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The Stage As It Was Once
by [?]

{1} This Lecture was given at Harrow in 1873, and in America in 1874.

Let us think for a while upon what the Stage was once, in a republic of the past–what it may be again, I sometimes dream, in some republic of the future. In order to do this, let me take you back in fancy some 2314 years–440 years before the Christian era, and try to sketch for you–alas! how clumsily–a great, though tiny people, in one of their greatest moments–in one of the greatest moments, it may be, of the human race. For surely it is a great and a rare moment for humanity, when all that is loftiest in it–when reverence for the Unseen powers, reverence for the heroic dead, reverence for the fatherland, and that reverence, too, for self, which is expressed in stateliness and self-restraint, in grace and courtesy; when all these, I say, can lend themselves, even for a day, to the richest enjoyment of life–to the enjoyment of beauty in form and sound, and of relaxation, not brutalising, but ennobling.

Rare, alas! have such seasons been in the history of poor humanity. But when they have come, they have lifted it up one stage higher thenceforth. Men, having been such once, may become such again; and the work which such times have left behind them becomes immortal.

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever.

Let me take you to the then still unfurnished theatre of Athens, hewn out of the limestone rock on the south-east slope of the Acropolis.

Above are the new marble buildings of the Parthenon, rich with the statues and bas-reliefs of Phidias and his scholars, gleaming white against the blue sky, with the huge bronze statue of Athene Promachos, fifty feet in height, towering up among the temples and colonnades. In front, and far below, gleams the blue sea, and Salamis beyond.

And there are gathered the people of Athens–fifty thousand of them, possibly, when the theatre was complete and full. If it be fine, they all wear garlands on their heads. If the sun be too hot, they wear wide-brimmed straw hats. And if a storm comes on, they will take refuge in the porticoes beneath; not without wine and cakes, for what they have come to see will last for many an hour, and they intend to feast their eyes and ears from sunrise to sunset. On the highest seats are slaves and freedmen, below them the free citizens; and on the lowest seats of all are the dignitaries of the republic– the priests, the magistrates, and the other [Greek]–the fair and good men–as the citizens of the highest rank were called, and with them foreign ambassadors and distinguished strangers. What an audience! the rapidest, subtlest, wittiest, down to the very cobblers and tinkers, the world has ever seen. And what noble figures on those front seats; Pericles, with Aspasia beside him, and all his friends–Anaxagoras the sage, Phidias the sculptor, and many another immortal artist; and somewhere among the free citizens, perhaps beside his father Sophroniscus the sculptor, a short, square, pug- nosed boy of ten years old, looking at it all with strange eyes–“who will be one day,” so said the Pythoness at Delphi, “the wisest man in Greece”–sage, metaphysician, humorist, warrior, patriot, martyr–for his name is Socrates.

All are in their dresses of office; for this is not merely a day of amusement, but of religions ceremony; sacred to Dionysos–Bacchus, the inspiring god, who raises men above themselves, for good–or for evil.

The evil, or at least the mere animal aspect of that inspiration, was to be seen in forms grotesque and sensuous enough in those very festivals, when the gayer and coarser part of the population, in town and country, broke out into frantic masquerade–of which the silly carnival of Rome is perhaps the last paltry and unmeaning relic– “when,” as the learned O. Muller says, “the desire of escaping from self into something new and strange, of living in an imaginary world, broke forth in a thousand ways; not merely in revelry and solemn though fantastic songs, but in a hundred disguises, imitating the subordinate beings–satyrs, pans, and nymphs, by whom the god was surrounded, and through whom life seemed to pass from him into vegetation, and branch off into a variety of beautiful or grotesque forms–beings who were ever present to the fancy of the Greeks, as a convenient step by which they could approach more nearly to the presence of the Divinity.” But even out of that seemingly bare chaos, Athenian genius was learning how to construct, under Eupolis, Cratinus, and Aristophanes, that elder school of comedy, which remains not only unsurpassed, but unapproachable, save by Rabelais alone, as the ideal cloudland of masquerading wisdom, in which the whole universe goes mad–but with a subtle method in its madness.