Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “The Antigone at Palmo's,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. XII: Literary Criticism - part 04 (1902), pp. 130-135


[page 130, continued:]


[Broadway Journal, April 12, 1845.]

OUR readers are aware that the “Antigone” of Sophocles has been lately brought out at Berlin, at Paris, and at London. In the two former cities the [page 131:] success might be called decided, in the usual theatrical acceptation of the term — that is to say, the house was sufficiently full every night, and the nights of representation were sufficiently numerous to remunerate the management. At London there was less enthusiasm (whether true or false) and the announcement that the tragedy was there “performed with extraordinary success” must be swallowed cum grano salis: — the phrase, indeed, is by far too strong for either the Berlin or Parisian attempt.

A thing of this kind is always a mere “attempt,” and must necessarily so be — on account of its anomaly. We shall not pretend to enter into a discussion of the merits of “Antigone” as “Antigone” was written by Sophocles and performed at Athens — we shall not do this for the simple reason that that “Antigone” is a matter about which we moderns happen to know nothing — the proof being, that no two of the scholiasts agree in any one point respecting it. Of the “Antigone” as we have it, there is really very little to say — although of that little the Germans, as usual — Augustus William Schlegel in particular — have contrived to make a very great deal of elocution.

The tragedy, in all the elements of tragedy (as we, the moderns, comprehend it) is vastly inferior to any one of the dramas of Aeschylus — and, perhaps, any play of Euripides would have been more acceptable to a modern audience. But, apart from all this, there is about the “Antigone,” as well as about all the ancient plays, an insufferable baldness, or platitude, the inevitable result of inexperience in Art — but a baldness, nevertheless, which pedantry would force us to believe the result of a studied and supremely artistic simplicity alone. Simplicity is, indeed, a very lofty and very [page 132:] effective feature in all true Art — but not the simplicity which we see in the Greek drama. The simplicity of the Greek sculpture is everything that can be desired, because here the art in itself is simplicity in itself, and in its elements. The Greek sculptor chiselled his forms from what he saw before him every day, in a beauty far nearer to perfection than any work of any Cleomenes in the world. But in the drama, the direct — the straight forward, un-German Greek has no Nature so directly presented, from which to copy his conceptions. He did what he could — but that was exceedingly little worth. The profound sense of one or two tragic, or rather melo-dramatic elements (such as the idea of inexorable Destiny) — this sense, gleaming at intervals from out the darkness of the ancient stage, serves, in the imperfection of its development, to show not the dramatic ability, but the dramatic inability of the ancients. In a word, the simple arts spring into perfection, at their origin. The complex as inevitably demand the long and painful progressive experience of ages.

To the Greeks, beyond doubt, their drama seemed perfection — and this fact is absurdly urged as proof of their drama’s perfection in itself. It need only be said, in reply, that their art and their sense of art must have been necessarily on a level.

The idea of reproducing a Greek play before a modern audience, is the idea of a pedant and nothing beyond — that is to say, if the producer dreams of creating in the modern audience any real interest in the play. Of adventitious interest there will be, of course, some little. Many persons will be curious to understand the mode in which the Greeks wrote dramas and performed them — but, alas! no person should go to [page 133:] Palmo’s for such understanding. Others again will like it to be imagined that they have a scholastic taste, and could discourse learnedly on certain classical themes, if there were occasion. Others enjoy a good joke — and to all such the recommend the “Antigone” at Dinneford’s theatre, which we take it for granted is fifty or sixty feet in diameter — none of the Greek theatres being more than six or seven hundred.

We overheard Mr. Mitchell, on the first night of the representation, plotting direful schemes in the way of burlesque — but we would suggest to him that such trouble is altogether superfluous. We are serious in saying that if, before the performance had taken place at Palmo’s, he had brought out the very “Antigone” brought out at Palmo’s, with the understanding that it was meant for a burlesque on the play as produced at London or Berlin, it would have been received (as all his capital parodies are received) with shouts of rapturous laughter. The only modification he need have made, would have been the substitution of Holland for Vandenhoff, and De Bar for Miss Clarendon. The latter, with Mr. V., (who is beyond doubt, a capital elocutionist) did all that could be done for the play — but what, in the name of common sense, was there to be done?

We are really ashamed of having wasted so much space in commenting on this piece of folly. Had the “Antigone” been produced with all classical appliances — a monstrous folly still it would have been — but of the numerous school-boys who were present on the opening night, there was not one who could have failed to laugh in his sleeve, at the medley of anachronisms — solecisms — sotticisms — which rendered the [page 134:] whole affair an unintentional burlesque. On the first night, there was a very respectable attendance — on the second (very naturally) there were not a hundred paying spectators in the house.

The most singular feature in the performance is, undoubtedly the accompanying music. Mendelssohn must have been inspired when he conceived the plan; it was a bold and lofty flight, and one not to be carried out by an ordinary mind. He had many difficulties to contend with; his own natural style must be abandoned, and the cramped and unmelodious system of the Greek unisonious singing adopted. To preserve that distinctive character, and still render the music acceptable to modern ears, must have taxed the utmost ingenuity of the composer. But he has succeeded to a marvel — the music is Greek thought adapted into German. The choruses are sung by male voices only; they are in a great measure sung in unison, but where they are harmonised, the harmonies seem to be the natural result of the inflections of the voice. The subject of every chorus is simple, unadorned and majestic; partaking of the varied character of the words; serious and reflective, grave and prophetic, spirited and triumphant, religious sentiment mingled with the overpowering awe which ever accompanies benighted superstition.

We purpose speaking of this music in a separate paper, and shall therefore only make at present a few remarks upon its performance.

The only excuse that can be offered for the miserable way in which the choruses were executed, is the want of sufficient time to study them. But this excuse is, after all, no excuse to the public; they did not urge the manager to produce the tragedy in an imperfect [page 135:] state; on the contrary, they expected to witness a representation as near perfection as the means employed would admit; but instead of this, a large number of men are paraded upon the stage, scarcely one third of them singing correctly, while the other two thirds either do not sing at all, or vamp the words and music. The semi-chorus Oh Eros! one of the most beautiful compositions in the tragedy, was entirely ruined by the wretched manner in which it was executed. Indeed, the whole of the musical arrangements reflect but little credit upon Mr. Loder’s reputation as an energetic and skillful conductor. He certainly did all that a man could do, under the circumstances; but these circumstances had no right to exist. He should either have demanded sufficient time, or have refused to lend the guarantee of his well-known fame to a performance which must disappoint the public expectation.





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