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The account which Aristotle gives of the design of tragedy is, that it is intended to purge our passions by means of pity and terror. This is somewhat obscure. Various senses have been put upon his words, and much altercation has followed among his commentators. Without entering into any controversy upon this head, the intention of tragedy may, I think, be more shortly and clearly defined, to improve our virtuous sensibility. If an author interests us in behalf of virtue, forms us to compassion for the distressed, inspires us with proper sentiments on beholding the vicissitudes of life, and, by means of the concern which he raises for the misfortunes of others, leads us to guard against errors in our own conduct, he accomplishes all the moral purposes of tragedy.
In order to this end, the first requisite is, that he choose some moving and interesting story, and that he conduct it in a natural and probable manner. For we must observe, that the natural and the probable must always be the basis of tragedy; and are infinitely more important there, than in epic poetry. The object of the epic poet is to excite our admiration by the recital of heroic adventures; and a much slighter degree of probability is required when admiration is concerned, than when the tender passions are intended to be moved. The imagination, in the former case, is exalted, accommodates itself to the poet's idea, and can admit the marvellous without being shocked. But
tragedy demands a stricter imitation of the life and actions of men. For the end which it pursues is, not so much to elevate the imagination, as to affect the heart; and the heart always judges more nicely than the imagination, of what is probable. Passion can be raised only by making the impressions of nature and of truth upon the mind. By introducing, therefore, any wild or romantic circumstances into his story, the poet never fails to check passion in its growth, and, of course, disappoints the main effect of tragedy.
This principle, which is founded on the clearest reason, excludes from tragedy all machinery, or fabulous intervention of the gods. Ghosts have, indeed, maintained their place, as being strongly founded on popular belief, and peculiarly suited to heighten the terror of tragic scenes. But all unravellings of the plot, which turn upon the interposition of deities, such as Euripides employs in several of his plays, are much to be condemned; both as clumsy and inartificial, and as destroying the probability of the story. This mixture of machinery with the tragic action, is undoubtedly a blemish in the ancient theatre.
In order to promote that impression of probability which is so necessary to the success of tragedy, some critics have required, that the subject should never be a pure fiction invented by the poet, but built on real history, or known facts.
Such, indeed, were generally, if not always, the subjects of the Greek tragedians. But I cannot hold this to be a matter of any great consequence. It is proved by experience, that a fictitious tale, if properly conducted, will melt the heart as much as any real history. In order to our being moved, it is not necessary that the events related did actually happen, provided they be such as might easily have happened in the ordinary course of nature. Even when tragedy borrows its materials from history, it mixes many a fictitious circumstance. The greatest part of readers neither know, nor inquire, what is fabulous, or what is historical, in the subject. They attend only to what is probable, and are touched by events which resemble nature. Accordingly, some of the most pathetic tragedies are entirely fictitious in the subject; such as Voltaire's Zaire and Alzire, the Orphan, Douglas, the Fair Penitent, and several others.
Whether the subject be of the real or feigned kind, that on which most depends for rendering the incidents in a tragedy probable, and by means of their probability affecting, is the conduct or management of the story, and the connexion of its several parts. To regulate this conduct, critics have laid down the famous rule of the three unities; the importance of which it will be necessary to discuss. But, in order to do this with more advantage, it will be necessary that we first look backwards, and trace the rise and origin of tra
gedy, which will give light to several things relating to the subject.
Tragedy, like other arts, was, in its beginning, rude and imperfect. Among the Greeks, from whom our dramatic entertainments are derived, the origin of tragedy was no other than the song which was wont to be sung at the festival of Bacchus. A goat was the sacrifice offered to that god: after the sacrifice, the priests, with the company that joined them, sung hymns in honour of Bacchus; and from the name of the victim, rayos a goat, joined with won a song, undoubtedly arose the word tragedy.
These hymns, or lyric poems, were sung sometimes by the whole company, sometimes by separate bands, answering alternately to each other; making what we call a chorus, with its strophes and antistrophes. In order to throw some variety into this entertainment, and to relieve the singers, it was thought proper to introduce a person, who between the songs should make a recitation in verse. Thespis, who lived about 536 years before the Christian era, made this innovation; and, as it was relished, Æschylus, who came 50 years after him, and who is properly the father of tragedy, went a step farther, introduced a dialogue between two persons, or actors, in which he contrived to interweave some interesting story, and brought his actors on a stage, adorned with proper scenery
and decorations. All that these actors recited was called episode, or additional song; and the songs of the chorus were made to relate no longer to Bacchus, their original subject, but to the story in which the actors were concerned. This began to give the drama a regular form, which was soon after brought to perfection by Sophocles and Euripides. It is remarkable, in how short a space of time tragedy grew up among the Greeks, from the rudest beginnings to its most perfect state. For Sophocles, the greatest and most correct of all the tragic poets, flourished only 22 years after Eschylus, and was little more than 70 years posterior to Thespis.
From the account which I have now given it appears, that the chorus was the basis or foundation of the ancient tragedy. It was not an ornament added to it, or a contrivance designed to render it more perfect; but, in truth, the dramatic dialogue was an addition to the chorus, which was the original entertainment. In process of time, the chorus, from being the principal, became only the accessory in tragedy; till at last, in modern tragedy, it has disappeared altogether; which forms the chief distinction between the ancient and the modern stage.
This has given rise to a question, much agitated between the partisans of the ancients and the moderns, whether the drama has gained, or has suffered, by the abolition of the chorus? It must