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William Shakespeare

by Victor Hugo

Part I -- Book 4: The Ancient Shakespeare
Chapter 2

The theatre is a crucible of civilization. It is a place of human communion. All its phases require to be studied. It is in the theatre that the public soul is formed.

We have just seen what the theatre was in the time of Shakespeare and Molière. Shall we see what it was at the time of Æschylus?

Let us go to that spectacle.

It is no longer the cart of Thespis; it is no longer the scaffold of Susarion; it is no longer the wooden circus of Chœilus. Athens, foreboding, perceiving the coming of Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, has built theatres of stone. No roof, the sky for a ceiling, the day for lighting, a long platform of stone pierced with doors and staircases, and secured to a wall, the actors and the chorus going and coming on this platform, which is the logeum, and performing the play; in the centre, where in our days is the hole of the prompter, a small altar to Bacchus, the thymele; in front of the platform a vast hemicycle of stone steps, five or six thousand men sitting pell-mell,-- such is the laboratory. There it is that the swarming crowd of the Piræus come to turn Athenians; there it is that the multitude become the public, until such day when the public will become the people. The multitude is in reality there,-- all the multitude, including the women, the children, and the slaves, and Plato, who knits his brows.

If it is a fête day, if we are at the Panathenæa, at the Lenæa, or ath the great Dionysia, the magistrates form part of the audience; the proedri, the epistati, and the prytani sit in their place of honour. If the trilogy is to be a tetalogy, if the representation is to conclude by a piece with satyrs; if the fauns, the ægipans, the menades, the goat-footed, and the evantes, are to come at the end to perform their pranks; if among the comedians, almost priests, and called "the men of Bacchus," is to appear the favourite actor who excels in the two modes of declamation, in paralogy as well as in paracatology; if the poet is sufficiently liked by his rivals to let the public expect to see some celebrated men, Eupolis, Cratinus, or even Aristophanes figure in the chorus,-- "Eupolis atque Cratinus, Aristophanesque Poetæ" as Horace will one day say; if a play with women is performed, even the old "Alcestis" of Thespis, the whole place is full; there is a crowd. The crowd is already to Æschylus what, later on, as the prologue of the "Bacchides" remarks, it will be to Plautus,-- a swarm of men on seats, coughing, spitting, sneezing, making grimaces and noises with the mouth and "ore concrepario," and talking of their affairs; what a crowd is to-day.

Students scrawl with charcoal on the wall, no in token admiration, now in irony, some well-known verses,-- for instance, the singular iambic a Phrynichus in a single word:--


Of which the famous Alexandrine, in two words, of one of our tragic poets of the sixteenth century was but a poor imitation:--

"Métamorphoserait Nabuchodonosor."

There are not only the students to make a row; there are the old men. Trust to the old men of the "Wasps" of Aristophanes for a noise. Two schools are in presence,-- on one side Thespis, Susarion, Pratinus of Phlius, Epigenes of Sicyon, Theomis, Auleas, Chœrilus, Phrynichus, Minos himself; on the other, young Æschylus. Æschylus is twenty-eight years old. He gives his trilogy of the "Promethei,"--"Prometheus Lighting Fire;" "Prometheus Bound;" "Prometheus Delivered," followed by some piece with satyrs,--"The Argians," perhaps, of which Macrobius has preserved a fragment for us. The ancient quarrel of youth and old age breaks out; gray beards against black hair. They discuss, they dispute. The old are for the old school; the young are for Æschylus. The young defend Æschylus against Thespis, as they will defend Corneille against Garnier.

The old men are indignant. Listen to the Nestors grumbling. What is tragedy? It is the song of the he-goat. Where is the he-goat in this "Prometheus Bound"? Art is in its decline. And they reapeat the celebrated objection: "Quid pro Baccho?" (What is there for Bacchus?) The graver men, the purists, do not even admit Thespis and remind each other that Solon had raised his stick against Thespis, calling him "liar," for the sole reason that he had detached and isolated in a play an episode in the life of Bacchus,-- the history of Pentheus. They hate the innovator, Æschylus. They blame all these inventions, the end of which is tor bring about a closer connection between the drama and Nature, the use of the anapæst for the chorus, of the iambus for the dialogue, and of the trochee for passion, in the same way that, later on, Shakespeare was blamed for going from poetry to prose, and the theatre of the nineteenth century for that which was termed "broken verse." These ar indeed unbearable novelties. And then, the flute plays too high, and the tetrachord plays too low; and where is now the ancient sacred division of tragedies into monodies, stasimes, and exodes? Thespis never put on the stage but one speaking actor; here is Æschylus putting two. Soon we shall have three. (Sophocles, indeed, was to come.) Where will they stop? These are impieties. And how does &Aelig;schylus dare to call Jupiter "the pryanus of the Immortals?" Jupiter was a god, and he is now no more than a magistrate. Where are we going? The thymele, the ancient altar of sacrifice, is now a seat for the corypheus! The chorus ought to limit itself to executing the strophe,--that is to say, the turn to the right; then the antistrophe,--- that is to say, the turn to the left.; then the epode,--that is to say, repose. But what is the meaning of the chorus arriving in a winged chariot? What is the gad-fly that pursues Io? Why does the Ocean come mounted on a dragon? This is show, not poetry. Where is the ancient simplicity? This ishow is puerile. Your Æschylus is but a painter, a decorator, a composer of brawls, a charlatan, a machinist. All for the eyes, nothing for the mind. To the fire with all those pieces, and let us content ourselves with a recitation of the ancient pæans of Tynnichus! It is Chœrilus who, by his tetralogy of the "Curetes," has begun the evil. What are the Curetes, if you please? Gods forging metal. Well, then, he had simply to show working on the stage their five faimilies, the Dactyli finding the metal, the Cabiri inventing the forge, the Corybantes forging the sword and the ploughshare, the Curetes making the shield, and the Telchines chasing the jewelry. It was sufficiently interesting in that form; but by allowing poets to blend in it the adventure of Plexippus and Toxeus, all is lost. How can you expect society to be summoned before justice, and sentenced to drink hemlock like that old wretch Socrate. You will see that after all, he will only be exiled. Everything degenerates.

And the young men burst with laughter. They criticise as well, but in another fashion. What an old brute is that Solon! It is he who has instituted the eponymous archonship. What do they want with an archon giving his name to the year? Hoot the eponymous archon who has lately caused a poet to be elected and crowned by ten generals, instead of taking ten men from the people! It is true that one of the generals was Cimon,--an attenuating circumstance in the eyes of some, for Cimon had beaten the Phœnicians; aggravating in the eyes of others, for it is this very Cimon who, in order to get out of a prison for debt, sold his sister Elphinia, and his wife in the bargain, to Callias. If Æschylus is a bold man, and deserves to be cited before the Areopagus, has not Phrynicchus also been judged and condemned for having shown on the stage, in the "Taking of Miletus," the Greeks beaten by the Persians? When will poets be allowed to suit their own fancy? Hurrah for the liberty of Pericles and down with the censure of Solon! And then what is the law that has just been promulgated by which the chorus is reduced from fifty to fifteen? And how are they to play the "Danaides"? and won't they sneer at the line of Æschylus: "Egyptus, the father of fifty idiots. Quarrel, uproar all around. One prefers Phrynicchus, another prefers Æschylus, another prefers wine with honey and benzoin. The speaking-trumpets of the actors compete as well as they can with this deafening noise, through which is heard from time to time the shrill cry of the public vendors of phallus and the water-bearers. Such is Athenian uproar. During that time the play is going on. It is the work of a living man. The uproar has every reason to be. Later on, after the death of Æschylus, or after he has been exiled, there will be silence. It is the right to be silent before a god. "Æquum est," it is Plautus who speaks, "vos deo facere silentium."

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