The dramatic includes those emotions of the soul which steel themselves to will, and to do, and those emotions of the soul which are aroused by a deed or course of action; also the inner processes which man experiences from the first glow of perception to passionate desire and action, as well as the influences which one’s own and others’ deeds exert upon the soul ; also the rushing forth of will power from the depths of man’s soul toward the external world, and the influx of fashioning influences from the outer world into man’s inmost being; also the coming into being of a deed, and its consequences on the human soul.
An action, in itself, is not dramatic. Passionate feeling, in itself, is not dramatic. Not the presentation of a passion for itself, but of a passion which leads to action is the business of dramatic art; not the presentation of an event for itself, but for its effect on a human soul is the dramatist’s mission. The exposition of passionate emotions as such, is in the province of the lyric poet; the depicting of thrilling events is the task of the epic poet.
The two ways in which the dramatic expresses itself are, of course, not fundamentally different. Even while a man is under stress, and laboring to turn his inmost soul toward the external, his surroundings exert a stimulating or repressing influence on his passionate emotions. And, again, while what has been done exerts a reflex influence upon him, he does not remain merely receptive, but gains new impulses and transformations. Yet, there is a difference in these closely connected processes. The first, the inward struggle of man toward a deed, has always the highest charm. The second stimulates to more external emotion, a more violent co-operation [sic] of different forces; almost all that satisfies curiosity belongs to this; and yet, however indispensable it is to the drama, it is principally a satisfying of excited suspense; and the impatience of the hearer, if he has creative power, easily runs in advance, seeking a new vehement agitation in the soul of the hero. What is occurring chains the attention most, not what, as a thing of the past, has excited wonder.
Since the dramatic art presents men as their inmost being exerts an influence on the external, or as they are affected by external influences, it must logically use the means by which it can make intelligible to the auditor these processes of man’s nature. These means are speech, tone, gesture. It must bring forward its characters as speaking, singing, gesticulating. Poetry uses also as accessories in her representations, music and scenic art.
In close fellowship with her sister arts, with vigorous, united effort she sends her images into the receptive souls of those who are at the same time auditors and spectators. The impressions which she produces are called effects. These dramatic effects have a very peculiar character; they differ not only from the effects of the plastic arts through the force of emphasis and the progressive and regular gradation of the chosen movement, but also from the powerful effects of music, in this, that they flow in at the same time through two senses, and excite with rapture not only emotional, but also intellectual activity.
From what has already been said, it is clear that the characters, presented according to the demands of dramatic art, must have something unusual in their nature which may distinguish them not only from the innumerable, more manifold, and more complicated beings whose images real life impresses on the soul, but also from the poetic images which are rendered effective through other forms of art, the epic, the romance, the lyric. The dramatis persona must represent human nature, not as it is aroused and mirrored in its surroundings, active and full of feeling, but as a grand and passionately excited inner power striving to embody itself in a deed, transforming and guiding the being and conduct of others. Man, in the drama, must appear under powerful restraint, excitement, transformation. Specially must there be represented in him in full activity those peculiarities which come effectively into conflict with other men, force of sentiment, violence of will, achievement hindered through passionate desire, just those peculiarities which make character and are intelligible through character. It thus happens, not without reason, that in the terms of art, the people of a drama are called characters. But the characters which are brought forward by poetry and her accessory arts, can evince their inner life only as participants in an event or occurrence, the course and internal connection of which becomes apparent to the spectator through the dramatic processes in the soul of the poet. This course of events, when it is arranged according to the demands of dramatic art, is called the action.2
Each participant in the dramatic action has a definite appointment with reference to the whole; for each, an exact, circumscribed personality is necessary, which must be so constituted that so much of it as has a purpose may be conveniently perceived by the auditor, and what is common to man and what is peculiar to this character may be effectively represented by the actor by means of his art.
Those spiritual processes which have been indicated above as dramatic, are, of course, not perfectly apparent in every person represented, specially on the later stage, which is fond of bringing forward a greater number of characters as participants in the action. But the chief characters must abound in them; only when these, in an appropriate manner, exhibit their real nature with power and fulness [sic], even to the inmost recesses of their hearts, can the drama produce great effects. If this last dramatic element is not apparent in the leading characters, is not forced upon the hearer, the drama is lifeless; it is an artificial, empty form, without corresponding contents ; and the pretentious co-operation [sic] of several combined arts makes this hollowness the more painful.
Along with the chief characters, the subordinate persons participate in this dramatic life, each according to the space occupied in the piece. It does not entirely disappear, even in the least role, in those figures which with a few words can show their participation; the attendant or the messenger, owes it as a duty, at least to the actor’s art, by costume, manner of speech, deportment, gesture, posture at entering, to represent in a manner suitable to the piece what he personates, so far as externals will do it, even if meagerly and modestly.
But since the representation of these mental processes, which are the prerogative and requisite of the drama, requires time, and since the poet’s time for the producing of effects is limited according to the custom of his people, it follows that the event represented must bring the chief characters much more boldly into prominence than is necessary in an actual occurrence which is brought about through the general activity of many persons.
The capability of producing dramatic effects is not accorded to the human race in every period of its existence. Dramatic poetry appears later than epic and lyric; its blossoming among any people depends on the fortunate conjunction of many impelling forces, but specially on this, that in the actual life of the contemporary public, the corresponding mental processes are frequently and fully seen. This is first possible when the people have reached a certain degree of development, when men have become accustomed to observe themselves and others critically under the impulse to a deed, when speech has acquired a high degree of flexibility and a clever dialect; when the individual is no longer bound by the interdict of tradition and external force, ancient formula and popular custom but is able more freely to fashion his own life. We distinguish two periods in which the dramatic has come to the human race. This intensification of the human soul appeared for the first time in the ancient world, about 500 years before Christ, when the youthful consciousness of the free Hellenic community awoke with the bloom of commerce, with freedom of speech, and with the participation of the citizen in affairs of state. The dramatic spirit appeared the second time, in the newer family of European peoples, after the Reformation, at the same time with the deepening of mind and spirit, which was produced through the sixteenth century, not only among the Germans, but also among the Latin races, but by different methods. Centuries before the inception of this mighty effort of the human spirit, not only the Hellenes, but the various branches of migrating nations, had already been developing the rudiments of a speech and art of pantomime which was seeking the dramatic. There, as here, great festivals in honor of the gods had occasioned the song in ceremonial costume, and the playing of popular masques. But the entrance of dramatic power into these lyric or epic exhibitions, was in both cases a wonderfully rapid, almost sudden one. Both times, the dramatic was developed, from the moment it became alive, with a marvellous power to a beauty which, through the later centuries, it has not easily reached. Immediately after the Persian wars, came Æschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides in close succession. Shortly after the Reformation, there appeared among the European nations, first in England and Spain, and later in France, last of all among the Germans, left behind through helpless weakness, the highest popular florescence of this rare art.
But there is this difference between the beginning of the dramatic in the old world and in the new: the drama of antiquity originated in the lyric choral song; that of the newer world rests on the epic enjoyment in the exhibition of important events. In the former, from the beginning, the passionate excitement of feeling was the charm; in the latter, the witnessing of thrilling incident. This difference of origin has powerfully influenced the form and meaning of the drama in its artistic development; and however eminent the contributions of art were in both periods, they retained something essentially different.
But even after dramatic life had arisen among the people, the highest effects of poetry remained the prerogative of a few, and since that time dramatic power has not been accorded to every poet; indeed, it does not pervade with sufficient power every work even of the greatest poets. We may conclude that even in Aristotle’s time, those stately plays with a simple action, with no characteristic desires on the part of the leading persons, with loosely connected choruses, had, possibly, lyric, but not dramatic beauty. And among the historic plays which, year after year, are written in Germany, the greater part contains little more than mangled history thrown into dialogue, some epic material thrown into scenic form, at all events nothing of dramatic character. Indeed, single poems of the greater poets suffer from the same lack. Only two celebrated dramas need here be named. The Hecuba of Euripides shows, until toward the end, only a little progress, and that entirely unsatisfactory, from the excited disposition, toward ,a deed; first in the final conflict against Polymnestor does Hecuba exhibit a passion that becomes a determination; here the dramatic suspense first begins; up to this point there was evoked from the briefly sketched and pathetic circumstances of the chief characters, only lyric complaints. And again, in Shakespeare’s Henry V., in which the poet wished to compose a patriotic piece according to the old epic customs of his stage, with military parades, fights, little episodes, there is apparent neither in the chief characters, nor in their accessories, any deeply laid foundation for their deeds, in a dramatically presentable motive. In short waves, wish and demand ripple along ; the actions themselves are the chief thing. Patriotism must excite a lively interest, as in Shakespeare’s time, and among his people, it always did abundantly. For us, the play is less presentable than the parts of Henry VI. On the contrary, to name only a few of one poet’s pieces, Macbeth, as far as the banquet scene, the whole of Coriolanus, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Julius Cæsar, Lear, up to the hovel scene, and Richard III., contain the most powerful dramatic elements that have ever been created by a Teuton or a Saxon.
From the inner struggles of the leading characters, the judgment of contemporaries, as a rule, or at least that of the immediately following time, rates the significance of a piece. Where this life is wanting, no skill in treatment, no attractive material, is able to keep the work alive. Where this dramatic life is present, even later times regard with great respect a poetical composition and gladly overlook its shortcomings.