THE DRAMA AS I SEE IT

Studies in the Plays and Films of Yesterday, and To-day

STEPHEN LEACOCK May 1 1923

THE DRAMA AS I SEE IT

Studies in the Plays and Films of Yesterday, and To-day

STEPHEN LEACOCK May 1 1923

THE DRAMA AS I SEE IT

Studies in the Plays and Films of Yesterday, and To-day

THE Greek drama, as everybody knows, possesses a majesty that we do not find elsewhere. It has a loftiness, a sublimity, to which no later theatre has attained. Anybody who has seen the play of Alcestis put on by the senior class of the Podunk High School will admit this at once.

The Greek drama, unfortunately. is no longer exhibited to the ordinary theatre-going public.

It is too sublime for them.

They are away beneath it The attempt to put on one act of the Oedipus Poly ph legist us of Boanerges at the entertainment evenirigof the annual convention of the Rubber Men of America last January was voted down by a nine to one vote in favour of having Highland Dances of the Six Susquehanna Sisters.

Another difficulty is that a lot of the Greek drama is lost. Some critics think that all the best of it is lost; others, not all others, again claim that what we have ought to make us feel that we have no right to complain over what is lost.

Rut though the Greek drama is not presented in our commercial theatres, it still flourishes in our institutions of learning. One may yet see the stupendous tragedies of Sophocles and Euripides put on in the auditorium of the Jefferson High School or acted, under pressure, by the boys of St. Peter s Episcopali Resident Academy, or presented in commencement week by the Fi Fi Omega oil i Fraternity of the University of Atalanta.

The open season for the Greek drama in the college is the month of February. This gives the students four months to learn the Greek lines, and is based on a piece work rate of five words a day. After the play they have still time to get back to what is now called “normalcy” before the end of the college session.

Let us therefore transport ourselves in fancy to the winter evening in a college town when the Greek play is to be put on by the senior class in classics. There is no unusual light or brilliance in the streets to announce this fact. On the contrary, the general appearance is as of gloom. Here and there a glaring light against a hoarding brazenly announces the vulgar fact that Harold Lloyd, or rather his shade, is revolving at the Coliseum. But of the fact that the shade of Sophocles is to be at the auditorium of the Faculty of Liberal Arts there is no public indication. Nor is the location of Sophocles easy to find. Our first attempt to follow what seems to be the movement of the crowd leads us vainly towards the entrance of Third Street skating rink and then to the lighted portico of the Gayety Burlesque Theatre, Ladies Cordially Welcomed. No such lighted path leads to the august dead. Nor are the ser vices of a taxi of any use to us. The driver has not heard of the performance, is not aware apparently of the existence of the college auditorium and can only suggest that Sophocles himself may be staying at the Jefferson:

Most of the actors do.

BUT to anybody accustomed to colleges and their ways it is not difficult to find the auditorium. One has but to notice here and there among the elm trees of the side streets a few shivering figures moving in the same direction and wearing a costume hsM way between fashion and disreputability. These are college professors and they are going to the play. Let us follow’ them.

We do this and we easily find the auditorium; in

STEPHEN LEACOCK

IV. "The Greek Drama" As Presented in Our Colleges

fact, on a close inspection we can distinctly see light here and there in its windows and people going in. Entrance is effected in two ways, either by ticket, for those who have tickets, or without a ticket for those who haven’t got a

ticket. When we are well inside the place, we find a large placard, visible only to those who have got in, announcing the attraction :

A GREAT TRAGEDY ' The Greek Play “OROASTUS”

Put on in the original by the Senior Class A Masterpiece of Sorrow Don’t Miss It.

1 “All Up.”

There is quite a sprinkling of people already seated. There must be what is called “easily three hundred.” But on,.'such occasions nobody is mean enough to count the audience. We are shown to our seats by girl ushers in college gowns and bobbed hair, a touch of old Greek life which goes to our heart.

If the senior class understood advertising as well as they know Greek, they would have put that placard near the railway station and had a band play, ing and one or two of the girls with bobbed hair selling tickets behind glass. Nor would it have been, necessary to select the girls who knew most Greek. But still —we started by saying that the Greek drama was lofty; let it remain so.

ize that we needn’t have come for a long time yet. There is no evidence of anybody starting anything, Greek or otherwise. There is a subdued chatter among .the audience and people straggling in, one, two, and even three at a time. We notice presently that all the audience in the hall except ourselves have got little books or pamphlets— paper things that look like the uplift hymns at a Rotary Club six o’clock supper, or the hymnal of a Chautauqua Society. We go back to the outer entrance and get one (fifty cents each) and find that this priceless thing is the book of the play with the Greek on one side and the English (it seems English) on the other. So now we can take our seats again and study the thing out.

On the outside of the book of the play is am announcement for

, KOLLEGE KLOTHES

Superb Suits, $13.50, Classy Overcoats, $9.50.

—but we had always known that education was a struggle and we pass this by.

On the inside the thing begins in earnest.

It is still a little sprinkled with advertisements; here and there, but we rightly gather that they are not essential to the tragedy. The book runs thus;

OROASTUS

Kollege Klothes and Students Boots. A Greek Drama dating probably from the fifteenth century Students Shirts before Christ. The play is generally attributed to Diplodocus, who lived probably at Megara but also perhaps Knit to Fit Underwear for College Men at Syracuse. His work All Wool is generally esteemed on a par with that of his great contemporaries Iambilichus and Euarbilius. He is said on what seems credible ground to have died during the presentation of one of his own plays. But the place of his death Third Avenue and Jefferson St. The Home Lunch Resort is unknown.

The entire works of Diplodocus with the single extant-exception of Oroastus are lost but they are none the less esteemed on that account. A full account of his life was written by Polybius but is

lost. (Rah! Rah! Join The Mandolin Club). A critique of his genius written by Diogenes Laertius but attributed also to Pliny, has perished. The bust of Diplodocus, said to be the work of Phidias Senior, was lost, either at sea or on land. The bust now in the Louvre was executed one thousand six hundred years after his supposed death, and may or may not have shown him as he was. Internal evidence goes to show that Diplodocus was, internally, very unhappy Try Possums Pills One A Day! From the play before us many lines have unfortunately been lost. But the loss is in every case indicated by asterisks in the text Get Your Neckties At Appletons.

The simple theme of sorrow, the rigour of fate, and the emptiness of human desire dominate the play Have You Joined the Bible Class. Now Is the Time To Join.

And at this point the solid Greek begins, pages and pages of it, and facing it on the other side solid masses óf English. And just as we begin to try and study it out— we ought really to have begun a month ago—we realize that the entertainment is beginning.

'T'HE huge white sheet that acts as a curtain slides sideways groaning on a wire and behold the platform of the Auditorium, converted into the severe stage of the Greeks with white curtains on the sides and a bare floor, and of stage properties no.trace. No comfortable little red mica fire burning at the side such as cheers the actors of a drawing-room play; none of the green grass and the cardboard inn with the swinging sign that stand for eighteenth century comedy; nothing of the sweep of rock and the curtain of cloud that indicates that Forbes Robertson is about to be Hamlet. Nothing, just nothing: boards, a little sawdust, room to come in and out, and sorrow. That is all that the Greeks asked or wanted. How infinitely superior to ourselves, who have so piled up panoply of life about us that our lightest acts and our deepest grief must alike be hanged with priceless decorations. But the Greek theatres like the four bare walls of the Puritan House of Worship—but stop, the play has started.

A tall figure walks in, a player in a long draped sheet of white, a bearded player, with a chaplet of leaves about his head,. . . This must be Oroastus, let me look, yes it’s Oroastus, King of Thebes. What’s he saying? A sort of long-drawn, howling "Aie! Aie! Aie! Aie!”

My! My! Oroastus must be in a terrible way.

"Aie, aie, aie, aie!”

This must be that note of sorrow that I spoke about: or else it is some of the internal melancholy of Diplodocus.

Oroastus, King of Thebes, walks out pretty well into the middle of the stage and stands there groaning. Aie,

Aie, Aie. . . .

So to get a clue to what is now going to happen we look at our book of the play to see that the next thing marked in the English text is:

Entry of the Chorus

Ah now! cheer up! that’s something like, the Chorus! Bring them right along in. No doubt they will be of that beautiful type of classic Greek girls. If there is one thing that we specialize on in the modern drama it is the chorus. Fetch the girls in by all means.

In they come. Help! What is this?

Three old men—very aged, with cotton wool beards and long white robes like the one Oroastus wears.

No, there is no doubt about it, the Greek idea of a chorus is a matter on which we take issue at once. These three old men may think themselves terribly cute, but for us, quite frankly, they are not in it. We knew before we came that the Greek tragedy was severe, but this is a pitch of severity for which we were not prepared.

However, as these three saucy old men are on the stage, let’s see what they’re doing. Look, they all lift their arms up straight above their heads and they all begin to moan.

Aie, Aie, Aie—e.

In fact just like King Oroastus. They evidently have got

The king being left alone starts a new fit of sorrow, “Aie, aie, aie.” .

the same internal trouble that he has. Now they seem to be breaking into a kind of sustained talk in a sort of chant. It’s impossible to know what they are saying because it’s all in Greek—or no—of course we can follow it. We have the English in the book of the play: in fact you can see all the people in the audience turning the leaves of their little book and burying their heads in them ’up to their spectacles.

At a Greek college play the audience don’t look at the stage, they look at the little book.

This is what the three saucy old men are saying:

“O how unhappy is this (nowstanding-before-us) King!

“O fate! with what dark clouds art thou about to overwhelm (or perhaps to soak) him.

“0 what grief is his! and how ■on the one hand shall he for his part escape it. Oh, \yoe! 0 anxiety, 0 grief, Oh Woa!”

In other words in the Greek play the business of the Chorus is to come in and tell the audience what a classy spectacle it is going to be. Sorrow being the chief idea of Greek tragedy, the chorus have to inform the audience what they’re going to get, and to get it good. It’s a great idea in dramatic construction.

It’s just as if at the beginning of Hamlet the chorus stuck their heads over the battlements of Elsinore and said, in up-to-date English, “Say, look at this young man! Isn’t he going to

get it in the neck. Eh what?

Isn’t he in for hard luck? Just wait till his father’s ghost gets a twist on him.”

So the chorus groan and the King keeps howling, “Aie, aie, aie,” and after they’d done it long enough, the three chorus walk out one behind the other like the figures on an Athenian frieze, and the King is left alone.

He speaks (and a footnote in the book says that this speech is one of the finest things in Greek tragedy.) x

“What awful fate hangs over (or perhaps overhangs) me. this unhappy king!

“What sorrow now does the swift-moving hand (or perhaps the revolving finger) of doom make for me!

“Where shall I turn? Whither shall I go? What is going to hit me next?

“What would I not give, even if it were my palace itself, to be let loose from this overwhelming anxiety (or perhaps this rather unusual situation)!

“Beside it my palace and my crown are nothing.”

The King pauses and lifts his two hands straight up in the air and cries:

“Oh Zeus, what next?”

And at this juncture the little book says;

Enter A Herald

and audience look up from their books a minute to see this herald come in. In runs the herald. He is young and has no beard. He has a tunic and bare legs and on his feet are sandals with wings and on his head also are wings and he carries a wand. The wings on his feet are meant to show how fast he could go if he really had to—like the bicycle that the telegraph messenger pushes along with him. The wand means that if he needed to he could fly.

THE entrance of this herald causes the only interruption from the audience that occurs

during the play. There are cries from the gallery of “Attaboy! Good work, Teddy!” The herald is one of the most popular members of the Fi Fi Omega Society. Anybody looking at that herald approves of him. He is the best stage effect of the lot. In fact there is more “pep” about the herald than in all the rest put together.

’ He confronts Oroastus and they hold a dialogue like this:

“O King.”

“0 Herald.”

“Aie.”

“Me, too.”

“Woe, woe! King.”

“I believe you.”

“Things are bad.”

“They are indeed. What misfortune brings you in this direction?”

“A grave one.”

“I guess it must be, but tell me that my ear may hear it.” “Grievous are my tidings.” ,“I am sure they are.”

“And hard for you to hear.”

THE slowness of the herald in giving the bad news to the King is one of the striking things in the Greek drama. It is only equalled on the modern stage by the great detective revealing the mystery in the fifth act, or a lawyer explaining the terms of the secret will, or the dying criminal (shot, deservedly in a cellar) confessing the innocence of the heroine. In fact the Greek herald was the man who started this kind of trouble. He was the first original exponent of the idea of not telling a good thing in a hurry.

He speaks again.

“Things are not what they seem.”

Qroastus groans.

“Things which were yesterday are to-day not.” Oroastus groans, “Yo:” All the dialogue has by this time been knocked out of him. The herald realizes that "he can’t get another rise out of him. So he gets down to facts.

“Your palace, 0 King, has on the one hand been destroyed by fire and your crown which in and of itself for the most part signified your kingship, has on the other hand been stolen.”

Oroastus: “Aie, Aie, Aie, my palace is destroyed and my crown is lost. Oh whoa, this is grief.”

The herald: “It is. Goodbye. I have other tasks (or perhaps avocations).”

The herald says this and withdraws and as he goes out in come the three old chorus men again. That was the great thing about the Greek tragedy. It never stopped. It went right on. In the modern play when the herald said “Goodbye,” the curtain would fall on Act I. In the moving pictures the scene would shift and show the palace being burnt. But the good old Greek tragedy went right on like sawing wood. This is called the unity of the drama and so far nothing beats it.

npHE chorus, of course, have merely come in to have a good Fme by piling up the sorrow and gloating over Oroastus.

They line up and they chant out:

“Oh! look at this—now-standing-before-us King (or sometimes rendered this ordinary man). Sorrow has struck him.

“His palace and his crown are destroyed.

“But Fate is not done with him yet.

“All-compelling fate is getting ready another arrow (or, perhaps, is going to take another crack at him).

“He has lost his palace.

“But watch out.

“There is more coming.”

And at this the three miserable old brutes troop out again. Then the King says:

“Oh. me, alas. My palace is gone and yet a further fate overhangs me. What is this hangover?

“For so much indeed have I borne that to me now it seems that nothing further could overwhelm me even,if it were the loss of my tender consort herself.”

Continued on page 73

The Drama As I See It

Continued from page 23

And just as he says this,

The Herald Enters The King speaks.

.“What now? And why have your feet brought you back?”

It was evidently a favourite theory of the Greek tragedians that a man went where his feet took him. This was part of ' the general necessity or rigor of fate.

The herald says:—

“Terrible are the tidings.”

“What are they?”

“Something awful.”

“Tell me what they are.”

“How can I?”

“Go at it (or perhaps go to it).”

“Dark indeed is the news and terrible is the certainty.”

“What is it?”

“How can I say it? It is dark.”

_ ‘‘What is the dark stuff that you are giving to me? Does it perhaps concern my consort, the fair-fingered Apologee?”

“It does.”

“How much?”

“Very much.”

“Tell me then the whole extent of the matter, concealing nothing.”

“I will.”

“Do.”

“With my lips I will say it.”

“Do so.”

THE King groansThe herald knows that the time has come to let loose his information. He says, “Listen then, oh King. Your queenly consort, the fair-, fingered Apologee has gone to Hades.”

The King: “Too bad.”

The herald: “Gloomy Pluto has carried her off.”

The King: “This is deplorable (or perhaps reprehensible).”

The herald: “Goodbye. I have other avocations.”

The herald retires and the King has hardly had time to say Aie, before the Chorus come trailing on again and take up their station. They chant out :

“Look at this.

“How’s this for grief?

“The royal consort has been carried off by the Gloomy Dis, he of the long ears, to his dark home. But sorrow is not yet done. There is a whole lot more coming. For such is the fate of Kings. .Either they have a good time or they don’t.”

With this sentiment the chorus all troop off again. We gather from the little book, even if we didn’t know it already that their last sentiment “either they have a.good time or they don’t” is considered one of the gems of the Greek Drama. The commentators says that this shows us the profundity of the mind of Diplodocus. Some think that this places him above the lighter work of such men as Iambilichus or Euarbilius. Others again claim that this passage “either they have a good time or they don’t,” shows (internally of course) that the life of Diplodocus was not all sorrow. To write this Diplodocus must himself have had a good time some of the time. In fact these lines, we are given to understand, have occasioned one of those controversies which have made the Greek Drama what it is.

ING OROASTUS being now left, alone, starts a new fit of sorrow. “Aie, aie, aie,”—in fact just as we expected that he would. By this time we have grasped the idea of the tragedy, the successive blows of sorrow that hit Oroastus one after the other. First the chorus say there’ll be sorrow. Thén Oroastus says, here comes a sorrow, and then the herald comes in and says get ready now, stand by for a new sorrow, and lands it at him. There is a beautiful simplicity about it that you never see on the stage to-day. In fact this is that sublimity, that loftiness that only the Fi Fi Omega players can catch. So the King groans.

“Oh, wh^t an absolutely complete sorrow this is, this last one!

“Oh, Apologee!

“Oh, Hades!

“For me, what now is left? My palace is destroyed and the fair-fingered Apologee has gone to Hades. What now is left to' me but my old dog.

“Old dog that I am myself on the one hand, my old dog on the other hand is all.”

This passage "old dog that I am myself” is indicated in the text as one of the high spots. In fact it is a joke. The text says so. From where we sit we can see the professor of Greek laughing at it. Indeed we could easily prove by looking up the large editions of the play that this is a joke. The commentators say: “the bitter jest of Oroastus in calling himself an old dog illustrates for us the delicious irony of the great tragedian.” Certain critics have claimed indeed that the passage is corrupt and that Oroastus called himself not an “old dog” but a “hot dog.” We prefer, however, the earlier reading which seems to us exquisite. Diplodocus undoubtedly felt that the weight of sorrow at this point had become more than Oroastus or even the spectators could bear. By calling himself an old dog he removes exactly that much of it.

THIS contention seems pretty well sustained. In fact anybody accus, tomed to the modern stage will realize that we are here at the source of the alleviating joke, introduced at any moment of terrible tension. In the modern play a comic character is carried all through the piece in order to make these jokes. But the Greek Tragedy was nothing if not simple, direct, and honest. The hero has to make his own jokes.

Still, we are keeping the herald waiting. The time is ripe for him to come in again.

Enter The Herald

_ In he comes just as before (the Greeks didn’t believe in vanity) and the king at once asks him the usual question about his feet.

“For what purpose, oh Herald,” he enquires, “do your feet bring you this way again?”

The herald: “A gloomy one.”

“Let me have it.”

“I will.”

“Do. For however dark it is, I being now an old dog (or perhaps a hot dog) have no further consolation in life than my dog.”

It is to be noticed that Diplodocus here uses the same joke twice. Anybody who deals in humour will warmly approve of this. To get the best out of a joke it must be used over and over again. In this matter the Greeks have nothing on us.

This time the herald knows that Oroastus can’t stand for much more. So he says: “Old dog indeed? Did your lips lead you to say old dog?”

“ They did indeed.” ,

“Are you perhaps under the impression, oh King, that you still have an old dog?” “Such is my impression.”

“In that case you never made a bigger mistake in your life.”

“Let me know it and if indeed I have made a mistake, let me hear it.”

“Hear it then. Your old dog is gone to Hades. Goodbye. I have other avocations.”

The herald leaves and the king bréales out into lamentations.

“Aie, aie,” he says, “my consort, the fair-fingered Apologee, and my old dog are in Hades. Why am I still left in the upper air (or perhaps up in the air)? Oh Whoa!”

The king lifts his hands up in sorrow and a note in the book says, “King Oroastus has now had nearly enough.” To this we quite agree. One might say, in fact, he had had plenty.

BUT the chorus are not done with him yet. On they come with the remorselessness of the Greek Drama

They line up. “Look then at this standing-before-us King. What a load he has. But worse is yet coming. Keep your seats and watch him.”

They go out in their usual undisturbed way, and Oroastus says:—

“Oh, what a last final instalment (or hang-over) of bitter grief is now mine. What now is left? Nowthateverythinghas -gone to Hades, of what use is life itself? Oh, day! Oh, sunshine! Oh, light! Let me withdraw myself, I, before }my time, to my tomb, to my mausoleum which I have had made by the skilled hands of artificers and there let me join hands with Death.”

Oroastus has hardly said this when

the herald comes back. By this time everybody guesses the news that he brings. Under the circumstances, not even a Greek herald could string it out. The thing is too obvious.

The King says—well there is no need to write it again—the herald’s feet, that same stuff—but what he really means is, “Are you back, again?” and the herald says, “Yes.” This is the first plain answer that the herald has given all through the play.

Then Oroastus says:—

“Is it dark stuff again?”

And the Herald says:

“The darkest!”

At which the King gives a groan and says:

“Then let me not hear it, for already to me thinking over pretty well everything the matter seems more or less what you would call played out (or possibly worked to death). It is now in my mind hearing nothing further to retire to the mausoleum which I have long since 'caused to be built by skilled artificers and there lying down upon the stone to clasp the hand of Death.”

The herald: “You can’t.”

The king: “Why not? What is which? For your words convey nothing. Tell me what it is.”

The herald: “I will.\’ -The king: “Do.” 1

The herald: “All right. Get ready for something pretty tough. Are you all set?” “I am.”

“Know then that your mausoleum no' longer is. It was Uroken into by burglars and is unfit to use. Goodbye. I have other avocations.”

Oroastus: “Aie, aie, aie. . . .”

Then they line up for^ a last crack at Oroastus:

“Look at him!

“Isn’t he tfre unlucky bean (or perhaps turnip).

“Did you ever hear of worse luck than his?

“Can you beat it?”

But such is life, Oroastus, and it is a necessity of the Gods that even Death is withheld from the sorrowful Aie, aie, aie.

AND with that the play gives every symptom of being over. The white sheet that acts as the curtain glides down and there is quite a burst of applause in the audience. The actors line up on the stage and all the Fi Fi Omega crowd in the gallery call out “Attaboy, Oroastus! Good work, Teddy!”

After which the audience doesn’t break up as an ordinary theatre audience does, but coagulates itself into little knots and groups. It knows that presently coffee and sandwiches are going to be passed around and the Greek Professor will stand in the middle of an admiringgroup while he explains to them that Oroastus is under the compulsion of Anangke,.

But for us no cake nor coffee. Let us get back to the Jefferson Hotel Grill Room while the supper is still on and while we can still get places for the midnight vaudeville show with the Dances.of the Susquehanna Sextette and the black-faced comedian with the saxophone. This Greek stuff is sublime, we admit it, and it islofty, we know it: and it has a dignity that the Susquehanna Sextette has not.

But after seeing Greek Tragedy once, we know our level. And henceforth we mean to stick to it.