The action of the serious drama must possess importance and magnitude.
The struggles of individual men must affect their inmost life; the object of the struggle must, according to universal apprehension, be a noble one, the treatment dignified. The characters must correspond to such a meaning of the action, in order that the play may produce a noble effect. If the action is constructed in conformity with the stated law, and the characters are inadequate to the demands thus created, or if the characters evince strong passion and extreme agitation, while these elements are wanting to the action, the incongruity is painfully apparent to the spectator. Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis contains what affords to the stage the most frightful struggles of the human soul; but the characters, at least with the exception of Clytemnestra, are poorly invented, disfigured either through unnecessary meanness of sentiment, or through lack of force, or through sudden, unwarranted change of feeling; thus Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles, Iphigenia. Again, in Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, the character of the hero, from the moment when he is aroused to activity, has an ever-increasing energy and power, to which a gloomy grandeur is not at all lacking, but idea and action stand in incongruity with it. That a warm-hearted, trusting spendthrift should, after the loss of external possessions, become a misanthrope through the ingratitude and meanness of his former friends, presupposes the weakness of his own character and the pitiableness of his surroundings; and this instability, lamentableness of all the relations represented, restrains the sympathy of the hearer in spite of great poetic skill.
But even the environment, the sphere of life of the hero, influences the dignity and magnitude of the action. We demand rightly that the hero whose fate is to hold us spellbound, shall possess a character whose force and worth shall exceed the measure of the average man. This force of his being, however, does not lie wholly in the energy of his will and the violence of his passion, but as well in his possessing a rich share of the culture, manners, and spiritual capacity of his time. He must be represented as superior in the important relations of his surroundings; and his surroundings must be so created as easily to awaken in the hearer a keen interest. It is, therefore, no accident that when an action is laid in past time, it always seeks the realm in which what is greatest and most important is contained, the greatest affairs of a people, the life of its leaders and rulers, those heights of humanity that have developed not only a mighty spiritual significance, but also a significant power of will. Scarce any but the deeds and destinies of such commanding figures have been handed down to us from the former times.
With material from later times, the relations, of course, are changed. No longer are the most powerful passions and the sublimest soul-struggles to be recognized at courts and among political rulers alone, nor even generally. There remains, however, to these figures for the drama a pre-eminence which may be, for their life and that of their contemporaries, a positive disadvantage. They are now less exposed to the compulsion which middle-class society exercises on the private citizen. They are not, to the same degree as the private citizen, subjected to civil law, and they know it. In domestic and foreign conflicts, their own self has not greater right but greater might. So they appear exposed to freer, more powerful temptation, and capable of greater self-direction. It must be added that the relations in which they live, and the directions in which they exert influence, offer the greatest wealth of colors and the most varied multiplicity of figures. Finally the counterplay against their characters and against their purposes is most effective; and the sphere of the interests for which they should live, embraces the most important affairs of the human race.
The life of the private citizen has also been for centuries freeing itself from the external restraint of restricting traditions, has been gaining nobility and spiritual freedom, and become full of contradictions and conflicts. In any realm of reality, where worldly aims and movements resulting from the civilization of the times have penetrated, a tragic hero may be generated and developed in its atmosphere. It depends only on whether a struggle is possible for him, which, according to the general opinion of the audience, has a great purpose, and whether the opposition to this develops a corresponding activity worthy of consideration. Since, however, the importance and greatness of the conflict can be made impressive only by endowing the hero with the capability of expressing his inmost thought and feeling in a magnificent manner, with a certain luxuriance of language; and since these demands increase among such men as belong to the life of modern times, — to the hero of the modern stage a suitable measure of the culture of the time is indispensable. For only in this way does he receive freedom of thought and will. Therefore, such classes of society as remain until our own time under the sway of epic relations, whose life is specially directed by the customs of their circle; such classes as still languish under the pressure of circumstances which the spectator observes and decides to be unjust; finally, such classes as are not specially qualified to transpose, in a creative manner, their thoughts and emotions into discourse, — such are not available for heroes of the drama, however powerfully passion works in their natures, however their feeling, in single hours, breaks out with spontaneous, native force.
From what has been said, it follows that tragedy must forego grounding its movement on motives which the judgment of the spectator will condemn as lamentable, common, or unintelligible. Even such motives may force a man into violent conflicts with his environment; but the dramatic art, considered in general, may be in a position to turn such antagonisms to account. He who from a desire for gain, robs, steals, murders, counterfeits; who from cowardice, acts dishonorably; who through stupidity, short-sightedness, frivolity, and thoughtlessness, becomes smaller and weaker than his relations demand, — he is not at all suitable for hero of a serious play.
If a poet would completely degrade his art, and turn to account in the action of a play full of contention and evil tendency, the social perversion of real life, the despotism of the rich, the torments of the oppressed, the condition of the poor who receive from society only suffering, — by such work he would probably excite the sympathy of the audience to a high degree; but at the end of the play this sympathy would sink into a painful discord. The delineating of the mental processes of a common criminal belongs to halls where trial by jury is held; efforts for the improvement of the poor and oppressed classes should be an important part of our labor in real life; the muse of art is no sister of mercy.