It is the second year of the ninety-third Olympiad and the Theatre at Athens is full, for the great dramatic season is at its height, and to-day there is to be performed a new play by Aristophanes, the special favorite of the Athenian public. It is a brilliant scene; but a keen observer, who happened to see the same gathering some five and twenty years ago, must now notice a certain falling off in its splendor. For these five and twenty years have been years of war, and latterly, years of disaster. Eleven years ago, the City wild with the pride of power, and wealth, embarked on the mad scheme of conquering Sicily, and lost the finest fleet and army that it ever possessed. Since then it has been a struggle for life with it, and year by year it has been growing weaker and weaker. This has told sadly on the glories of its great festivals. The furnishing of the stage, indeed, is as perfect as ever, and the building itself has been pushed on several stages towards completion. However scarce money may be in the public treasury, the theatre must not be starved. But elsewhere there are manifest signs of falling off. The strangers' gallery is almost empty. All the Greek world from Massilia in Gaul to Cyrene among the sands of Africa used to throng it in happier days. Now more than half that world is hostile, and the rest has little to hope or fear from the dispossessed mistress of the seas. Dionysius of Syracuse, has sent an embassy, and the democracy, which once would have treated with scant courtesy the representatives of a tyrant, is fain to flatter so powerful a prince. There are some Persian Envoys too, for the Persians are still following their old game of playing off one great state against another. A few Greeks from Sinope and from one of the Italian cities, persons of no importance, who would hardly have found a place in the gallery during the palmy times of Athens, make up the company of visitors. Look at the body of the theatre, where the citizens sit, and the spectacle is deplorable indeed. The flower of Athens' sons has perished, and their successors are puny and degenerate. Examine too the crowd that throngs the benches, and you will see that the slaves, distinguished by their unsleeved tunics, fill up no small portion of space. And boys form an unusually large proportion of the audience. Altogether the theatre is a dispiriting sight to a patriotic Athenian.
To-day, however, all is gaiety, for, as has been said, there is a new play to be brought out, and an Athenian must be in desperate straits indeed, if he cannot forget his sorrows at a new play.
When the curtain rises, or rather, is withdrawn, as the Greek arrangement was, into an opening in the floor of the stage; a murmur of recognition runs through the audience. The scene is the market place of Thebes, and a familiar figure occupies the foreground.
The portly figure, the ruddy face, the vine-leaf crown, and the buskins show him to be Bacchus, the patron-god, it will be remembered, of the Drama. But why this lion's skin and club? The god gives a lordly kick at the door of the house which was one of the familiar stage-properties, and Hercules appears. He roars with laughter to see his own emblems in such strange company. Bacchus explains. "The tragic poets grow worse and worse. There is not one who can write a decent line. I am going down to the regions of the dead to fetch Euripides, and thought that I had better dress myself up in your fashion, for you, I know, made this same journey very successfully. Perhaps you will tell me something about the way, and what inns you can recommend, where they are free from fleas, you know."
"Are you really going?"
"Yes, yes. Don't try to dissuade me; but tell me the, way, which must not be either too hot or too cold."
"Well there is the Hanging way, by the sign of the Rope and Noose."
"There is a very short cut by the Mortar and Pestle."
"The Hemlock road, you mean?"
"Too cold and wintry for me."
"Well; I'll tell you of a quick road and all downhill."
"Excellent! for I am not a good walker."
"You know the tower in the Cemetery? Well; climb up to the top when the Torch race is going to begin; and when the people cry out 'start,' start yourself."
"How do you mean 'start'? Start from where?"
"Why, start down from the top."
"What, and dash my brains out? No, not for me, thank you."
So it is settled that Bacchus and his slave, for he has a slave with him to carry his baggage, shall take the usual route by the Styx.
To the Styx, accordingly, they make their way. Charon the ferryman is plying for hire, "Any one, for Rest-from-toil-and-labor Land? For No-Mansland? For the Isle of Dogs?"
Bacchus steps in, and by Charon's order, takes an oar which he handles very helplessly. The slave has to go round: Charon does not carry slaves, he says. As they slowly make their way across, the frogs from the marsh raise the song of their kind, ending with the burden which is supposed to represent their note, Brekekekex, coax, coax.
It is pitch dark on the further side. When the slave turns up, he advises his master to go on at once. "'Tis the very spot," he says, "where Hercules told us those terrible wild beasts were." Bacchus is very valiant.
"A curse upon him! 'twas an idle tale
He feigned to frighten me, for well he knew,
How brave I am, the envious braggart soul!
Grant, fortune, I may meet some perilous chance
Meet for so bold a journey."
"O Master, I hear a noise."
"It is behind us."
"Get behind then."
"No—it is in front."
"Why don't you go in front?"
"O Master, I see such a Monster."
"What is it like?"
"Why! it keeps on changing—now it's a bull, now it's a stag, and now it's a woman; and its face is all fire. What shall we do? O Hercules, Hercules help."
"Hold your tongue. Don't call me Hercules."
"No, no; Bacchus is worse than Hercules."
The travellers, pass these dangers, and reach the palace of Pluto. Bacchus knocks at the door. "Who's there?" cries Æacus the porter. "The valiant Hercules," says Bacchus. The name calls forth a torrent of reproaches, and threats. Hercules was only too well remembered there.
"O villain, villain, doubly, trebly dyed!
'Twas thou didst take our dog, our guardian dog,
Sweet Cerberus, my charge. But, villain, now
We have thee on the hip. For thee the rocks
Of Styx, and Acheron's dripping well of blood,
And Hell's swift hounds encompass."
"Did you hear that dreadful voice?" says Bacchus to the slave. "Didn't it frighten you?"
"Frighten me? No, I didn't give it a thought."
"Well, you are a bold fellow. I say; suppose you become me, and I become you. Take the club and the lion skin, and I'll carry the baggage."
"As you please."
They change parts accordingly. No sooner is this done, than a waiting maid of Queen Proserpine appears. "My dear Hercules," she says, "come with me." As soon as my mistress heard of your being here she had a grand baking, made four or five gallons of soup, and roasted an ox whole."
"Excellent," cries the false Hercules.
"She won't take a refusal. And, hark you! there's such wine!"
"I shall be delighted. Boy, bring along the baggage with you."
"Hold," cries the "boy." "Don't you see it was a joke of mine, dressing you up as Hercules? Come, hand over the club and the skin."
"You are not going to take the things away when you gave me them yourself."
"Yes, but I am: a pretty Hercules you would be. Come, hand them over."
"Well; if I must, I must. But I shouldn't wonder if you were sorry for it sooner or later."
It turns out to be sooner rather than later. As soon as the exchange is made, two landladies appear on the scene. Hercules had committed other misdemeanors besides stealing the dog.
First Landlady. "This is the villain. He came to my house, and ate sixteen loaves."
The Slave (aside). "Some one is getting into trouble."
First Landlady. "Yes, and twenty fried outlets at three half-pence apiece."
The Slave (aside). "Some one will suffer for this."
First Landlady. "Yes, and any quantity of garlic."
Bacchus. "Woman this is all rubbish. I don't know what you are talking about."
First Landlady. "Ah! you villain, because you have buskins on, you thought I should not know you—and then there was the salt-fish."
Second Landlady. "Yes, and the fresh cheeses which he ate, baskets and all; and when I asked him for the money he drew his sword, and we ran up, you remember, into the attic."
The Slave. "That is just the man. That's how he goes on everywhere."
The angry women run off to fetch their lawyers; and Bacchus begins again.
"My dear boy, I am very fond of you."
"I know what you are after. Say no more; I'm not going to be Hercules; 'A pretty Hercules I should make,' you say."
"I don't wonder that you're angry. But do take the things again. The gods destroy me and mine, root and branch, if I rob you of them again."
"Very well; I'll take them, but mind, you have sworn." So the exchange is made again.
Then Æacus with his infernal policemen appears on the scene.
"That's the fellow who stole the dog," he cries to his men, "seize him," while the false slave murmurs aside, "Some one is getting into trouble."
"I steal your dog!" says the false Hercules. "I have never been here, much less stolen the worth of a cent. But come. I'll make you a fair offer. Here's my slave. Take him, and put him to the torture, and if you get anything out of him against me, then cut my head off."
"Very fair," says Æacus; "and of course, if I do him any damage, I shall pay for it."
"Never mind about the damage; torture away."
"Hold," shouts Bacchus, as the policemen lay hold of him, "I warn you not to torture me, I'm a god."
Æacus. "What do you say?"
Bacchus. "I am Bacchus, son of Zeus, and that fellow there is my slave."
Æacus (to the false Bacchus). "What do you say to that?"
The false Bacchus. "Say? Lay on the lash; if he's a god, of course he can't feel."
Bacchus. "And you're a god too, you say. So you won't mind taking blow for blow with me."
The false Bacchus. "Quite right." (To Æacus) "Lay on, and the first that cries out, you may be sure he's not the real god."
So the trial takes place. Both bear it bravely, till at last Æacus cries in perplexity. "I can't make it out. I don't know which is which. Well, you shall both come to my master and Queen Proserpine. They're gods, and they ought to know their own kind."
Bacchus. "An excellent idea; I only wish that you had thought of it before you gave me that beating."
Things are now supposed to be set right. Bacchus goes to dine with Pluto and Proserpine; the slave is entertained by Æacus in the servants' hall. While they are talking a tremendous uproar is heard outside; and Æacus explains to his guest that it is a rule in their country that the best poet or writer or artist should have a seat at the King's table and a place at the King's right hand. This honor Æschylus had held as the first of the tragic poets, but when Euripides came, all the crowd of pick-pockets and burglars and murderers, who were pretty numerous in these parts, had been so delighted with his twists and turns, that they were for giving him the first place; and on the strength of their support he had claimed the tragic throne."
"But had not Æschylus any friends?"
"O yes, among the respectable people; but respectable people are scarce down here, as they are up above."
"What about Sophocies?"
"Oh! as soon as he came, he went up to Æschylus and kissed him on the cheek, and took him by the hand. He yielded the throne, he said, to Æschylus; but if Euripides came off best, he should contest it with him."
"Well,what is going to be done?"
"There will be a trial."
"Who is to be judge?"
"Ah! there's the difficulty. Wise men, you see, are not so plenty. Even with the Athenians Æschylus didn't get on very well. However they have made your master judge. He is supposed to know all about it."
I have tried to give some idea of the first, the farcical half of the play. It is possible to appreciate the fun, though much of its flavor has evaporated, and there are many strokes of humor which, for one reason or another, it has not been possible to reproduce. The second half is a series of subtle literary criticisms on the language, style, dramatic construction, and ruling sentiment of the two poets. No one can appreciate it who is not familiar with their works; no version is possible that would give any that idea of it. One specimen I shall attempt. Æschylus finds fault with the prosaic matter-of-fact character of his rival's opening, scenes. "I'll spoil them all with a flask," he says. "(3o on and repeat whichever you please." Euripides begins with the opening lines of the Danaides (a play now lost).
"Ægyptus—so the common story runs—
Crossed with his fifty sones the ocean plains,
And reaching Argos—"
"Lost a little flask."
puts in Æschylus.
He begins again with the opening lines of another
"Cadmus, Agenor's offspring, setting sail
From Sidon's city—"
"Lost a little flask."
Then he tries with the first lines of a third
"Great Bacchus, who with wand and fawn-skin decked,
In pine-groves of Parnassus, plies the dance,
And leads the revel—"
"Lost a little flask."
The reader may have had enough. It will suffice to give the result of the contest. All the tests have been applied. Euripides, as a last resource, reminds the judge that he has sworn to take him back with him.
"My tongue hath sworn; yet Æschylus I choose."
A cruel cut, for it is an adaptation of one of the poet's own lines (from the Hippolytus) when the hero, taunted with the oath that he had taken and is about to violate, replies:
"My tongue hath sworn it, but my mind's unsworn."
When the curtain rose from the floor and hid the last scene, it was manifest that the "Frogs" of Aristophanes, son of Philippus, of the tribe Pandionis, and the township Cydathenæa, was a success. Of course there were malcontents among the audience. Euripides had a good many partisans in young Athens. They admired his ingenuity, his rhetoric, and the artistic quality of his verse, in which beauty for beauty's sake, quite apart from any moral purpose, seemed to be aimed at. They were captivated by the boldness and novelty of his treatment of things moral and religious. Æschylus they considered to be old-fashioned and bigoted. Hence among the seats allotted to the young men there had been some murmurs of dissent while the performance was going on, and now there was a good deal of adverse criticism. And there were some among the older men who were scarcely satisfied. The fact was that Comedy was undergoing a change, the change which before twenty more, years had passed was to turn the Old Comedy into the Middle and the New, or to put the matter briefly, to change the Comedy of Politics into the Comedy of Manners.
"This is poor stuff," said an old aristocrat of this school, "poor stuff indeed, after what I remember in my younger days. Why can't the man leave Euripides alone, especially now he is dead, and won't bother us with any more of his plays? There are plenty of scoundrel politicians who might to much more purpose come in for a few strokes of the lash. But he daren't touch the fellows. Ah! it was not always so. I remember the play he brought out eighteen years ago. The 'Knights' he called it. That was something like a Comedy! Cleon was at the very height of his power, for he had just made that lucky stroke at Pylos. But Aristophanes did not spare him one bit for that. He could not get anyone to take the part; he could not even get a mask made to imitate the great man's face. So he took the part himself, and smeared his face with the lees of wine. Cleon was there in the magistrates' seats. I think we all looked at him as much as we looked at the stage. Whenever there was a hard hit—and, by Bacchus, how hard the hits were!—all the theatre turned to see how he bore it. He laughed at first. Then we saw him turn red and pale—I was close by him and I heard him grind his teeth. Good heavens! what a rage he was in! Well, that is the sort of a play I like to see, not this splitting words, and picking verses to pieces, just as some schoolmaster might do."
But, in spite of these criticisms, the greater part of the audience were highly delighted with what they had seen and heard. The comic business, with its broad and laughable effects, pleased them, and they were flattered by being treated as judges of literary questions. And the curious thing was that they were not unfit to be judges of such matters. There never was such a well-educated and keen witted audience in the world. They knew it, and they dearly liked to be treated accordingly. The judges only echoed the popular voice when at the end of the festival they bestowed the first prize upon Aristophanes.
One criticism, strange to say, no one ever thought of making—and yet, to us, it seems the first, the most obvious of all criticisms, and that is that the play was horribly profane. This cowardly, drunken, sensual Bacchus—and he is ten times worse in the original than I have ventured to make him here—this despicable wretch was one of the gods whom everyone in the audience was supposed to worship. The festival which was the occasion of the theatrical exhibition was held in his honor, his altar was the centre round which the whole action of every piece revolved. And yet he was caricatured in this audacious manner, and it did not occur to anyone to object! Verily the religion of the Greeks sat very lightly on their consciences, and we cannot wonder if it had but small effect on their lives.