A lesson of a different kind is taught by the Oreste of Alfieri1. More rigorous than the ancients themselves in limiting the number of the characters, he employs only five persons,— Aegisthus, Orestes, Pylades, Clytaemnestra, and Electra. Sophocles is the classical poet who has chiefly influenced him in detail; but he owes still more to Voltaire. His Clytaemnestra is a woman broken down by misery and remorse; despised by Aegisthus; upbraided by Electra; vacillating between hysterical tenderness for her children and returns of the old passion for her paramour. Orestes arrives, with Pylades, and is recognised by Electra merely through the emotions which he manifests at the tomb of Agamemnon. The youths then announce, first to Clytaemnestra and afterwards to Aegisthus, the news that Orestes has been killed in a Cretan chariot-race. Aegisthus detects the fiction owing to the folly of Orestes, who, throughout the play, is incapable of self-control; he is perpetually reproved, or helped out of difficulties, by the more prudent Pylades. Aegisthus orders the young men to be executed, and dooms Electra to the same fate. They are saved, as with Voltaire, by an insurrection of the Argives. Orestes then takes the righteous vengeance. He slays Aegisthus, and at the same moment, in his blind fury, unconsciously deals a death-wound to Clytaemnestra, who is endeavouring to protect the tyrant. The play closes with his incipient madness, when he learns from Electra and Pylades that he has shed a mother's blood. Alfieri has a genuine, though limited, sympathy with the classical spirit, and, unlike most of his modern predecessors in the treatment of such themes, avoids everything that is positively incongruous with that spirit. It is the more instructive to observe the reason why he fails, in this Oreste, to be truly classical. An Attic tragedy, though severely simple in outline, owes much of its artistic charm to those minor incidents which diversify the plot, and to those secondary persons who serve as foils or contrasts to the chief actors. The part of the Nurse in the Choephori is a small one, and yet how much the play would lose if it were omitted! In the Electra of Sophocles, the Old Man is not merely a link in a chain of agency, but a source of dramatic interest: and the portraiture of the heroine herself is the more vivid because Chrysothemis is placed at her side. It is this variety and relief, this skilful use of undertones, that we miss in the work of the Italian dramatist. He has cut out everything that is not indispensable. Without deviation or pause, the action pursues its direct, but somewhat monotonous course2. There are occasional beauties3, but the general effect is not that of a Greek drama; it is rather that of an abridgement from such a work. Thus both Voltaire and Alfieri—the two moderns who, in treating the story of Electra, have been most closely studious of the classical models—have, in their different ways, something to teach us with regard to those qualities which distinguish the Greek masterpieces4.
Traces in art of the Aeschylean and Sophoclean plays.