Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Greek Drama: Coleridge, De Quincey, A. W. Schlegel

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Greek Drama: Coleridge, De Quincey, A. W. Schlegel

Article excerpt

Words, phrases. and entire passages from August Wilhelm Schlegel's Vorlesungen uber dramatische Kunst und Literatur (1809-1811) began to recur in Coleridge's lectures lectures following December, 1811. So carefully have these recurrences been documented by Anna Helmholtz in 1907, and more thoroughly by Reginald Foakes in 1987, that reexamination may now seem superfluous. In my chapters on Schlegel and Coleridge in Illusion and the Drama (127-189, 191229) my purpose was not to track down a few more minor instances of Coleridge's in borrowings, but rather to examine the entire theoretical framework of both critics and clarify the radical differences in their arguments. Because my attention at that time was turned almost exclusively to their commentaries on Shakespeare, I utterly neglected Coleridge's criticism of Greek drama, and consequently presented no cross-references in those few pages in which I summarized Schlegel on Greek drama (143-149). This omission was especially unfortunate because Schlegel emphasized the visual experience of the drama in ways which may seem to have been echoed by Coleridge. The case, as I will demonstrate, is just the opposite. Arguing a merging of the real and the ideal in Greek drama, Schlegel appealed to the effective scene-designs as a significant tarn ir in creating stage verisimilitude. Coleridge, for his part, strongly opposed that mode of illusionism, and Thomas De Quincey. writing on Greek drama thirty years later, continued to counter Schlegel's argument.

The disagreement follows from Schlegel's peculiar obsession with skenographia and what he claims to be the reliance in Greek drama on set-designs with realistic landscapes and the architectural backdrops with such effective use of perspective that they achieved three-dimensional illusions.

  The decoration was for the most part architectural. but
  occasionally also a painted landscape. as of Caucasus in
  the Prometheus, or in the Philoctetes, of the desert
  island of Lemnos, and the rocks with its cavern. From a
  passage of Plato it is clear, that the Greeks had developed
  the illusionism of theatrical perspective much further than
  one had been willing to concede based on a few of the hastily
  sketched or intentionally fantastic landscapes excavated
  at Herculaneum. that the Greeks carried the illusions of
  theatrical perspective much farther than we should be
  disposed to allow. (1)

At the opening of Lecture 9 (December 16, 1811). the first lecture that he presented after receiving a copy of Schlegel's Vorlesungen, Coleridge makes the very opposite statement about perspectival illusionism on the Greek stage:

  In that mechanical branch of painting, perspective, the
  ancients were equally deficient as was proved by the
  discoveries at Herculaneum and the Palace of Nero in
  which such blunders were to be found as to render
  plausible the assertion of those who had maintained
  that the Ancients were wholly ignorant they were not
  totally destitute of it was is proved by Vitruvius in
  the introduction to the 2nd [7th] Book. (Lectures.
  1:347 [ Dec. 16. 1811 ])

Not acknowledged by Helmholtz or Foakes as a response to Schlegel. Coleridge here refutes Schlegel's claims, even repeating Schlegel's reference to Herculancum. For the simple reason that there is no such passage, Coleridge does not repeat the appeal to a passage in Plato that supposedly makes it clear "that the Creeks had developed die illusionism of theatrical perspective." In the Republic (528a-b) Plato refers to the geometry of perspective, and in the well-known passage on art as an imitation of a phantasm. he declares a painting to be far removed from truth (598b-c). Neither of these passages affirm the use of perspective in scene painting, nor do any of the several references to the theater in the Laws (2.658c-d, 2.559b, 3.700c, 7.817c). Coleridge is correct, however, in citing Vitruvius as a major source whose account of the stage was the most thorough and accurate prior to the archeological excavations. …

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