The ancients, especially the Greeks, were very fond of theatrical representations; but, as Mr. Magnin has remarked in his Origines du Théâtre Moderne, public representations were very expensive, and for that very reason very rare. Moreover, those who were not in a condition of freedom were excluded from them; and, finally, all cities could not have a large theater, and provide for the expenses that it carried with it. It became necessary, then, for every day needs, for all conditions and for all places, that there should be comedians of an inferior order, charged with the duty of offering continuously and inexpensively the emotions of the drama to all classes of inhabitants.
Formerly, as to-day, there were seen wandering from village to village menageries, puppet shows, fortune tellers, jugglers, and performers of tricks of all kinds. These prestidigitators even obtained at times such celebrity that history has preserved their names for us--at least of two of them, Euclides and Theodosius, to whom statues were erected by their contemporaries. One of these was put up at Athens in the Theater of Bacchus, alongside of that of the great writer of tragedy, aeschylus, and the other at the Theater of the Istiaians, holding in the hand a small ball. The grammarian Athenaeus, who reports these facts in his "Banquet of the Sages," profits by the occasion to deplore the taste of the Athenians, who preferred the inventions of mechanics to the culture of mind and histrions to philosophers. He adds with vexation that Diophites of Locris passed down to posterity simply because he came one day to Thebes wearing around his body bladders filled with wine and milk, and so arranged that he could spurt at will one of these liquids in apparently drawing it from his mouth.
What would Athenaeus say if he knew that it was through him alone that the name of this histrion had come down to us?
FIG. 1.--THE MARVELOUS STATUE OF CYBELE.
Philo, of Byzantium, and Heron, of Alexandria, to whom we always have to have recourse when we desire accurate information as to the mechanic arts of antiquity, both composed treatises on puppet shows. That of Philo is lost, but Heron's treatise has been preserved to us, and has recently been translated in part by Mr. Victor Prou.
According to the Greek engineer, there were several kinds of puppet shows. The oldest and simplest consisted of a small stationary case, isolated on every side, in which the stage was closed by doors that opened automatically several times to exhibit the different tableaux. The programme of the representation was generally as follows: The first tableau showed a head, painted on the back of the stage, which moved its eyes, and lowered and raised them alternately. The door having been closed, and then opened again, there was seen, instead of the head, a group of persons. Finally, the stage opened a third time to show a new group, and this finished the representation. There were, then, only three movements to be made, that of the doors, that of the eyes, and that of the change of background.
As such representations were often given on the stages of large theaters, a method was devised later on of causing the case to start from the scenes behind which it was bidden from the spectators, and of moving automatically to the front of the stage, where it exhibited in succession the different tableaux; after which it returned automatically behind the scenes. Here is one of the scenes indicated by Heron, entitled the "Triumph of Bacchus":
The movable case shows, at its upper part, a platform from which arises a cylindrical temple, the roof of which, supported by six columns, is conical and surmounted by a figure of Victory with spread wings and holding a crown in her right hand. In the center of the temple Bacchus is seen standing, holding a thyrsus in his left hand, and a cup in his right. At his feet lies a panther. In front of and behind the god, on the platform of the stage, are two altars provided with combustible material. Very near the columns, but external to them, there are bacchantes placed in any posture that may be desired. All being thus prepared, says Heron, the automatic apparatus is set in motion. The theater then moves of itself to the spot selected, and there stops. Then the altar in front of Jupiter becomes lighted, and, at the same time, milk and water spurt from his thyrsus, while his cup pours wine over the panther. The four faces of the base become encircled with crowns, and, to the noise of drums and cymbals, the bacchantes dance round about the temple. Soon, the noise having ceased, Victory on the top of the temple, and Bacchus within it, face about. The altar that was behind the god is now in front of him, and becomes lighted in its turn.
Then occurs another outflow from the thyrsus and cup, and another round of the bacchantes to the sound of drums and cymbals. The dance being finished, the theater returns to its former station. Thus ends the apotheosis.
I shall try to briefly indicate the processes which permitted of these different operations being performed, and which offer a much more general interest than one might at first sight be led to believe; for almost all of them had been employed in former times for producing the illusions to which ancient religions owed their power.
The automatic movement of the case was obtained by means of counterpoises and two cords wound about horizontal bobbins in such a way as to produce by their winding up a forward motion in a vertical plane, and subsequently a backward movement to the starting place. Supposing the motive cords properly wound around vertical bobbins, instead of a horizontal one, and we have the half revolution of Bacchus and Victory, as well as the complete revolution of the bacchantes.