The Greek Play at Harvard

FEW persons were present at the first performance of the King Œdipus at Sanders Theatre who did not feel before the play was out that the occasion was of no trivial significance. Most of the audience had come out of natural curiosity to witness an unusual spectacle, with no very definite ideas as to what they were to see, or how far, except for its being in an ancient language, the performance would differ from an ordinary dramatic entertainment. They anticipated an evening’s amusement, but were prepared to experience some weariness from the scholastic character of the exhibition ; and they were inclined to judge kindly the short-comings of youthful actors, unfamiliar with the stage. Others had come with strong personal sympathies with the players and the promoters of the play, hopeful but doubtful of the effect upon spectators less immediately concerned. The bustle of lively and uncertain expectation was hushed by the first notes of the preluding music, and the entrance of the white-robed suppliants, in slow and stately procession, at once fixed all eyes and raised the level of expectation. The key-note of the performance was happily struck. From that moment curiosity and sympathy gave way to interest, — interest that never flagged, but went on steadily increasing to a degree of intensity rarely experienced in any theatre. The whole assemblage was filled with a common emotion, and as the play reached its climax and drew to its close the audience no longer was concerned with the foreign language and the remote associations of the piece, no longer was occupied by personal considerations of actors and properties, but was stirred to its heart by the fortunes and the fall of King Œdipus. Sophocles had a great triumph. The power of Greek tragedy asserted itself with undeniable supremacy.

Nor did the impression pass away with the scene. Reflection confirmed the witness of emotion. The cool judgment of the critic was that the presentation of the play had been of exceptional excellence. The actors had not only mastered the difficulties of the language of their parts, but had, without exception, shown unusual ability in the rendering of the characters of the drama. The music had been strikingly original and effective. Acting and music had combined in a unique and admirable achievement.

The unity and depth of effect of the performance were the more remarkable because, though the play was ancient, the method of presentation of it was essentially modern. It would have been as vain to expect that young American students could so inspire themselves with the Athenian spirit that they could represent the passions of Jocasta and of Œdipus and the other personages of the play with the self-restraint, the loftiness, and the gravity of classic art, as that the audience should gather to witness the drama in the temper and mood of those who filled the benches of the theatre of Dionysus, to be moved by the presentment of the instability of human fortune and of the awful inexorableness of the moral law. To actors and audience the play could not mean what it meant to those for whom it was written. The spirit of the age is the most absolute condition of the arts. In one of his Discourses Sir Joshua Reynolds repeats an observation of Dr. Johnson’s on Pope’s translation of Homer which is much to the point: “ When it was incidentally remarked that our translation of Homer, however excellent, did not convey the character, nor had the grand air of the original, Johnson replied that if Pope had not clothed the naked majesty of Homer with the graces and elegancies of modern fashions, though the real dignity of Homer was degraded by such a dress, his translation would not have met with such a favorable reception, and he must have been contented with fewer readers.” The general taste has doubtless changed for the better in some respects since Johnson’s day or Pope’s, but it may well be questioned whether the “ naked majesty ” of Sophocles would have approved itself so distinctly to the audience at the Harvard play as that majesty did robed in the “ graces and elegancies ” of the modern and romantic stage. The Greek exhibition of passion, as we learn from the works of plastic art, and as we gather from the criticisms of Plato and of Aristotle, was as intense as our own, but there was less self-assertion and less sentimentalism in its display. It had the dignity and reserved force of imaginative and poetic idealism, as compared with the sympathetic and appealing realism of our modern dramatic art.

Happily the promoters of the play had from the beginning accepted frankly the conditions under which it was to be produced. There was no attempt to secure an archæological correctness that could not with the best efforts be attained. It was the play only, not the mode of its presentation, that was classic. The dresses of the actors, indeed, were copied in all but color from ancient models, and the painted scene professed to represent the front of a Greek palace ; but the music to which the choruses were set was rather of the music of the future than of the past, and was as modern in its mode of expression and interpretation of the sentiment of the drama as the acting of the performers on the stage.

It might beforehand have been fancied that such a commingling and contrast of ancient and modern elements would result only in a series of incongruities more or less grating to the feeling of the scholar, more or less amusing to the mere uncultured play-goer. But this was not the case. The play lent itself with curious readiness to the modern stage. Sophocles seemed less archaic than Racine. The truth of the art of the tragedy gave it a real contemporaneousness that prevented any sense of incongruity, and admitted of expression in the most recent modes. The striking and noble music of the living master was appropriate to the real passion of the drama, while the spirit of the actors revealed the universal human elements in its characters. The unsurpassed dramatic form of the work, for which it was famous even among the Greeks, the superb simplicity of its artistic construction, greatly helped this effect. The advantage of the unities of the Greek drama was strikingly apparent. In spite of the unfamiliarity of the audience with the plot, the story was easily followed, and the steady progression of the incidents step by step, as in accord with the advancing step of doom, each successive action leading up, as if by ethical necessity, to the tragic climax, not merely held the attention fixed, but produced the moral impression which it was the original intention of the poet to effect. The import of the drama was recognized, and the place given to the dramatic art in the moral life of the most civilized community the world has seen was justified to all who now saw this play.

There could be no question as to the impressive nature of the lesson it conveyed. It was that lesson of retribution as the order of destiny which Plato sets forth in a noted passage : “ This is a divine justice which neither you, O young man, nor any other will glory in escaping, and which the ordaining powers have specially ordained ; take good heed of them, for a day will come when they will take heed of you. If you say, I am small and will creep into the depths of the earth, or, I am high and will fly up to heaven, you are not so small or so high but you shall pay the fitting penalty. This is also the explanation of the fate of those whom you saw who had done unholy and evil deeds and from small beginnings had become great, and you fancied that from being miserable they had become happy ; and in their actions, as in a mirror, you seemed to see the universal neglect of the gods, not knowing how they make all things work together, and contribute to the great whole.”

This is the teaching of the play. The solidarity of human interests, by virtue of which a social quality is inherent in personal conduct, so that its consequences may affect not merely the responsible agent, but even remote and personally irresponsible individuals, is a hard doctrine, but it was accepted as the true lesson of experience by the deepest thinkers of Greece, as well as by all who have considered rightly the nature of the moral order of the world. The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge, is a saying of widest application. The course of retribution is uncertain; it seems irregular and lawless; the mode of exacting penalty appears arbitrary, but that the penalty for sin is exacted to the uttermost grain is a fact that cannot be blinked. The innocent people of Thebes suffered and died because of the pollution of a sin in which they had no part. And the moral grandeur of the character of Œdipus is revealed by his instant and complete acceptance of the doom which he had pronounced unwittingly against himself for a sin of which he had unwittingly been guilty. The drama is not a vindication but an exhibition of the moral law.

The interest that was taken by the public at large in this performance shows that it was rightly recognized as being of concern to the general community as well as to the special university whose classical instructors and students had undertaken it. The production of one of the masterpieces of the Greek drama on a university stage marks the advance in recent years of intelligent and interested study of the classics. It is an indication of the growth of a conviction, strong and though not yet very widespread becoming year by year more general, that it is to classical studies pursued with right methods that we have to look as the surest correctives of certain dangerous tendencies in the direction of our intellectual life, and as the most certain means for the formation of pure taste and correct judgment, not alone in literature and art, but in modes of daily life and conduct. The ground of this conviction may be clearly stated. It consists in the fact that the Greeks are the only race which in the works of its genius, at its best time, whether works of pure literature, or of the arts that address the intelligence through the eye, embodied ultimate principles of universal application, and of authority not merely in domains of the understanding and the imagination, but in those of conduct as well. For, in the last analysis, the laws of beauty and the laws of morality not only correspond, but are coincident; and the principles which gave its perfection of form to the Parthenon, or to the History of Thucydides, were the same as those on which rested the moral character of Pericles and the civic virtue of the Athenian people in the days of Marathon and Salamis. The preëminence of Greek literature and Greek art in general was due to the sanity of the Athenian temperament, and that sanity was not a mere endowment of nature, not an exceptional bounty of fate, but the effect of long-continued obedience of the Athenian people to the law of temperance and self-control. This obedience had already failed in the time of Sophocles, but its results are manifest in his work. Euripides shows the beginning of the decline, — a decline which was to proceed with ever-hastening step to a fall even more complete than that of œdipus himself.

The success of this performance will do something to quicken the revival and increase of interest in Greek studies. Such an event as this in the annals of classical learning in this country ought to leave some permanent record. There could be no worthier commemoration of the occasion than by setting aside the proceeds of the entertainments to form the nucleus of a fund for the support of an American School of Classical Learning at Athens, for the benefit of the scholars not of Harvard alone, but of every part of the country. The Germans and the French have long had schools there, which have been fruitful in good work ; the English are proposing to establish a similar institution. If we are not to be left behind in scholarship, whether in literature, art, or archæology, we too must have such a school. It is the chief need of Greek students in America, and would do more than anything else to maintain a lively and genuine interest in Greek letters and arts.

If such a school should result from this performance, the Greek Department of Harvard, and all who have taken part in the play, will have added one more and no small claim to the gratitude of the country to the university.

Charles Eliot Norton.