That the technique of the drama is nothing absolute and unchangeable scarcely need be stated. Since Aristotle established a few of the highest laws of dramatic effect, the culture of the human race has grown more than two thousand years older. Not only have the artistic forms, the stage and method of representation undergone a great change, but what is more important, the spiritual and moral nature of men, the relation of the individual to the race and to the highest forces of earthly life, the idea of freedom, the conception of the being of Divinity, have experienced great revolutions. A wide field of dramatic material has been lost; a new and greater range has been won. With the moral and political principles which control our life, our notion of the beautiful and the artistically effective has developed. Between the highest art effects of the Greek festivals, the autos sacramentales, and the drama of the time of Goethe and Iffland,the difference is not less great than between the Hellenic choral theater, the structure for the mystery play, and the complete inclosed room of the modern stage. It may be considered certain that some of the fundamental laws of dramatic production will remain in force for all time ; in general, however, not only the vital requisites of the drama have been found in continuous development, but also the artistic means of producing its effects. Let no one think that the technique of poetry has been advanced through the creations of the greatest poets only; we may say without self-exaltation that we at present have clearer ideas upon the highest art effects in the drama and upon the use of technical equipment, than had Lessing, Schiller and Goethe.
The poet of the present is inclined to look with amazement upon a method of work in which the structure of scenes, the treatment of characters, and the sequence of effects were governed by a transmitted code of fixed technical rules. Such a limitation easily seems to us the death of free artistic creation. Never was a greater error. Even an elaborate, system of specific rules, a certain limitation founded in popular custom, as to choice of material and structure of the piece, have been at different periods the best aid to creative power. Indeed, they are, it seems, necessary prerequisites of that rich harvest of many past periods, which has seemed to us so enigmatical and incomprehensible. We recognize still that Greek tragedy possessed such a technique, and that the greatest poets worked according to craftsman’s rules which were in part common, and in part might be the property of distinct families and guilds. Many of these were well known to Attic criticism, which judged the worth of a piece according to them — whether the revolution scene were in the right place and the pathos scene aroused the desired degree of sympathy. That the Spanish cloak-and-dagger drama artistically wove the threads of its intrigue likewise according to fixed rules, no poetics of a Castilian informs us; but we are able to recognize very well many of these rules in the uniform construction of the plays, and in the ever recurring characters; and it would not be very difficult to formulate a code of peculiar rules from the plays themselves. These rules, of course, even to contemporaries, to whom they were useful, were not invariable; through the genius and shrewd invention of individuals, these gradually learned how to improve and remodel, until the rules became lifeless; and after a period of spiritless application, together with the creative power of the poets, they were lost.
It is true, an elaborate technique which determines not only the form, but also many aesthetic effects, marks out for the dramatic poetry of a period a limit and boundary within which the greatest success is attained, and to transgress which is not allowed even to the greatest genius. In later times such a limitation is considered a hindrance to a versatile development. But even we Germans might be well content with the unappreciative judgment of posterity if we only possessed now the aid of a generally useful technique. We suffer from the opposite of narrow limitations, the lack of proper restraint, lack of form, a popular style, a definite range of dramatic material, firmness of grasp ; our work has become in all directions casual and uncertain. Even to-day, eighty years after Schiller, the young poet finds it difficult to move upon the stage with confidence and ease.
If, however, we must deny ourselves the advantage of composing according to the craftsman’s traditions which were peculiar to the dramatic art as well as to the plastic arts of former centuries, yet we should not scorn to seek, and intelligently to use, the technical rules of ancient and modern times, which facilitate artistic effects on our stage. To be sure, these rules are not to be prescribed at the dictation of a single person, not established through the influence of one great thinker or poet; but drawn from the noblest effects of the stage, they must include what is essential — they must serve criticism and creative power not as dictator, but as honest helper; and under them a transformation and improvement according to the needs of the time is not to be excluded.
It is remarkable that the technical rules of a former time, in accordance with which the playwright must construct the artistic framework of his piece, have been so seldom transmitted in writing to later generations. Two thousand two hundred years have passed since Aristotle formulated a part of these laws for the Hellenes. Unfortunately his Poetics has come down to us incomplete. Only an outline has been received, which unskilled hands have made — a corrupt text with gaps, apparently disconnected chapters, hastily thrown together. In spite of this condition, what we have received is of highest value to us. To this our science of the past is indebted for a glance into the remains of the Hellenes' theater world. In our text-books on aesthetics, this still affords the foundation for the theory of our dramatic art, and to the growing poet, some chapters of the little work are instructive; for besides a theory of dramatic effects, as the greatest thinker of antiquity explained them to his contemporaries, and besides many principles of a popular system of criticism, as the cultured Athenian brought it into use in considering a new production, the work contains many fine appliances from the workshops of antiquity, which we can use to great advantage in our labors. In the following pages, so far as the practical purpose of the book will allow, these will be the subject of our discussion.
It is a hundred and twenty years since Lessing undertook to decipher for the Germans this stenography of the ancients. His Hamburgische Dramaturgie was the avenue to a popular comprehension of the dramatically beautiful. The victorious battle which he waged in this book, against the tyranny of French taste, will secure to him forever the respect and affection of the German people. For our time, the polemic past is of most importance. Where Lessing elucidates Aristotle, his understanding of the Greek does not seem entirely sufficient for our present time, which has at hand a more abundant means of explanation; where he exposes the laws of dramatic creation, his judgment is restricted by the narrow conception of the beautiful and effective, which he himself accepted.
Indeed, the best source of technical rules is the plays of great poets, which still to-day, exercise their charm alike on reader and spectator, especially the Greek tragedies. Whoever accustoms himself to look aside from the peculiarities of the old models, will notice with real joy that the skilful tragic poet of the Athenians, Sophocles, used the fundamental laws of dramatic construction, with enviable certainty and shrewdness. For development, climax, and return of the action, he presents us a model seldom reached.
About two thousand years after Œdipus at Colonos, Shakespeare, the second mighty genius which gave immortal expression to dramatic art, wrote the tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. He created the drama of the Germanic races. His treatment of the tragic, his regulation of the action, his manner of developing character, and his representation of soul experiences, have established for the introduction of the drama, and for the first half to the climax, many technical laws which still guide us.
The Germans came in a roundabout way to a recognition of the greatness and significance of his service. The great German poets, easily the next models after which we have to fashion, lived in a time of a spirited beginning of experiments with the inheritance of the old past. There was lacking, therefore, to the technique which they inherited, something of certainty and consistency in effects; and directly because the beautiful which they discovered has been infused into our blood, we are bound, in our work, to reject many things which with them rested upon an incomplete or insecure foundation.
The examples brought forward in the following discussion are taken from Sophocles, Shakespeare, Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller, for it has seemed desirable to limit examples to universally known works.