By action is meant, an event or occurrence, arranged according to a controlling idea, and having its meaning made apparent by the characters. It is composed of many elements, and consists in a number of dramatic efficients (momente), which become effective one after the other, according to a regular arrangement. The action of the serious drama must possess the following qualities:
It must present complete unity.
This celebrated law has undergone a very different application with the Greeks and Romans, with the Spanish and French, with Shakespeare and the Germans, which has been occasioned partly by those learned in art, partly by the character of the stage. The restriction of its claims through the French classics, and the strife of the Germans with the three unities, of place, of time, and of action, have for us only a literary-historical interest.3
No dramatic material, however perfectly its connections with other events have been severed, is independent of something presupposed. These indispensable presupposed circumstances must be so far presented to the hearer, in the opening scenes, that he may first survey the groundwork of the piece, not in detail, indeed, lest the field of the action itself, be limited; then immediately, time, people, place, establishment of suitable relations between the chief persons who appear, and the unavoidable threads which come together in these, from whatever has been left outside the action. When, for instance, in Love and Intrigue, an already existing love affair forms the groundwork, the hearer must be given a sharp informing glance into this relation of the two leading characters, and into the family life from which the tragedy is to be developed. Moreover, in the case of historical material, which is furnished by the vast and interminable connections of the great events of the world, this exposition of what has gone before is no easy undertaking; and the poet must take heed that he simplify it as much as possible.
From this indispensable introduction, the beginning of the impassioned action must arise, like the first notes of a melody from the introductory chords. This first stir of excitement, this stimulating impulse, is of great importance for the effect of the drama, and will be discussed later. The end of the action must, also, appear as the intelligible and inevitable result of the entire course of the action, the conjunction of forces; and right here, the inherent necessity must be keenly felt; the close must, however, represent the complete termination of the strife and excited conflicts.
Within these limits, the action must move forward with uniform consistency. This internal consistency is produced by representing an event which follows another, as an effect of which that other is the evident cause; let that which occasions, be the logical cause of occurrences, and the new scenes and events be conceived as probable, and generally understood results of previous actions; or let that which is to produce an effect, be a generally comprehensible peculiarity of a character already made known. If it is unavoidable that, during the course of events, new incidents appear, unexpected to the auditor, or very surprising, these must be explained imperceptibly, but perfectly, through what has preceded. This laying the foundation of the drama is called, assigning the motive (motiviren). Through the motives, the elements of the action are bound into an artistic, connected whole. This binding together of incidents by the free creation of a causative connection, is the distinguishing characteristic of this species of art. Through this linking together of incidents, dramatic idealization is effected.
Let the remodeling of a narrative into a dramatic action serve as an example. There lived in Verona two noble families, in enmity and feuds of long standing. As chance would have it, the son of one family, together with his companions, play the presumptuous trick of thrusting themselves disguised into a masked ball, given by the chief of the other house. At this ball the intruder beholds the daughter of his enemy, and in both arises a reckless passion. They determine upon a clandestine marriage and are wedded by the father confessor of the maiden. Then fate directs that the new bridegroom is betrayed into a conflict with the cousin of his bride, and because he has slain him in the duel, is banished from his country by the prince of the land, under penalty of death. Meantime a distinguished suitor has visited the parents to sue for the hand of the newly married wife. The father disregards the despairing entreaties of his daughter, and appoints the day for the marriage. In these fearful circumstances, the young woman receives from her priest, a sleep-potion which shall give her the appearance of death; the priest undertakes to remove her privately from the coffin and communicate her embarrassing situation to her distant husband. But again an unfortunate chance directs that the husband, in a foreign land, is informed of the death of his wife, before the messenger of the priest arrives. He hastens, in secret, back to his native city, and forces his way into the vault, where lies the body of his wife. Unfortunately, he meets there the man destined by her parents to be her bridegroom, kills him, and upon the coffin of his beloved, drinks the fatal poison. The loved one awakes, sees her dying husband, and stabs herself with his dagger.4
This narrative is a simple account of a striking occurrence. The fact, that all this so happened, is told; how and why it so came about, does not matter. The sequence of narrated incidents possesses no close connection. Chance, the caprice of fate, an unaccountable conjunction of unfortunate forces, occasions the progress of events and the catastrophe. Indeed, just this striking sport of chance is what gives enjoyment. Such a material appears specially unfavorable for the drama; and yet a great poet has made from it one of his most beautiful plays.
The facts have remained, on the whole, unchanged; only their connection has become different. The task of the poet was not to present the facts to us, on the stage, but to make them perceptible in the feeling, desire, and action of his persons, to make them more evident, to develop them in accordance with probability and reason. He had, in the first place, to set forth what was naturally prerequisite to the action; the brawls in an Italian city, in a time when swords were carried, and combativeness quickly laid hand to weapon, the leaders of both parties, the ruling power which had trouble to restrain the restless within proper limits; then the determination of the Capulets to give a banquet. Then he must represent the merry conceit which brought Romeo and his attendants into the Capulets’ house. This exciting impulse, the beginning of the action, must not appear an accident; it must be accounted for from the characters. Therefore it was necessary to introduce the companions of Romeo, fresh, in uncontrolled, youthful spirits, playing with life. To this necessity for establishing motives, Mercutio owes his existence. In contrast with his mad companions, the poet had fashioned the dejected Romeo, whose nature, even before his entrance into the excited action, must express its amorous passion. Hence his vagaries about Rosalind. This availed to make probable the awakening passion of the lovers. For this, the masque-scene and the balcony-scene were constructed. Every enchantment of poetry is here used to the greatest purpose, to make apparent, conceivable and as a matter of course, that henceforward the sweet passion of the lovers determines their lives.
The accessory figures, which enter into the piece from this point, must forward the complication, and aid in giving motive toward the tragic outcome. For the narrative, it was sufficient that a priest performed the marriage rites, and gave direction to the unfortunate intrigue; such aids have always been at hand; as soon, however, as he himself has stepped upon the stage, and by his words has entered the action, he must receive a personality which accounts for all that follows; —he must be good-hearted and sympathetic, and through his goodness of heart, merit full confidence; he must be unpracticed, and inclined to quiet artifices as frequently the better priests of the Italian church are, in order to venture later, the doubtful play of death for his penitent. Thus originated Laurence.
After the wedding, the unfortunate affair with Tybalt comes into the story. Here the dramatic poet had special motive in taking from the character entering so suddenly, all that was merely casual. It could not suffice for him to introduce Tybalt as a hot-headed brawler; without letting the spectator see his purpose, he must lay the foundation in what had gone before, for the peculiar hatred toward Romeo and his companions. Hence the little side scene at the masked ball, in which Tybalt’s anger flames up at the intrusion of Romeo. And in this scene itself, the poet had to bring to bear the strongest motive, to compel Romeo to engage in the duel. Mercutio must first be slain for this reason, and for the further purpose of heightening the tragic power of the scene, and accounting for the wrath of the prince.
To send Romeo immediately into banishment, as is done in the narrative, would be impossible in the drama. To show the spectator that the loving pair were bound inseparably to each other, there was the most pressing necessity to give to their excited passion the deepest intensity. How the poet succeeded in this is known to all. The scene on the marriage eve is the climax of the action; and by poetic elaboration, which need not be explained here, it arises to the highest beauty. But this scene was necessary on other grounds. Juliet’s character renders necessary a rising into what is noble. It must be shown that the lovely heroine is capable of magnificent emotion, of mighty passion in order that her later, despairing determination may be found consistent with her nature. Her marvellous inward conflict over Tybalt’s death and Romeo’s banishment must precede the wedding night, to impart to her nuptial longing the beautifully pathetic element which increases the interest in this always delicate scene. But even the possibility of this scene must be made clear. Its accessory persons. Friar Laurence and the nurse, are again significant. The character of the nurse, one of Shakespeare’s unsurpassable inventions, is, likewise, not fashioned accidentally; just as she is, she is a suitable accomplice; and she makes explicable Juliet’s inward withdrawal from her and the catastrophe.
Immediately after her wedding night, the command is given to Juliet to be married to Paris. That the beautiful daughter of the wealthy Capulet would find a distinguished suitor, and that her father, —for whose hot-headedness [sic] a sufficient ground has already been laid, —would exercise harsh compulsion in the matter, would be conceded by the hearer without further preparation, as probable and a matter of course. But it is a matter of much consequence to the dramatist, to lay beforehand the foundation for this important event. Already, before the marriage of Juliet, he has Paris receive her father’s promise; he would throw this dark shadow upon the great love scene; and he would account right distinctly, and to the common understanding for the approaching calamity.
Now the fate of the loving pair has been put into the weak hands of Friar Laurence. Up to this point, the drama has carefully excluded every intrusion of any chance. Even to the most minute accessory fact, all is accounted for by the kind of characters. Now a tremendous destiny is weighing down upon two unfortunates; spilled blood, deadly family hate, a clandestine marriage, banishment, a new wooing, —all this is pressing upon the hearer’s sensibility with a certain compulsion. The introduction of little explanatory motives is no longer effective, and no longer necessary. Now the stratagem of the stupid visionary priest can be thwarted by an accident; for the feeling that it was desperate and presumptuous in the highest degree, to expose a living person to the incalculable chances of a sleep-potion and burial, has become so strong in the hearer’s mind, that he already considers an unhappy result as probable.
Thus the catastrophe is introduced and given a foundation. But that the hope of a happy outcome may entirely vanish from the mind of the spectator, and that the inherent necessity of ruin may yet at the last moment overtop the foreboding of unavoidable fatalities in the burial vault, Romeo must slay Paris before the tomb.
The death of this stranger is the last force furthering the sad end of the lovers. Even when Juliet now in a fortunate moment awakes, her path and Romeo’s is so overflowed with blood, that any good fortune, or even life, has become improbable to them.
The task undertaken here has been only to point out in a few chief particulars the contrast between inner dramatic unification and epic narration. The piece contains still an abundance of other motives; and even the minute details are so dovetailed and riveted as to evince the dramatist’s special purpose.
The internal unity of a dramatic action is not secured merely by making a succession of events appear as the deeds and sufferings of the same hero. No great fundamental law of dramatic creation is more frequently violated, even by great poets, than this one; and this disregard has always interfered with the effects of even the power of genius. The Athenian stage suffered on this account; and Aristotle attempted to meet the evil, when in his firm way he said: “The action is the first and most important thing, the characters only second;” and, “The action is not given unity by being made to concern only one person.” Especially, we later ones; who are most frequently attracted by the charm of historical material, have urgent reason to cling to the law, that union about a person alone does not suffice to gather and bind the events into unity.
It still frequently happens that a poet undertakes to present the life of an heroic prince, as he is at variance with his vassals, as he wages war with his neighbors and the church, and is again reconciled to them, and as he finally perishes in one of these conflicts; the poet distributes the principal moving forces of the historical life among the five acts and three hours of the acting play, makes in speech and response an exposition of political interests and party standpoints, interweaves well or ill a love episode, and thinks to have changed the historical picture into a poetic one. He is positively a weak-hearted destroyer of history, and no priest of his proud goddess. What he has produced is not history, and not drama. He has, sure enough, yielded to some of the demands of his art; he has omitted weighty events which did not suit his purpose; he has fashioned the character of his hero simply and according to rule, has not been sparing in additions, small and great, has here and there substituted for the complicated connections of historical events, invented ones. Through all this, however, he has attained a general effect which is at best a weak reflection of the sublime effect that the life of the hero would have produced, if well presented by the historian; and his error has been in putting the historic idea in the place of the dramatic idea.
Even the poet who thinks more worthily of his art, is in danger, when busied with historical matter, of seeking a false unity. The historical writer has taught him that the shifting events of historic life are accounted for by the peculiarities of characters, which assume results, which conjure up a fatality. The effect which the intimate connections of an historic life produce, is powerful, and excites wonder. Determined by such a force of the real, the poet seeks to comprehend the inner connections of events in the characteristic elements of the hero’s life. The character of the hero is to him the last motive in laying the foundation for the various vicissitudes of an active existence. A German prince, for example, powerful and high spirited, is forced by sheer violence into conflicts and submission; in heart-rending humiliation and deepest abasement, he finds again his better self, and subdues his soaring pride; such a character may possess all the qualities of a dramatic hero, —what is universally comprehensible and significant gushes forth powerfully from the casual in his earthly life ; and his lot in life shows a relation between guilt and punishment, which takes hold of men’s minds; he appears as the artificer of his own happiness or misery; the germ and essence of his life may be very like a poetic idea. But just before such a similarity, let the poet pause in distrust. He has to ask himself whether through his art he can infuse anything more powerful or effective than the story itself offers; or, indeed, whether he is at all in a position to enlarge through his art any part of the effects which, perceiving in advance, he admires in the historical material. Of course he may intensify the character of his hero. What was working in the soul of Henry IV. as he journeyed toward Canossa and stood in his penitential garment by the castle wall, is the secret of the poet; the historian knows very little to tell about it. To such impelling forces of a real life, the poet has an inalienable right. But the disposition and transformations of the historical hero do not fashion themselves completely in short periods of personal isolation; and what the poet was lured by was exactly an heroic nature whose original texture showed itself in various occurrences. Now these occurrences which the historian reports, are very numerous. The poet is obliged to limit himself to a very few. He is obliged to remodel these few in order to give them the significance which in reality the course of the whole had. He will see with astonishment how difficult this is, and how by this means his hero becomes smaller and weaker, and that his historic idea is completed with so little. But, even in the representation of these selected events, the poet is poorer than the historian. Every one of his impelling forces must have an introduction that will account for it; he must introduce to the spectator his Hannos, his Ottos, his Rudolphs and Henrys; he must to a certain extent make their affairs attractive; two or three times in the piece he will create excitement, then allay it; the persons will throng and conceal each other on the narrow stage; the rising interest of hearers will every now and then relapse. He will make the astonishing discovery that the hearer’s suspense is usually not produced by the characters, however interesting these may be, but only through the progress of the action; and he will at best attain only one or the other greatly elaborated scene with pure dramatic life, which stands alone in a desert of sketchy, brief suggestions of mutilated history, and cramped invention.
Engaged in such labor upon the abundant beautiful material offered in history, the poet has probably often abandoned the material without seeing its beauty. To idealize an entire political human life is a prodigious undertaking. Cyclic dramas, trilogies, tetralogies, may in most cases scarcely suffice for this. A single historic movement may give the dramatist superabundant material. For, as faith begins when knowledge ends, so poetry begins when history leaves off. What history is able to declare can be to the poet only the frame within which he paints his most brilliant colors, the most secret revelations of human nature; how shall space and inward freedom remain to him for this, when he must toil and moil to present a succession of historical events? Schiller has made use, in his two greatest historical pieces, of the historical catastrophe only, the last scenes of a real historical life; and for so small an historic segment he has required in Wallenstein three dramas. Let this example be taken to heart. It is true Götz von Berlichingen will always be considered a very commendable poem, because the chivalric anecdotes which are excellently presented with short, sharp strokes, hold the reader spellbound; but upon the stage the piece is not an effective drama; and the same is true of Egmont, although its feeble action, and the lack of characterization of its hero, is to a certain extent compensated for in the greater elaboration of its vigorous female characters.
Concerning the artless treatment of historical material through the epic traditions of our old stage, Shakespeare, above all others, has given hints to the Germans. His historic plays, taken from English history, the structure of which, except Richard III. we should not imitate, had a far different justification. At that time there was no writing of history, as we understand the term; and as the poet made use of material from historic resources for his artistic figures, he wrought from an abundance, and opened up the immediate past to his nation, in a multitude of masterly character sketches. But he, himself, achieved for the stage of his time the wonderful advance to a complete action; and we owe to him, after he began to make use of the material in Italian novels, our comprehension of how irreplaceable the noble effects are which are produced by a unified and well-ordered action. His Roman plays, if one makes allowance for a few of the practices of his stage, and the third act of Antony and Cleopatra, are models of an established construction. We do not do well to imitate what he has overcome.
Without doubt, the influence of the characters on the texture of the action, is greater in the modern drama than on the stage of the ancients. As the first impulse toward creation comes to the Germanic mind frequently through the characteristic features of an historic hero; as the delineation of the characters and their representation by actors have received a finer finish than was possible in the Greek masque tragedy, so will the character of the hero exert greater influence on the structure of the action, but only that we may thereby account for the inner, consistent, unified action through the characteristic peculiarities of the hero. Such an establishing of motive was not unknown to the Greeks. Already in one of the older plays of Æschylus, The Suppliants, the vacillating character of the King of Argos is made so prominent that one distinctly recognizes how, in the missing piece which followed, the poet had laid the motive in this for the surrender of the Danaids, who were begging protection. Sophocles is specially skilful in introducing as controlling motive some marked trait of his characters, for example, Antigone, Ajax, Odysseus. Indeed, Euripides is even more like the Germans than Sophocles in this, that he delights in making more prominent the peculiarities of his characters. In general, however, the epic trend of the fable was much stronger than with us; as a rule the persons were fashioned according to the demands of a well known and already prepared network of events, as in the case of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes. This was an advantage to the Greeks, but to us it seems a restraint. With us the poet not seldom finds himself in the position, that his hero is seeking an action which shall be a luminous center, throwing light on everything that approaches it. We will be able to explain, from his nature, what is more profound and hidden. But however rigidly we construct the action according to his needs, it must always be composed of individual parts which belong to the same event, and this must extend from the beginning to the end of the piece. Among the Greeks, Sophocles is our master in the management of this dramatic unity, Euripides unconscionably against it. How, in his serious plays, Shakespeare disclosed this law to himself, and gradually to us, in the face of the sixteenth century stage, has already been mentioned. Among the Germans, Lessing preserves the unity with great care ; Goethe, in the short action of Clavigo, and in the later plays in which he had thought of the stage —Tasso and Iphigenia. Schiller has observed the law faithfully in Love and Intrigue. Is it an accident that in his last plays, in Tell, and in Demetrius, so far as this play may be judged from notices of it, he has neglected the law? Whenever he approached the bounds of license, it occurred through his delight in episodes and in double heroes, as in Don Carlos, Mary Stuart, and Wallenstein.
Of kinds of material, those taken from epic legends make it not difficult to preserve the unity of action; but their action does not easily permit dramatic elaboration of characters. Material from novels preserves well the unity of action, but the characters, on account of the entangled action, are easily thrown about with too little freedom of movement, or they are restrained in their movement through the portrayal of situations. Historical material offers the greatest and most beautiful opportunities; but it is very difficult to combine it into a good action.
The poet’s interest in the characters of his counter-players easily mounts so high that to them is accorded a rich, detailed portrayal, a sympathetic exposition of their striving and their fighting moods, and a peculiar destiny. Thereby arises a double action for the drama; or the action of the piece may be of such a nature as to require for its illumination and completion a subordinate action, which through the exposition of concurrent or opposing relations brings into greater prominence the chief persons, with what they do and what they suffer.
Various defects — especially one-sidedness — in material, may make such a completion desirable. One play is not to run through the whole wide range of affecting and thrilling moods; it is not to play from its sober ground color, through all the possible color-tones; but a variation in mood and modest contrasts in color are as necessary to the drama as it is that in a painting in which there are many figures, the swing of the lesser lines should be in contrast with the greater lines and groups, and that in contrast with the ground color, use should be made of dependent, supplementary colors. A specially somber material renders necessary the introduction of bright accessory figures. To contrast with the defiant characters of Iphigenia and Creon, the milder counterparts, Ismene and Haem on, were invented; through the introduction of Tecmessa, the despair of Ajax receives an affecting tone, the magic charm of which we still feel to-day. The gloomy, pathetic Othello requires opposed to him some one in whom the unrestrained freedom of humor is apparent. The somber figure of Wallenstein and his companions in intrigue imperatively demands that the brilliant Max be joined with them.
If, for this reason, the Greeks classed their plays into those with single action, and those with double action, the modern drama has much less avoided the extension of counter-play into an accessory action. The interweaving of this with the main action has occurred sometimes at the expense of the combined effect. The Germans, especially, who are always inclined, during their labor, to grasp the significance of the accessory persons with great ardor, must guard themselves against too wide an extension of the subordinate action. Even Shakespeare has occasionally, in this way, injured the effect of the drama, most strikingly in [King] Lear in which the whole parallel action of the house of Gloucester, but loosely connected with the main action, and treated with no particular fondness, retards the movement, and needlessly renders the whole more bitter. The poet allowed the episodes in both parts of Henry IV. to develop into an accessory action, the immortal humor of which outshines the serious effect of the play; and this has made these dramas favorites of the reader. Every admirer of Falstaff will grant, however, that the general effect on the stage has not the corresponding power, in spite of this charm. Let it be noticed, in passing, that in Shakespeare’s comedies the double action belongs to the nature of the play ; he strives to take from his clowns the episodical, while he interweaves them with the serious action. The genial humor which beams from their scenes must sometimes conceal the harder elements in the material; as when the constables must help to prevent the sad fate threatening the heroine. Among German poets, Schiller was most in danger of injury from the double action. The disproportion of the accessory action in Don Carlos and Mary Stuart rests upon this, that his ardor for the character set in contrast to the hero, becomes too great; in Wallenstein, the same principle has extended the piece to a trilogy. In Tell, three actions run parallel.5
It is the business of the action to represent to us the inner consistency of the event, as it corresponds to the demands of the intellect and the heart. Whatever, in the crude material, does not serve this purpose, the poet is in duty bound to throw away. And it is desirable that he adhere strictly to this principle, to give only what is indispensable to unity. Yet he may not avoid a deviation from this; for there will be occasional deviations desirable which may strengthen the color of the piece, in a manner conformable to its purpose; which may intensify the meaning of the characters, and enhance the general effect by the introduction of a new color, or a contrast. These embellishing additions of the poet are called episodes. They are of various kinds. At a point where the action suffers a short pause, a characterizing moment may be enlarged into a situation; opportunity may be given a hero to exhibit some significant characteristic of his being in an attractive manner, in connection with some subordinate person; some subordinate role of the piece may, through ampler elaboration, be developed into an attractive figure. By a modest use, which must not take time from what is more important, these may become an embellishment to the drama. And the poet has to treat them as ornaments, and to compensate for them with serious work, if they ever retard the action. The episodes perform different duties, according to the parts of the drama in which they appear. While at the beginning they enter into the roles of the chief persons to delineate these in their idiosyncracies, they are allowed in the last part as enlargements of those new roles which afford lesser aids to the movement of the action; in each place, however, they must be felt to be advantageous additions.6
The Greeks understood this word in a somewhat broader sense. That which in the plays of Sophocles his contemporaries called episode, we no longer so name: for the ingenious art of this great master consisted, among other things, in this, that he interwove his beautifying additions very intimately with his action, for the most part to set the characters of the chief heroes in a stronger light, by means of contrast. Thus, in Electra, in addition to the Ismene scene, mentioned later, Chrysomethis is indispensable according to our feeling for the chief heroine, and no longer as episode, but as part of the action. Moreover, where he paints a situation more broadly, as in the beginning of Œdipus at Colonus, such a portrayal corresponds throughout to the customs of our stage. Shakespeare treats his episodes almost exactly in the same way. Even in those serious plays, which have a more artistic construction, there are, in almost every act, partly extended scenes, partly whole roles of episodical elaboration; but there is so much of the beautiful worked in and with this, so much that is efficient for the combined effect, that the severest manager of our stage, who may be compelled to shorten the drama, rarely ever allows these passages to be expunged. Mercutio, with his Queen Mab, and the jests of the nurse, the interviews of Hamlet with the players and courtiers, as well as the grave-digger scene, are such examples as recur in almost all his plays. Almost superabundantly, and with apparent carelessness, the great artist adorns all parts of his piece with golden ornaments; but he who approaches to unclasp them, finds them fastened as if with steel, grown inseparably into what they adorn. Of the Germans, Lessing, with a reverential regularity joined his episodes to the carefully planned structure of his piece, according to his own method, which was transferred to his successors. His episodes are little character roles. The painter and countess Orsina, in Emilia Galotti (the last, the better prototype of Lady Milford), Riccault, in Minna von Barnhelm, indeed, even the Dervise in Nathan The Wise, became models for the German episodes of the eighteenth century. Goethe has not honored them with a place in his regular plays, Clavigo, Tasso, Iphigenia. In Schiller, they throng abundantly in every form, as portrayals, as detailed situations, as accessory figures in the conjoined action. Frequently, through their peculiar beauty, they are adapted to be effective adjuncts to the stilted, tedious movement, but not always; for we would gladly spare some single ones, like Parricida in William Tell, just because in this case the understood purpose is so striking; and The Black Knight in the Maid of Orleans; and not seldom the long-drawn observations and delineations in his dialogue-scenes.