Friday, May 4, 2012

Fifth Century Greek Theatre by Jacob Burckhardt

In the Athenian theatre tragedy created the last and grandest realization of myth; writers now treated it with absolute freedom to attain a new psychological depth, while comedy delighted everyone with its grotesque transformation of of daily concerns and its caricature of a richly varied world. Clearly Athens was the sole possessor of the two dramatic forms, and was to remain so. It was only here that the Greeks could grasp the perspective on Hellenic civilization that the theatre offered, though at the great agonal sites all the rest of poetic and musical art might be briefly presented in concentrated form. Till this time the only drama known to the ordinary Greek had been the sacred pantomime in which the priest or priestess acted single scenes from the myth of their own temple deity, or else the clowning, character imitations and farcical turns which probably developed impromptu from dialogue and horseplay.

Now the Greek became aware that in one city in his country a living representation of the whole of myth had arisen out of the tumult of the Dionysian cult; he also learned that a huge structure was specially devoted to it, with a semicircular space where the audience felt as if it were in a second popular assembly, while, on a stage, the things that were elsewhere recited by bards or shown in pictures were magically enacted by real people and large choruses. He also heard that on certain festive days, the image of the true Athens of real life was brought before its people in a colossal and grotesque transformation. Finally the individual names of great writers rang throughout Greece as the inventors of all this, and of this new and unique kind of poetry. And this new thing was not some curiosity imported from Asia, but a Hellenic creation in the fullest sense, a deep and essential part of the national life.

Theatre had a darker side. As we have said, the compulsory choregia was often a burden on wealthy men. The persona insults in comedy were astonishingly coarse and crude, and what has always been reckoned filthy the world over was filth in Aristophanes too (as well as in the iambic poets before him) – however hard some scholars try to make an exception for him. On the one hand the tone of Athenian society must clearly have been conditioned by comedy, and on the other hand we cannot ignore the effect that this must have had on the victims. For a society and a social set accustomed to having comedy hanging over them all year round with all the other guillotines of the polis that menaced them, there was no doubt a strong incentive to affect indifference. In their hearts, however, nobody can really have been indifferent except those whom it robbed of all shame, and when, at every street-corner and at every banquet, people would meet the victims of comic writers, or know that they themselves would be victims at the next Dionysia, it must have given rise to that form of consciousness in which the mind secretly closes one door after another, and finally the innermost door of all.

What is extremely characteristic of the Athenian temperament, as distinct, probably, from that of all other Greeks, but certainly from other nations, is the attitude of the old comedy to the political situation. No modern nation would tolerate this objective view of itself, and in a solemn, semiofficial context at that; least of all in emergencies and times of universal suffering and anxiety. The whole grotesque accompaniment to the Peloponnesian War which comedy provided would be condemned by any city in our day, and a writer like Aristophanes would be regarded as a heartless jester on the theme of public misery. Yet, as comedy shows, Athens then bread and tolerated not just one poet but a collection of poets of the same kind, writing in a mature, casual style and aloof from the shared values in a way that has been unthinkable in later nations. Comedy was able to defy and mock not only the rulers of the day, but also universal common sentiment; Athens acknowledged the supremacy of the joke at her own expense.

1 comment:

  1. Would that I had been able to read this book forty years ago!