From A Teacher of Dante and Other Studies in Italian Literature, by Nathan Haskell Dole, New York: Moffat, Yard & Company, 1908; pp. 201-242.
A Teacher of Dante and
Other Studies in Italian Literature,
Nathan Haskell Dole.
THE RISE OF THE ITALIAN DRAMA
NO SISTERS ever had a more dissimilar education and fate than the four who are poetically and metaphorically taken to represent India, Persia, Greece and Rome. Sprung from one common mother, they became strangers and foes and apparently the only common bond among them was a parcel of linguistic roots so buried and hidden that they themselves had no knowledge of their united heritage nor was it suspected until within a few generations.
Back of this family relationship is a deeper reason why nations so widely remote from one another should trace back their indigenous drama to similar sources: that is the dramatic instinct implanted in the human heart. It crops out typically in young children who endue their dolls or toys with life and delightfully alarm themselves with their own imaginations.
Children vary greatly in imaginative power. So it is not strange to find, by analogy, one nation having vastly more dramatic or musical 202 genius than another. National gods are national qualities personified: Kama-Deva, the Indian god of love, at whose festivals, at summer’s beginning, scenic entertainments were early popular, conditioned the Hindu drama, of which Sakuntala is the most perfect flower. Strictly speaking, the Hindu drama had no tragedy, because, as Professor Monier Williams says, although joy and sorrow, happiness and misery, are woven in a mingled web — good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood are allowed to blend in the early acts of the drama, yet “in the last act, harmony is always restored, order succeeds to disorder, tranquillity to agitation, and the mind of the spectator, no longer perplexed by the apparent ascendency of evil, is soothed and purified and made to acquiesce in the moral lesson deducible from the plot.”
The magnificent flowering of the Greek drama antedated by centuries the Hindu, though both were religious in origin. This connection of the drama with religion is universal. They may be bitterly jealous of each other, but it is the jealousy of husband and wife. The very word pulpit means stage, and the first scene 203 was played in front of the flower-crowned altar of Dionysos.
The Greeks, in spite of their petty internal jealousies, were one people, worshipping the same gods. Hence the task of tracing the rise of the Hellenic drama, from the goat choruses of the Dorians — the very word tragedy hiding in it the nature myth of which the goat was the symbol — to the lofty sacred dramas of Aischylos is comparatively simple.
But the Italian peninsula was inhabited by a wonderfully mixed population. Not to speak of the pure Greek colonies of the southeastern coast and of Sicily, we may feel certain that the legends of Æneas and his descendant Romulus and of the Tarquins point to Greek origin. But there were other prehistoric races inhabiting the country, and many scholars believe that the artistic Etruscans, whose language has longest of any on earth resisted all keys and is still a locked casket, were Kelts. Keltic Spain contributed to the Roman drama its most famous name. Wonderful that those dramatic characteristics which make the Irish the most brilliant actors should have held through all the centuries! One might almost say that every one of the 204 seven hills of Rome stood for a different nationality — Etruscan, Sabine, Oscan, Sikulian — whose mixture produced that world-conquering city. Even the Latin tongue, compared with the Greek or Sanskrit, shows the effect of violent friction and hard use, and seems like an older and more wrinkled daughter of the common mother-tongue.
We must not forget that in a certain sense Rome was or became a great robber stronghold. Much as we may admire the Roman sternness and dignity, we must not forget that it was wholly military and aggressive. Paulus Æmilius ravaged sixty cities of Epeiros and carried one hundred and fifty thousand Greeks into captivity; Metellus and Silvanus laid Macedonia waste; Sulla plundered Athens and Delphi: Pompey conquered fifteen kingdoms, eight hundred cities, and over one thousand fortresses; Crassus brought ten thousand talents away from Jerusalem. Every town or province which Rome laid hands upon became the legitimate spoil of a succession of irresponsible and rapacious proconsuls. It is pathetic to read in Roman history that Lucius Mummius — most appropriate name — caused Greek actors 205 to produce a Greek drama in celebration of his glory in sacking Corinth and waging successful war in Greece.
“The dramatic muse,” says J. L. Klein, “was brought to Rome as a slave and a slave she always remained.” Consequently, Greek plays, original or imitated, fill no small part of the history of the Roman state. The indigenous drama, though it did not reach sublime heights commensurate with the power and extent of the Empire, had really a vastly important influence through tradition. The Romans were men of action. They had no ideality, no invention, they represented in themselves the iron fate of the nations, “the barbaric zeal for conquest and enslaving of other peoples goes to found a kingdom of darkness in contradistinction to the creative light kingdom of energetic poesy. The spirit of tragedy shuts out the Roman spirit, just as the freedom idea is exclusive of the military spirit destructive of nations.” Klein, whose words I have just paraphrased, goes on to declare that the one God of Freedom must be composed of pure philosophy; God’s revelation as spirit and self-conscious thought of pure religion; God’s revelation as harmony of beings 206 and souls, in other words love and of pure art which in its highest manifestation is tragic art. This trinity-unity was wholly lacking in the typical Roman character. Utterly subversive of true tragic art it must have been when the Roman audience demanded realism for action: when Muzio Scævola was seen actually burning off his hand and Hercules, wrapt in the poisoned robe of Nessus mounted the pyre and was consumed to ashes in the presence of ten thousand spectators; when death in its most repulsive aspect was presented before the gaping throng. In such a spirit Othello would really murder Desdemona and Romeo really run “Mercutio’s kinsman, noble County Paris” through the heart!
If the Greek drama began in graceful hymns sung with choric dances to the beneficent God of the Vine — Dionysos, with face equally capable of joy and grief, symbol of life returning from death, of resurrection after burial, of sorrow for past beauty and joy for recreated life — the Roman drama, on the contrary, originated, according to Livy, about four hundred years after the founding of the city, in an attempt to put a stop to the plague that had been raging 207 for two years. Livy says, “When the violence of the disease was alleviated neither by human measures nor by divine interference, their minds being prone to superstition, among various means of appeasing the wrath of the gods scenic plays are said also to have been instituted — a new thing to a warlike people who had hitherto had only the spectacles of the circus. But the affair was insignificant (as beginnings generally are) and moreover from a foreign source.”
He goes on to tell how actors, or rather dancers, were imported from Etruria, who danced to the measures of a flute-player though without song or pantomime, and how afterwards the young Romans began to imitate these and to add jocular verses, impromptu, with gestures appropriate to the action.
The Etruscan word for actor was (h)ister and these native performers were called histriones, from which our word histrionic is derived.
The medleys which they performed came to be written in regular meter fitted to music and provided with probably conventional gesticulation. They were called satiræ, or satires, from a word meaning a full dish or a dish of mixed 208 ingredients. Some etymologists have connected the word with the Greek satiric drama, which is supposed to have been invented by Pratinas about 500 B. C., and came to form the fourth part of Tetralogy.
“Livius Andronicus,” says Livy, “was the first who ventured to substitute for the satire a story with a regular plot, and when, from having been too frequently called upon to sing his piece, his voice was ruined, he is said to have obtained permission to place a boy before the flute player to sing and to have acted the song with considerably more liveliness because the employment of the voice was no longer an impediment.” His first play was produced in the year 240 B. C.
After this the duties of the singers and the actors were separated: the dialogue left to the latter. By this arrangement the stage business was raised from mere farce and gradually became an art.
Livius Andronicus, it will be proper to mention, was a Greek captured at the siege of Tarentum and brought to Rome as a prisoner of war. Thus again Rome had to go abroad for her first genuine drama; and this genuine drama, composed 209 of three elements, song with flute music, dance with gestures, and dialogue, seems to be the three-fold root from which we might derive opera, pantomime and the play. Horace in his noble epistle to Augustus (Lib. II., 1) also gives an account of the rise of the Latin drama. He tells how the early farmers, happy in their small estate, after their crops were gathered in, sacrificed a pig to Tellus and poured out milk to Silvanus, and offered flowers and wine to their genius, and then with their helpmeets, their children and their faithful wives, indulged in the fescennina carmina, which were extemporised verses full of raillery and coarse humour, of old jokes and obscene singing.* The Atillan farces of Oscan origin were also transplanted to Rome. Here was the germ of the native comedy and it is far more interesting and important than the more dignified drama imported with Greek statues and Greek rhetoric.
It would seem, then, as if the gift of improvisation 210 were as indigenous to the climate of Italy as the native olive-trees. It is an extremely interesting phenomenon as we see it standing out in those dim far-off days, and with no less distinction through the Middle Ages down to our own time. The survival of characteristics in nations is as wonderful as the transmission of characteristics from generation to generation of individuals and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that the commedie improvise, or improvised farces, of the fifteenth century were legitimate children of the comedies that were played in all parts of Italy even hundreds of years before Christ.†
The name fescennine is commonly derived from a town, Fescennia, which the histories and dictionaries call Etruscan but which was really Faliscan; the derivation however is far more significant. It comes from an ancient Latin word, fascinum, from which is derived our word fascination. It meant a charm or amulet worn as a protection against the evil-eye, the jettatura, so commonly believed in even to the present day. It was a phallic 211 symbol and as such goes back to the most primitive belief of the human race, in which all nations, Greek and Italian, South Sea Island and Central African, Indians and Eskimos, are at one: it points to the great mystery of the origin of life, and hence its appropriateness as connected with primitive marriage institutions, and hence also the conventional scurrilities of the drama that thence arose, innuendoes but perfectly free from malice.
The Atellan farces likewise were so called not because they originated in the Oscan town of Atella near Naples, but simply because these farces had what one might call conventionalised fixed characters and a perennial scheme of jokes and therefore needed a permanent and established scene. So the ruined Oscan capital, Atella, was chosen. There was no danger of sectional jealousies in such a choice.
The principal characters presenting types that became as familiar as Falstaff or Captain Bobadill or Sir Andrew Ague-Cheek or Mascarille were Pappus or Casnar, the stupid vain old man; Bucco, the fat, chattering glutton; Maccus, the filthy, amorous fool, and Dossenus the cunning sharper.212
The meter in which some of these were written is called saturnine: it does not sound so portentous when one remembers that it is the same as we find in that delicious poem of our childhood days,
The Queen was in her parlour
Eating bread and honey: —
Dabánt malúm Metélli
Naevius, whose plays held the boards till the time of Horace, employed this meter: only a few fragments have come down to us.
Sicily was an early home of the drama. Epicharmos of Syracuse is credited with being the inventor, not only of character comedies, but of the great type of the parasite. The Sicilian influence spread as easily to the north as to the east. Three of Rome’s earliest dramatists, Livius, Naevius and Ennius, were Greeks from the south and of course introduced imitations of Greek plays. Ennius pater, as Horace calls him, copied Epicharmos. History is often reported as repeating herself. She is the great plagiarist. The phenomena of the Elizabethan age are found in Athens and in Rome. Like causes produce like effects. 213 Greene, Marlowe, Kyd, Jonson, Shakespeare, began as actors, revamped old plays, wrote new ones; collaborated, invented — all to supply the incessant demand of the stage managers. Going back two thousand years, we find almost precisely the same conditions.
I should like to trace the curious analogy between Plautus and Shakespeare. The humble origin, the birth in the obscure country town, the move to the capital; the menial employment in or about the theatre; the wonderfully absorbed education, the fame, the wealth.
Titus Maccius (not M. Accius) Plautus was born in a little Umbrian town under the shadow of the Appennines about 250 B. C., and died at the age of seventy. His flourishing career was contemporary with the second Punic war. In one of his plays he introduces a Carthaginian slave, and the whole scene is in the Carthaginian dialect. The name Plautus, or Plotus, like the Greek Plautús, signifies flat-footed, and it is said that he was chosen on account of this umbrian peculiarity to take the part of the Planipedes in the Mimes. This is absurd. No less so the name of Asinius into which his ethnic name of Sarcinius, from his 214 native town of Sarcina, was corrupted. If he painted himself in his character of Pseudolus, as Lessing thinks, he had a swarthy complexion, red hair, a protuberant abdomen, a huge head, keen eyes and immensely fat legs.
If not a slave, he did the menial work of a slave; but while turning the miller’s wheel, he was composing comedies, and at last he rose to his natural level, as all talent, like water, must rise.
Only Livius Andronicus and Gnaeus Naevius of his contemporaries could rival him. But they were mere imitators, Plautus also imitated Menander and Diphilos and Philemon and Apollodorus, but he was more than an imitator. He treated his prototypes as Shakespeare treated them (in the “Comedy of Errors” for instance) as Corneille treated Alarcon.
He kept what suited him and his environment, and knowing Rome, he added those comic creations which delighted Roman audiences for almost five hundred years.
Among the curiosities at the museum at Naples is a tessera, or theatre ticket, found at Pompeii and containing besides the designation of the seat the title of the play which was performed 215 in 63 B. C. and the name of the author, Plautus’s “Casina,” which was still popular two hundred and fifty years after his death. Like Shakespeare, his popularity seems to have at one time suffered an eclipse. Horace, who probably preferred the pure Greek comedy (as England till lately preferred French comedies), speaks slightingly of him.
But Plautus is more real to America than the Italian drama was before the coming of Salvini and Signora Duse. In 1890 the students of St. Xavier’s College, New York City, performed his “Captivi,” a play which some critics consider the best in existence. These young Jesuits repeated the play as a part of the New York State educational exhibit during the time of the Chicago Exposition with great success.
Thus in a certain sense Plautus may be said to belong to the modern drama. But even more in the influence which he has exerted on all modern playwrights. Rotrou, Camoens, Molière and Dryden copied his “Amphitruo.” “L’Avare” is a copy of his “Aulularia.” Regnard and Addison imitated his “Mostellaria.” “The Comedy of Errors” is a variation of his “Menaechmi.” 216 Lessing’s “Schatz” is an imitation of his “Trinummus.”‡
Twenty years after Plautus’ death arose another comic writer whose influence on the drama of Europe was destined to be even greater than Plautus’. This was a slave whose name is believed to have been Publipor. He was born in Carthage and was brought to Rome as the slave of a Roman senator named Publius Terentius Lucanus, from whom he took his name of Terence. As Rome and Carthage were then at peace and as Terence had not the complexion of a Phœnician, it is likely that he was the son of some Celtiberian colonist who had been transported to Africa. He did not know Latin so perfectly as Plautus and it was charged that Publius Scipio, who was his first benefactor, merely used him as a cat’s paw — that the comedies attributed to the slave were really the general’s! It is the Shakespeare-Bacon controversy carried back two thousand years. Undoubtedly he had help.217
Both Plautus and Terence wrote the commoedia palliota; but whereas Plautus, though he laid his scenes in Greece gave the local colouring, the customs, the characters, the style all Roman, Terence, catering to a more cultivated audience, made his plays entirely Greek. He had no invention but the most refined art. Only six of his plays have come down to us and these six have the same set of characters under somewhat varying circumstances: the two fathers who are brothers; the two sons and their sweethearts, one of the girls marrying one cousin, the other seduced by cunning or violence remains as the mistress of the other cousin; the indispensable servant helping the intrigue with his cleverness and aptitude.
Terence had a wonderful gift for painting character and morals; he had not Plautus’ abundant and overflowing wit. It is a question whether Terence, with what has been called his “pedagogic end,” really succeeded in the teaching of morals so well as Plautus, who had no such end in view. But Plautus, in the prologue to the “Captivi,” recognises the moral end of comedy. “It is not,” he says, “a trite and elaborated story, as many others be, nor are there in it 218 obscene verses unworthy of mention, nor perjured panderer, nor shameless jade, nor braggart soldier.”§
Mommsen in his “History of Rome,” makes a long and elaborate comparison between Plautus and Terence. Many of his sentences are well worth citing, but it deserves to be read as a whole and not piecemeal. It is a masterpiece of literary balancing.
The legend runs that Terence perished 159 B. C. in a storm on the coast of Greece and that with him were lost his translation of one hundred and eight of the comedies of Menander which he was carrying back to Rome with him. He was only thirty-five years of age.
Terence undoubtedly had a greater influence on after times than Plautus: Ariosto, Aretine, Lodovico Dolce, Battista Porta, Machiavelli and may other of the Italian dramatists were directly indebted to him.
Molaière’s “Ecole des Maris” is Terence: Shadwell’s “Squire of Alsatia” is Terence; Manlove and Nightshade in Cumberland’s “Choleric 219 Man” are modern representatives of Micio and Demea, Knowell, in Jonson’s “Every Man in his Humour” is Micio, from the “Adelphi.” Sir Richard Steele’s “Conscious Lovers” is Andrea. Molière’s Scapin is Davus, the currens servus; Aretine’s “La Talanta” and Sedley’s “Bellamira” are from the “Eunuchus.” Mrs. Inchbald’s “Every One Has His Fault” is a variation of Terence’s “Phormio.” The wonderful German nun, Hrothvita, whose pious comedies are one of the precious relics of the tenth century, copied Terence. The tale is endless.¶
Cicero placed neither Terence nor Plautus at the head of the Latin comic poets. He says Caius Caecilius Statius was perhaps the greatest — fortasse summus poeta comicus.
He also was a slave; but of his forty or fifty comedies nothing is left but a few fragments. If only some dramatic Agassiz would arise, who from these broken bones could reconstruct the whole organism of the plays! But they are lost forever. Only three names are preserved, and these point also to Menander and Greek origin.220
Of Latin tragedy only one name concerns us; Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who was born shortly after the beginning of our era in the patrician colony of Corduba, now Cordova, in Spain. He was brought to Rome when a boy, was carefully educated, studied the Stoic philosophy, enjoyed distinguished honours under the Emperor Claudius, fell in love with the Princess Julia, and at the instigation of the jealous and dangerous Messalina was banished to Corsica, whence after eight years of exile he was recalled to Rome by Agrippina, the mother of Nero. He became praetor and consul and tutor to Nero;** and being involved in the conspiracy of Piso, he died the death of a double suicide by poison and by bleeding in his bath, A. D. 65.
There is a question whether the tragedies that bear the name of Seneca belong to the philosopher or to another of the same name. Nor does it make much difference except so far as it is interesting that the only tragic poet whose works have come down to us arose from Spain. Again we have the Shakespeare-Beacon myth, like Proteus, ever changing its form but the same at heart.221
There were tragic writers before Seneca. Horace, in his “Ars Poetica” says: “Our poets left naught untried nor was it their slightest merit that they dared to desert Greek foot-marks [or paths, vestigia] and to celebrate domestic events.” Marcus Pacuvius, the learned nephew of Ennius, a native of Brundusium, who flourished about two hundred years before Seneca, wrote a dozen tragedies. Lucius Attius or Accius translated Aischylos’ “Prometheus Desmotes” and wrote a work on the drama called “Pragmatica.” Both Pacuvius and Attius wrote praetextae, or tragedies, based on Roman history. Nothing is left of them.
Of Asinius Pollio, who, according to Vergil, was worthy to be compared with Sophokles, not a single line remains; all that is known of him is that he sang the facta regum, the deeds of the kings; we have only two half lines of Varius Rufus, who received a million sesterces, or five thousand dollars, for his “Thyestes” which was played to celebrate the battle of Actium.
Only half a line remains of Pomponius Secundus, whose erudition and elegance caused Quinctilian to place him far ahead of all others. And of the imperial dramatists, C. Octavius 222 Augustus and Julius Cæsar himself, scarcely a plaudite is left. Of all those scores of tragedies not one has come down to us, a few names, empty names — the story of the Elizabethan drama anticipated.
Plautus and Terence, then, for comedy, Seneca for tragedy, conditioned the classic drama of Rome. And Seneca’s six tragedies are merely rhetorical; it is a question whether they were ever performed on the stage. We have the “Medea,” far different from Euripides’ great tragedy: “The Trojan Women” (“Troades”) formed out of two of Euripides’ weakest plays; “Hippolytus,” also from Euripides; “Phaedra”; “Hercules Furens”; “Thebais” or the “Phoenissae.” These are the great names; and they have splendid scenes, dramatic situations, powerful lines. They are the great substructures which no classic dramatist ever dared to neglect. Yet it is strange that not a single one of the praetextae, or togatae — the genuine Roman plays — have been preserved. They were so called from the conventional dress worn by the actors. There were four or five other technical sub-divisions, all named from the dress, according as they depicted the manners 223 and customs of the various classes. Thus all the comedies of Plautus and Terence were called palliatae, because, being based on the Greek new comedy, they were cast as if in Greek cities and the actors wore the pallium or Greek cloak.†† Each different type wore its conventional garb. The old man was dressed in white. Slaves had a short, coarse mantle. The three different kinds of parasites wound the pallium round the body in a peculiar manner. Thus Euclio, the miser, robbed, like Shylock, of his treasure by his only daughter; Tranio, the villainous servant; Grumio, the trusty but awkward clown from the country; Ergasilus, the parasite; and hosts of other types passed across the stage and were projected through the ages.
The verse of the Latin play was imitated from the Greek trimeter, but had not the elasticity or power of its prototype. It is generally called the senarius, which simply means six-footed. The curtain, aulaeum, was of tapestry woven with figures; it was let down at 224 the beginning and raised at the end of the play.‡‡
In the early days of Rome, down till late into the Republic, the people listened standing, as they did in the tavern plays in England when the auditorium was called the pit. It would have been regarded as effeminate to sit. The orchestra of the Greek theatre, as in the Latin, was devoted to places for the senators. Attempts to provide seats were forbidden by the Senate. Nothing but temporary wooden theatres with wooden seats were allowed till the middle of the first century B. C. It did not necessarily mean that the actors were also wooden. The chorus was placed on the stage itself and its rôle was degraded to merely statistical or narrative recitation, with tiba accompaniment — something like the choruses in the early Italian opera texts. In one cast of a play, entitled “Clytemnestra,” six hundred mules are said to have appeared at once, which led a learned German to remark that it was the strongest cast on record.225
Scipio Nascica induced the Senate to pull down a half finished stone theatre begun by the Censor Caius Cassius Longinus 154 B. C., and sell the materials.
Pompey the Great built the first permanent stone theatre, about a hundred years later. Even he had to make use of a pious fraud to cover the real intention of the stone seats. The enormous size of those early theatres rendered accidents extremely frequent and the duration of the custom of allowing only wooden ones is a curious phenomenon.
Not until the time of Caligula were cushions allowed. Catulus was the first to protect the auditorium from the weather. Lentulus spread awnings of fine Spanish flax, called corbasina vela.
The stage (pulpitum) was lower than in the Attic theatre. The scena was at first simple and unadorned. Claudius Pulcher, whose very name signifies the beautiful, first decorated the stage with paintings, afterward enormous amounts were expended for silver, gold, ivory and precious marbles. Wealthy Romans who did not dare to employ marble in their own houses lavished it on temporary places of amusement for the people. Æmilius Scaurus 226 built a theatre, the scena of which had three stories, the lowest decorated with marble monoliths thirty-eight feet high; the second with marvellous glass mosaics, glass being then more precious than silver; the third with costly gilded pillars. The cavea, or auditorium, held eighty thousand spectators. When Scaurus’ splendid Tusculan villa was set on fire by his slaves the temporary accessories taken to it from the theatre — easel pictures, stage dresses, ornaments — destroyed were reckoned at three hundred millions sesterces or fifteen million dollars.
It was only a step from this temporary magnificence to permanent splendour. The remains of Pompey’s theatre and porticos for centuries fed the Roman lime-kilns; the fifty monolithic columns of gray and red Egyptian granite from it afterward adorned the basilica of San Lorenzo, thus illustrating once more the close connection between Church and stage. They now form the cortile of the splendid palace built by the famous architect Bramonte, of Urbino, for Cardinal Rafaelle Riario at the end of the fifteenth century.§§227
This utilisation of the glories of pagan Rome seems to be typical: a few mutilated relics which give a hint of what they might have been and a whole world of fragments used over and over again in church and palace and wall. So out of the splendid drama of three or four hundred years, in which a Roscius shone, scarce three dozen mutilated plays are left, and those appear again and again in every dramatic literature of Europe. There is nothing new under the sun. Horace in his day stood in the forum and watched the marionettes, which he speaks of as the mobile lignum with its cords or strings pulled from behind — nervis alienis. The Punch and Judy, as we call it in its simpler English form is a survival of religion and the devil of the miracle play masquerades in the redoubtable Gigi. But back of the mediæval devil is the evil or mischievous lar or genius which the Latin peasant feared and worshipped.
Like trees that have their leafage, flowering and harvest, and the fall and decay of the fruit, are phases of literature. The Elizabethan drama lasted only fifty years or so — Puritanism, like a hoar frost, killed it.228
So the Latin drama came to its autumn. Salvianus declared that Roman society died laughing. Wealth brought universal corruption. The Emperors, many of them parvenus and sensitive to their imperfections of birth and training, were suspicious. Caligula himself touched the torch to the living pyre of a poet declared guilty of offending the sacred majesty. A strict censorship is like an atmosphere of azote — it kills all living things.
The influx of foreigners into Rome was corrupting the language. The ancient culture and polish, Greek though it was, was growing obscured by imported barbarism; the fine old drama was rapidly degenerating into merely spectacular pantomime.
When Christianity conquered Rome, or, according to the quaint legend of the Italian peasants, when St. Peter found that the keys of heaven fitted the gates of Rome and took possession in spite of the Podestà, the prevailing corruption of the drama attracted the reprobation of the Church Fathers. St. Clement called the theatre the chair of pestilence; to St. Gregory it was the school of impurity; to St. Basil, the workshop of lasciviousness and 229 the cavern of the devil; to St. Chrysostom, the fountain of evil and the academy of incontinence. While statues of saints decorated churches, the pagan rites seemed to hold a spell over the amusements of the people. Scenic games were under the auspices of Bacchus, Mercury governed the gymnasia, Venus the theatres, Mars the arena, which led St. Augustine to declare that the theatres were instituted by the diabolical divinities of paganism.
By the end of the fourth century the African Church called upon the Emperors Theodosius and Valentinianus to inhibit games and spectacles on Sundays and other feast days, because people would flock to the theatres rather than to the divine services.
But then, as now, the attack of the Church against the stage was idle, because it was an attack upon one of the strongest demands of human nature. The Church yielded and henceforth guided. Just as she took the heathen festivals and baptised them and utilised their observances, so the games and scenic representations which celebrated the old Saturnalia, were kept up in the carnival time which was the Bacchic and Dionysiac festival Christianised.230
The priests found that they could reach the masses through the eye more easily than through the ear, and hence the churches or the plazas in front of the churches were furnished with extemporised stages, and dramas from the Old Testaments, from the Gospels and from the sacred legends of apostle, martyrs, founders of the holy orders were represented there.
Some of them were written after the style of the Greek drama with protagonist, deuteragonist, chorus, etc. These in Ignatius’ “Adam” of the ninth century were God and the serpent. Such also was “Christus Patiens” which had chorus, semi-chorus and pantomime. Mary here appears with the characteristics of a pagan woman and declaims, like Hecuba or Medea. It is sacred only in argument. It is said to contain 1263 lines stolen bravely from Euripides.
The Italian sacred drama, or as it is called sacra rappresentazione, precisely corresponded to the miracles and the moralities of other European countries and the same subjects were chosen: Cain and Abel, Abraham and Isaac, Abraham and Hagar, Haman, Queen Esther, Moses, Nebuchadnezzar, the Angel Raphael and 231 Tobias, Solomon, Samson, Saul, the Annunciation, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, St. John the Baptist, the Last Supper, the Passion, the Resurrection. One finds precisely the same mixture of reverent and irreverent treatment, the same comic element furnished by the devil and the little devils.
I should not justify the amount of time already spent on the early Latin drama, if it were not evident that the Latin tongue and the Latin poets, epic, lyric and dramatic were always regarded as national to Italy: as the phenomena of an early period of their literature.
Just as in the days of Plautus, as in the days of Cicero, pure Latin as we now know it, flourished side by side with the lingua rustica, so up to the present — one might also say — Latin and the volgare illustre, as Dante calls his vernacular, have flowed, like the Rhône and the Saône, unmixed and unmingling.
After the seventh century Latin as a spoken language among the people began to decline. The oldest monument of Italian is said to be a manuscript of the year 960, but there were a number of dialects all more or less founded 232 on the ancient lingua rustica.¶¶ It was the boast of the Archbishop Christian of Mayence that he could speak Latin, Roman, French, Greek, Apulean, Lombard and Brabant as perfectly as his mother tongue. It has been remarked that the Italian has no traces of the old languages — Sabellian, Volscian, Oscan, Etruscan — while the various dialects abound in Keltic, German, Greek, Arabian, French and Spanish words. There is a philosophical reason for this — geographical situation and trade. The pure Italian sprang from the middle provinces, which had least connection with foreign countries.
Tuscany was a mountainous country and isolated; it was the ancient source of art, and here arose the mystic St. Francis da Assisi, the spiritual Bonaventura, the fanatical Laudesi, the wonderful Catarina da Siena, the artist 233 Rafael, Giotto and others. And here was the real home of the sacra rappresentazione in the Italian tongue, in the noble Tuscan. *** These mysteries were composed by lords and ladies — not the least celebrated was Lucrezia Tornabuoni de’ Medici, mother of Lorenzo, the Magnificent.
The churchmen still clung to Latin. Cardinal Bembo advised Ariosto to write in Latin. Dante used the volgare with some hesitation. Petrarca composed his letters and many of his poems in Latin. Cardinal Rafaello Riario had Latin plays at his palace. Pomponio Leto had a troupe of disciples called Pompomancii who in the fifteenth century played the “Asinaria” of Plautus and the “Hippolytus” of Seneca in the Quirinal, and even in the Vatican. Cardinal Pietro Riario, in 1473, brought a troupe of Florentine actors who played a Passion in Latin hexameters.
It would be impossible to enumerate a tenth of the Latin plays, ancient and mediæval, that 234 were given under the patronage of Sixtus IV., Alexander VI., Julius II., Leo X. and the other art-loving Popes. It is sufficient for us to remember that the spirit of the Renascence kept the popular drama in the background for many years. The Inquisition stood with drawn sword, as it were, challenging everything that was not provided with the countersign of classic antiquity.
The history of the sacred drama (called in Italy storia, festa, misterio, vangelo, figura, esempio, esemplo, etc.) is not so tame and monotonous as it might be thought. Besides the various biblical or traditional characters and the appropriate allowance of dignified angels and comic devils, there were introduced, according to circumstances, priests and courtiers, royal counsellors and astrologers, doctors and judges, bandits and cavaliers, merchants and soldiers.
These characters inclined to assume a fixed type. Thus the soldier was always represented as boastful and vainglorious, given to wine and gambling and every form of vice, quite like his great prototype the miles gloriosus of Plautus.
In Florence, where literary Italian had Dante, 235 Petrarca and Boccaccio to condition its perfection, the sacra rappresentazione came nearest to the drama of art. There were numerous imitations, but Florence and “the small but glorious Tuscan commune” best deserves study and affords the richest store of materials.
St. John was the patron saint of Florence and out of the celebrations of this munificent patron grew the splendour of the theatrical pageants. The beginning of it may be seen as far back as 1283, when the chronicles relate how “the city being in a good and happy state of repose and tranquil and pacific and convenable for merchants and artisans,” a company and brigade of one thousand men and more, under a leader, called the signore dell’ amore, marched through the city, all clad in white robes, with trumpets and other musical instruments and celebrated the day with dancing and dinners and other entertainments.
Fifty years later, in 1333, the celebration was still more brilliant. Two brigades of artists (brigade d’ artiste), one clad in white, the other in yellow, solemnly celebrated the happy season. The giuochi e sollazzi lasted a whole month.
The sacred drama, which as I said, gradually 236 came to the level of dramma d’ arte was performed at first by private individuals. Thus the morality entitled “Gelosia,” by Il Lasca, was put on the zafaldo, scaffold or stage, by a company of young nobles, who, if one can tell by the prologue, were all friends or relatives of the audience, all enamoured of beauty, of uprightness, of grace, of praiseworthy manners and virtuous customs. Afterward regular companies were formed, which took their names from their saints or the churches under whose auspices they acted.
The most famous was that called Del Vangelo, or from their seal, an eagle, Aquilini, which early in the fifteenth century recited or sang the “San Giovanni e Paulo” of Lorenzo, the Magnificent and perpetuated itself to the end of the last century.
In 1773 the Teatro del Vangelista was occupied by the Academici Aquiloni. It was said of Lorenzo (by the way) that Terence and Plautus poured their muses into his intellect, as Neptune pours into the ground the rains of spring and summer.
The sacred drama always began with an annunziazione, or prologue, spoken by an angel, 237 and ended with a licenza, or epilogue, meant to disarm malevolent criticism by acknowledging all possible faults.
The actors at first were young boys, technically called voci or voices. Their director was called festajolo.
It is a question whether women and girls were at first privileged to be present as spectators. The custom undoubtedly varied in different parts of Italy. It was on the increase in the sixteenth century as is proved by the addresses to the donne in the prologues. The presence of actresses on the stage was also allowed at very widely different epochs. The names of La Flaminia, Polonia Zuccati, Isabella Andreini and Maria Malloni have come down from the Florence of the sixteenth century. In Rome even at the end of the last century the appearance of a woman on the stage was regarded as scandalous.
In Sicily and Calabria and other remote parts of Italy the sacred drama is still performed on festival days; so that it may be said to belong to the modern stage, like the Passion Play of Oberammergau. A certain form of it only recently ceased in Rome itself, in the chapel of the cemetery of the hospital of San Giovanni 238 for instance, in the Christmas and Epiphany representations in the church of Sant’ Andrea delle Valle. Now they appear only in a form of plastic art, mute and painted. But there are preserved examples of genuine dramatic art composed by the Jesuits, called pastoraline or rappresentazioni drammatiche boschereccie, where the different animals come to the manger of the infant Jesus and praise Him; the lambs and sheep sing be’-be’-be’, the colt whinnies hi-hi-hi, il bel canino barks bau-bau-boo, the calf bellows mu-mu-muha, the frog croaks quoà-quoà-quoà, the cats mew and all the domestic fowls and the birds of the forest express themselves in the same graphic but ridiculous way. To such a for did the sacred drama sink while its best form was being gradually usurped by the profane drama.
It has been well said that “the men of the cinque cento found themselves in the personages of the ancient comedy for the very reason that Italian society had gone back to the polished and splendid corruption of paganism and the Empire.” L’Ancona says, “In an age that witnessed and supported with serious scandal Alexander VI. and Lodovico il Moro, 239 that burnt [Savanarola] and deified Pietro Aretino, the sacred spectacles of the Christian Liturgy were no longer acceptable and therefore their places were taken by such comedies as “La Mandragora” and “La Calandra,” which by their novelty and perfection corresponded to the artistic exquisiteness of that century.
I have not attempted to go into all the manifestations of the dramatic spirit nor mentioned every form even of the sacred drama. I have not attempted to describe the farsi spirituali or the atti recitabili which were branches of the sacra rappresentazione. It is enough for the present to notice that there has hitherto been a certain unity in all the diversity at which I have attempted to hint. First the continuous influence of the classic Latin drama which caused the comedies of Terence and Plautus to hold the stage down to the time of Machiavelli; which, secondly, caused almost every writer of plays, sacred and profane, to go back for his models to these two dozen plays. “We cannot do any beautiful work,” says Ercole Bentivoglio, in the prologue to “I Fantasmi,” “without taking antiquity for our mirror.” Church and fashion alike frowned on the less 240 conventional but more promising popular drama and kept it down for many lustrums.
But the change came — there were brilliant writers. Yet, who in the whole list of the dramatic poets of the cinque cento had a talent equal to Machiavelli, whose “Mandragora” places him, in the eyes of the Italians, on a level with Molière and Aristophanes? Not one.
It was impossible wholly to smother the commedie dell’ arte, as the popular comedy was called. It was too deeply rooted in the very nature of the people. It went back to the Atellan comedy of the Romans — even the name Zanni — our Zany — goes back to the typical Sanno of the Latin popular comedy. The deceived father, the rascally son, the clever, tricky servant are all typical: the father came to be a merchant of Venice; Pantaleone or a doctor of Laws from Bolgona; Gratiano, the servant lads form Bergamo. These four persons gave hints to Molière and Shakespeare.
Fully to follow the rise of the modern drama in Italy is an almost endless task. We stand as it were in a great plaza to which we have been led by one of the great Roman roads. From this plaza open a dozen wider and ever 241 wider roads, each of which offers boundless fields for study.
The breaking up of Italy into almost innumerable republics, dukedoms and principalities, each with its, to a certain extent isolated, civilisation, each with its own private history, its own court and its own stage, renders the story of Italian literature, and particularly of the drama, most complicated. Florence alone would fill a volume, for here was the great centre of cultivation represented by the Medici. Ferrara, Padua, Venice, Urbino, Naples, Milan and a dozen other capitals have their own history. Merely to read over the names of the comedy writers of the sixteenth century — Dovizio, known as Cardinal Bibbiena, Ariosto, Bentivoglio, Alamanni, Benedetto Barchi, Lorenzo II., Battista Gilli, representatives of the comedia erudita; the Florentines Firenzuola, Cecchi, Francesco D’Ambra, Niccolo Lecco, Alessandro Piccolomini, Paraboscho — without attempting to mention their plays or to analyse them, is in itself tedious.
There are three centuries of pastoral dramas — or the commedia rusticale — the influence of which is seen in such undramatic writers as 242 Sir Philip Sidney, the brightest example of which is the “Pastor Fido” of Guarini. Then comes the period of theatrical reform when the French influence was paramount, at the beginning of the last century; the name here arising to prominence being that of Luigi Riccoboni, whose “Moglie Gelosa,” “The Jealous Wife,” and “La Sopresa d’ Amore” were imitated from Molière. Girolomo Gigli followed in his footsteps, and we find him creating an Italianised Tartuffe. With Goldoni, who banished harlequin or Leporello from his pieces, begins a new era of the Italian stage.
* These are not to be confounded with the Carmina Arvalia sung at the festival of the “Creative Goddess” with hymns to the Lares agrestes: only one has come down to us: one example of this religious litany sung antiphonally —
Enos, Lases, iuvate,
calling upon Mars as Marmar and ending with a four-times repeated triumphe: for these are hieratic and priestly: while the fescinnine impromptus were thoroughly popular.
† The action of the Roman Centunculus and almost his name are preserved in the Italian Arlequino.
‡ “Casina,” which in spite of its mutilated condition tells its ever fresh and comic story, was imitated in the sixteenth century by Niccolò Machiavelli in his Clizia, and by many other Italian dramatists. In the records of the Italian Courts the Latin Comedies of Plautus are constantly mentioned as a part of the festal amusements.
§ Nam pertractate factast neque item ut ceterae, neque spurcidici insunt versus immemorabilest hic neque periurus lenost nec meretrix mala neque miles gloriosus.
¶ Nor must we forget that Terence also is to be represented in the modern stage in his original Latin: the students of Harvard have now enacted the “Phormio” at Sanders Theater.
** He acquired the enormous wealth of 300,000,000 sesterces, and was accused by jealous rivals of all manner of crimes.
†† In the same way in Florence in the sixteenth century, besides the sacra rappresentazione and the farsa, they had the different types of comedy called classica, togata erudita, osservata.
‡‡ The stage manager was called dux or dominus gregis; leader or lord of the flock. There was a regularly organised claque called conquisitores; an official called praeco compelled the audience to attention. Entrance to all but slaves was free, but visitors had to show their tessera or seat-check.
§§ Cardinal Riario was a great patron of the drama and had Latin plays performed in the great hall of his palace.
¶¶ As Latin declined the lingua rustica, a sort of native Volapük spread among all the former provinces of the Empire, beginning first at places most remote from Rome: the Romanic language or Romance grew into Provençal, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and finally Italian. The Provençal became the first of the literary languages and its noble array of Poets or Troubadours, as it were, laid down the laws for European lyric poetry not only in France but in remote Iceland. The lyrical or epic influence of these writers was first felt in Florence, and Dante was its most perfect flower. Dante wrote no plays, but the influence of his verse is frequently visible in the language and thought of the sacred dramas of the Florentines.
*** The sacra rappresentazione corresponds to the Miracle-plays in England, to the Geistliche Schauspiele in Germany, to the Auto Sacramental in Span and to the Mysteries in France. One of the earliest known was “la Rappresentazione di Nostro Signore Gesù Cristo,” at Padua, in 1242 or 1243.
VI. Goldoni and Italian Comedy
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