapted to local circumstances so entirely different. The tenor of Roman life was, in general, earnest and grave, although in private society they had no small turn for wit and joviality. The diversity of ranks among the Romans, politically, was very strongly marked, and the opulence of private individuals was frequently almost kingly; their women lived much more in society, and acted a much more important part than the Grecian women did, and from this independence they fully participated in the overwhelming tide of corruption which accompanied external refinement. The differences being so essential, an original Roman comedy would have been a remarkable phenomenon, and would have enabled us to see these conquerors of the world in an aspect altogether new. That, however, this was not accomplished by the _comoedia togata_, is proved by the indifferent manner in which it is mentioned by the ancients. Quinctilian does not scruple to say, that the Latin literature limps most in comedy; this is his expression, word for word.
With respect to Tragedy, we must, in the first place, remark, that the Grecian theatre was not introduced into Rome without considerable changes in its arrangement. The chorus, for instance, had no longer a place in the orchestra, where the most distinguished spectators, the knights and senators, now sat; but it remained on the stage itself. Here, then, was the very disadvantage which we alleged in objection to the modern attempts to introduce the chorus. Other deviations from the Grecian mode of representation were also sanctioned, which can hardly be considered as improvements. At the very first introduction of the regular drama, Livius Andronicus, a Greek by birth, and the first tragic poet and actor of Rome, in his monodies (lyrical pieces which were sung by a single person, and not by the whole chorus), separated the song from the mimetic dancing, the latter only remaining to the actor, in whose stead a boy, standing beside the flute-player, accompanied him with his voice. Among the Greeks, in better times, the tragic singing, and the accompanying rhythmical gestures, were so simple, that a single person was able to do at the same time ample justice to both. The Romans, however, it would seem, preferred separate excellence to harmonious unity. Hence arose, at an after period, their fondness for pantomime, of which the art was carried to the greatest perfection in the time of Augustus. Prom the names of the most celebrated of the performers, Pylades, Bathyllus, &c., it would appear that it was Greeks that practised this mute eloquence in Rome; and the lyric pieces which were expressed by their dances were also delivered in Greek. Lastly, Roscius frequently played without a mask, and in this respect probably he did not stand alone; but, as far as we know, there never was any instance of it among the Greeks. The alteration in question might be favourable to the more brilliant display of his own skill, and the Romans, who were pleased with it, showed here also that they had a higher relish for the disproportionate and prominent talents of a virtuoso, than for the harmonious impression of a work of art considered as a whole.
In the tragic literature of the Romans, two epochs are to be distinguished: the first that of Livius Andronicus, Naevius, Ennius, and also Pacuvius and Attius, who both flourished somewhat later than Plautus and Terence; and the second, the refined epoch of the Augustan age. The former produced none but translators and remodellers of Greek works, but it is probable that they succeeded better in Tragedy than in Comedy. Elevation of expression is usually somewhat awkward in a language as yet imperfectly cultivated, but still its height may be attained by perseverance; but to hit off the negligent grace of social wit requires natural humour and refinement Here, however, (as well as in the case of Plautus and Terence,) we do not possess a single fragment of any work whose Greek original is extant, to enable us to judge of the accuracy and general felicity of the copy; but a speech of considerable length from Attius’ _Prometheus Unbound_, is in no respect unworthy of–Aeschylus, and the versification, also, is much more careful [Footnote: In what metres could these tragedians have translated the Greek choral odes? Horace declares the imitation, in Latin, of Pindar, whose lyrical productions bear great resemblance to those of Tragedy, altogether impracticable. Probably they never ventured into the labyrinths of the choral strophes, which were neither calculated for the language nor for the ear of the Romans. Beyond the anapest, the tragedies of Seneca never ascend higher than a sophic or choriambic verse, which, when monotonously repeated, is very disagreeable to the ear.] than that of the Latin comic writers generally. This earlier style was carried to perfection by Pacuvius and Attius, whose pieces alone kept their place on the stage, and seem to have had many admirers down to the times of Cicero, and even still later. Horace directs his jealous criticism against these, as well as all the other old poets.
It was the ambition of the contemporaries of Augustus, to measure their powers with the Greeks in a more original manner; but their labours were not attended with equal success in every department. The number of amateurs who attempted to shine in Tragedy was particularly great; and works of this kind by the Emperor himself even are mentioned. Hence there is much in favour of the conjecture that Horace wrote his epistle to the Pisos, chiefly with the view of deterring these young men from so dangerous a career, being, in all probability, infected by the universal passion, without possessing the requisite talents. One of the most renowned tragic poets of this age was the famous Asinius Pollio, a man of a violently impassioned disposition, as Pliny informs us, and who was fond of whatever bore the same character in works of fine art. It was he who brought with him from Rhodes, and erected at Rome, the well-known group of the Farnese Bull. If his tragedies bore the same relation to those of Sophocles, which this bold, wild, but somewhat overwrought group does to the calm sublimity of the Niobe, we have every reason to regret their loss. But Pollio’s political influence might easily blind his contemporaries to the true value of his poetical labours. Ovid, who tried so many departments of poetry, also attempted Tragedy, and was the author of a _Medea_. To judge from the wordy and commonplace displays of passion in his _Heroides_, we might expect from him, in Tragedy, at most, a caricature of Euripides. Quinctilian, however, asserts that he proved here, for once, what he might have done, had he chosen to restrain himself instead of yielding to his natural propensity to diffuseness.
This, and all the other tragic attempts of the Augustan age, have perished. We cannot estimate with certainty the magnitude of the loss which we have here suffered, but from all appearances it is not extraordinarily great.–First of all the Grecian Tragedy had in Rome to struggle with all the disadvantages of a plant removed to a foreign soil; the Roman religion was in some degree akin to that of the Greeks, (though by no means so completely identical with it as many people suppose,) but at all events the heroic mythology of Greece was first introduced into Rome by the poets, and was in no wise interwoven with the national recollections, as was the case in so many ways with those of Greece. The ideal of a genuine Roman Tragedy floats before me dimly indeed, and in the background of ages, and with all the indistinctness which must surround an entity, which never issued out of the womb of possibility into reality. It would be altogether different in form and significance from that of the Greeks, and, in the old Roman sense, religious and patriotic. All truly creative poetry must proceed from the inward life of a people, and from religion, the root of that life. The spirit of the Roman religion was however originally, and before the substance of it was sacrificed to foreign ornament, quite different from that of the Grecian. The latter was yielding and flexible to the hand of art, the former immutable beneath the rigorous jealousy of priestcraft. The Roman faith, and the customs founded on it, were more serious, more moral, and pious, displaying more insight into nature, and more magical and mysterious, than the Greek religion, at least than that part of it which was extrinsecal to the mysteries. As the Greek Tragedy represented the struggle of the free man with destiny, a true Roman Tragedy would exhibit the subjection of human motives to the holy and binding force of _religion_, and its visible presence in all earthly things. But this spirit had been long extinct, before the want of a cultivated poetry was first felt by them. The Patricians, originally an Etruscan sacerdotal school, had become mere secular statesmen and warriors, who regarded their hereditary priesthood in no other light than that of a political form. Their sacred books, their _Vedas_, were become unintelligible to them, not so much from obsoleteness of character, as because they no longer possessed the higher knowledge which was the key to that sanctuary. What the heroic tales of the Latins might have become under an earlier development, as well as their peculiar colouring, we may still see, from some traces in Virgil, Propertius, and Ovid, although even these poets did but handle them as matters of antiquity.
Moreover, desirous as the Romans were of becoming thorough Hellenists, they wanted for it that milder humanity which is so distinctly traceable in Grecian history, poetry, and art, even in the time of Homer. Prom the most austere virtue, which buried every personal inclination, as Curtius did his life, in the bosom of father-land, they passed with fearful rapidity to a state of corruption, by avarice and luxury, equally without example. Never in their character did they belie the legend that their first founder was suckled, not at the breast of woman, but of a ravening she-wolf. They were the tragedians of the world’s history, who exhibited many a deep tragedy of kings led in chains and pining in dungeons; they were the iron necessity of all other nations; universal destroyers for the sake of raising at last, out of the ruins, the mausoleum of their own dignity and freedom, in the midst of the monotonous solitude of an obsequious world. To them, it was not given to excite emotion by the tempered accents of mental suffering, and to touch with a light and delicate hand every note in the scale of feeling. They naturally sought also in Tragedy, by overleaping all intervening gradations, to reach at once the extreme, whether in the stoicism of heroic fortitude, or in the monstrous fury of criminal desire. Of all their ancient greatness nothing remained to them but the contempt of pain and death whenever an extravagant enjoyment of life must finally be exchanged for them. This seal, therefore, of their former grandeur they accordingly impressed on their tragic heroes with a self-satisfied and ostentatious profusion.
Finally, even in the age of cultivated literature, the dramatic poets were still in want of a poetical public among a people fond, even to a degree of madness, of shows and spectacles. In the triumphal processions, the fights of gladiators, and of wild beasts, all the magnificence of the world, all the renders of every clime, were brought before the eye of the spectator, who was glutted with the most violent scenes of blood. On nerves so steeled what effect could the more refined gradations of tragic pathos produce? It was the ambition of the powerful to exhibit to the people in one day, on stages erected for the purpose, and immediately afterwards destroyed, the enormous spoils of foreign or civil war. The relation which Pliny gives of the architectural decoration of the stage erected by Scaurus, borders on the incredible. When magnificence could be carried no farther, they endeavoured to surprise by the novelty of mechanical contrivances. Thus, a Roman, at his father’s funeral solemnity, caused two theatres to be constructed, with their backs resting against each other, and made moveable on a single pivot, so that at the end of the play they were wheeled round with all the spectators within them, and formed into one circus, in which gladiator combats were exhibited. In the gratification of the eye that of the ear was altogether lost; rope-dancers and white elephants were preferred to every kind of dramatic entertainment; the embroidered purple robe of the actor was applauded, as we are told by Horace, and so far was the great body of the spectators from being attentive and quiet, that he compares their noise to that of the roar of the ocean, or of a mountain forest in a storm.
Only one sample of the tragical talent of the Romans has come down to us, from which, however, it would be unjust to form a judgment of the productions of better times; I allude to the ten tragedies which pass under Seneca’s name. Their claim to this title appears very doubtful; perhaps it is founded merely on a circumstance which would lead rather to a different conclusion; that, namely, in one of them, the _Octavia_, Seneca himself appears among the dramatic personages. The opinions of the learned are very much divided on the subject; some ascribe them partly to Seneca the philosopher, and partly to his father the rhetorician; others, again, assume the existence of a Seneca, a tragedian, a different person from both. It is generally allowed that the several pieces are neither all from the same hand, nor were of the same age. For the honour of the Roman taste, one would be disposed to consider them the productions of a very late period of antiquity: but Quinctilian quotes a verse from the _Medea_ of Seneca, which is found in the play of that name in our collection, and therefore no doubt can be raised against the authenticity of this piece, though it seems to be in no way pre-eminent above the rest. [Footnote: The author of this _Medea_ makes the heroine strangle her children before the eyes of the people, notwithstanding the admonition of Horace, who probably had some similar example of the Roman theatre before his eyes; for a Greek would hardly have committed this error The Roman tragedians must have had a particular rage for novelty and effect to seek them in such atrocities.] We find also in Lucan, a contemporary of Nero, a similar display of bombast, which distorts everything great into nonsense. The state of constant outrage in which Rome was kept by a series of blood-thirsty tyrants, gave an unnatural character even to eloquence and poetry. The same effect has been observed in similar periods of modern history. Under the wise and mild government of a Vespasian and a Titus, and more especially of a Trajan, the Romans returned to a purer taste. But whatever period may have given birth to the tragedies of Seneca, they are beyond description bombastic and frigid, unnatural both in character and action, revolting from their violation of propriety, and so destitute of theatrical effect, that I believe they were never meant to leave the rhetorical schools for the stage. With the old tragedies, those sublime creations of the poetical genius of the Greeks, these have nothing in common, but the name, the outward form, and the mythological materials; and yet they seem to have been composed with the obvious purpose of surpassing them; in which attempt they succeed as much as a hollow hyperbole would in competition with a most fervent truth. Every tragical common-place is worried out to the last gasp; all is phrase; and even the most common remark is forced and stilted. A total poverty of sentiment is dressed out with wit and acuteness. There is fancy in them, or at least a phantom of it; for they contain an example of the misapplication of every mental faculty. The authors have found out the secret of being diffuse, even to wearisomeness, and at the same time so epigrammatically laconic, as to be often obscure and unintelligible. Their characters are neither ideal nor real beings, but misshapen gigantic puppets, who are set in motion at one time by the string of an unnatural heroism, and at another by that of a passion equally unnatural, which no guilt nor enormity can appal.
In a history, therefore, of Dramatic Art, I should altogether have passed over the tragedies of Seneca, if, from a blind prejudice for everything which has come down to us from antiquity, they had not been often imitated in modern times. They were more early and more generally known than the Greek tragedies. Not only scholars, without a feeling for art, have judged favourably of them, nay, preferred them to the Greek tragedies, but even poets have accounted them worth studying. The influence of Seneca on Corneille’s idea of tragedy cannot be mistaken; Racine too, in his _Phaedra_, has condescended to borrow a good deal from him, and among other things, nearly the whole scene of the declaration of love; as may be seen in Brumoy’s enumeration.
The Italians–Pastoral Dramas of Tasso and Guarini–Small progress in Tragedy–Metastasio and Alfieri–Character of both–Comedies of Ariosto, Aretin, Porta–Improvisatore Masks–Goldoni–Gozzi–Latest state.
Leaving now the productions of Classical Antiquity, we proceed to the dramatic literature of the moderns. With respect to the order most convenient for treating our present subject, it may be doubtful whether it is better to consider, _seriatim_, what each nation has accomplished in this domain, or to pass continually from one to another, in the train of their reciprocal but fluctuating influences. Thus, for instance, the Italian theatre, at its first revival, exercised originally an influence on the French, to be, however, greatly influenced in its turn by the latter. So, too, the French, before their stage attained its full maturity, borrowed still more from the Spaniards than from the Italians; in later times, Voltaire attempted to enlarge their theatrical circle, on the model of the English; the attempt, however, was productive of no great effect, even because everything had already been immutably fixed, in conformity with their ideas of imitation of the ancients, and their taste in art. The English and Spanish stages are nearly independent of all the rest, and also of each other; on those of other countries, however, they have exercised a great influence, but experienced very little in return. But, to avoid the perplexity and confusion which would attend such a plan, it will be advisable to treat the several literatures separately, pointing out, at the same time, whatever effects foreign influence may have produced. This course is also rendered necessary, by the circumstance that among modern nations the principle of imitation of the ancients has in some prevailed, without check or modification; while in others, the romantic spirit predominated, or at least an originality altogether independent of classical models The former is the case with the Italians and French, and the latter with the English and Spaniards.
I have already indicated, in passing, how even before the eruption of the northern conquerors had put an end to everything like art, the diffusion of Christianity led to the abolition of plays, which, both with Greeks and Romans, had become extremely corrupt. After the long sleep of the dramatic and theatrical spirit in the middle ages, which, however uninfluenced by the classical models, began to awake again in the Mysteries and Moralities, the first attempt to imitate the ancients in the theatre, as well as in the other arts and departments of poetry, was made by the Italians. The _Sophonisba_ of Trissino, which belongs to the beginning of the sixteenth century, is generally named as the first regular tragedy. This literary curiosity I cannot boast of having read, but from other sources I know the author to be a spiritless pedant. Those even of the learned, who are most zealous for the imitation of the ancients, pronounce it a dull laboured work, without a breath of true poetical spirit; we may therefore, without further examination, safely appeal to their judgment upon it. It is singular, that while all ancient forms, even the Chorus, are scrupulously retained, the province of mythology is abandoned for that of Roman history.
The pastoral dramas of Tasso and Guarini (which belong to the middle of the sixteenth century), whose subjects, though for the most part not tragical, are yet noble, not to say ideal, may be considered to form an epoch in the history of dramatic poetry. They are furnished with choruses of the most ravishing beauty, which, however, are but so many lyrical voices floating in the air; they do not appear as personages, and still less are they introduced with due regard to probability as constant witnesses of the represented actions. These compositions were, there is no doubt, designed for the theatre; and they were represented at Ferrara and at Turin with great pomp, and we may presume with eminent taste. This fact, however, serves to give us an idea of the infantine state of the theatre at that time; although, as a whole, they have each their plot and catastrophe, the action nevertheless stands still in some scenes. Their popularity, therefore, would lead us to conclude that the spectators, little accustomed to theatrical amusements, were consequently not difficult to please, and patiently followed the progress of a beautiful poem, even though deficient in dramatic development. The _Pastor Fido_, in particular, is an inimitable production; original and yet classical; romantic in the spirit of the love which it portrays; in its form impressed with the grand but simple stamp of classical antiquity; and uniting with the sweet triflings of poetry, the high and chaste beauty of feeling. No poet has succeeded so well as Guarini in combining the peculiarities of the modern and antique. He displays a profound feeling of the essence of Ancient Tragedy; for the idea of fate pervades the subject- matter, and the principal characters may be said to be ideal: he has also introduced caricatures, and on that account called the composition a Tragi-Comedy; but it is not from the vulgarity of their manners that they are caricatures, as from their over-lofty sentiments, just as in Ancient Tragedy the subordinate personages ever are invested with more or less of the general dignity.
The great importance of this work, however, belongs rather to the History of Poetry in general; on Dramatic Poetry it had no effect, as in truth it was not calculated to produce any.
I then return to what may properly be called the Tragedy of the Italians. After the _Sophonisba_, and a few pieces of the same period, which Calsabigi calls the first tragic lispings of Italy, a number of works of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries are cited; but of these none made, or at any rate maintained any considerable reputation. Although all these writers, in intention at least, laboured, to follow the rules of Aristotle, their tragical abortions are thus described by Calsabigi, a critic entirely devoted to the French system:–“Distorted, complicated, improbable plots, ill-understood scenic regulations, useless personages, double plots, inconsistent characters, gigantic or childish thoughts, feeble verses, affected phrases, the poetry neither harmonious nor natural; all this decked out with ill-timed descriptions and similes, or idle philosophical and political disquisitions; in every scene some silly amour, with all the trite insipidity of common-place sentimentality; of true tragic energy, of the struggle of conflicting passions, of overpowering theatrical catastrophes, not the slightest trace.” Amongst the lumber of this forgotten literature we cannot stop to rummage, and we shall therefore proceed immediately to the consideration of the _Merope_ of Maffei, which appeared in the beginning of the eighteenth century. Its success in Italy, on its first publication, was great; and in other countries, owing to the competition of Voltaire, it also obtained an extraordinary reputation. The object of both Maffei and Voltaire was, from Hyginus’ account of its contents, to restore in some measure a lost piece of Euripides, which the ancients highly commended. Voltaire, pretending to eulogize, has given a rival’s criticism of Maffei’s _Merope_; there is also a lengthened criticism on it in the _Dramaturgie_ of Lessing, as clever as it is impartial. He pronounces it, notwithstanding its purity and simplicity of taste, the work of a learned antiquary, rather than of a mind naturally adapted for, and practised in the dramatic art. We must therefore judge accordingly of the previous state of the drama in the country where such a work could arrive at so great an estimation.
After Maffei came Metastasio and Alfieri; the first before the middle, and the other in the latter half of the eighteenth century. I here include the musical dramas of Metastasio, because they aim in general at a serious and pathetic effect, because they lay claim to ideality of conception, and because in their external form there is a partial observance of what is considered as belonging to the regularity of a tragedy. Both these poets, though totally differing in their aim, were nevertheless influenced in common by the productions of the French stage. Both, it is true, declared themselves too decidedly against the authority of this school to be considered properly as belonging to it; they assure us that, in order to preserve their own originality, they purposely avoided reading the French models. But this very precaution appears somewhat suspicious: whoever feels himself perfectly firm and secure in his own independence, may without hesitation study the works of his predecessors; he will thus be able to derive from them many an improvement in his art, and yet stamp on his own productions a peculiar character. But there is nothing on this head that I can urge in support of these poets: if it be really true that they never, or at least not before the completion of their works, perused the works of French tragedians, some invisible influence must have diffused itself through the atmosphere, which, without their being conscious of it, determined them. This is at once conceivable from the great estimation which, since the time of Louis XIV, French Tragedy has enjoyed, not only with the learned, but also with the great world throughout Europe; from the new-modelling of several foreign theatres to the fashion of the French; from the prevailing spirit of criticism, with which negative correctness was everything, and in which France gave the tone to the literature of other countries. The affinity is in both undeniable, but, from the intermixture of the musical element in Metastasio, it is less striking than in Alfieri. I trace it in the total absence of the romantic spirit; in a certain fanciless insipidity of composition; in the manner of handling mythological and historical materials, which is neither properly mythological nor historical; lastly, in the aim to produce a tragic purity, which degenerates into monotony. The unities of both place and time have been uniformly observed by Alfieri; the latter only could be respected by Metastasio, as change of scene is necessary to the opera poet. Alfieri affords in general no food for the eyes. In his plots he aimed at the antique simplicity, while Metastasio, in his rich intrigues, followed Spanish models, and in particular borrowed largely from Calderon. [Footnote: This is expressly asserted by the learned Spaniard Arteaga, in his Italian work on the _History of the Opera_.] Yet the harmonious ideality of the ancients was as foreign to the one, as the other was destitute of the charm of the romantic poets, which arises from the indissoluble mixture of elements apparently incongruous.
Even before Metastasio, Apostolo Zeno had, as it is called, purified the opera, a phrase which, in the sense of modern critics, often means emptying a thing of all its substance and vigour. He formed it on the model of Tragedy, and more especially of French Tragedy; and a too faithful, or rather too slavish approximation to this model, is the very cause why he left so little room for musical development, on which account his pieces were immediately driven from the stage of the opera by those of his more expert successor. It is in general an artistic mistake for one species to attempt, at evident disadvantage, that which another more perfectly accomplishes, and in the attempt, to sacrifice its own peculiar excellencies. It originates in a chilling idea of regularity, once for all established for every kind alike, instead of ascertaining the spirit and peculiar laws of each distinct species.
Metastasio quickly threw Zeno into the shade, since, with the same object in view, he displayed greater flexibility in accommodating himself to the requisitions of the musician. The merits which have gained for him the reputation of a classic among the Italians of the present day, and which, in some degree, have made him with them what Racine is with the French, are generally the perfect purity, clearness, elegance, and sweetness of his language, and, in particular, the soft melody and the extreme loveliness of his songs. Perhaps no poet ever possessed in a greater degree the talent of briefly bringing together all the essential features of a pathetic situation; the songs with which the characters make their exit, are almost always the purest concentrated musical extract of their state of mind. But, at the same time, we must own that all his delineations of passion are general: his pathos is purified, not only from all characteristic, as well as from all contemplative matter; and, consequently, the poetic representation, unencumbered thereby, proceeds with a light and easy motion, leaving to the musician the care of a richer and fuller development. Metastasio is musical throughout; but, to follow up the simile, we may observe, that of poetical music, melody is the only part that he possesses, being deficient in harmonious compass, and in the mysterious effects of counterpoint. Or, to express myself in different terms, he is musical, but in no respect picturesque. His melodies are light and pleasant, but they are constantly repeated with little or no variation: when we have read a few of his pieces, we know them all; and the composition as a whole is always without significance. His heroes, like those of Corneille, are gallant; his heroines tender, like those of Racine; but this has been too severely censured by many, without a due consideration of the requirements of the Opera. To me he appears censurable only for the selection of subjects, whose very seriousness could not without great incongruity be united with such triflings. Had Metastasio not adopted great historical names–had he borrowed his subject-matter more frequently from mythology, or from still more fanciful fictions–had he made always the same happy choice as that in his _Achilles in Scyros_, where, from the nature of the story, the Heroic is interwoven with the Idyllic, we might then have pardoned him if he invariably depicts his personages as in love. Then should we, if only we ourselves understood what ought to be expected from an opera, willingly have permitted him to indulge in feats of fancy still more venturesome. By his tragical pretensions he has injured himself: his powers were inadequate to support them, and the seductive movingness at which he aimed was irreconcileable with overpowering energy. I have heard a celebrated Italian poet assert that his countrymen were moved to tears by Metastasio. We cannot get over such a national testimony as this, except by throwing it back on the nation itself as a symptom of its own moral temperament. It appears to me undeniable, that a certain melting softness in the sentiments, and the expression of them, rendered Metastasio the delight of his contemporaries. He has lines which, from their dignity and vigorous compression, are perfectly suited to Tragedy, and yet we perceive in them an indescribable something, which seems to show that they were designed for the flexible throat of a soprano singer.
The astonishing success of Metastasio throughout all Europe, and especially at courts, must also in a great measure be attributed to his being a court poet, not merely by profession, but also by the style in which he composed, and which was in every respect that of the tragedians of the era of Louis XIV. A brilliant surface without depth; prosaic sentiments and thoughts decked out with a choice poetical language; a courtly moderation throughout, whether in the display of passion, or in the exhibition of misfortune and crime; observance of the proprieties, and an apparent morality, for in these dramas voluptuousness is but breathed, never named, and the heart is always in every mouth; all these properties could not fail to recommend such tragical miniatures to the world of fashion. There is an unsparing pomp of noble sentiments, but withal most strangely associated with atrocious baseness. Not unfrequently does an injured fair one dispatch a despised lover to stab the faithless one from behind. In almost every piece there is a crafty knave who plays the traitor, for whom, however, there is ready prepared some royal magnanimity, to make all right at the last. The facility with which base treachery is thus taken into favour, as if it were nothing more than an amiable weakness, would have been extremely revolting, if there had been anything serious in this array of tragical incidents. But the poisoned cup is always seasonably dashed from the lips; the dagger either drops, or is forced from the murderous hand, before the deadly blow can be struck; or if injury is inflicted, it is never more than a slight scratch; and some subterranean exit is always at hand to furnish the means of flight from the dungeon or other imminent peril. The dread of ridicule, that conscience of all poets who write for the world of fashion, is very visible in the care with which he avoids all bolder flights as yet unsanctioned by precedent, and abstains from everything supernatural, because such a public carries not with it, even to the fantastic stage of the opera, a belief in wonders. Yet this fear has not always served as a sure guide to Metastasio: besides such an extravagant use of the “aside,” as often to appear ludicrous, the subordinate love-stories frequently assume the appearance of being a parody on the others. Here the Abbé, thoroughly acquainted with the various gradations of Cicisbeism, its pains and its pleasures, at once betrays himself. To the favoured lover there is generally opposed an importunate one, who presses his suit without return, the _soffione_ among the _cicisbei_; the former loves in silence, and frequently finds no opportunity till the end of the piece, of offering his little word of declaration; we might call him the _patito_. This unintermitting love-chase is not confined to the male parts, but extended also to the female, that everywhere the most varied and brilliant contrasts may offer themselves.
A few only of the operas of Metastasio still keep possession of the stage, owing to the change of musical taste, which demands a different arrangement of the text. Metastasio seldom has choruses, and his airs are almost always for a single voice: with these the scenes uniformly close, and with them the singer never fails to make his exit. It appears as if, proud of having played off this highest triumph of feeling, he left the spectators to their astonishment at witnessing the chirping of the passions in the recitatives rising at last in the air, to the fuller nightingale tones. At present we require in an opera more frequent duos and trios, and a crashing finale. In fact, the most difficult problem for the opera poet is to reduce the mingled voices of conflicting passions in one pervading harmony, without destroying any one of them: a problem, however, which is generally solved by both poet and musician in a very arbitrary manner.
Alfieri, a hold and proud man, disdained to please by such meretricious means as those of which Metastasio had availed himself: he was highly indignant at the lax immorality of his countrymen, and the degeneracy of his contemporaries in general. This indignation stimulated him to the exhibition of a manly strength of mind, of stoical principles and free opinions, and on the other hand, led him to depict the horrors and enormities of despotism. This enthusiasm, however, was by far more political and moral than poetical, and we must praise his tragedies rather as the actions of the man than as the works of the poet. From his great disinclination to pursue the same path with Metastasio, he naturally fell into the opposite extreme: I might not unaptly call him a Metastasio reversed. If the muse of the latter he a love-sick nymph, Alfieri’s muse is an Amazon. He gave her a Spartan education; he aimed at being the Cato of the theatre; but he forgot that, though the tragic poet may himself he a stoic, tragic poetry itself, if it would move and agitate us, must never be stoical. His language is so barren of imagery, that his characters seem altogether devoid of fancy; it is broken and harsh: he wished to steel it anew, and in the process it not only lost its splendour, but became brittle and inflexible. Not only is he not musical, but positively anti- musical; he tortures our feelings by the harshest dissonances, without any softening or solution. Tragedy is intended by its elevating sentiments in some degree to emancipate our minds from the sensual despotism of the body; but really to do this, it must not attempt to strip this dangerous gift of heaven of its charms: but rather it must point out to us the sublime majesty of our existence, though surrounded on all sides by dangerous abysses. When we read the tragedies of Alfieri, the world looms upon us dark and repulsive. A style of composition which exhibits the ordinary course of human affairs in a gloomy and troublous light, and whose extraordinary catastrophes are horrible, resembles a climate where the perpetual fogs of a northern winter should be joined with the fiery tempests of the torrid zone. Profound and delicate delineation of character is as little to be looked for in Alfieri as in Metastasio: he does but exhibit the opposite but equally partial view of human nature. His characters also are cast in the mould of naked general notions, and he frequently paints the extremes of black and white, side by side, and in unrelieved contrast. His villains for the most part betray all their deformity, in their outward conduct; this might, perhaps, be allowed to pass, although indeed such a picture will hardly enable us to recognise them in real life; but his virtuous persons are not amiable, and this is a defect open to much graver censure. Of all seductive graces, and even of all subordinate charms and ornaments, (as if the degree in which nature herself had denied them to this caustic genius had not been sufficient,) he studiously divested himself, because as he thought it would best advance his more earnest moral aim, forgetting, however, that the poet has no other means of swaying the minds of men than the fascinations of his art.
From the tragedy of the Greeks, with which he did not become acquainted until the end of his career, he was separated by a wide chasm; and I cannot consider his pieces as an improvement on the French tragedy. Their structure is more simple, the dialogue in some cases less conventional; he has also got rid of confidants, and this has been highly extolled as a difficulty overcome, and an improvement on the French system; he had the same aversion to chamberlains and court ladies in poetry as in real life. But in captivating and brilliant eloquence, his pieces bear no comparison with the better French tragedies; they also display much less skill in the plot, its gradual march, preparations, and transitions. Compare, for instance, the _Britannicus_ of Racine with the _Octavia_ of Alfieri. Both drew their materials from Tacitus: but which of them has shown the more perfect understanding 01 this profound master of the human heart? Racine appears here before us as a man who was thoroughly acquainted with all the corruptions of a court, and had beheld ancient Rome under the Emperors, reflected in this mirror of observation. On the other hand, if Alfieri did not expressly assure us that his Octavia was a daughter of Tacitus, we should be inclined to believe that it was modelled on that of the pretended Seneca. The colours with which he paints his tyrants are borrowed from the rhetorical exercises of the school. Who can recognise, in his blustering and raging Nero, the man who, as Tacitus says, seemed formed by nature “to veil hatred with caresses?”–the cowardly Sybarite, fantastically vain till the very last moment of his existence, cruel at first, from fear, and afterwards from inordinate lust.
If Alfieri has, in this case, been untrue to Tacitus, in the _Conspiracy of the Pazzi_ he has equally failed in his attempt to translate Macchiavel into the language of poetry. In this and other pieces from modern history, the _Filippo_ for instance, and the _Don Garcia_, he has by no means hit the spirit and tone of modern times, nor even of his own nation: his ideas of the tragic style were opposed to the observance of everything like a local and determinate costume. On the other hand it is astonishing to observe the subjects which he has borrowed from the tragic cycles of the Greeks, such as the _Orestiad_, for instance, losing under his hands all