The Origin And Progress Of Tragedy
Author: Rollin, Charles
Date: 1731

The Origin And Progress Of Tragedy

Poets Who Excelled In It At Athens; Aeschylus, Sophocles, And Euripides

There had been many tragic and comic poets before Thespis; but as they
had made no alteration in the original rude form of this poem, and as Thespis
was the first that made any improvement in it, he was generally esteemed its
inventor. Before him, tragedy was no more than a jumble of buffoon tales in
the comic style, intermixed with the singing of a chorus in praise of Bacchus;
for it is to the feasts of that god, celebrated at the time of the vintage,
that tragedy owes its birth.

La tragedie, informe et grossiere en naissant,
N'etroit qu' un simple choeur, ou chacun en dansant,
Et du dieu des raisins entonant les louanges
S'efforcoit d'attirer de fertiles vendanges.
La, le vin et la joie eveillant les esprits,
Du plus habile chautre un bouc etoit le prix. ^168

[Footnote 168: Boileau Art. Poet. Chant. iii.]

Formless and gross did tragedy arise,
A simple chorus, rather mad than wise;
For fruitful vintages the dancing throng
Roar'd to the God of grapes a drunken song:
Wild mirth and wine sustain'd the frantic note,
And the best singer had the prize, a goat.

Thespis made several alterations in it, which Horace describes after
Aristotle, in his Art of Poetry. The first was to carry his actors about in a
cart, whereas before, they used to sing in the streets, wherever chance led
them. Another was, to have their faces smeared over with winelees, instead of
acting without disguise, as at first. ^169 He also introduced a character
among the chorus, who, to give the actors time to rest themselves and to take
breath, repeated the adventures of some illustrious person; which recital at
length gave place to the subjects of tragedy.

[Footnote 169: Ignotum tragicae genus invenisse Camenae

Dicitur, et plaustris plautris vexisse poemata Thespis,
Qui canerent agerentque, peruncti faecibus ora.
Hor. de Art. Poet.

When Thespin first expos'd the tragic muse,
Rude were the actors, and a cart the scene;
Where ghastly faces, smear'd with lees of wine,
Frighted the children, and amused the crowd.
Roscom. Art of Poet.]

Thespis fut le premier, qui barbouille de lie,
Promena par les bourgs cette heureuse folie,
Et d'acteurs mal ornes chargeant un tombereau,
Amusa les passans d'un spectacle nouveau. ^170

[Footnote 170: Boileau Art. Poet. Chaut. iii.]

First Thespis, smear'd with lees, and void of art,
The grateful folly vented from a cart;
And as his tawdry actors drove about,
The sight was new and charmed the gaping rout.

Thespis lived in the time of Solon. ^171 That wise legislator, upon
seeing his pieces performed, expressed his dislike, by striking his staff
against the ground; apprehending that these poetical fictions, and idle
stories, from mere theatrical representations, would soon become matters of
importance, and have too great a share in all public and private affairs.

[Footnote 171: A. M. 3440. Ant. J. C. 564. Plut. in Symp. p. 95.]

It is not so easy to invent as to improve the inventions of others. The
alterations Thespis made in tragedy gave room for Aeschylus to make new and
more considerable ones of his own. He was born at Athens in the first year of
the sixteenth Olympiad. ^172 He took upon him the profession of arms, at a
time when the Athenians reckoned almost as many heroes as citizens. He was at
the battles of Marathon, Salamis, and Plataea, where he did his duty. But his
disposition called him elsewhere, and put him upon entering into another
course, where no less glory was to be acquired, and where he was soon without
any competitors. ^173 As a superior genius, he took upon him to reform, or
rather to create tragedy anew; of which he has, in consequence, been always
acknowledged the inventor and father. Father Brumoi, in a dissertation which
abounds with wit and good sense, explains the manner in which Aeschylus
conceived the true idea of tragedy from Homer's epic poems. That poet himself
used to say, that his works were only copies in relieve of Homer's draughts,
in the Iliad and Odyssey.

[Footnote 172: A. M. 3464. Ant. J. C. 540.]

[Footnote 173: A. M. 3514. Ant. J. C. 490.]

Tragedy, therefore, took a new form under him. He gave masks to his
actors, adorned them with robes and trains, and made them wear buskins.
Instead of a cart he created a theatre of modern extent, and entirely changed
their style; which from being merry and burlesque, as at first, became
majestic and serious. ^174

[Footnote 174: Post hunc personae pallaeque repertor honestae

Aeschylus, et modicis instravit pulpita tignis,
Et docuit magnumque loqui, nitique cothurno.
Hor. de Art. Poet.

This Aeschylus (with indignation) saw,
And built a stage, found out a decent dress,
Brought vizards in (a civiler disguise,)
And taught men how to speak, and how to act.
Roscom. Art of Poet.]

Eschyle dans le choeur jetta les personages;
D'un masque plus honnete habilla les visages;
Sur les ais d'un theatre en public exhausse
Fit paroitre l'acteur d'un brodequin chausse. ^175

[Footnote 175: Boileau Art. Poet.]

From Aeschylus the chorus learnt new grace;
He veil'd with decent masks the actors face,
Taught him in buskins first to tread the stage,
And rais'd a theatre to please the age.

But that was only the external part or body of tragedy. Its soul, which
was the most important and essential addition of Aeschylus, consisted in the
vivacity and spirit of the action, sustained by the dialogue of the persons of
the drama introduced by him; in the artful working up of the stronger
passions, especially of terror and pity, that, by alternately afflicting and
agitating the soul with mournful or terrible objects, produce a grateful
pleasure and delight from that very trouble and emotion; in the choice of a
subject, great, noble, interesting, and contained within the true bounds by
the unity of time, place, and action; in fine, it is the conduct and
disposition of the whole piece, which by the order and harmony of its parts,
and the happy connection of its incidents and intrigues, holds the mind of the
spectator in suspense till the catastrophe, and then restores him his
tranquillity, and dismisses him with satisfaction.

The chorus had been established before Aeschylus, as it composed alone,
or next to alone, what was then called tragedy. He did not, therefore,
exclude it, but, on the contrary, thought fit to incorporate it, to sing as
chorus between the acts. Thus it supplied the interval of resting, and was a
kind of person of the drama, employed either in giving useful counsels and
salutary instructions, in espousing the part of innocence and virtue, in being
the depository of secrets, and the avenger of violated religion, or in
sustaining all those characters at the same time, according to Horace. ^176
The coryphaeus, or principal person of the chorus, spoke for the rest.

[Footnote 176: Actoris partes chorus officiumque virile

Defendat; neu quid medios intercinat actus,
Quod non proposito conducat, et haereat apte.
Ille bonis faveatque, et concilietur amicis,
Etregat iratos, et amet peccare timentes.
Ille dapes laudet mensae brevis: ille salubrem
Justitiam, legesque, et apertis otia portis.
Ille tegat commissa, deosque precetur et oret,
Ut redeat miseris, abeat fortuna superbis.
Hor. de Art. Poet.

The chorus should supply what action wants,
And hath a generous and manly part;
Bridles wild rage, loves rigid honesty,
And strict observance of impartial laws,
Sobriety, security and peace;
And begs the gods to turn blind fortunes wheel,
To raise the wretched, and pull down the proud;
But nothing must be sung between the acts,
But what some way conduces to the plot.
Roscom. Art of Poetry.]

In one of Aeschylus' pieces, called the Eumenides, the poet represents
Orestes at the bottom of the stage, surrounded by the furies, laid asleep by
Apollo. Their figure must have been extremely horrible, as it is related,
that upon their waking, and appearing tumultuously on the theatre, where they
were to act as a chorus, some women miscarried with surprise, and several
children died of the fright. The chorus at that time consisted of fifty
actors. After this accident it was reduced to fifteen, by an express law, and
at length to twelve.

I have observed, that one of the alterations made by Aeschylus in
tragedy, was the mask worn by the actors. These dramatic masks had no
resemblance to ours, which only cover the face, but were a kind of case for
the whole head, and which, besides the features, represented the beard, the
hair, the ears, and even the ornaments used by women in their head-dresses.
These masks varied according to the different pieces that were acted. They
are treated of at large in a dissertation of M. Boindin's, inserted in the
Memoirs of the Academy of Belles Letters. ^177

[Footnote 177: Vol. IV.]

I could never comprehend, as I have observed elsewhere, ^178 in speaking
of pronunciation, how masks came to continue so long upon the stage of the
ancients; for certainly they could not be used, without considerably
flattening the spirit of the action, which is principally expressed in the
countenance, the seat and mirror of what passes in the soul. Does it not
often happen, that the blood, according to its being put in motion by
different passions, sometimes covers the face with a sudden and modest blush,
sometimes enflames it with the heat of rage and fury, sometimes retires,
leaving it pale with fear, and at others, diffuses a calm and amiable serenity
over it? All these affections are strongly imagined and distinguished in the
lineaments of the face. The mask deprives the features of this energy of
language, and of that life and soul by which it is the faithful interpreter of
all the sentiments of the heart. I do not wonder, therefore, at Cicero's
remark upon the action of Roscius. "Our ancestors," says he, "were better
judges than we are. They could not wholly approve even of Roscius himself
while he performed in a mask." ^179

[Footnote 178: Manner of Teaching, &c., Vol. IV.]

[Footnote 179: Quo melius nostri illi senes, qui personatum, ne Roscium
quidem, magnopere laudabant. - Lib. iii. Orat. n. 221.]

Aeschylus was in the sole possession of the glory of the stage, with
almost every voice in his favor, when a young rival made his appearance to
dispute the palm with him. This was Sophocles. He was born at Colonos, a
town in Attica, in the second year of the 71st Olympiad. His father was a
blacksmith, or one that kept people of that trade to work for him. His first
essay was a masterpiece. When, upon the occasion of Cymon having found the
bones of Theseus, and their being brought to Athens, a dispute between the
tragic poets was appointed, Sophocles entered the lists with Aeschylus, and
carried the prize against him. The ancient victor, laden till then with the
wreaths he had acquired, believed them all lost by failing of the last, and
withdrew in disgust into Sicily to king Hiero, the protector and patron of all
the learned in disgrace at Athens. He died there soon after, in a very
singular manner, if we may believe Suidas. As he lay asleep in the fields,
with his head bare, an eagle, taking his bald crown for a stone, let a
tortoise fall upon it, which killed him. Of ninety, or at least seventy
tragedies, composed by him, only seven are now extant.

Nor have those of Sophocles escaped the injury of time better, though one
hundred and seventeen in number, and, according to some, one hundred and
thirty. He retained, to extreme old age, all the force and vigor of his
genius, as appears from a circumstance in his history. His children, unworthy
of so great a father, under pretence that he had lost his senses, summoned him
before the judges, in order to obtain a decree, that his estate might be taken
from him, and put into their hands. He made no other defence than to read a
tragedy he was at that time composing, called Oedipus at Colonos, with which
the judges were so charmed, that he carried his cause unanimously: and his
children, detested by the whole assembly, got nothing by their suit, but the
shame an infamy due to such flagrant ingratitude. He was twenty times crowned
victor. Some say he expired in repeating his Antigone, for want of power to
recover his breath, after a violent endeavor to pronounce a long period to the
end. Others, that he died of joy upon his being declared victor, contrary to
his expectations. The figure of a hive was placed upon his tomb, to perpetuate
the name of bee, which had been given him from the sweetness of his verses;
whence, it is probable, the notion was derived, of the bees having settled
upon his lips when in his cradle. He died in his ninetieth year the fourth of
the ninety-third Olympiad, ^180 after having survived Euripides six years, who
was not so old as himself.

[Footnote 180: A. M. 3599. Ant. J. C. 405.]

The latter was born in the first year of the seventy-fifth Olympiad, ^181
at Salamis, whither his father Menesarchus and his mother Clito had retired,
when Xerxes was preparing for his great expedition against Greece. He applied
himself at first to philosophy, and among others, had the celebrated
Anaxagoras for his master. But the danger incurred by that great man, who was
very near being made the victim of his philosophical tenets, inclined him to
the study of poetry. He discovered in himself a genius for the drama, unknown
to him at first; and employed it with such success, that he entered the lists
with the greatest masters, of whom we have been speaking. His works
sufficiently denote his profound application to philosophy. ^182 They abound
with excellent maxims of morality; and it is in that view, Socrates in his
time, and Cicero long after him, set so high a value upon Euripides. ^183

[Footnote 181: A. M. 3524. Ant. J. C. 480.]

[Footnote 182: Sententiis densus, et id iss quae a sapientibus sunt, pene
ipsis est par. - Quintil. lib. x. c. l.]

[Footnote 183: Cui (Euripidi) quantam credas nescio; ego certe singula
testimonia puto - Epist. viii. l. 14, ad Famil.]

One cannot sufficiently admire the extreme delicacy expressed by the
Athenian audience on certain occasions, and their solicitude to preserve the
reverence due to morality, virtue, decency, and justice. It is surprising to
observe the warmth with which they unanimously reproved whatever seemed
inconsistent with them, and called the poet to an account for it,
notwithstanding his having the best founded excuse, giving such sentiments
only to persons notoriously vicious, and actuated by the most unjust passions.

Euripides had put into the mouth of Bellerophon a pompous panegyric upon
riches, which concluded with this thought: Riches are the supreme good of the
human race, and with reason excite the admiration of the gods and men. The
whole theatre cried out against these expressions, and he would have been
banished directly, if he had not desired the sentence to be respited till the
conclusion of the piece, in which the advocate for riches perished miserably.

He was in danger of incurring serious inconveniences from an answer he
puts into the mouth of Hippolytus. Phraedra's nurse represented to him, that
he had engaged himself under an inviolable oath to keep her secret. My
tongue, it is true, pronounced that oath, replied he, but my heart gave no
consent to it. This frivolous distinction appeared to the whole people, as an
express contempt of religion and the sanctity of an oath, that tended to
banish all sincerity and good faith from society and the commerce of life.

Another maxim advanced by Eteocles in a tragedy called the Phoenicians,
and which Caesar had always in his mouth, is no less pernicious. If justice
may be violated at all, it is when a throne is in question; in other respects
let it be duly revered. ^184 It is highly criminal in Eteocles, or rather in
Euripides, says Cicero, to made an exception in that very point, wherein such
violation is the highest crime that can be committed. Eteocles is a tyrant,
and speaks like a tyrant, who vindicates his unjust conduct by a false maxim;
and it is not strange, that Caesar, who was a tyrant by nature, and equally
unjust, should lay great stress upon the sentiments of a prince whom he so
much resembled. But what is remarkable in Cicero, is his falling upon the poet
himself, and imputing to him as a crime, the having advanced so pernicious a
principle upon the stage.

[Footnote 184: Ipse autem socer (Caesar) in ore semper Graecos versus
Euripidis de Poenissis habebat, quos dicam ut potero, incondite fortasse, sed
tamen ut res possit intelligi:

Nam, si violandum est jus, regnandi gratia
Violandum est; aliis rebus pietatem colas.
Capitalis Eteoclea vel potius Euripides, qui id unum, quod omnium
scelera tissi mum fuerit, exceperit - Offic. l. iii. n. 32]

Lycurgus, the orator, who lived in the time of Philip and Alexander the
Great, to reanimate the spirit of the tragic poets, caused three statues of
brass to be erected in the name of the people to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and
Euripides; and having ordered their works to be transcribed, he appointed them
to be carefully preserved among the public archives, from whence they were
taken from time to time to be read; the players not being permitted to
represent them on the stage.

The reader expects, no doubt, after what has been said relating to the
three poets who invented, improved and carried tragedy to its perfection, that
I should discourse upon the peculiar excellencies of their style and
character. For that I must refer to Father Brumio, who will do it much better
than it is in my power. After having laid down, as an undoubted principle,
that the epic poet, that is to say, Homer, pointed out the way for the tragic
poets, and having demonstrated, by reflections drawn from human nature, upon
what principles, and by what degrees, this happy imitation was conducted to
its end, he goes on to describe the three poets above-mentioned in the most
lively and shining colors.

Tragedy took at first, from Aeschylus its inventor, a much more lofty
style than the Iliad; that is, the magnum loqui mentioned by Horace. Perhaps
Aeschylus, who was its author, was too pompous, and carried the tragic style
too high. It is not Homer's trumpet, but something more. His pompous,
swelling, gigantic diction, resembles rather the beating of drums and the
shouts of battle, than the nobler harmony and silver sound of the trumpet.
The elevation and grandeur of his genius would not permit him to speak the
language of other men, so that his muse seemed rather to walk on stilts, than
in the buskins of his own invention.

Sophocles understood much better the true excellence of the dramatic
style; he therefore copies Homer more closely, and blends in his diction that
honeyed sweetness, from whence he was denominated the bee, with a gravity that
gives his tragedy the modest air of a matron, compelled to appear in public
with dignity, as Horace expresses it.

The style of Euripides, though noble, is less removed from the familiar;
and he seems to have affected rather the pathetic and the elegant, than the
nervous and the lofty.

As Corneille, says M. Brumoi in another place, after having opened to
himself a path entirely new and unknown to the ancients, seems like an eagle
towering in the clouds, from the sublimity, force, unbroken progress, and
rapidity of his flight; and as Racine, in copying the ancients, in a manner
entirely his own, imitates the swan, that sometimes floats upon the air,
sometimes rises, then falls again with an elegance of motion, and a grace
peculiar to herself; so Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, have each of them
a particular and characteristic method. The first, as the inventor and father
of tragedy, is like a torrent rolling impetuously over rocks, forests, and
precipices; the second resembles a canal, which flows gently through delicious
gardens; ^185 and the third a river, that does not follow its course in a
continual line, but loves to turn and wind its silver wave through flowery
meads and rural scenes.

[Footnote 185: I know not whether the idea of a canal, that flows gently
through delicious gardens, may properly describe the character of Sophocles,
which is peculiarly distinguished by nobleness, grandeur, and elevation. That
of an impetuous and rapid stream, whose waves, from the violence of their
motion, are loud and to be heard afar off, seems to me a more suitable image
of that poet.]

This is the character M. Brumoi gives of the three poets to whom the
Athenian stage was indebted for its perfection in tragedy. Aeschylus drew it
out of its original chaos and confusion, and made it appear in some degree of
lustre; but it still retained the rude unfinished air of things in their
beginning, which are generally defective in point of art or method. ^186
Sophocles and Euripides added infinitely to the dignity of tragedy. The style
of the first, as has been observed, is more noble and majestic; of the latter,
more tender and pathetic; each perfect in its way. In this diversity of
character, it is difficult to decide which is most excellent. The learned
have always been divided upon this head; as we are at this day, in regard to
the two poets of our own nation, whose tragedies have made our stage
illustrious, and not inferior to that of Athens. ^187

[Footnote 186: Tragedias primus in lucem Aeschylus protulit: sublimis, et
gravis, et grandiloquus saepe usque ad vitium; sed rudis in plerisque et
incompositus. - Quintil, x. c. l.]

[Footnote 187: Corneille and Racme.]

I have observed, that tenderness and pathos distinguish the compositions
of Euripides, of which Alexander of Pherae, the most cruel of tyrants, gave a
striking proof. The barbarous man, upon seeing the Troades of Euripides
acted, found himself so moved with it, that he quitted the theatre before the
conclusion of the play, professing that he was ashamed to be seen in tears for
the distress of Hecuba and Andromache, when he had never shown the least
compassion for his own citizens, of whom he had butchered such numbers.

When I speak of tenderness and pathos, I would not be understood to mean
a passion that softens the heart into effeminacy, and which, to our reproach,
is almost solely confined to our stage, though rejected by the ancients and
condemned by the nations around us of greatest reputation for their genius,
and taste in science and polite learning. The two great principles for moving
the passions among the ancients, were terror and pity. And indeed, as we
naturally determine every thing from its relation to ourselves, or our
particular evils, the fear of the like misfortunes, with which we know that
human life is on all sides invested, seizes upon us, and from a secret impulse
of self-love, we find ourselves sensibly affected with the distresses of
others: besides which, the sharing a common nature with the rest of our
species, makes us sensible to whatever befalls them. ^189 Upon a close and
attentive inquiry into those two passions, they will be found the most deeply
inherent, active, extensive, and general affections of the soul; including all
orders of men, great and small, rich and poor, of whatever age or condition.
Hence the ancients, accustomed to consult nature, and to take her for their
guide in all things, conceived terror and compassion to be the soul of
tragedy; and for this reason, that those affections ought to prevail in it.
The passion of love was in no estimation among them, and had seldom any share
in their dramatic pieces; though with us it is a received opinion, that they
cannot be supported without it.

[Footnote 189: Homo sum humani nihil a me alienum puto. - Te.]

It is worth our trouble to examine briefly in what manner this passion,
which has always been deemed a weakness and a blemish in the greatest
characters, got such footing upon our stage. Corneille, who was the first who
brought the French tragedy to any perfection, and whom all the rest have
followed, found the whole nation enamored to madness with the perusal of
romances, and little disposed to admire any thing not resembling them. From
the desire of pleasing his audience, who were at the same time his judges, he
endeavored to move them in the same manner as they had been accustomed to be
affected; and by introducing love in his scenes, to bring them the nearer to
the predominant taste of the age for romance. From the same source arose that
multiplicity of incidents, episodes, and adventures, with which our tragic
pieces are crowded and obscured, so contrary to probability, which will not
admit such a number of extraordinary and surprising events in the short space
of four-and- twenty hours; so contrary to the simplicity of ancient tragedy,
and so adapted to conceal, in the assemblage of so many different objects, the
sterility of the genius of a poet, more intent upon the marvellous, than upon
the probable and natural.

Both the Greeks and Romans have preferred the iambic to the heroic verse
in their tragedies; not only because the first has a kind of dignity better
adapted to the stage, but while it approaches nearer to prose, retains
sufficiently the air of poetry to please the ear; and yet has too little of it
to put the audience in mind of the poet, who ought not to appear at all in
representations, where other persons are supposed to speak and act. Monsieur
Dacier makes a very just reflection on this subject. He says, that it is the
misfortune of our tragedy to have almost no other verse than what it has in
common with epic poetry, elegy, pastoral, satire, and comedy; whereas the
learned languages have a great variety of versification.

This inconvenience is highly obvious in the French tragedy; which
necessarily loses sight of nature and probability, as it obliges heroes,
princes, kings, and queens to express themselves in a pompous strain in their
familiar conversation, which it would be ridiculous to attempt in real life.
The giving utterance to the most impetuous passions in a uniform cadence, and
by hemistichs and rhymes, would undoubtedly be tedious and offensive to the
ear, if the charms of poetry, the elegance of expression, the spirit of the
sentiments, and, perhaps, more than all, the resistless force of custom, had
not in a manner subjected our reason, and spread a veil before our judgment.

It was not chance, therefore, which suggested to the Greeks the use of
iambics in their tragedy. Nature itself seems to have dictated that kind of
verse to them. Instructed by the same unerring guide, they made choice of a
different versification for the chorus, better adapted to the motions of the
dance, and the variations of the song; because it was necessary for poetry to
shine but in all its lustre, while the mere conversation between the real
actors was suspended. The chorus was an embellishment of the representation,
and a relaxation to the audience, and therefore required more exalted poetry
and numbers to support it, when united with music and dancing.


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