The dramatic action must represent all that is important to the understanding of the play, in the strong excitement of the characters, and in a continuously progressive increase of effects.
The action must, first of all, be capable of the strongest dramatic excitement; and this must be universally intelligible. There are great and important fields of human activity, which do not make the growth of a captivating emotion, a passionate desire, or a mighty volition easy; and again, there are violent struggles which force to the outside men’s mental processes, while the subject of the struggle is little adapted to the stage, though importance and greatness are not lacking to it. For example, a politic prince, who negotiates with the powerful ones of his land, who wages war and concludes peace with his neighbors, will perhaps do all this without once exhibiting the least excited passion; and if this does come to light as secret desire or resentment toward others, it will be noticeable only by careful observation, and in little ripples. But even when it is allowed to represent his whole being in dramatic suspense, the subject of his volition, a political success or a victory, is capable of being shown only very imperfectly and fragmentarily [sic] in its stage setting. And the scenes in which this round of worldly purposes is specially active, state trials, addresses, battles, are for technical reasons not the part most conveniently put on the stage. From this point of view, warning must be given against putting scenes from political history on the boards. Of course the difficulties which this field of the greatest human activity offers, are not unsurmountable [sic]; but it requires not only maturity of genius but very peculiar and intimate knowledge of the stage to overcome them. But the poet will never degrade his action by reducing it to an imperfect and insufficient exposition of such political deeds and aims; he will need to make use of a single action, or a small number of actions, as a background, before which he presents — and in this he is infinitely superior to the historian — a most minute revelation of human nature, in a few personages, and in their most intimate emotional relations with each other. If he fails to do this, he will in so far falsify history without creating poetry.
An entirely unfavorable field for dramatic material is the inward struggles which the inventor, the artist, the thinker has to suffer with himself and with his time. Even if he is a reformer by nature, who knows how to impress the stamp of his own spirit on thousands of others; indeed, if his own material misfortunes may lay claim to unusual sympathy, the dramatist will not willingly conclude to bring him forward as the hero of the action. If the mental efforts, the mode of thought of such a hero, are not sufficiently known to the living audience, then the poet will have first to show his warrant for such a character by artful discourse, by a fulness [sic] of oral explanation, and by a representation of spiritual import. This may be quite as difficult as it is undramatic. If the poet presupposes in his auditors a living interest in such personages, acquaintance with the incidents of their lives, and makes use of this interest in order to avail himself of an occurrence in the life of such a hero, he falls into another danger. On the stage the good which is known beforehand of a man, and the good that is reported of him, have no value at all, as opposed to what the hero himself does on the stage. Indeed, the great expectations which the hearer brings with him in this case, may be prejudicial to the unbiased reception of the action. And if the poet succeeds, as is probable in the case of popular heroes, in promoting the scenic effects through the already awakened ardor of the audience for the hero, he must credit his success to the interest which the audience brings with it, not to the interest which the drama itself has merited. If the poet is conscientious, he will adopt only those moments from the life of the artist, poet, thinker, in which he shows himself active and suffering quite as significantly toward others as he was in his studio. It is clear that this will be the case only by accident; it is quite as clear that in such a case it will be only an accident, if the hero bears a celebrated name. Therefore, the making use of anecdotes from the life of such great men, the meaning of which does not show itself in the action but in the non-representable activity of their laboratory, is intrinsically right undramatic. The greatness in them is non-representable; and what is represented borrows the greatness of the hero from a moment of his life lying outside the piece. The personality of Shakespeare, Goethe, Schiller, is in this respect worse on the stage than in a novel or romance, and all the worse the more intimately their lives are known.
Of course, opinions as to what may be represented on the stage, and what is effective, are not the same in all ages. National custom as well as the arrangement of the theatre direct the poet. We have no longer the susceptibility of the Greeks to epic narratives which are brought upon the scene by a messenger; we have greater pleasure in what can be acted, and risk upon our stage the imitation of actions which would have appeared entirely impossible on the Athenian stage, in spite of its machines, its devices for flying and its perspective painting, —popular tumults, collision of armies, and the like. And as a rule the later poet will be inclined to do too much rather than too little in this direction.
It may happen to him rather than to the Greek, therefore, that through full elaboration of the action, the inner perturbation of the chief figures may be disproportionately restricted, and that an important transition, a portentous series of moods, remains unexpressed. A well known example of such a defect is in Prince of Homburg, the very piece in which the poet has superbly achieved one of the most difficult scenic tasks, the disposition of an army for battle and the battle itself. The prince has taken his imprisonment light-heartedly [sic]; when his friend, Hohenzollern, brings him the news that his death-warrant is awaiting the signature, his mood naturally becomes serious, and he determines to entreat the intercession of the electoral princess. And in the next scene, the young hero throws himself powerless, and without self-control, at the feet of his protectress, because, as he relates, he has seen on his way to her, men digging his grave by torchlight; he begs for his life, though he may be shamefully degraded. This sudden plunge to a cowardly fear of death, does painful violence to the character of a general. It is certainly not untrue in itself, even if we unwillingly tolerate lack of self-control in a general under such circumstances. And the drama demanded the severest humiliation of the hero; just this lack of courage is the turning point of the piece; in his confusion he must plunge down to this, in order to redeem himself worthily in the second part of the action. It was therefore a chief task to present the abasement of a youthful heroic nature even to the fear of death, and indeed, in such a manner that the sympathy of the hearer should not be dissipated through contempt. That could happen only by an accurate exhibition of the inner perturbations, even to the bursting forth of the death anguish, which terminated in the prostration at the princess’s feet—a difficult task for even powerful poetic genius, but one which must be performed. And here a rule may be mentioned, which has force for the poet as well as for the actor: it is preposterous to hasten over parts of the action which for any reason are necessary to the play, but have not the merit of pleasing motives; on the contrary, upon such passages, the highest technical art must be expended, in order to give poetic beauty to what is in itself unsuitable. Before just [these] kind of tasks, the artist must achieve the proud feeling that for him there are no unconquerable difficulties.
Another case in which the forcing forward of the chief effect has been neglected, is the third act of Antony and Cleopatra. A defect in Shakespeare does not, indeed, originate in want of insight, nor in haste. The striking thing is that the piece lacks climax. Antony has withdrawn from Cleopatra, has been reconciled with Octavianus, and has re-established his authority. But the spectator has long had a presentiment that he will return to Cleopatra. The inner necessity of this relapse is amply motived from the first act. Notwithstanding this, one demands rightly to see this momentous relapse, with its violent passions and mental disturbances; it is the point on which all that has gone before is suspended, and which must account for all that follows, the degradation of Antony, even to his cowardly flight, and his death. And yet, it is presented in only brief sections; the culmination of the action is divided up into little scenes, and the joining of these into one well-executed scene was the more desirable, because the important occurrence in the last half of the play, that flight of Antony from the naval battle, cannot be represented on the stage, but can be made intelligible only through the short account of the subordinate commander and the thrilling struggle of the broken-down hero which follows.7
But the poet has not the task, let it be understood, of representing through what is done on the stage every individual impulse which is necessary to the inner connection of the action as actually occurring. Such a representation of accessories would rather conceal the essentials than make them impressive, by taking time from the more important; it would also divide up the action into too many parts and thereby injure the effects. Upon our stage, also, many heroic accounts of events are necessary in vivid representation. Since they always produce resting places in the action, however excitedly the declaimer may speak, the law applies to them, that they must come in as relief from a strongly worked-up suspense. The spectator must be previously aroused by the excited emotion of the persons concerned. The length of the narration is to be carefully calculated; a line too much, the least unnecessary elaboration, may cause weariness. If the narrative contains individual parts of some extent, it must be divided and interspersed with short speeches of other characters, which indicate the narrator’s mood; and the parts must be carefully arranged in the order of climax, both as to meaning and style. A celebrated example of excellent arrangement is the Swedish captain’s story in Wallenstein. An elaborate narrative must not occur when the action is moving forward with energy and rapidity.
One variety of messenger scene is the portrayal of an occurrence thought of as behind the scenes, when the persons on the stage are represented as observers; also the presentation of an occurrence from the impressions which it has made on the characters. This kind of recital allows more easily of dramatic excitement; it may be almost a mere, quiet narrative; it may possibly occasion or increase passionate excitement on the stage.
The grounds upon which the poet has something happening behind the scenes, are of various kinds. First of all, occasion is given by unavoidable incidents which, because of their nature, cannot be represented on the stage at all, or only through elaborate machinery — a conflagration, a naval battle, a popular tumult, battles of cavalry and charioteers — everything in which the mighty forces of nature or great multitudes of men are active in widespread commotion. The effect of such reflected impressions may be greatly enhanced by little scenic indications: calls from without, signals, lurid lights, thunder and lightning, the roar of cannon, and similar devices which excite the fancy, and the appropriateness of which is easily recognized by the hearer. These indications and shrewd hints of something in the distance, will be most successful when they are used to show the doings of men; not so favorable are the representation of the unusual operations of nature, descriptions of landscape, all spectacles to which the spectator is not accustomed to give himself over before the stage. In such a case the designed effect may entirely fail, because the audience is accustomed to strive against attempts to produce strange illusions.
This representation of mirrored impressions, the laying a part of the action behind the scene, has peculiar significance for the drama in moments when what is frightful, terrifying, or horrible is to be exhibited. If it is desired by the present-day poet that he should follow the example of the Greeks, and discreetly lay the decisive moment of a hideous deed as much as possible behind the scenes, and bring it to light only through the impressions which it makes on the minds of those concerned, then an objection must be made against this restriction in favor of the newer art; for an imposing deed is sometimes of the greatest effect on our stage, and is indispensable to the action. First, if the dramatically presentable individual parts of the deed give significance to what follows; next, if we recognize in such a deed the sudden culmination of an inner process just perfected; third, if only through the contemplation of the action itself the spectators may be convinced how the affair really happened, —nowhere need we fear the effects on the stage, of death, murder, violent collision of figures, though in themselves not the highest effects of the drama. While the Greek stage was developed out of a lyric representation of passionate emotions, the German has arisen from the epic delineation of events. Both have preserved some traditions of their oldest conditions; the Greek remained just as inclined to keep in the background the moment of the deed, as the Germans rejoiced to picture fighting and rapine.
But if the Greeks avoided violent physical efforts, blows, attacks, wrestlings, overthrows, perhaps not the foresight of the poet, but the need of the actors was the ultimate reason. The Greek theatre costume was very inconvenient for violent movements of the body; the falling of a dying person in the cothurnus must be gradual and very carefully managed if it would not be ridiculous. And the mask took away any possibility of representing the expression of the countenance, indispensable in the moments of highest suspense, Æschylus appears to have undertaken something also in this direction; and the shrewd Sophocles went just as far as he dared. He ventured to have even Antigone dragged by an armed force from the grove of Colonos, but he did not venture, in Electra, to have Ægisthos killed on the stage; Orestes and Pylades must pursue him with drawn swords behind the scenes. Perhaps Sophocles perceived, as well as we, that in such a place this was a disadvantage, a restriction which was laid upon him by the leather and padding of his actors, and, too, by the religious horror which the Greeks felt for the moment of death. Then this is one of the places in the drama where the spectator must see that the action completes itself. Even if pursued by two men, Ægisthos could either have defended himself against them or have escaped them.
Through the greater ease and energy of our imitation, we are freed from such considerations; and in our pieces, numerous effects, great and small, rest on the supreme moment of action. The scene in which Coriolanus embraces Aufidius before the household altar of the Volscians, receives its full significance only through the battle scene in the first act, in which the embittered antagonists are seen to punish each other. The contest is necessary between Prince Henry and Percy. And again in Love and Intrigue, how indispensable, according to the premises, is the death of the two lovers on the stage. In Romeo and Juliet, how indispensable the death of Tybalt, of Paris, and of the loving pair, before the eyes of the spectators. Could we believe it, were Emilia Galotti stabbed by her father behind the scenes? And would it be possible to dispense with the great scene in which Caesar was murdered?
On the other hand, again, there is an entire series of great effects, when the deed itself does not busy the eye, but is so concealed that the attending circumstances stimulate the imagination, and cause the terrible to be felt through those impressions which fall into the soul of the hero. Wherever there is room to make impressive the moments preparatory to a deed; wherever the deed does not enter into the sudden excitement of the hero; finally, wherever it is more useful to excite horror, and hold in suspense, than sorrowfully to relax excited suspense, —the poet will do well to have the deed itself performed behind the scenes. We are indebted to such a concealment for many of the most powerful effects which have been produced at all. When in the Agamemnon of Æschylus, the captive Cassandra announces the individual circumstances of the murder which occurs in the house; when Electra, as the death shrieks of Clytemnestra press upon the stage, cries to her brother behind the scene, “Strike once more!” —the fearful power of these effects has never been surpassed. Not less magnificent is the murdering of King Duncan in Macbeth —the delineating of the murderer’s frame of mind before and after the deed.
For the German stage, the suspense, the undefined horror, the unearthly, the exciting, produced by skilful treatment, through this concealing of momentous deeds, are especially to be esteemed in the part of the action tending toward climax. In the more rapid course and the more violent excitement of the second part, they will not be so easily made use of. At the last exit of the hero, they can be used only in cases where the moment of death itself is not capable of presentation on the stage, —execution on the scaffold, military execution, and where the impossibility of any other solution is a matter of course, on account of the undoubtedly greater strength of the death-dealing antagonist. An interesting example of this is the last act of Wallenstein. The gloomy figure of Buttler, the soliciting of the murderers, the drawing together of the net about the unsuspecting one, —all this is impressed upon the soul of the spectator, in a long and powerfully exciting climax; after such a preparation, the accomplishment of the murder itself would not add intensity; one sees the murderer press into the sleeping room; the creaking of the last door, the clanking of arms, the succeeding sudden silence, hold the imagination in the same unearthly suspense which colors the whole act; and the slow awakening of the fancy, the anxious expectation, and the last concealment of the deed itself, are exceedingly well adapted to what is visionary and mysterious in the inspired hero, as Schiller has conceived him.
The poet has not only to exhibit, but as well to keep silence. First of all, there are certain illogical ingredients of the material, which the greatest art is not able always to manage, —this will be further treated in the discussion of dramatic material. Then there is the repulsive, the disgusting, the hideous, all that shocks dramatic taste, which depends on the crudeness of otherwise serviceable material; what, in this respect may be repugnant to art, the artist must himself feel; it cannot be taught him.
But further, the poet must continually heighten his effects from the beginning to the end of his play. The listener is not the same in every part of the performance. At the beginning of the piece, he acquiesces with readiness, as a rule, in what is offered, and with slight demands; and as soon as the poet has shown his power by some respectable effect, and has shown his manly judgment, through his language, and a firm kind of characterization, the hearer is inclined to yield himself confidently to the poet’s leading. This frame of mind lasts till toward the climax of the piece. But in the further course, the listener becomes more exacting; his capability for receiving what is new becomes less; the effects enjoyed have been exciting more powerfully, have in many respects afforded satisfaction; with increasing suspense, comes impatience; with the greater number of impressions received, weariness comes more easily. With all this in view, the poet must carefully arrange every part of his action. Indeed, so far as the import of the play is concerned, he need not, with a skilful arrangement of tolerable material, be anxious about the listener’s increasing interest. But he must see to it, that the performance becomes gradually greater and more impressive. During the first acts, in general, a light and brief treatment may be made possible; and here sometimes the heavy exaction is laid on the poet, perhaps even to moderate a great effect; but the last acts from the climax on, require the summoning of all his resources. It is not a matter of indifference, where a scene is placed, whether a messenger recites his narrative in the first or in the fourth act, whether an effect closes the second or the fourth act. It was wise foresight that made the conspiracy scene in Julius Cæsar so brief, in order not to prejudice the climax of the piece, and the great tent scene.
Another means of heightening effects lies in the multiplicity of moods that may be aroused, and of characters which may bear forward the action. Every piece, as has been said, has a ground mood, which may be compared to a musical chord or a color. From this controlling color, there is necessary a wealth of shadings, as well as of contrasts. In many cases the poet does not find it essential to make this necessity apparent by cool investigation; for it is an unwritten law of all artistic creation, that anything discovered suggests its opposite, —the chief character, his counterpart, one scene effect, that which contrasts with it. Among the Germans, particularly, there is need that they fondly and carefully infuse into everything which they create, a certain totality of their feeling. Yet, during the work, the critical examination of the figures, which by natural necessity have challenged one another, will supply many important gaps. For in our plays, rich in figures, it is easily possible, by means of a subordinate figure, to give a coloring which materially aids the whole. Even Sophocles is to be admired for the certainty and delicacy with which, in every tragedy, he counterbalances the one-sidedness of some of his characters, by means of the suggested opposites. In Euripides, again, this feeling for harmony is very weak. All great poets of the Germanic race, from Shakespeare to Schiller, considered all together, create, in this direction, with admirable firmness; and in their works we seldom find a character which is not demanded by a counterpart, but is introduced through cool deliberation, like Parricida in William Tell. It is a peculiarity of Kleist that his supplementary characters come to him indistinctly; here and there arbitrariness or license violates, in the ground lines of his figures.
From this internal throng of scenic contrasts in the action, there has originated what, to the Germans, is the favorite scene of tragedy —the luminous and fervid part which, as a rule, embraces the touching moments, in contrast with the thrilling moments of the chief action. These scenic contrasts, however, are produced not only through a variation of meaning, but also through a change of amplified and concise scenes, of scenes of two, and of many persons. Among the Greeks, scenes moved in a much narrower circle, both as to matter and form. The variation is made in this way: the scenes have a peculiar, regular, recurring construction, each according to its contents; dialogues and messenger scenes are interrupted by pathos scenes; for each of these kinds there arose, in essentials, an established form.
Not only sharp contrast, but the repetition of the same scenic motive, may produce a heightened effect, as well through parallelism as through fine contrarieties in things otherwise similar. In this case, the poet must give diligent care, that he lay peculiar charm in the returning motive, and that before the recurrence, he arouse suspense and enjoyment in the motive. And in this he will not be allowed to neglect the law, that on the stage, in the last part of the action, even very fine work will not easily suffice to produce heightened effects by means already used, provided the same receive a broader elaboration. There is special danger if the performer wants the peculiar art of setting in strong contrast the repeated motive, and one that has preceded it. Shakespeare is fond of repeating a motive to heighten effects. A good example is the heavy sleepiness of Lucius in Julius Cæsar, which in the oath scene shows the contrast in the temper of the master and the servant, and in the tent scene is repeated almost word for word. The second sounding of the chord has to introduce the ghost here, and its soft minor tone reminds the hearer very pleasingly of that unfortunate night and Brutus’s guilt. Similarly, in Romeo and Juliet, the repetition of the deed with fatal result, works as well through consonance as through contrasted treatment. Further, in Othello, the splendid recurring variations of the same theme in the little scenes between Iago and Roderigo. But success with these effects is not always accorded to even great poets. The repetition of the weird-sister motive, in the second half of Macbeth, is no strengthening of the effect. The ghostly resists, indeed, a more ample elaboration in the second place. A very remarkable example of such a repetition is the repeated wooing of Richard III., the scene at the bier, and the interview with Elizabeth Rivers.8 That the repetition stands here as a significant characterizing of Richard, and that a strong effect is intended, is perfectly clear from the great art and full amplification of both scenes. The second scene, also, is treated with greater fondness; the poet has made use of a technique, new to to [sic.] him, but very fine; he has treated it according to antique models, giving to speech and response the same number of lines. And our criticism is accustomed to account for a special beauty of the great drama from this scene. It is certainly a disadvantage on the stage. The monstrous action presses already toward the end, with a power which takes from the spectator the capability of enjoying the extended and artistic battle of words in this interview. A similar disadvantage for our spectators, is the thrice-repeated casket scene in the Merchant of Venice. The dramatic movement of the first two scenes is inconsiderable, and the elegance in the speeches of those choosing has not sufficient charm, Shakespeare might gladly allow himself such rhetorical niceties, because his more constant audience found peculiar pleasure in polite, cultured discourse.