The Renaissance of the Tragic Stage

STUDY of the tragic stage proceeds but a little way before the student recognizes that for two thousand years we have been but the pensioners of the great Greeks of the fifth century before Christ. The strangeness of the long supremacy of their drama is apparent. For if we assume that the function of the Greek stage was to amuse, yet in our public amusements we do not usually measure ourselves by Greek standards ; if to teach, yet the moral ideas of the world to-day are not Greek ; if the Greek drama was religious ceremony, yet the gods it honors are to us names, not powers.

It is true the writers of Greek tragedy had high genius ; but the centuries since have not lacked men of genius, and surely the human heart feels not less keenly, nor does the intellect less eagerly devise fit means of expression, now than then. Why should the Greek drama seem to be so unapproachable ? Why should critics continue to measure modern works by those which represent a faith now dead, and a civilization long since passed away ? Such questions are full of significance. If any satisfactory answer is to be given, it must be found in the Greek plays themselves. To them we turn ; and, remembering that the theme of every tragic drama, in Greece as elsewhere, must concern itself with the most serious aspect of a man’s fortunes, the aspect which shows him as missing in life that good which he would naturally most care not to miss, it remains for us to find the special view or treatment of this theme which one may consider as characteristically Greek, and which will determine the real base of the supremacy of the Greek tragedy. Once found, this base should indicate the genesis and bearing of those perfections of form so often praised and copied ; and, what is of more practical importance, it should also indicate the field of effort most hopeful for the playwright of our day.

In looking for what may be thought to be characteristically Greek in choice or treatment of tragic material, we come at once upon a notable peculiarity. The Greek play was a religious ceremony. But, it may be answered, so were the Mysteries of the Middle Ages ; and it is impossible to maintain that the association of sincere religious feeling with the drama can of itself suffice to give us great works of art. If any clue whatever lies in this direction, it must therefore be sought in some more special inspiration of the Greek stage, such as the embodiment of a particularly happy, profound, or fundamental apprehension of the religious idea. Among all possible superiorities, certainly this is the one we are least prepared to concede to the Greeks ; but, notwithstanding our reluctance to make such a concession, with the indictment of our own time it involves, there is evidence which constrains us to admit that this particular superiority did in fact belong to the Greeks, and that it may well be the ground of the lasting supremacy of the Greek drama.

That tragic art grounds itself on the deepest things in man’s heart may be readily admitted, since the basis of a man’s reflections concerning his own or his neighbor’s fortunes in life is to be found, of course, in his personal conception of the general order of the universe, although this conception is often not clearly formulated, but is vaguely apprehended, or even held unconsciously. It covers, on the one hand, a formless confidence; on the other hand, a shadowy fear of heart. These may be unnamed, yet with these alone most men in all times have lived out their lives. Some such theory of destiny, or conception of the general order of the universe, determines not only the aspect in which life appears to a man, but also his view of the possibilities and conditions of a life after death ; any view on the hereafter being but a corollary of a more far-reaching conclusion or confidence.

In our era, the most vitalized theory of destiny, if formulated, is found to be colored by the enthusiastic utterances of men who were moved by mystical and passionate exaltation of spirit. We have St. Paul’s triumphant statement of his personal outlook : “ To me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” With the echo of such words in our ears, the phrase sounds cold and halting with which a great and brave man long before met the unseen. “ I believe,” that other said, “ I believe that no evil can happen to a good man, whether he be alive or dead.” Yet, though it sound cold in our ears, a man may well face courageously either death or life in such a persuasion as this, — the ultimate persuasion of the greatest thinker of the greatest age of Greece. It affirms for the entire universe a centralized and self-consistent rule, which allows a man’s own rectitude of purpose to determine his life happily. This was the confidence of a philosopher; no such assurance of a nossible conquest of destiny can be thought of as the common possession of the Greek people. For them, the gods on Olympus, so powerful for good or evil, were capricious and irresponsible, divided in their own councils, and often hostile to mankind. The lot of man, as seen, even the lot of the good man, is checkered and uncertain, and full of unexplained evil. Of him who dies it was held that he lives on, indeed, but has exchanged the sunshine of a fair land for cold and darkness in the realms of Dis, efficiency of thought and deed for a clouded mind and shadowy wanderings. To the man whose outlook gave him so little reasonable assurance for hope, how impossible, though enviable, would have seemed such a confidence as that of Socrates : “ I believe that no evil can happen to a good man, whether he be alive or dead.”

Socrates was not yet; but just as Athens entered the centuries which were to make her renown, there suddenly rose to great popularity the cult of Dionysus, a half-forgotten faith that had nothing to do with the great gods of Olympus whose altars filled the land. Of this faith, and especially of its history before this revival of interest in it, scholars have gathered little in the way of definite facts ; yet this much may be said: the worship of Dionysus was a survival from a distant past; and when other gods, colder and saner in their ceremonies, held the cities of the newer Greek civilization, it had still lingered on in the remote country places of Greece. In its essence it was a mystical and poetic worship. It suggested far more than it asserted. When at last it was presented afresh to the notice of the Athenians, their hearts were stirred to new insight, and they found in it a revelation.

The rise of the Greek drama is one with the sudden popularity of this ancient cult of Dionysus, when its ceremonies, having been brought, as by a happy chance, to imperial Athens, were apprehended there as shadowing forth the assurance that an ultimate and benign power, behind the vicissitudes of life, behind all seeming confusion and mischance, still calmly works the ordered ways of justice and blessing. So the theory of destiny, which Socrates reached and formulated through philosophy, presented itself to the people of a former generation as a vague but poetic possibility, to which the ceremonies of the Dionysus cult seemed to lend themselves as argument, by an analogy or a metaphor.

For the amplification of the rites of Dionysus at Athens the dramas of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were written. There is no reason to suppose that their purpose was alien from that which prescribed those hidden ceremonies in honor of the same god and of Demeter at Eleusis, of which Pindar wrote : “ Blessed is he who sees these mysteries ; ... he knoweth the end of life ; he knoweth, too, its god-disposed beginning.” These “ blessed ” ones, we are told, held the clue to life, not through learning directly any new thing, but by receiving “ impressions.” These impressions, however, were such as make men “ more pious, more upright, and in every way better than their former selves ; ” though the learner “ could produce no demonstration or proof of the beliefs acquired.”

The public ceremonies of Dionysus, with a like end in view, seem ordered quite simply. Most of the old stories of valiant men long current among the Greeks drew their interest from the recitation of the fortunes of a hero who endures disaster with such nobility and resolute courage as would touch a people themselves deficient in neither. The special function assigned by the Hellenes to the religious office which we call a Greek tragedy was to cast such a light upon those familiar old stories that the evils the hero endures, however poignant and afflicting, shall yet be recognized in the end as the necessary incidents of a larger good; perhaps even themselves the testimony of a reign of order and justice in human affairs. To divine such a justification of suffering, and to apply it in the mythic stories which had grown up with no thought of any such interpretative reading, was no slight thing, but this was the task which the inspiration of the coming of Dionysus to Athens imposed on those who arranged the services in his honor.

Not only must a justification of suffering be divined by the seer-poet, but it is necessary that the story which is to be its exemplification shall be presented in such a vivid way that The Many, with the poet, may divine the great truth, — the truth which can never be fully demonstrated, but which, through the visible though delicate reiteration of story after story as enacted before the people, might be suggested as the great resolvent of all that is perplexed and sad in human life. The dramatic setting forth of a theory of destiny, if it carry conviction to the mind, will not only require the representation of the supreme and decisive moment of the hero’s experience, but must also involve his past and his future, and show his life and its outcome as a plan, a unified whole; because such is the world, as man sees it, that a benign plan working in destiny must be conceived of either as one which, involving a longer time than ever falls under one man’s cognizance, misses his grasp who of necessity can see only part, or else as a plan which has in view an end not yet recognized by man as worth all it costs.

These, then, are the initial conclusions reached. First, of the subject: the preoccupation of the Greek stage with problems of destiny arises directly and necessarily, with the drama itself, from the special significance found by the Athenians in the cult of Dionysus. Secondly, of its scope or field : the adequate setting forth of problems of destiny, such as the Greek poet proposed to himself, involves the consideration of the life of the hero as a whole. Thirdly, of its end or aim : though the story to be presented is expected to be one full of distinct calamity, yet for the audience its issue, though solemn, is not to be sad, for it is to suggest cause for trust in the final triumph of order and justice in human affairs. It is to clear the eyes, so that they may catch, dimly at least, a glimpse of light ahead, the sufficient end and consummation of suffering and striving. This induction of the soul to a vision of the end of suffering was called by Aristotle the Katharsis.

The three poets who were most renowned in the arrangement of these solemn spectacles did their work, so far as it is known to us, within the years of the life of Sophocles; yet so swift were the changes in the interpretation of the hope Dionysus brought to the Athenians that each of the three stands practically for a distinct phase of thought in regard to it. Æschylus, the first of these great seers, found his solution of the problem of evil in human life in such a plan as might lie open before a power to whom the ages of man are as yesterday. In Zeus he saw, not the Homeric god who sends storm, lightning, and thunder, but a power of everlasting righteousness, dispensing justice and vengeance, and visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.

Sophocles, the second seer, shows life upon his stage, not as a divine plan, justified by the slow resolution of events to which man’s activities but lend a foreordained instrument, but as a plan which emphasizes the immediate dependence of its issue upon character in the individual. Though the sins of the father be visited on the children, yet the suffering is shown to be very closely connected with defect of some kind in the sufferer himself. So in the story of Œdipus the reader is left in no doubt that the hero’s self-willed actions, the consequences of his pride of intellect, are far more cogent workers of unhappiness for him than was ever the curse that lay upon his house. Sophocles differs from Æschylus not only in his interpretation of the cause of suffering, but also in his view of its ordained outcome. With him pain no longer looks only backward as expiation; it also looks forward as discipline. Yet though Sophocles shows faith in some form of justification of human suffering, he still leaves the disquieting impression that the mystery of pain must, after all, remain forever unsolved. He seems to say, Man’s reason can never suffice to guide or even to interpret man’s life ; but prayer and humble faith must at last avail, and eternal and righteous order overrule all. If he reaches peace of heart, it is by less high and simple ways than Æschylus. The end or aim of a plan in life is transferred from the divine to the human need.

When Æschylus made of Zeus an unerring and holy Power, he tacitly refused to credit baseness and injustice in the divine. The nobility of such a conception of Zeus was a touchstone on which the old fables of the Olympian gods would sooner or later be tried. Many reasons withheld Sophocles from any emphasis of this point of antagonism between the old faith and the new hope. It was Euripides who faced the question inevitable after Æschylus ; but, unfortunately, he had no clear vision of the great Zeus of Æschylus, or of any certain superhuman power. The hopelessness which the chorus of Sophocles sang is the burden of the chorus of Euripides also. It is the cry of The Many. But with Euripides the action of the play has no clearer message than the chorus. The theory of destiny he has to proclaim from the stage of Dionysus is not a peace resting on the conviction of righteousness in all the ways of Zeus, as with Æschylus; nor is it a spiritual humility persuaded of the blindness of reason, and resting on obedience and prayer to overrule all for good, as with Sophocles ; but trusting in reason, convinced that the old gods are evil if they be anything, and uncertain of the new, Euripides places the hope of life in the common joy of mutual sympathy and sacrifice. This is not a theory of destiny which commends itself as inspiration. It is no more than solace. The moment stress was laid on what a man may see for himself, — that is, on reason, — the ordered view of life for which the Greeks asked their seer was no longer possible, and the hope of Dionysus was lost from the dramatic form which it had raised to high beauty. Yet Euripides does not lightly abandon hope ; he relinquishes it sadly and under compulsion. His last play, the Bacchantes, is a powerful and pathetic summing up of the arguments against any hope in a possible beneficent destiny.

Of Euripides, Aristophanes said sharply, “ ’T is well not to sit by Socrates and chatter, having neglected the most important parts of the tragic art.” Yet if it might have been that, sitting by Socrates, Euripides had found the final trust of his friend, “ No evil can happen to a good man,” the close of the glory of the drama in Greece would have been, not averted, but only delayed; for the history of this tragic stage is, in truth, the history of a hope that died for the Athenians when, not for a few philosophers or poets only, but most of all for The Many, Dionysus the deliverer faded again into the Bacchus of revelry and drunkenness.

There is every reason to believe that the difference in the theme and technique of the three dramatists of whom we have spoken is not so much the result of difference in extent of personal endowment as it is the result of difference in the inspiration of the thought of the day. Such may be also the difference between the Greek tragedy and those dramas which have succeeded it. For never since the days of Pericles have the people of a great city called their poets to set life before them in such a way that its deepest currents might be made manifest, revealing the dominion of that order in the universe which is man’s only base for a reasonable hope in life or death. If it be held that thoughtful men everywhere must always have cared so to assure their own hearts, yet in what other land or time has the desire so strongly asserted itself that the state at large held wealth and art and artist generously free for the soul’s quest ? It may indeed be held that, having once been fairly set before the world, these three theories of destiny, which have divided the kingdom of the human mind since Greek days, can never again arouse masses of men to such enthusiasm as when these thoughts of the people were first forged by the poet; and that on this account, if on no other, the stage which has in later days revived one or the other theme can of necessity never stand as high as the stage of Greece. It may be held that Seneca, Calderon, Corneille, Racine, are not of the greatest, because they record no modification of the thought of man on the profoundest interests of life ; that in Shakespeare and Goethe the hand of the Reformation touched the theme of Sophocles to new interest, but that neither in Faust nor in Macbeth does the audience receive the illumination of life which we call inspiration. It may be held, again, that the theme of Euripides, the theory of destiny which sees chance as ruling, and human courage and tenderness as the uttermost hope of life, has afforded the theme of a thousand tragedies, but that in no other do we find it energized by such passion in its renunciation of a better hope, in none deepened by such full comprehension of its own limitations, as in Euripides.

Reviewing these things, on what ground may we hope that we have indeed, as men say, come to the dawn of a tragic renaissance ?

It is reasonable to believe that the form of living expression called the drama, having had its birth in the need for an interpretation of life not to be demonstrated or adequately presented in abstract formulas, must be advanced beyond Greek achievement, if advance be possible, upon its own proper ground or soil. To speak of this ground or soil as religious is to indicate but vaguely its confines. If by religious drama we mean, not pious, orthodox, or ecclesiastical plays, but such as are concerned adequately to set forth some fundamental interpretation of human life, then it is not too much to say that if there is to be a great renaissance of the stage we shall see a religious drama. But the Greek followed to its end every line of interpretation he knew. The stage awaits one that throws clearer light upon man’s way ; that over mischance and mistake, sore trial and final-seeming catastrophe, will mark the good prevail, and lead the soul to the vision of ultimate peace.

Has there then been given no new interpretation of life in twenty-five hundred years ? Have the Greeks indeed said the last word in this domain as elsewhere ? Must the thoughtful man count himself, with Æschylus, the tool of some unerring prescience, and await the just issue of a far event ? Or shall he, with Sophocles, in spiritual humility, with prayer and patience, look to the keeping of his own heart ? Or, barring these alternatives, is he driven, with Euripides, to say, Chance rules; the day is short and sad ; let us be gentle with each other ?

Within the centuries since these men wrote lie the thirty-three years of the human life that has set the sign of the cross upon our churches, upon our foreheads, and haply upon our hearts. Has that life brought to our understanding no new interpretation of life ? Are the voices we hear in this year of our Lord 1901 still echoing the themes of the Greek tragedy, the impulse of the ceremonies of the cult of Dionysus ?

A fairer hope has, in truth, been proclaimed to man than the hope Dionysus gave, and it has found occasional literary expression, as in the poems of Robert Browning; but it has never yet swept away the people with the great longing that could call for its most vivid and convincing presentation. It is that view and interpretation of this world which, even in the face of life’s uttermost calamity, accounts a mortal blessed, not in some far at last, but here and now, first as last, if he be numbered with those who pass through the world in the preoccupation of a higher beauty or hope than the world has seen. That the world may be well lost for the unworldly can never be demonstrated to the reason; but the power of the drama resides, not in demonstration, but in suggestion. This is its own old field. This is the office for which it was created. This is the impulse that fashioned its perfections of form among the Greeks. And though centuries lie between, a day may yet come when a new Athens shall carry further the soul’s quest of the old Hellenes ; and, seeking, shall find for the world that here lies the bud and promise of a new and greater tragic stage, through the working out and exemplification of another and a true Katharsis.

Martha Anstice Harris.