The action of the serious drama must be probable.
Poetic truth is imparted to material taken from real life, by its being raised above its casual connections and receiving a universally understood meaning and significance. In dramatic poetry, this transformation of reality with poetic truth is effected thus: the essential parts, bound together and unified by some causative connection, and all the accessory inventions, are conceived as probable and credible motives of the represented events. But more than this, poetic truth is needed in the drama. The entertained hearer surrenders himself gladly to the invention of the poet; he gladly lets the presumption of a piece please him, and is in general quite inclined to approve of the invented human relations in the world of beautiful illusion; but he is not able entirely to forget the reality; he holds close to this poetic picture, which rises full of charm before him, the picture of the real world in which he breathes. He brings with him before the stage a certain knowledge of historical relations, definite, ethical and moral demands upon human life, presages and a clear knowledge of the course of events. To a certain extent, it is impossible for him to renounce this purport of his own life; and sometimes he feels it very strongly when the poetic picture contradicts it. That ocean vessels should land on the coast of Bohemia, that Charlemagne should use cannon, appears to our spectators a serious mistake.
That the Jew, Shylock, is promised mercy if he will turn Christian, shocks the moral sense of the spectator, and he is probably not inclined to concede that a just judge has so decided. That Thoas, who in so refined and dignified a manner seeks the hand of the priestess Iphigenia, allows human sacrifices in his kingdom, appears as an internal contradiction between the noble personality of the characters and the presuppositions of the piece; and however shrewdly the poet conceals this irrational element, it yet may be injurious to the effect of the play. That Œdipus rules many years without troubling himself about the death of Laius, appears to the Athenians, even at the first presentation of the play, as a doubtful supposition.
Now it is well known that this picture of the real, which the spectator holds up against the single drama, does not remain the same in every century, but is changed by each advance of human culture. The interpretation of past times, moral and social demands, the social relations, are nothing firmly established; but every spectator is a child of his time; for each the comprehension of what is commonly acceptable, is limited through his personality and the culture of his age.
And it is further clear that this picture of real life shades off differently in the mind of each person, and that the poet, however fully and richly he has taken into his own life the culture of his race still is confronted with conceptions of reality in a thousand different tones. He has, indeed, the great calling to be, in his time, the apostle of the highest and most liberal culture, and without posturing as a teacher, to draw his hearers upward toward himself. But to the dramatic poet there are for this reason private bounds staked out. He must not exceed these bounds. He must not, in many cases, leave vacant any of the space which they enclose. Where they arise invisible, they may be divined in each single case only through delicate sensibility and trustworthy feeling.
The effects of dramatic art are, so to speak, sociable. As the dramatic work of art, in a combination of several arts, is represented through the general activity of numerous adjuncts, so is the audience of the poet a body composed of many changing individuals and yet, as a whole, a unit, which like every human congregation, mightily influences the individuals who compose it; a certain agreement in feeling and contemplation develops, elevates one, depresses another, and to a great extent equalizes mood and judgment through a common opinion. This community of feeling in the audience expresses itself continually by its reception of the dramatic effects; it may increase their power prodigiously, it may weaken them in an equal degree. Scarcely will a single hearer escape the influence which an unsympathetic house or an enthusiastic audience exercises on him. Indeed, everyone has felt how different the impression is which the same piece makes, equally well presented on different stages before a differently constituted audience. The poet, while composing, is invariably directed, perhaps without knowing it, by his conception of the intelligence, taste, and intellectual requirements of his audience. He knows that he must not attribute too much to it, nor dare he offer it too little. He must, moreover, so arrange his action that it shall not bring into collision with its presuppositions a good average of his hearers, who bring these from actual life before the stage; that is, he must make the connection of events and the motives and outlines of his heroes probable. If he succeeds in this respect with the groundwork of his piece, the action and the outlines of his characters, as for the rest, he may trust to his hearers the most refined culture and the keenest understanding which his performance contains.
This consideration must guide the poet most when he is tempted to put forward what is strange or marvellous. To make charming what is strange, is, indeed, possible. The dramatic art specially has rich means of making it understood, and of laying stress upon what is intelligible to us; but for this there is needed a special expenditure of force and time; and frequently the question is justified, whether the effect aimed at warrants the expenditure of time and compensates for the limitation of the essentials occasioned. Especially the newer poets, with no definitely marked out field of material, in the midst of a period of culture to which the ready reception of extraneous pictures is peculiar, can easily be enticed to gather material from the culture-relations, the civilization of a dark age, of remote peoples. Perhaps just what is marvellous in such material has appeared peculiarly valuable for sharply delineating individual portraiture. Already a minute observation of early times in Germany, or of the old world, offers numerous peculiarities, circumstances unknown to the life of later times, in which a striking and significant meaning is manifested of highest import to the historian of culture. These can be used by the poet, however, only in exceptional cases, with most skilful treatment, and as accessories which deepen a color. For not out of the peculiarities of human life, but out of its immortal import, out of what is common to us and to the old times, blossom his successes. Still more he will avoid presenting such strange peoples as stand entirely outside the great forward movements of civilization. That which is unusual in their manners and customs, their costumes, or even the color of their skins, is distracting and excites attendant images which are unfavorable to serious art effects. In a crude way, the ideal world of poetry is joined in the hearer’s mind with a picturing of real circumstances, which can claim an interest only because they are real. But even the inner life of such foreigners is unsuitable for dramatic expression; for, without exception, the capability is in reality wanting in them of presenting in any fulness [sic] the inner mental processes which our art finds necessary. And the transferring of such a degree of culture into their souls, rightly arouses in the hearer a feeling of impropriety. Anyone who would lay the scene of his action among the ancient Egyptians or the present-day fellahs [sic], among the Japanese or even Hindoos [sic], would perhaps awaken an ethnographic interest by the strange character of his people ; but this interest of curiosity in the unusual would not increase for the hearer before the stage the real interest in what may be the poetical meaning, but would thwart it and prejudice it. It is no accident that only such peoples are a fitting basis for the drama as have advanced so far in the development of their intellectual life that they themselves could produce a popular drama — Greeks, Romans, cultured peoples of modern times; after these, a people nearly like them, whose nationality has grown up with ours, or with the ancient culture, like the Hebrews — scarcely yet the Turks.
How far the marvellous may be deemed worthy of the drama, cannot be doubtful even to us Germans, upon whose stage the most spirited and most amiable of all devils has received citizenship. Dramatic poetry is poorer and richer than her sisters, lyric and epic, in this respect, that she can represent only men, and, if one looks more closely, only cultivated men, these, however, fully and profoundly as no other art can. She must arrange historical relations by inventing for them an inner consistency which is thoroughly comprehensible to human understanding. How shall she embody the supernatural?
But granted that she undertakes this, she can do it only in so far as the superhuman, already poetically prepared through the imagination of the people, and provided with a personality corresponding to the human, is personifiable through sharply stamped features even to details. Thus given form, the Greek gods lived in the Greek world among their people; thus hover among us still, fashioned with affection, images of many of the holy ones of Christian legend, almost numberless shadowy forms, from the household faith of German primitive times. Not a few of the images of fancy have, through poetry, legend, painting, and the spirit of our people, which, credulous or incredulous, is still busied with them, received so rich an amplification, that they surround the creating artist during his labor like old, trusted friends. The Virgin Mary, St. Peter at the gate of heaven, many saints, archangels, and angels, and not last the considerable swarm of devils, live among our people, credulously associated with women in white, the wild huntsman, elves, giants and dwarfs. But, however alluringly the colors gleam which they wear in their twilight, before the sharp illumination of the tragic stage, they vanish into unsubstantial shadows. For it is true they have received through the people a share in human feeling, and in the conditions of human life. But this participation is only of the epic kind; they are not fashioned for dramatic mental processes. In some of the most beautiful legends, the Germans make the little spirits complain that they cannot be happy; that is that they have no human soul. The same difference, which already in the middle ages the people felt, keeps them in a different way from the modern stage — inward struggles are wanting in them, freedom fails to test and to choose, they stand outside of morals, law, right; neither a complete lack of changeableness, nor perfected purity, nor complete wickedness are presentable, because they exclude all inward agitation. Even the Greeks felt this. When the gods should rather be represented on the stage than speak a command ex machina, they must either become entirely men, with all the pain and rage, like Prometheus, or they must sink beneath the nobility of human nature, without the poets being able to hinder, down to blank generalizations of love and hate, like Athene, in the prologue of Ajax.
While gods and spirits have a bad standing in the serious drama, they have far better success in the comedy. And the now worn-out magic tricks give only a very pale representation of what our spirit world could be to a poet, in whimsical and humorous representation. If the Germans shall ever be ripe for political comedy, then will they learn to use the wealth, the inexhaustible treasure of motives and resistance which can be mined from this world of phantasy, for droll freaks, political satire, and humorous portraiture.
For what has been said, Faust is the best proof; and in this play, the role of Mephistopheles. Here the genius of the greatest of German poets has created a stage problem which has become the favorite task of our character players. Each of them seeks in his own manner to solve, with credit to himself, the riddle which can not be solved; the one brings out the mask of the old wood-cut devil, another, the cavalier youth Voland; at best, the player will succeed with the business who contents himself prudently and with spirit to render intelligible the fine rhetoric of the dialogue, and exhibits in the comic scenes a suitable bearing and good humor. The poet has indeed made it exceedingly difficult for the player, of whom, during the composition of the piece, he did not think at all; for the role changes into all colors, from the truehearted speech of Hans Sachs, to the subtle discussion of a Spinozist, from the grotesque to the terrifying. And if one examines more closely how the representation of this piece still becomes possible on the stage, the ultimate reason is the entrance of a comic element. Mephistopheles appears in some serious situations, but is a comic figure treated in a grand style; and so far as he produces an effect on the stage, he does it in this direction.
By this is not meant that the mysterious, that which has no foundation in human reason, should be entirely banished from the province of the drama. Dreams, portents, prophesyings, ghost-seers, the intrusion of the spirit world upon human life, everything for which there may be supposed to be a certain susceptibility in the soul of the hearer, the poet may employ as a matter of course for the occasional strengthening of his effects. It is understood in this that he must appreciate rightly the susceptibility of his contemporaries; we are no longer much inclined to care for this, and only very sparing use of side effects is now accorded to the poet. Shakespeare was allowed to use this kind of minor accessories with greater liberty; for in the sentiments of even his educated contemporaries, the popular tradition was very vivid, and the connection with the world of spirits was universally conceived far differently. The soul-processes of a man struggling under a heavy burden, were, not only among the people but with the more pretentious, very differently thought of. In the case of intense fear, qualm of conscience, remorse, the power of imagination conjured up before the sufferer the image of the frightful, still as something external; the murderer saw the murdered rise before him as a ghost; clutching into the air, he felt the weapon with which he committed the crime; he heard the voice of the dead ringing in his ear. Shakespeare and his hearers conceived, therefore, Macbeth’s dagger even on the stage, and the ghosts of Banquo, Caesar, the elder Hamlet, and the victims of Richard III., far differently from ourselves. To them this was not yet a bold, customary symbolizing of the inward struggles of their heroes, an accidental, shrewd invention of the poet, who supported his effects by this ghostly trumpery; but it was to them the necessary method, customary in their land, in which themselves experienced, dread, horror, struggles of soul. Dread was not artistically excited by recollection of nursery tales; the stage presented only what had been frightful in their own lives, or what could be. For while young Protestantism had laid the severest struggles in men’s consciences, and while the thoughts and the most passionate moods of the excited soul had been already more carefully and critically observed by individuals, the mode of thinking natural to the middle ages, had not, for that reason, quite disappeared. Therefore Shakespeare could make use of this kind of effects, and expect more from them than we can.
But he furnishes at the same time the best example of how these ghost-like apparitions may be rendered artistically worthy of the drama. Whoever must present heroes of past centuries according to the view of life of their time, will not entirely conceal men’s lack of freedom from and dependence on legendary figures; but he will use them as Shakespeare used his witches in the first act of Macbeth, as arabesques which mirror the color and mood of the time, and which only give occasion for forcing from the inner man of the hero what has grown up in his own soul, with the liberty necessary for a dramatic figure.
It is to be observed that in the work of the modern poet, such accessories of the action serve especially to give color and mood. They belong also to the first half of the play. But even when they are interwoven with the effects of the later parts, their appearance must be arranged for in the first part, by a coloring in harmony with them; and besides this, the way must be paved for them otherwise, with great care. Thus the appearance of The Black Knight in the Maid of Orleans is a disturbing element, because his ghostly form comes to view with no preparation of the audience, and is thoroughly unsuitable to the brilliant, thoughtful language of Schiller, to the tone and color of the piece. The time and the action would, in themselves, have very well allowed such an apparition; and it appeared to the poet a counterpart to the Blessed Virgin who bears banner and sword in the play. But Schiller did not bring the Blessed Virgin herself upon the stage; he only had her reported in his magnificent fashion. Had the prologue presented the decisive interview between the shepherdess and the Mother of God in such language and with such naive address as the material from the middle ages would suggest, then there would have been a better preparation for the later appearance of the evil spirit. In costume and speech, the role is not advantageously equipped. Schiller was an admirable master in the disposition of the most varied historical coloring; but the glimmer of the legendary was not to the taste of one who always painted in full colors, and if a playful simile is allowed, used most fondly, gleaming golden yellow, and dark sky blue. On the other hand, Goethe, the unrestrained master of lyric moods, has made an admirable use of the spirit-world to give color to Faust, but not at all with a view to its presentation on the stage.