The tragedy of the Athenians still exercises its power over the creative poet of the present; not only the imperishable beauty of its contents, but its poetic form influences our poetic work; the tragedy of antiquity has essentially contributed to separate our drama from the stage productions of the middle ages, and give it a more artistic structure and more profound meaning. Therefore, before an account is given of the technical arrangement in the tragedies of Sophocles, it will be necessary to recall those peculiarities of the ancient stage, which, so far as we can judge, with their demands and limitations, controlled the Athenian poet. What is easily found elsewhere will be but briefly mentioned here.
The tragedy of the old world grew out of the dithyrambic solo songs with choruses, which were used in the Dionysian spring-time festivals; gradually the speeches of individuals were introduced between the dithyrambs and choruses, and were enlarged to an action. The tragedy retained from these beginnings, the chorus, the song of single leading roles in the moments of highest excitement, the alternating songs of the actors and of the chorus. It was a natural consequence that the part of the tragedy won the mastery, and the chorus receded. In the oldest plays of Æschylus, The Persians and The Suppliants, the choral songs are by far the larger part. They have a beauty, a magnitude, and so powerful a dramatic movement that neither in our oratorios nor in our operas is there much that can be compared with them. The short incidental sentences interpolated, spoken by individual characters, and not lyric-musical, serve almost entirely as motives to produce new moods in the solo singer and the chorus. But already in the time of Euripides, the chorus had stepped into the background, its connection with the developed action was loose, it sank from its position of guide and confidant of the chief characters to a quite unessential part of the drama, choral songs of one drama were used for another; and at last they represented nothing but the song which completed the interval between acts. But the lyric element remained fixed in the action itself. Well-planned, broadly elaborated sentimental scenes of the performers, sung and spoken, remained in important places of the action an indispensable component part of the tragedy. These pathos-scenes, the renown of the first actor, the centre of brilliance for ancient acting, contain the elements of the lyric situation in a completeness which we can no longer imitate. In them are comprised the touching effects of the tragedy. These long-winded gushings of inner feeling had so great a charm for the audience that to such scenes unity and verisimilitude of action were sacrificed by the weaker poets. But however beautiful and full the feeling sounds in them, the dramatic movement is not great. There are poetic observations upon one’s own condition, supplications to the gods, feeling portrayal of peculiar relations. The first of these may perhaps be compared with the monologues of modern times, although in them the chorus sometimes represents the sympathising [sic] hearer, sometimes the hearer who responds.
That extension of the old dithyrambic songs, first to oratorios, the solo-singers in which appeared in festal costume with simple pantomime, then to dramas with a well-developed art of representation, was effected by means of an action which was taken almost exclusively from the realm of Hellenic heroic legend and the epic. Isolated attempts of poets to extend this realm remained, on the whole, without success. Even before Æschylus, a composer of oratorios had once attempted to make use of historical material; the oldest drama of Æschylus which has been preserved for us, made use of historical material of the immediate past; but the Greeks had, at that time, no historical writings at all, in our sense of the word. A successful attempt to put on the stage material freely invented, had in the flourishing time of the Greek tragedy little imitation.
Such a restriction to a well-defined field of material was a blessing as well as a doom to the Attic stage. It confined the dramatic situations and the dramatic effects to a rather narrow circle, in which the older poets with fresh power attained the highest success, but which soon gave occasion to the later poets to seek new effects along side-lines; and this made the decay of the drama unavoidable. Indeed, there was between the world from which the material was taken and the essential conditions of the drama, an inherent opposition which the highest skill did not suffice to conquer, and at which the talents of Euripides grew powerless.
The species of poetry which before the development of the drama had made legendary subjects dear to the people, maintained a place in certain scenes of the play. It was a popular pleasure among the Greeks to listen to public speeches, and later, to have epic poems read to them. This custom gave to the tragedy longer accounts of occurrences which were essential to the action, and these occupied more space than would be accorded to them in the later drama. For the stage, the narrative was imbued with dramatic vividness. Heralds, messengers, soothsayers, are standing roles for such recitals; and the scenes in which they appear have, as a rule, the same disposition. After a short introduction, the informants give their narration; then follow a few longer or shorter verses of like measure, quickly exchanged question and answer; at last the result of the announcement is compassed in brief words. The narrative comes in where it is most striking, in the catastrophe. The last exit of the hero is sometimes only announced.
In another way, the conduct of the scenes was influenced through the great opportunity of the Attic market, the judicial proceedings. It was a passion of the people to listen to the speeches of the accuser and of the defender. The highest artistic development of Greek judicial oratory, but also the artificial manner in which it was sought to produce effects, fine sophistical rhetoric, intruded upon the Attic stage, and determined the character of the speaking scenes. These scenes, also, considered as a whole, are fashioned according to established rules. The first actor delivers a little speech; the second answers in a speech of similar, sometimes exactly equal length; then follows a sort of rotation verses, each four answered by another four, three by three, two by two, one by one; then both actors resume their position and condense what they have to say, in second speeches; then follows the rattle of rotation verses, till he who is to be victor, once more briefly explains his point of view. The last word, a slight preponderance in verses, turns the scale. This structure, sometimes interrupted and divided by interpolated speeches of the chorus, has not the highest dramatic movement, despite the interchange of finished oratory, and in spite of the externally strong and progressive animation; it is an oratorical exposition of a point of view; it is a contest with subtle arguments, too oratorical for our feeling, too calculated, too artificial. One party is seldom convinced by the other. Indeed this had still another ground; for it is not easily allowed to an Attic hero to change his opinion on account of the orations of some one else. When there was a third role on the stage, the colloquy preserved the character of a dialogue; sudden and repeated interlocking of the characters was infrequent, and only momentary; if the third role entered into the colloquy, the second retreated; the change was usually made conspicuous by the insertion of a choral line. Mass-scenes, as we understand the word, were not known on the ancient stage.
The action ran through these pathos-scenes, messenger-scenes, colloquy-scenes, orations, and announcements of official persons to the chorus. If one adds to these the revolution-scenes, and the recognition-scenes, the aggregate contents of the piece will be found arranged according to the forms prescribed by the craft. The endowment of the poets is preserved for us in the way they knew how to give animation to these forms. Sophocles is greatest; and for this reason, what is constant in his works is most varied and, as it were, concealed.
In another way, the construction of the drama was modified through the peculiar circumstances under which its production took place. The Attic tragedies were presented in the flourishing time of Athens, on the days of the Dionysian festivals. At these festivals the poet contested with his rivals, not as author of the dramas; but when he did not also appear himself as actor, he appeared as manager or director. As such, he was united with his actors and the leader of the chorus in a partnership. To each poet, a day was allotted. On this day he must produce four plays, the last being, as a rule, a burlesque-play. It may be wondered which was the most astonishing, the creative power of the poet, or the endurance of the audience. If we conceive of a burlesque-play added to the trilogy of Æschylus, and estimate the time required for the performance according to the experience of our stage, and take into account the slowness with which it must be delivered, because of the peculiar acoustics of the great hall, and the necessity of a sharp, well-marked declamation, this representation on the stage must have required, with its brief interruptions at the end of pieces, at least nine hours. Three tragedies of Sophocles, together with the burlesque, must have claimed at least ten hours.10
The three serious plays were, in the earlier times, bound into one consistent action, which was taken from the same legendary source. So long as this old trilogy-form lasted, they had the nature of colossal acts, each of which brought a part of the action to a close. When Sophocles had disregarded this custom, and as contestant for the prize, put on the stage three independent, complete plays, one after another, the pieces stood worthy of confidence for their inner relations. How far a heightening of aggregate effect was secured by significant combination of ideas and action, by parallelism and contrast of situations, we can no longer ignore; but it follows from the nature of all dramatic representation, that the poet must have aspired to a progressive rise, a certain aggregation of the effects then possible.11
And as the spectators sat before the stage in the exalted mood of the holy spring-festival, so the chief actors were clothed in a festal costume. The costume of the individual roles was usually prescribed strictly according to the custom of the festival; the actors wore masks with an aperture for the mouth, the high cothurnus on their feet, the body padded, and decked with long garments. Both sides of the stage, and the three doors in the background, through which the actors entered and made their exits, were arranged appropriately for their use in the piece.
But the poet contested on his theatre day, through four plays, with the same players, who were called prize-contestants. The older Attic oratorios had only one actor, who entered in different roles in a different costume; Æschylus added a second, Sophocles added a third. The Attic theatre never, in its most palmy days, exceeded three solo actors. This restriction of the number of players determined the technique of the Greek tragedy, more than any other circumstance. It was, however, no restriction which any resolute will could have dispensed with. Not external reasons alone hindered an advance; old tradition, the interest which the state took in the representations, and perhaps not less the circumstance, that the immense open auditorium on the Acropolis, which seated 30,000 persons, demanded a metallic quality of voice, a discipline of utterance possessed certainly by very few. To this must be added, that at least two of the actors, the first and the second, must be ready singers, before an exacting audience with a delicate ear for music. Sophocles’ first actor must, during an effort of ten hours, pronounce about 1,600 lines, and sing at least six greater or less song pieces.12
This task would be great, but not inconceivable to us. One of the most exacting of our roles is Richard III. This includes in the printed text, 1,128 lines, of which more than 200 are usually omitted. Our lines are shorter, there is no song, the costume is much more convenient, the voice is of a different kind, comparatively less wearying; the effort for gesture, on the other hand, is incomparably greater; on the whole, the creative work for the moment, much more significant; there is a very different expenditure of nervous energy. For our actors to compass the task of the ancients, would present no unconquerable difficulties, but just that which presents itself to the inexperienced as an alleviation, the prolonging the work through ten hours. And if they set up in opposition to the actor’s art of the ancients, with some show of justice, that their present task is a greater and higher one, it is performed not with voice alone, but with facial expression and gesture freely invented, yet they must not forget that the scantiness of Greek pantomime, which remained restricted through masks and conventional movements and attitudes, found a supplement again in a remarkably fine culture in dramatic enunciation. Old witnesses teach us that a single false tone, a single incorrect accent, a single hiatus in a line, could arouse the universal ill-will of the audience against the player, and rob him of his victory; that the great actor was passionately admired, and that the Athenians, on account of the actor’s art, would neglect politics and the prosecution of war. One must certainly not put a low value on the independent, creative work of the Hellenic actor; for we do not at all know how creatively his soul worked in the usual inflections of dramatic delivery.
Among these three actors, all the roles of the three tragedies and the burlesque were divided. In each play, the actor had, in addition to his chief role—in which, according to custom, he wore the festal costume—subordinate parts corresponding to his character, or for which he could be spared. But even in this matter the poet was not allowed full liberty.
The personality of the actor on the stage was not so completely forgotten in his role, by his audience, as is the case with us. He remained in the consciousness of the Athenian, in spite of his various masks and changes of costume, always more the genial person performing, than the player who sought to hide himself entirely in the character of his role. And so in this respect, even at the time of Sophocles, the representation on the stage was more like an oratorio or the reading aloud of a piece, with parts assigned, than like our production on the stage. This is an important circumstance. The effects of the tragedy were not, for this reason, injured, but somewhat differently colored.
The first player was, therefore, made somewhat significantly conspicuous on the stage. To him belongs the middle door of the background—“the royal”—for his entrances and exits; he played the most distinguished persons, and the strongest characters. It would have been against his professional dignity to represent on the stage, anyone who allowed himself to be influenced or led by any other character in the piece—the gods excepted. He specially was the player of pathetic parts, the singer and hero, of course for both masculine and feminine roles; his role alone gave the piece its name, in case he was the controlling spirit, in the action; otherwise the name of the piece was taken from the costume and character of the chorus. Next him stood the second contestant, as his attendant and associate; over against him stood the third, a less esteemed actor, as character player, intriguer, representative of the counter-play.
This appointment was strictly adhered to by Sophocles, in the preparation and distribution of parts. There were in his plays, the chief hero, his attendant, and his adversary. But the subordinate parts, also, which each of them must undertake, and which corresponded to each of the chief roles, were, so far as was at all possible, distributed according to their relations to the chief roles. The chief actor, himself, took the part of his representative and companion in sentiment; the parts of friends and retainers, so far as possible, the second player took; the third, or adversary, took the parts of strangers, enemies, opposing parties; and in addition to these, sometimes with the second, he assumed further accessory roles.
From all this there originated a peculiar kind of stage effects, which we might call inartistic, but which had for the Attic poet, and the Attic stage, not a little significance. The next duty of the actor was specially to indicate every one of the roles he assumed in a piece, by a different mask, a different tone of voice, a different carriage, and different gestures. And we recognize that here, too, there was much that had conformed to custom, and become established; for example, in the make-up and delivery of a messenger, in the step, bearing, gesture of young women, and of old women. But a second peculiarity of this established distribution of parts was that what was constant in the actor, became apparent in his individual parts, and was felt by the audience as something proper to himself, and effective. The actor on the Attic stage became an ideal unity which held its roles together. Above the illusion that different persons were speaking, the feeling remained to the hearer, that they were one and the same; and this circumstance the poet used for peculiar dramatic effects. When Antigone was led away to death, the whole excited soul of Tiresias rang behind the tone of voice in which his threat was made to Creon; the same tone, the same spiritual nature in all the words of the messenger who announced the sad end of Antigone and of Hæmon, again touched the spirit of the audience. Antigone, after she had gone away to death, came continually back to the stage. By this means there arose, sometimes during the performance, a climax of tragic effects, where we, in reading, notice a bathos. When in Electra, the same actor presents Orestes and Clytemnestra, son and mother, murderer and victim, the same quality of voice suggests the blood relation to the audience, the same cold determination and cutting sharpness of tone—it was the role of the third actor—suggests the inner kinship of the two natures; but this sameness moderated, perhaps, the horror which the fearful action of the play produced. When, in Ajax, the hero of the piece kills himself at the climax, this must have been, in the eyes of the Greeks, a danger to the effect of the play, not because this circumstance in this case affected the unity of the action, but probably put too much of the weight toward the beginning. But when, immediately afterwards, from the mask of Teucros, the same honest, true-hearted nature still rang in the voice, only more youthful, fresher, unbroken, the Athenian not only felt with satisfaction the blood relation, but the soul of Ajax took a lively part in the struggle continued about his grave. Particularly attractive is the way Sophocles makes use of this means—of course, not he alone,—to present effectively, in the catastrophe, the ruin of a chief character, which can only be announced. In each of the four pieces, which contain the very conspicuous role of a messenger in the catastrophe (in the Trachinian Women it is the nurse) the actor who has played the part of the hero whose death is announced, became himself the messenger, who related the affecting circumstances of the death, sometimes in a wonderfully animated speech; to the Athenians, in such a case, the voice of the departed came back from Hades, and pierced their souls—the voice of Œdipus at Colonos, of Jocasta, of Antigone, of Deianeira. In Philoctetes, the return of the same actor in various roles is most peculiarly prized for dramatic effects,—of this there will be a discussion later on.13
Such a heightening of the effect through a lessening of the scenic illusion, is foreign to our stage, but not unheard of. A similar effect depends on the representation of women’s parts by men, which Goethe saw in Rome. This peculiarity of the Attic stage gave the poet some liberties in the structure of the action, which we no longer allow. The first hero could be spared from his chief role during longer parts of the play—as in Antigone and Ajax. When, in the Trachinian Women, the chief hero, Hercules, does not enter at all till the last scene, yet he has been effective through his representatives from the beginning forward. The maid of the prologue, who refers to the absent Hercules, Lichas, his herald, who gives accounts of him, speak with the subdued voice of the hero.
And this keeping back of the hero was frequently necessary to the poet as a prudent aid in concealing the indulgence which, before all others, the first actor must claim for himself. The almost superhuman effort of a day’s acting could be endured only when the same actor did not have the longest and most exacting groups of roles in all three tragedies. The chief role among the Greeks, remained that of the protagonist, who had the dignity and the pathos requiring great effort, even if to this part, perhaps, only a single scene was given. But the poet was compelled, in individual pieces of the festival occasion, to give to the second and third actors what we call the chief parts, the most comprehensive parts; for he must be considerate enough to make a somewhat even distribution of the lines of the three tragedies, among his three contestants.14
The plays of Sophocles which have been preserved, are distinguished more by the character of their action than by their construction, from the Germanic drama. The section of the legend, which Sophocles used for the action of his piece, had peculiar presuppositions. His plays, as a whole, represent the restoration of an already disturbed order, revenge, penance, adjustment; what is supposed to have preceded is also the direst disturbance, confusion, crime. The drama of the Germans, considered in general, had for its premises, a certain if insufficient order and rest, against which the person of the hero arose, producing disturbance, confusion, crime, until he was subdued by counteracting forces, and a new order was restored. The action of Sophocles began somewhat later than our climax. A youth had in ignorance slain his father, had married his mother; this is the premise—how this already accomplished, unholy deed, this irreparable wrong comes to light, is the play. A sister places her happiness in the hope that a young brother in a foreign land will take vengeance upon the mother for the murder of the father. How she mourns and hopes, is terrified at the false news of his death, is made happy by his arrival, and learns about the avenging deed—this is the play. Everything of misfortune, of atrocity, of the guilt, of the horrible revenge, which preceded, yes, the horrible deed itself, is represented through the reflections that fall upon the soul of a woman, the sister of the avenger, the daughter of the murderess and of the murdered man. An unfortunate prince, driven from his home, gratefully communicates to the hospitable city which receives him the secret blessing which, according to an oracle, hangs over the place of his burial. A virgin, contrary to the command of the prince, buries her brother, who lies slain on the field; she is therefore sentenced to death, and involves the son and the wife of the inexorable judge with herself in destruction. To a wandering hero, there is sent into the foreign land, by his wife who has heard of his infidelity, and wishes to regain his love, a magic garment which consumes his body; on account of her grief at this, the wife kills herself and has her body burned.15 A hero, who through a mad delusion has slain a captured herd instead of the abhorred princes of his people, kills himself for shame; but his associates achieve for him an honorable burial. A hero, who on account of an obstinate disease of his army, is left exposed on an uninhabited island, is brought back, because an oracle, through those who hated him and banished him, has demanded his return as a means of restoring health to the army. What precedes the play is always a great part of what we must include in the action.16
But if from the seven plays of Sophocles which have been preserved, it is allowable to pass a guarded judgment on a hundred lost plays, this treatment of myths does not seem universal among the Greeks, but seems to distinguish Sophocles. We recognize distinctly that Æschylus in his trilogies considered longer portions of the legends—the wrong, the complication, the adjustment. Euripides sometimes exceeded the definite end piece of the legend, or with more convenience than art, announced what had preceded, in an epic prologue. In both of his best pieces, Hyppolitus and Medea, the action is built on premises, which would also have been possible in newer pieces.
This order of the action in Sophocles allowed not only the greatest excitement of passionate feeling, but also a firm connection of characters; but it excluded numerous inner changes, which are indispensable to our plays. How these monstrous premises affected the heroes, he could represent with a mastery now unattainable; but there were given most unusual circumstances, through which the heroes were influenced. The secret and ecstatic struggles of the inner man, which impel from a comparative quiet, to passion and deed, despair and the stings of conscience, and again the violent changes which are produced in the sentiment and character of the hero himself through an awful deed, the stage of Sophocles did not allow to be represented. How any one gradually learned something fearful little by little, how any one conducted himself after reaching a momentous conclusion, this invited picturing; but how he struggled with the conclusion, how the terrible calamity that pressed upon him, was prepared by his own doings,—this, it appears, was not dramatic for the stage of Sophocles. Euripides is more flexible in this, and more similar to us; but in the eyes of his contemporaries, this was no unconditional excellence. One of the most finished characters of our drama is Macbeth; yet it may be well said, to the Athenians before the stage he would have been thoroughly intolerable, weak, unheroic; what appears to us most human in him, and what we admire as the greatest art of the poet, his powerful conflict with himself over the awful deed, his despair, his remorse,—this would not have been allowed to the tragic hero of the Greeks. The Greeks were very sensitive to vacillations of the will; the greatness of their heroes consisted, before all, in firmness. The first actor would scarcely have represented a character who would allow himself in any matter of consequence, to be influenced by another character in the piece. Every mental disturbance of the leading persons, even in subordinate matters, must be carefully accounted for and excused. Œdipus hesitates about seeing his son; Theseus makes all his representations of obstinacy in vain; Antigone must first explain to the audience; to listen is not to yield.
—If Philoctetes had yielded to the reasonable arguing of the second player, he would have fallen greatly in the regard of the audience; he would have been no longer the strong hero. To be sure, Neoptolemus changes his relation to Philoctetes, and the audience was extremely heated over it; that he did so, however, was only a return to his own proper character, and he was only second player. We are inclined to consider Creon in Antigone as a grateful part; to the Greeks he was only a role of third rank; to this character, the justification of pathos was entirely wanting. Just the trait that makes him appeal to us, his being convulsed and entirely unstrung by Tiresias,—that artifice of the poet to bring a new suspense into the action—this lessened to the Greeks the interest in the character. And that the same trait in the family and in the play comes out once more, that Hæmon, too, will kill his father only after the messenger’s announcement, but then kills himself—for us a very characteristic and human trait—Attic criticism seems to have established as a reproach against the poet, who brought forward such undignified instability twice in one tragedy. If ever the conversion of one character to the point of view of another is accomplished, it does not occur—except in the catastrophe of Ajax—during the scene in which the parties fight each other with long or short series of lines; but the change is laid behind the scenes; the convert comes entirely altered, into his new situation.
The struggle of the Greek hero was egotistic; his purpose ended with his life. The position of the Germanic hero, with reference to his destiny, is therefore, very different, because to him the purpose of his existence, the moral import, his ideal consciousness, reaches far out beyond his individual life, love, honor, patriotism. The spectators bring with them to the Germanic play, the notion that the heroes of the stage are not there entirely for their own sake, not even specially for their own sake, but that just they, with their power of free self-direction, must serve higher purposes, let the higher which stands above them be conceived as Providence, as the laws of nature, as the body politic, as the state. The annihilation of their life is not ruin, in the same sense as in the ancient tragedy. In Œdipus at Colonos, the greatness of the import took a strong hold upon the Athenians; they felt here forcibly the humanity of a life which, beyond mere existence, and indeed by its death, rendered a high service to the universal existence. From this, too, arises the great closing effect of The Furies. Here the sufferings and fate of the individual are used as blessings to the universal. That the greatest unfortunates of the legend—Œdipus and Orestes—pay so terrible a penance for their crime, appeared to the Greeks as a new and sublime dignifying of man upon the stage, not foreign to their life, but to their art. The undramatic climax of pity, produced by practical closing results, however useful to home and country, leaves us moderns unmoved. But it is always instructive to note that the two greatest dramatists of the Hellenes once raised their heroes to the same theory of life in which we are accustomed to breathe and to see the heroes of our stage.
How Sophocles fashioned his characters and his situations under such constraint is remarkable. His feeling for contrasts worked with the force of a power of nature, to which he himself could not afford resistance. Notice the malicious hardness of Athene, in Ajax. It is called out by contrast with the humanity of Odysseus, and shows the needed contrast in color with an unscrupulous sharpness, whereby naturally the goddess comes short of herself, because she will sagaciously illuminate with her divinity the shadowing of her nature, which is like Menelaus’s. The same piece gives in every scene a good insight into the manner of his creation, which is so spontaneous, and withal so powerful in effects, so carelessly sovereign, that we easily understand how the Greeks found in it something divine. Everywhere here, one mood summons another, one character another, exact, pure, certain; each color, each melody, forces forward another corresponding to it. The climax of the piece is the frame of mind of Ajax after the awakening. How nobly and humanly the poet feels the nature of the man under the adventurous presuppositions of the piece! The warm-hearted, honest, hot-headed hero, the ennobled Berlichingen of the Greek army, had been several times churlish toward the gods; then misfortune came upon him. The convulsing despair of a magnificent nature, which is broken by disgrace and shame, the touching concealment of his determination to die, and the restrained pathos of a warrior, who by voluntary choice performs his last act,—these were the three movements in the character of the first hero which gave the poet the three great scenes, and the requirements for the entire piece. First, as contrast with the prologue, the picture of Ajax himself. Here he is still a monster, stupid as if half asleep. He is the complete opposite of the awakened Ajax, immediately the embodiment of shrewdness. The situation was as ridiculous on the stage as it was dismal; the poet guarded himself, indeed, from wishing to make anything different out of it. Both counter-players must accommodate themselves to the depressing constraint. Odysseus receives a slight tinge of this ridiculous element, and Athene receives the cold, scornful hardness. It is exactly the right color, which was needed by what was being represented, a contrast developed with unscrupulous severity, created, not by cold calculation, not through unconscious feeling, but as a great poet creates, with a certain natural necessity, yet with perfect, free consciousness.
In the same dependence upon the chief heroes, the collective roles are fashioned, according to the conditions under which the Greek composed for each of the three actors; associate player, accessory player, counter-player. In Ajax for instance, there was the “other self” of Ajax, the true, dutiful brother Teucros; then, there were the second roles, his wife, the booty of his spear, Tecmessa, loving, anxious, well knowing, however, how to oppose the hero; and there was his friendly rival, Odysseus; finally, the enemies, again three degrees of hate; the goddess, the hostile partisan, and his more prudent brother, whose hatred was under control out of regard for policy. When, in the last scene, the counter-player and the hostile friend of the hero were reconciled at the grave, from the compact which they made, the Athenian would recognize very distinctly the opposite of the opening scene, where the same voices had taken sides against the madman.
Within the individual characters of Sophocles, also, the unusual purity and power of his feeling for harmony, and the same creation in contrasts, are admirable. He perceived here surely and with no mistake, what could be effective in them, and what was not allowable. The heroes of the epic and of the legend, resist violently, being changed into dramatic characters: they brook only a certain measure of inner life and human freedom; whoever will endow them with more, from him they snatch away and tear into shreds the loose web of their myths—barbarous on the stage. The wise poet of the Greeks recognizes very well the inward hardness and untamableness of the forms which he must transform into characters. Therefore, he takes as little as possible from the legend itself into the drama. He finds, however, a very simple and comprehensible outline of its essential characteristic as his action needs it, and he always makes the best of this one peculiarity of character, with peculiar strictness and logical congruity. This determining trait is always one impelling toward a deed: pride, hate, connubial sense of duty, official zeal. And the poet conducts his characters in no way like a mild commander; he exacts from them according to their disposition, what is boldest, and most extreme; he is so insatiably hard and pitiless, that to us weaker beings, a feeling of real horror comes, on account of the fearful one-sidedness into which he has them plunge; and that even the Athenians compared such effects to the loosing of bloodhounds. The defiant sisterly love of Antigone, the mortally wounded pride of Ajax, the exasperation of the tormented Philoctetes, the hatred of Electra, are forced out in austere and progressive intensity, and placed in the deadly conflict.
But over against this groundwork of the characters, he perceives again with marvellous beauty and certainty just the corresponding gentle and friendly quality which is possible to his characters, with their peculiar harshness. Again, this contrast appears in his heroes, with the power of the required complementary color; and this second and opposite quality of his persons—almost always the gentle, cordial, touching side of their nature, love opposed to hate, fidelity to friends opposed to treachery, honest candor against sheer irascibility—is almost always adorned with the most beautiful poetry, the most delicate brilliancy of color. Ajax, who would have slain his foes in mad hatred, displays an unusual strength of family affection, true-hearted, deep, intense love toward his companions, toward the distant brother, toward the child, toward his wife; Electra, who almost lives upon her hatred of her mother, clings with the gentlest expressions of tenderness about the neck of her longed-for brother. The tortured Philoctetes, crying out in pain and anguish, demanding the sword that he may hew asunder his own joints, looks up, helpless, grateful, and resigned, to the benevolent youth who can behold the odious suffering and give no expression to his horror. Only the chief characters exhibit this unfolding of their powerfully conceived unity, in two opposite directions; the accessory persons, as a rule show only the required supplementary colors; Creon thrice, Odysseus twice, both in each of their pieces differently shaded off, Ismene, Theseus, Orestes.
Such a uniting of two contrast colors in one chief character was possible to the Greek only because he was a great poet and student of human nature; that is, because his creative soul perceived distinctly the deepest roots of a human existence, from which these two opposite leaves of his characters grew. And this exact observation of the germ of every human life is the highest prerogative of the poet, which causes the simple bringing out of two opposite colors in character to produce the beautiful appearance of wealth, of fulness [sic], of symmetry. It is an enchanting illusion, in which he knows how to place his hearers; it gives his pictures exactly the kind of life which has been possible in his material on the stage. With us, the characters of the great poets show much more artistic fashioning than those ancient ones, which grew up so simply, leaf opposite to leaf, from the root; Hamlet, Faust, Romeo, Wallenstein, cannot be traced back to so simple an original form. And they are, of course, the evidence of a higher degree of development of humanity. But on this account, the figures of Sophocles are not at all less admirable and enchanting. For he knows how to design them with simplicity, but with a nobility of sentiment, and fashion them in a beauty and grandeur of outline that excited astonishment even in ancient times. Nowhere are loftiness and power wanting in either chief characters or accessory characters; everywhere is seen from their bearing, the insight and unrestrained master-power of a great poet nature.
Æschylus embodied in the characters of the stage a single characteristic feature, which made their individuality intelligible; in Prometheus, Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, Sophocles intensified his great roles, while he attributed to them two apparently contradictory qualities, which were in reality requisite and supplementary; when Euripides went further, and created pictures imitating reality, which were like living beings, the threads of the old material flew asunder, and curled up like the dyed cloth of Deianeira in the sunlight.
This same joyousness, and the sure perception of contrasts, allowed the poet, Sophocles, also to overcome the difficulty which his choice of fables prepared for him. The numerous and monstrous premises of his plot seemed peculiarly unfavorable to a powerful action proceeding from the hero himself. In the last hours of its calamity, it appears, the heroes are almost always suffering, not freely acting. But the greater the pressure the poet lays upon them from without, so much higher the power becomes with which they battle against it. Whatever already in the first ascending half of the piece, fate or a strange power works against the hero, he does not appear as receiving it, but as thrusting his whole being emphatically against it. He is, in truth, impelled; but he appears in a distinctive manner to be the impelling force; thus ªdipus, Electra, even Philoctetes, taken together, are efficient natures, which rage, impel, advance. If any one ever stood in a position of defence dangerous to a play, it was poor King Œdipus. Let it be observed how Sophocles represents him, as far as the climax, fighting in increasing excitement, against opposition; the more dismal his cause becomes to himself, so much the more violently does he beat against his environment.
These are some of the conditions under which the poet created his action. If the plays of Sophocles together with the chorus, claimed about the same time as our plays, on the average, require, yet the action is much shorter than ours. For aside from the chorus, and from the lyric and epic parts inserted, the whole design of the scenes is greater and, on the whole, broader. The action, according to our way of presenting, would scarcely occupy half an evening. The transitions from scene to scene are short, but accurately motived; entrance and exit of new roles are explained, little connecting parts between elaborate scenes are infrequent. The number of divisions was not uniform; only in the later time of the ancient tragedy was the division into five acts established. The different parts of the action were separated by choral songs. Every one of such parts,—as a rule, corresponding to our finished scene—was distinguished from the one preceding it, by its meaning, but not so sharply as our acts. It appears, almost, that the single pieces of the day—not the parts of a piece—were separated by a curtain drawn across the stage. Indeed, the tableau in the beginning of Œdipus may be explained otherwise; but since the decoration of Sophocles already plays a part in the piece—and he was as fond of referring to this as Æschylus was to his chariot and flying machine—its fastenings must have been taken from the view of the spectator before the beginning of a new piece.
Another characteristic of Sophocles, so far as it is recognizable to us, lies in the symmetrical proportions of his piece.
The introduction and the conclusion of the old drama were set off from the rest of the structure, much more markedly than at present. The introduction was called the prologue; embraced one appearance or more of the solo-players, before the first entrance of the chorus; contained all the essentials of the exposition; and was separated by a choral song from the rising action. The conclusion, exodus, likewise separated from the falling action by a choral song, was composed of scene-groups, carefully worked out, and included the part of the action which we moderns call the catastrophe. In Sophocles, the prologue is, in all the plays preserved, an artfully constructed dialogue scene, with a not insignificant movement, in which two, sometimes all three, actors appear and show their relation to each other. It contains, first, the general premises of the piece, and second, what appears to be peculiar to Sophocles, a specially impressive introduction of the exciting force which shall impel the action, after the choral song.
The first choral song follows the prologue; after this comes the action with the entrance of the first excitement. From here the action rises in two or more stages to the climax. There are in Sophocles, sometimes, very fine motives, insignificant in themselves, which occasion this ascent. The summit of the action arises mightily; for bringing out this moment, the poet uses all the splendor of color, and all the sublimest poetic fervor. And when the action allows of a broad turn, the scene of this turn, revolution, or recognition, follows not suddenly and unexpectedly, but with fine transition, and always in artistic finish. From here, the action plunges swiftly to the end, only occasionally, before the exodus, a slight pause, or level, is arranged. The catastrophe itself is composed like a peculiar action; it consists not of a single scene, but of a group of scenes,—the brilliant messenger part, the dramatic action, and sometimes lyric pathos scenes, lie in it, connected by slight transition scenes. The catastrophe has not the same power, in all the plays, nor is it treated with effects of progressive intensity. The relation of the piece to the others of the same day may, also, have controlled the work of the conclusion.
The play of Antigone contains—besides prologue and catastrophe—five parts, of which the first three form the rising movement; the fourth, the climax; the fifth, the return. Each of these parts, separated from the others by a choral song, embraces a scene of two divisions. The idea of the piece is as follows: A maiden, who contrary to the command of the king, buries her brother, slain in a battle against his native city, is sentenced to death by the king. The king, on this account, loses his son and his consort, by self-inflicted death. In a dialogue scene, which affords a contrast between the heroine and her friendly helpers, the prologue explains the basis of the action, and makes an exposition of the exciting force,—the resolution of Antigone to bury her brother. The first step of the ascent is, after the introduction of Creon, the message that Polynices is secretly buried, the wrath of Creon, and his command to find the perpetrator of the deed. The second step is the introduction of Antigone, who has been seized, the expression of her resistance to Creon, and the intrusion of Ismene, who declares that she is an accomplice of Antigone and will die with her. The third step is the entreaty of Hæmon, and when Creon remains inexorable, the despair of the lover. The messenger scene has been followed so far by dialogue scenes, continually increasing in excitement. The pathos scene of Antigone, song and recitation, forms the climax. This is followed by Creon’s command to lead her away to death. From this point the action falls rapidly. The prophet, Tiresias, announces calamity awaiting Creon, and punishes his obstinacy. Creon is softened, and gives orders that Antigone be released from the burial vault where she is imprisoned. And now begins the catastrophe, in a great scene-group; announcement by messenger of Antigone’s death, and Hæmon’s, the despairing departure of Eurydice, the lament of Creon, another message, announcing the death of Eurydice, and the concluding lament of Creon. The continuance of Antigone herself is the seer, Tiresias, and the messenger of the catastrophe; the friendly accessory players are Ismene and Hæmon; the counter-player, with less power and with no pathos, is Creon. Eurydice is only an assisting role.
The most artistic play of Sophocles is King Œdipus. It possesses all the fine inventions of the Attic drama, besides variations in songs and chorus, revolution scene, recognition scene, pathos scene, finished announcement of the messenger at the close. The action is governed by the counter-play, has a short ascent, comparatively weak climax, and a long descent. The prologue brings out all three actors, and announces, besides the presupposed conditions, Thebes under Œdipus during a plague, the exciting force, an oracular utterance,—that Laius’s murder shall be avenged, and with this the city shall be delivered from the pestilence. From here the action rises by two steps. First, Tiresias, called by Œdipus, hesitates to interpret the oracle; rendered suspicious by the violent Œdipus, he hints in ambiguous, enigmatical terms, at the mysterious murderer, and departs in wrath. Second step, strife of Œdipus with Creon, separated by Jocasta. After this, climax; interview of Œdipus and Jocasta. Jocasta'=’s account of the death of Laius, and Œdipus’s words, “O woman, how, at your words, a sudden terror seizes me!” are the highest point of the action. Up to this passage, Œdipus has summoned up a violent resistance to the crowding conjectures; although he has been gradually growing anxious, now the feeling of an infinite danger falls upon his soul. His role is the conflict between defiant self-consciousness and unfathomable self-contempt; in this place the first ends, the second begins. From here the action goes again in two steps downward, with magnificent execution; the suspense is increased by the counterplay of Jocasta; for what gives her the fearful certainty once more deceives Œdipus; the effects of the recognitions are here masterfully treated. The catastrophe has three divisions, messenger scene, pathos scene, closing with a soft and reconciling note.
On the other hand, Electra has a very simple construction. It consists—besides prologue and catastrophe—of two stages of the ascent and two of the fall; of these, the two standing nearest the climax are united with this into a great scene-group, which makes specially conspicuous the middle point of the play. The play contains not only the strongest dramatic effect which we have received from Sophocles, but it is also, for other reasons, very instructive, because in comparing it with the Libation Pourers of Æschylus and the Electra of Euripides, which treat the same material, we recognize distinctly how the poets prepared for themselves, one after another, the celebrated legend. In Sophocles, Orestes, the central point of two pieces in Æschylus’s trilogy, is treated entirely as an accessory figure; he performs the monstrous deed of vengeance by command of and as the tool of Apollo, deliberate, composed, with no trace of doubt or vacillation, like a warrior who has set out upon a dangerous undertaking; and only the catastrophe represents this chief part of the old subject dramatically. What the piece presents is the mental perturbations of an extremely energetic and magnificent female character, but shaped for the requirements of the stage in a most striking manner, by changes in feeling, through will and deed. In the prologue, Orestes and his warden give the introduction and the exposition of the exciting force (arrival of the avengers), which works at first in the action as a dream and presentiment of Clytemnestra. The first stage of the rising action follows this: Electra receives from Chrysothemis the news that she, the ever-complaining one, will be put into prison; she persuades Chrysothemis not to pour upon the grave of the murdered father the expiating libation which the mother has sent. Second stage: Conflict of Electra and Clytemnestra, then climax; the warden brings the false report of the death of Orestes; different effect of this news on the two women; pathos scene of Electra added to this, the first step of the return. Chrysothemis returns joyfully from her father’s grave, announces that she found a strange lock of hair, as a pious benediction there; a friend must be near. Electra no longer believes the good news, challenges the sister to unite with herself and kill Ægisthos, rages against the resisting Chrysothemis, and resolves to perform the deed alone. Second stage: Orestes as a stranger, with the urn containing Orestes’s ashes; mourning of Electra, and recognition scene of enrapturing beauty. The exodus contains the representation of the avenging deed, first in the fearful mental convulsions of Electra, then the entrance of Ægisthos and his death.
What is contained in Œdipus at Colonus appears, if one considers the idea of the piece, extremely unfavorable for dramatic treatment. That an old man, wandering about the country, should bestow the blessing which, according to an oracle, was to hang over his grave, not upon his ungrateful native city, but upon hospitable strangers—such a subject seems to the casual patriotic feeling of an audience, rather offensive. And yet Sophocles has understood how to charge even this with suspense, progressive elevation, passionate strife between hatred and love. But the piece has a peculiarity of construction. The prologue is expanded into a greater whole, which in its extreme compass corresponds to the catastrophe; it consists of two parts, each composed of three little scenes, connected by a pathetic moment of alternating song between the solo players and the chorus, which enters at this unusually early point. The first part of the prologue contains the exposition, the second scene the exciting force—the news which Ismene brings the venerable Œdipus, that he is pursued by those of his native city, Thebes. From here the action rises through a single stage—Theseus, lord of the land, appears, offers his protection—to the climax, a great conflict scene with powerful movement. Creon enters, drags away the daughters by force, threatening Œdipus himself with violence, in order that he shall return home; but Theseus maintains his protecting power and sends Creon away. Hereupon follows the return action, in two stages: The daughters, rescued by Theseus, are brought back to the old man; Polynices, for his own selfish ends, entreats reconciliation with his father, and his father’s return. Œdipus dismisses him unreconciled; Antigone expresses in touching words the fidelity of a .sister. Then follows the catastrophe; the mysterious snatching away of Œdipus, a short oration scene and chorus, then grand messenger scene and concluding song. By the expansion of the prologue and the catastrophe, this piece becomes about three hundred lines longer than the other plays of this writer. The freer treatment of the permanent scene-forms, like the contents of the play, lets us perceive what we also know from old accounts, that this tragedy was one of the last works of the venerable poet.
Perhaps the earliest of the plays of Sophocles which have come down to us is The Trachinian Women. Here, too, is something striking in construction. The prologue contains only the introduction, anxiety of the wife, Deianeira, for Hercules remaining far away from home, and the sending of the son, Hyllos, to seek the father. The exciting force lies in the piece itself, and forms the first half of the rising action, of two parts: first, arrival of Hercules; second, Deianeira’s discovery that the female captive slave whom her husband had sent in advance, was his mistress. Climax: In her honest heart, Deianeira resolves to send to the beloved man a love-charm which a foe whom he had slain had left her. She delivers the magic garment to the care of a herald. The falling action, in a single stage, announces her anxiety and regret at sending the garment; she has learned by an experiment that there is something unearthly in the magic. The returning son tells her in heartless words, that the present has brought upon the husband a fatal illness. Here follows the catastrophe, also in two parts; first, a messenger scene which announces the death of Deianeira; then Hercules himself, the chief hero of the piece, is brought forward, suffering mortal pain, as after a great pathos scene, he demands of his son the burning of his body on Mount Œta.
The tragedy, Ajax, contains after the prologue in three parts, a rising movement in three stages; first, the lament and family affection of Ajax,—and his determination to die; then the veiling of his plan, out of regard for the sadness which it would cause his friends; finally, without our perceiving a change of scene, an announcement by messenger, that to-day Ajax will not come out of his tent, and the departure of his wife and the chorus to seek the absent hero. Hereupon follows the climax—the pathos scene of Ajax and his suicide, especially distinguished by this, that the chorus has previously left the orchestra, so that the scene presents the character of a monologue. Now comes the return action in three parts; first, the discovery of the dead man, lament of Tecmessa and of Teucros, who now enters; then the conflict between Teucros and Menelaus, who will forbid the burial. The catastrophe at last, an intensifying of this strife in a dialogue scene between Teucros and Agamemnon, the mediation of Odysseus, and the reconciliation.
Philoctetes is noticeable for its particularly regular form; the action rises and falls in beautiful proportion. After a dialogue scene between Odysseus and Neoptolemus in the prologue has made clear the premises and the exciting force, the first part follows, the ascent, in a group of three connected scenes; after this come the climax and the tragic force in two scenes, of which the first is a two-part pathos scene splendidly finished; then the third, the return action, corresponding exactly to the first, again in a group of three connected scenes. Just as perfectly, the choruses correspond to each other. The first song is an alternating song between the second actor and the chorus; the third, just such an alternating song between the first actor and the chorus. Only in the middle stands a full choral song. The resolution of the chorus into a dramatically excited play in concert—not only in Philoctetes but in Œdipus—is not an accident. It may be concluded from the firm command of form, and the masterly conduct of the scenes, that this drama belongs to the later time of Sophocles.17
Here, also, the first actor, Philoctetes, has the pathetic role. His violent agitation, represented with marvellous beauty and in rich detail, goes through a wide circle of moods, and arises in the climax, the great pathos scene of the play, with soul-convulsing power. The circumstance of horrible physical suffering, so important to the drama, and immediately following, soul-devouring mental anguish, have never been delineated so boldly and so magnificently. But the honest, embittered, obstinate man affords no opportunity to the action itself for dramatic movement. This, therefore, is placed in the soul of the second actor, and Neoptolemus is leader of the action. After he has, in the prologue, not without reluctance, acceded to the wily counsels of Odysseus, he attempts in the first part of the action to lead Philoctetes forward by deception. Philoctetes confidently leans for support upon him as the helper who promises to bring him into his own land; and he delivers to this helper the sacred bow. But the sight of the sick man’s severe sufferings, the touching gratitude of Philoctetes for the humanity which is shown him, arouse the nobler feelings of the son of Achilles; and with an inward struggle, he confesses to the sick man his purpose of taking him with his bow to the Greek army. The reproaches of the disappointed Philoctetes increase the other’s remorse, and his excitement is still further augmented when Odysseus, hastening by, has Philoctetes seized by violence. At the beginning of the catastrophe, the honesty of Neoptolemus is in strife against Odysseus himself; he gives back to Philoctetes the deadly bow, summons him once more to follow to the army; and, as Philoctetes refuses, promises him once more what he falsely promised at the beginning of the play; now his achievement must be to defy the hatred of the whole Greek army, and lead the suffering man and his ship home. Thus, through the transformations in the character of the hero who directs the action, this is concluded dramatically, but in direct opposition to the popular tradition; and in order to bring the unchanging material of the piece into harmony with the dramatic life of the play, Sophocles has seized upon a device which is nowhere else found in his plays; he has the image of Hercules appear in the closing scene and unsettle the resolution of Philoctetes. This conclusion, according to our sense of fitness, an excrescence, is still instructive in two directions: it shows how even Sophocles was restricted by the epic rigor of a traditional myth, and how his high talent struggled against dangers upon which, shortly after his time, the old tragedy was to be wrecked. Further, he gives us instruction concerning the means by which a wise poet might overcome the disadvantage of an apparition out of keeping, not with our feeling, but with the sensibility of his spectators. He pacified his artistic conscience first of all by previously concluding the inner dramatic movement entirely. So far as the piece plays between Neoptolemus and Philoctetes, it is at an end. After a violent conflict, the two heroes have nobly come to a mutual agreement. But they have arrived at a point against which both the oracle and the advantage of the Grecian army offer objections. The third actor, the wily, unscrupulous statesman, Odysseus, now represents the highest interest. With the fondness which Sophocles also elsewhere shows for even his third man, he has here specially dignified that personage. After the counter-player has in the prologue agreeably expressed the well-known character of Odysseus, the latter appears immediately in a disguise in which the spectator not only knows in advance that the strange figure is a shrewd invention of Odysseus, but also recognizes the voice of Odysseus and his sly behavior. Three times more he appears as Odysseus in the action, in order to point to the necessity of the seizure as an advantage of the whole; his opposition becomes continually bolder and more emphatic. At last, in the catastrophe, shortly before the divine hero becomes visible on high, the warning voice of Odysseus rings out; his form, apparently protected by the rock, appears in order once more to express opposition; and this time his threatening cry is sharp and conscious of victory. When, only a short time afterwards, perhaps above the same spot where Odysseus’s figure was seen for a moment, the transfigured form of Hercules is visible, and again with the voice of the third actor, makes the same demand in a mild and reconciling tone, Hercules himself appears to the spectator as an intensifying of Odysseus; and in this last repetition of the same command, the spectator perceived nothing new entering from without; but rather he perceived more vividly the irresistible power of the keen human intelligence which had struggled through the entire play against the impassioned confusion of the other actor. The prudence and calculation of this intensification, the spiritual unity of the three roles of the third actor, were confidently believed by the audience to be a beauty of the piece.