Chapter XXI. The Great Festivals of Athens.
This certainly we can say of these ceremonies. They seem to have afforded to spiritually minded men a sense of remission of personal sin which the regular religion could never give; they seem also to have conveyed a fair hope of immortality, such as most Greeks doubted. Sophocles tells thus the story: "Thrice blessed are they who behold these mystical rites, ere passing to Hades' realm. They alone have life there. For the rest all things below are evil."[*] And in face of imminent death, perhaps in hours of shipwreck, men are wont to ask one another, "Have you been initiated at Eleusis?"
[*]Sophocles, "Frag." 719.
202. The Greater Dionysia and the Drama. - Again we are in Athens in the springtime: "The eleventh of Elaphebolion" [March]. It is the third day of the Greater Dionysia. The city has been in high festival; all the booths in the Agora hum with redoubled life; strangers have flocked in from outlying pars of Hellas to trade, admire, and recreate; under pretext of honoring the wine god, inordinate quantities of wine are drunk with less than the prudent mixture of water. There is boisterous frolicking, singing, and jesting everywhere. It is early blossom time. All whom you meet wear huge flower crowns, and pelt you with the fragrant petals of spring.[*]
[*]Pindar ("Frag." 75) says thus of the joy and beauty of this fete: "[Lo!] this festival is due when the chamber of the red-robed Hours is opened and odorous plants wake to the fragrant spring. then we scatter on undying earth the violet, like lovely tresses, and twine roses in our hair; then sound the voice of song, the flute keeps time, and dancing choirs resound the praise of Semele."
So for two days the city has made merry, and now on the third, very early, "to the theater" is the word on every lip. Magistrates in their purple robes of office, ambassadors from foreign states, the priests and religious dignitaries, are all going to the front seats of honor. Ladies of gentle family, carefully veiled but eager and fluttering, are going with their maids, if the productions of the day are to be tragedies not comedies.[*] All the citizens are going, rich and poor, for here again we meet "Athenian democracy"; and the judgment and interest of the tatter-clad fishermen seeking the general "two-obol" seats may be almost as correct and keen as that of the lordly Alcmenoid in his gala himation.
[*]It seems probable (on our uncertain information) that Athenian ladies attended the moral and proper tragedies. It was impossible for them to attend the often very coarse comedies. Possibly at the tragedies they sat in a special and decently secluded part of the theater.
203. The Theater of Dionysus. - Early dawn it is when the crowds pour through the barriers around the Theater of Dionysus upon the southern slope of the Acropolis. They sit (full 15,000 or more) wedged close together upon rough wooden benches set upon the hill slopes.[*] At the foot of their wide semicircle is a circular space of ground, beaten hard, and ringed by a low stone barrier. It is some ninety feet in diameter. This is the "orchestra," the "dancing place," wherein the chorus may disport itself and execute its elaborate figures. Behind the orchestra stretches a kind of tent or booth, the "skene." Within this the actors may retire to change their costumes, and the side nearest to the audience is provided with a very simple scene, - some kind of elementary scenery panted to represent the front of a temple or palace, or the rocks, or the open country. This is nearly the entire setting.[+] If there are any slight changes of this screen, they must be made in the sight of the entire audience. The Athenian theater has the blue dome of heaven above it, the red Acropolis rock behind it. Beyond the "skene" one can look far away to the country and the hills. The keen Attic imagination will take the place of the thousand arts of the later stage-setter. Sophocles and his rivals, even as Shakespeare in Elizabeth's England, can sound the very depths and scale the loftiest heights of human passion, with only a simulacrum of the scenery, properties, and mechanical artifices which will trick out a very mean twentieth century theater.
[*]These benches (before the stone theater was built in 340 B.C.) may be imagined as set up much like the "bleachers" at a modern baseball park. We know that ancient audiences wedged in very close.
[+]I think it is fairly certain that the classical Attic theater was without any stage, and that the actors appeared on the same level as the chorus. As to the extreme simplicity of all the scenery and properties there is not the least doubt.
204. The production of a Play. - The crowds are hushed and expectant. The herald, ere the play begins, proclaims the award of a golden crown to some civic benefactor: a moment of ineffable joy to the recipient; for when is a true Greek happier than when held up for public glorification? Then comes the summons to the first competing poet.
"Lead on your chorus."[*] The intellectual feast of the Dionysia has begun.
[*]In the fourth century B.C. when the creation of original tragedies was in decline, a considerable part of the dionysia productions seem to have been devoted to the works of the earlier masters, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides.