It is in response to a wider and more intelligent interest in dramatic literature, and in the drama as an art, that the playwrights of every modern language now publish their plays promptly in order that these may be read both by those who have already witnessed the performance and by those deprived of this pleasure by remoteness from the playhouse. Preceding and accompanying this interest in the drama of the immediate present there is also a constantly increasing attention to the drama of the past, and more especially to the dramatic literature of the English language. Professor Neilson has made a selection of the most important tragedies and comedies of the dramatists who were Shakespeare's contemporaries under Queen Elizabeth and his successors under King James; and Professor Baker is preparing a corresponding collection chosen from out the works of the Restoration dramatists. In Professor Dickinson's volume, the Chief Contemporary Dramatists, there is ample representation of the foremost British and American playmakers at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Hitherto, however, no adequate attempt has been made to select, out of the drama of the remoter past and out of the drama of other tongues than English, a group of plays, tragic and comic, which might illustrate and illuminate the development of dramatic literature from the Greek of the fifth century B.C. to the Scandinavian of the end of the nineteenth century A.D. This is the difficult task which has been undertaken by the editor of this volume. It has been his duty to ascertain who, among the scores and the hundreds of playwrights that have flourished in the different countries of Europe during the past twentyfour centuries, were entitled to be recognized as acknowledged masters of the art of the drama or as indisputable representatives of their race and of their era. This selection has proved to be a matter of unexpected delicacy; and the editor cannot hope that the scholars, into whose hands this volume may come, will all of them agree with his choice or accept the principles upon which it has been guided.
Yet, when every allowance has been made, it ought to be admitted that any selection like this must inevitably be affected by the personal equation of the editor, from which he cannot free himself, however much he may struggle. And this editor confesses frankly that if he could have had his own way, disregarding the necessary limitation of a single volume, he would have been glad to include the most amusing mediæval Pierre Pathelin of an unknown Frenchman and a corresponding German farce by Hans Sachs. He would have hesitated long before deciding upon the exclusion of Seneca, of Grillparzer and Freytag, of Alfred de Musset and the elder Dumas. It was to him a personal grief that his conscience compelled him to leave out Kotzebue and Scribe, playwrights rather than dramatists, master technicians who made the path straight for artists of a richer endowment and of a more significant message.
Even after the list of dramatists had been drawn up, there remained the almost equally difficult duty of deciding upon the single play which should best represent the total achievement of each of them. There is no doubt that Æschylus is satisfactorily represented by Agamemnon and Sophocles by Œdipus the King; but is Medea necessarily the best . . .