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Wharton's Life of Sappho

Part 6, Portrayals in comedy and drama

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The Greek comedies relating to the history of Sappho, referred to on previous pages, were all written by dramatists who belonged to what is known as the Middle Comedy, two centuries after her time (404-340 B.C.). The comedy of that period was devoted to satirising classes of people rather than individuals, to ridiculing stock-characters, to criticising the systems and merits of philosophers and writers, to parodies of older poets, and to travesties of mythological subjects. The extent to which the licence of the comic writers of that age had reached may be judged from the passing of the law referred to on a previous page (p. 23)--mê dein onomasti kômôdien--though the practice continued under ill-concealed disguise. Writers of such a temper were obviously unfit to hand down unsullied a character like Sappho's, powerful though their genius might be to make their inventions seem more true than actual history--'to make the worse appear the better reason.'

Sappho was the title of comedies by Ameipsias, Amphis, Antiphanes, Dïphilus, Ephippus, and Timocles, but very little is known of their contents. Of those by Ameipsias and Amphis only a single word out of each survives. Athenaeus quotes a few lines out of those by Ephippus and Timocles, for descriptions of men of contemptible character. The same writer refers to that by Diphilus for his use of the name of a kind of cup (metaniptris) which was used to drink out of when men had washed their hands after dinner, and for his having represented Archilochus and Hipponax (cf. p. 9) as lovers of Sappho. Of that by Antiphanes (cf. p. 26), who was the most celebrated and the most prolific of the playwrights of the Middle Comedy, we have, again in Athenaeus, a longer passage preserved; but it is merely to show the poetess proposing and solving a wearisome riddle (griphos), satirising a subtlety his grosser audience could not understand.

Besides these, Antiphanes and Plato (the Comic writer, not the philosopher) each wrote a play called Phaon. Of that by Antiphanes but three words remain. Plato's drama is several times quoted by Athenaeus, but only when he is discussing details of cookery--one passage obviously for the sake of its coarseness. Menander wrote a play called Leucadia, and Antiphanes one called Leucadius. Antiphanes' play furnishes Athenaeus with nothing but a catalogue of seasonings. Some lines out of Menander's Leucadia are quoted above (p. 17) from Strabo, and it is referred to by several authors for the sake of some word or phrase; Servius, commenting on Vergil's Aeneid, iii. 274, gives a précis of Turpilius' Latin paraphrase of it, which is mentioned above, p. 16.

Such is our knowledge of the Comic accounts of Sappho's history. When we consider the general character of the Middle Comedy, written as it was to please the Athenians after their golden time had passed, it is not unreasonable to take accounts which seem to have originated in such treatment with somewhat more than diffidence.

But it is not only the Greek dramatists who have written plays on the story of Sappho. Two have appeared in English during the last few years, one of which, by the late Mrs. Estelle Lewis ('Stella'), has been translated into modern Greek by Cambourogio for representation on the Athenian stage. The most celebrated, however, and one of considerable beauty, is by John Lilly, 'the Euphuist'; it is called Sapho and Phao, and was acted before Queen Elizabeth in 1584. The whole is allegorical, Sapho being probably meant for Elizabeth, queen of an island, and Phao is supposed to be Leicester. Lilly makes his Sapho a princess of Syracuse, and takes other liberties--though not such as the Greeks did --with her history; strangely enough, however, he makes no reference to the Leucadian leap. 'When Phao cometh,' he makes Sapho soliloquise, 'what then? Wilt thou open thy love? Yea? No, Sapho, but staring in his face till thine eyes dazzle and thy spirits faint, die before his face; then this shall be written on thy tomb, that though thy love were greater than wisdom could endure, yet thine honour was such as love could not violate.' Venus is introduced as marring their mutual love, and Phao says: 'This shall be my resolution, wherever I wander, to be as I were kneeling before Sapho; my loyalty unspotted, though unrewarded.... My life shall be spent in sighing and wishing, the one for my bad fortune, the other for Sapho's good.'

In France, the first opera written by the late M. Charles Gounod was entitled Sapho. The libretto was by M. Emile Augier. It was first given at the Académie, April 16, 1851; and in Italian, as Saffo, at Covent Garden, Aug. 9, in the same year. It was reproduced in 1858, and again in the new Opera House, April 3, 1884. Each time both author and composer recast their work, which contains many brilliant scenes and melodies. The celebrated Madame de Staël wrote a drama called Sapho, but it has been long forgotten. Alphonse Daudet's novel, Sapho, maeurs Parisiennes, of which a version dramatised by M. Belot was played for the first time at the Gymnase in Paris, December 18, 1885, bears no reference to the poetess beyond the sobriquet of the heroine. The most artistically finished tragedy of the German dramatist Grillparzer is his Sappho. It was produced at Vienna in 1819, and is still played at many of the principal German theatres. An inferior Italian translation of it received a high encomium from Lord Byron. It is best known to English readers by Miss Ellen Frothingham's faithful translation.

About forty years ago, however, Messrs. Thomas Constable & Co., of Edinburgh, had issued an earlier translation of the play by L. C. C. [i.e. Lucy Caroline Cumming]; and there are some others.

The Queen of Roumania, under her nom de guerre of 'Carmen Sylva,' is the most distinguished among living poets who have idealised the life of Sappho. But her poem under that title, published in her Stürme, owes more to its rich poetic charm than to the actual facts of the Greek story; in it the Lesbian seems to live in the Germany of to-day.

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