Obrázky stránek
[ocr errors][merged small][merged small]

I CONCEIVE that in the subject proposed, the comparison is not so much between two poets as between two systems. Had Æschylus been put in opposition to Sophocles, it would have been for us to have decided, as those judges would have done who, in ancient times at the feast of Bacchus, weighed the merits of the contending bards, and adjudged the ivy-wreath. Or had Webster's Duchess of Amalfi been brought into comparison with King Lear, the question would still have been one of individual merit. But when a poem composed by the military compeer of Pericles for the applause of a generation which had seen that mighty statesman on the bema * and followed him to the fielda poem preserved in mouldy manuscripts during eighteen centuries, and rescued from an oblivion deep as the grave, at a period when the British stage was but beginning its career, is compared with a drama of the Elizabethan age, which has never been absent from the theatre, and which time has not yet antiquated, the question becomes

* The orator's platform.


immeasurably wider. We are no longer comparing Shakespeare with Sophocles, but modern art with ancient, Britain with Attica, Christianity with Paganism. Is there, then, no difference of design, of principle, of dramatic art, concealed under the superficial coincidence of a dialogical form, and a so-called tragical conclusion ? Many such differences undoubtedly there are, and that not merely in the detail or the unimportant machinery of the plot, or in the trifling discrepancies of metre and diction, but in the moral of the piece, in the conception of character, in the degree of imitation of life, in fact, in every point of moment wherein any difference could rationally be conceived to exist. And yet the Greek drama and our own are not altogether heterogeneous creations. The points of divergence are neither capricious nor unaccountable, nor is it difficult to discern a law in them; where there is not identity there is commonly analogy. These analogies and dissimilarities could scarcely be better traced and illustrated than by a parallel between two pieces, both highly characteristic of the school which shaped and of the genius which gave them birth, and both acknowledged masterpieces of their kind--the Edipus at Colonus and King Lear. To accomplish this, then, I consider the principal object of this Essay.

We are accustomed to call these two poems tragic dramas. Both words are Greek, and both words properly convey ideas indigenous to Greece.


They are of that class which an undiscerning reverence for the antique has made of universal

It is of importance that their significations should be rightly ascertained. A drama in its simplest and most comprehensive meaning signifies a fact,- not a fact narrated, but re-called, re-enacted. And the addition of the qualifying tragic superadds an idea of religion, and a reference to a divine purpose fulfilled and discerned in the fact represented. The Edipus Coloneus, therefore, as a drama of the Attic system, is the representation of an incident wherein the sequence of cause and effect, as designed and directed by Divine Wisdom, is revealed and distinctly marked. For tragedy among the Greeks was, from first to last, a religious institution. The populace assembled to behold it, not as a pastime, but as a solemn rite and mystery belonging to their Bacchic festival. And when the rude hymn of the periods antecedent to Thespis became matured, in the fulness of time, into that superb combination of the lyric and the dramatic, wherein the heterogeneous elements were arranged and united into a musical contrast by the poet's inspiration, no change passed over the sacred and solemn nature of the institution. The rights of religion in it were inalienable; and though the direct worship of Bacchus was merged in a more comprehensive spirit of devotion, which addressed the whole number of the immortals, yet that spirit of devotion lost none of its fervency,

and only declined with the drama itself. It was its Helicon.

Similar in origin, although widely different in its subsequent history, was the British drama. Invented by priests, and made subservient in the first instance to the interests of religion, it resembled, though in humbler guise and on a less ambitious scale, the pantomimic representations of the principal events of the Evangelical history, still annually exhibited at Rome during the festival of the Holy Week. But the same great event which decided the political destinies of Great Britain, determined also the course of her dramatic history. The founders of our national theatre, after the accession of Queen Elizabeth, dropped the religious character of the drama, and leaving holy things to a more appropriate sphere, established other principles and a new basis of dramatic art. The Greeks had made their tragic Muse a priestess of religion ; the English taught her to minister to their thirst for recreation and love of pastime. The former attracted auditors as suppliants to a shrine, by addressing their respect for religion and their affection for their national deities, and fascinated them by gratifying their love of moral beauty and grace; the latter addressed that fellow-feeling for and sympathy with human nature in the extremity of misfortune and peril, which leads us to hold our breath with a painful interest, while the tale goes round the Christmas fire, of murders committed in the silent night, and of the ghost that scares those who walk the churchyard after dark. The former only is the Tragic Drama, the latter is the Romance.

· Yet, although not essentially, the romance is often accidentally tragic. For if the principle of tragedy consist, as we have said, in ideas of religion and of Providence, that principle must almost of necessity enter into any drama in which the catastrophe is either terrible or mournful. Death and the grave are among the most strongly suggestive objects of solemn and religious sentiments that we can conceive. And dreadful or serious incident of this kind is almost indispensable to a production whose principal object is to enchain the sympathies and to fascinate the audience.

The Edipus Coloneus is essentially a tragic drama. It is the punishment of unnatural sin by supernatural means. If the subject were simply the death of the hero, it would not at once follow that the piece would be a tragedy. But it is a death by the judgment of God, and a judgment mysteriously foretold by the oracle of Apollo, and more mysteriously executed by the agency of the Erinyes.* It has throughout the fearful majesty of a stern religion.

King Lear is accidentally a tragic drama. There is no manifestation of Providence in the death of the sovereign or of his heroic daughter. But the destruction of the three criminals, terribly struck down


* The Furies or destroying Angels of Greek mythology.

« PředchozíPokračovat »