It is well known how busily the German poets since Lessing’s time, have been occupied in exploring that mysterious property of the drama which is called the tragic. It should be the quality which the poet’'s moral theory of life deposits in the piece; and the poet should be, through moral influences, a fashioner of his time. The tragic should be an ethical force with which the poet has to fill his action and his characters; and in this case, there have been only diverse opinions as to the essential nature of dramatic ethical force. The expressions, tragic guilt, inner purification, poetic justice, have become convenient watchwords of criticism, conveying, however, a different meaning to different persons. But in this all agree, that the tragic effect of the drama depends on the manner in which the poet conducts his characters through the action, portions their fate to them, and guides and terminates the struggle of their one-sided desire against opposing forces.
Since the poet with freedom joins the parts of his action so as to produce unity, and since he produces this unity by setting together the individual elements of the represented events in rational, internal consistency, it is, of course, clear that the poet’s representations of human freedom and dependence, his comprehension of the general consistency of all things, his view of Providence and destiny, must be expressed in a poetic invention, which derives from the inner nature of some important personage sustaining great relations, his deeds and his sorrows. It is further plain that it devolves on the poet to conduct this struggle to such a close as shall not shock the humanity and the reason of the hearer, but shall satisfy it; and that for the good effect of his drama, it is not at all a matter of indifference whether in deducing guilt from the soul of the hero, and in deriving retribution from the compelling force of the action, he shows himself a man of good judgment and just feeling. But it is quite evident that the feeling and judgment of poets have been quite unlike in different centuries, and in individual poets, cannot be graduated in the same manner. Manifestly he who has developed in his own life a high degree of culture, a comprehensive knowledge of men, and a manly character, will, according to the view of his contemporaries, best direct the destiny of his hero; for what shines forth from the drama is only the reflection of the poet’s own conception of the great world-relations. It cannot be taught; it cannot be inserted into a single drama like a role or a scene.
Therefore, in answer to the question, how the poet must compose his action so that it may be tragic in this sense, the advice, meant in all seriousness, is given that he need trouble himself very little about it. He must develop in himself a capable and worthy manhood, then go with glad heart to a subject which offers strong characters in great conflict, and leave to others the high-sounding words, guilt and purification, refining and elevating. Unsettled must is sometimes put into bottles worthy of the purest wine. What is, in truth, dramatic will have an earnest tragic effect in a strongly moving action if it was a man who wrote it; if not, then assuredly not.
The poet’s own character determines the highest effects in an elevated drama more than in any other species of art. But the error of former art theories has been that they have sought to explain from the morale or ethics of the drama the combined effect in which sonorousness of words, gesture, costume, and not much else, are concerned.
The word, tragic, is used by the poet in two different meanings; it denotes, first, the peculiar general effect which a successful drama of elevated character produces upon the soul of the spectator; and, second, a definite kind of dramatic causes and effects which in certain parts of the drama are either useful or indispensable. The first is the physiological signification of the expression; the second, a technical denotation. To the Greeks, a certain peculiarity in the aggregate effect of the drama was well known. Aristotle has sharply observed the special influence of the dramatic effects on the life of the spectators, and has understood them to be a characteristic property of the drama; so that he has included them in his celebrated definition of tragedy. This explanation, “Tragedy is artistic remodeling of a worthy, undivided, complete event, which has magnitude,” and so forth, closes with the words, “and effects through pity and fear the purification of such passions.” In another place, he explains in detail (Rhetoric, II. 8) what pity is, and how it may be awakened. Awakening pity is to him exhibiting the whole realm of human sorrows, circumstances, and actions, the observation of which produces what we call emotion and strong agitation. The word purification (katharsis), however, which as an expression of the old healing art, denoted the removal of diseased matter, and, as an expression of divine worship, denoted the purging of man by atonement from what polluted, is evidently an art term adopted by him for the proper effect of tragedy on the hearer. These peculiar effects which the critical observer perceived upon his contemporaries, are not entirely the same which the representation of a great dramatic masterpiece produces upon our audience, but they are closely related; and it is worth while to notice the difference.
Any one who has ever observed the influence of a tragedy upon himself, must have noticed with astonishment how the emotion and perturbation caused by the excitement of the characters, joined with the mighty suspense which the continuity of the action produces, take hold upon his nerves. Far more easily than in real life the tears flow, the lips twitch; this pain, however, is at the same time accompanied with intense enjoyment, while the hearer experiences immediately after the hero, the same thoughts, sorrows, calamities, with great vividness, as if they were his own. He has in the midst of the most violent excitement, the consciousness of unrestricted liberty, which at the same time raises him far above the incidents through which his capacity to receive impressions seems to be levied upon. After the fall of the curtain, in spite of the intense strain which he has been under for hours, he will be aware of a rebound of vital force; his eye brightens, his step is elastic, every movement firm and free. The dread and commotion are followed by a feeling of security; in his mental processes of the next hour, there is a greater elevation; in his collocation of words, emphatic force; the aggregate production, now his own, has raised him to a high pitch. The radiance of broader views and more powerful feeling which has come into his soul, lies like a transfiguration upon his being. This remarkable affection of body and soul, this elevation above the moods of the day, this feeling of unrestrained comfort after great agitation, is exactly what, in the modern drama, corresponds to Aristotle’s “purification.” There is no doubt that such a consequence of scenic exhibitions among the finely cultured Greeks, after a ten hours’ suspense, through the most powerful effects, came out all the more heightened and more striking.
The elevating influence of the beautiful, upon the soul, is no entirely unusual art; but the peculiar effect which is produced by a union of pain, horror, and pleasure, with a great, sustained effort of the fancy and the judgment, and through the perfect satisfying of our demands for a rational consistency in all things,—this is the prerogative of the art of dramatic poetry alone. The penetrating force of this dramatic effect is, with the majority of people, greater than the force of effects produced by any other form of art. Only music is able to make its influence more powerfully felt upon the nerves; but the thrill which the musical tone evokes, falls rather within the sphere of immediate emotions, which are not transfigured into thought; they are more rapturous, less inspired. Naturally the effects of the drama are no longer the same with us as they were in Aristotle’'s time. He, himself, makes that clear to us. He who knew so well that the action is the chief thing in the drama, and that Euripides composed his actions badly, yet called him the most tragic of the poets, that is, one who knew how to produce most powerfully the effects peculiar to a play. Upon us, however, scarcely a play of Euripides produces any general effect, however powerfully the stormy commotions of the hero’s soul, in single ones of his better plays, thrill us. Whence comes this diversity of conception? Euripides was a master in representing excited passion, with too little regard for sharply defined personages and rational consistency of the action. The Greek drama arose from a union of music and lyric poetry; from Aristotle’s time forward, it preserved something of its first youth. The musical element remained, not in the choruses, but the rhythmical language of the hero easily rose to climaxes in song; and the climaxes were frequently characterized by fully elaborated pathos scenes. The aggregate effect of the old tragedy stood between that of our opera and our drama, perhaps still nearer the opera; it retained something of the powerful inflammatory influence of music.
On the other hand, there was another effect of the ancient tragedy, only imperfectly developed, which is indispensable to our tragedy. The dramatic ideas and actions of the Greeks lacked a rational conformity to the laws of nature, that is, such a connecting of events as would be perfectly accounted for by the disposition and one-sidedness of the characters. We have become free men, we recognize no fate on the stage but such as proceeds from the nature of the hero himself. The modern poet has to prepare for the hearer the proud joy, that the world into which he introduces him corresponds throughout to the ideal demands which the heart and judgment of the hearer set up in comparison with the events of reality. Human reason appears in the new drama, as agreeing with and identical with divine; it remodels all that is incomprehensible in the order of nature, according to the need of our spirit and heart. This peculiarity of the action specially strengthens for the spectator of the best modern plays, beautiful transparence and joyous elevation; it helps to make himself for hours stronger, nobler, freer. Here is the point in which the character of the modern poet, his frank manliness, exercises greater influence upon the aggregate effect than in ancient times.
The Attic poet also sought this unity of the divine and the rational; but it was very difficult for him to find it. This boldly tragical, of course, shines forth in single dramas of the ancient world. And that can be explained; for the vital laws of poetical creation control the poet long before criticism has found rules for it; and in his best hours, the poet may receive an inward freedom and expansion which raise him far above the restrictions of his time. Sophocles directed the character and fate of his heroes sometimes, almost in the Germanic fashion. In general, however, the Greeks did not free themselves from a servitude which seems to us, in the highest art effects, a serious defect. The epic source of their subjects was thoroughly unfavorable for the free direction of their heroes’ destiny. An incomprehensible fate reached from without into their action; prophecies and oracular utterances influence the conclusion; accidental misfortunes strike the heroes; misdeeds of parents control the destiny of later generations; personifications of deity enter the action as friends and as enemies; between what excites their rage and the punishments which they decree, there is, according to human judgment, no consistency, much less a rational relation. The partiality and arbitrariness with which they rule, is frightful and terrifying; and when they occasionally grant a mild reconciliation, they remain like something foreign, not belonging here. In contrast to such cold excess of power, meek-spirited modesty of man is the highest wisdom. Whoever means to stand firmly by himself in his own might, falls first before a mysterious power which annihilates the guilty as well as the innocent. With this conception, which in its ultimate foundation was gloomy, sad, devouring, there remained to the Greek poet only the means of putting even into the characters of his fettered heroes, something that to a certain degree would account for the horrors which they must endure. The great art of Sophocles is shown, among other things, in the way he gives coloring to his personages. But this wise disposition of characters does not always extend far enough to establish the course of their destiny; it remains not seldom an inadequate motive. The greatness which the ancients produced, lay first of all in the force of passions, then in the fierceness of the struggles through which their heroes were overthrown, finally in the intensity, unfeelingness, and inexorableness, with which they made their characters do and suffer.
The Greeks felt very well that it was not advisable to dismiss the spectator immediately after such effects of the efforts of the beautiful art. They therefore closed the exhibition of the day with a parody, in which they treated the serious heroes of the tragedy with insolent jest, and whimsically imitated their struggles. The burlesque was the external means of affording the recreation which lies for us in the tragedy itself.
From these considerations, the last sentence of Aristotle’s definition, not indeed without limitation, avails for our drama. For him as well as for us, the chief effect of the drama is the disburdening of the hearer from the sad and confining moods of the day, which come to us through wretchedness and whatever causes apprehension in the world. But when in another place, he knows how to account for this, on the ground that man needs to see himself touched and shaken, and that the powerful pacifying and satisfying of this desire gives him inward freedom, this explanation is, indeed, not unintelligible to us; but it accepts as the ultimate inner reason for this need pathological circumstances, where we recognize a joyous emotional activity of the hearer.
The ultimate ground of every great effect of the drama lies not in the necessity of the spectator passively to receive impressions, but in his neverceasing [sic] and irresistible desire to create and to fashion. The dramatist compels the listener to repeat his creations. The whole world of characters, of sorrow, and of destiny, the hearer must make alive in himself. While he is receiving with a high degree of suspense, he is in most powerful, most rapid creative activity. An ardor and beatifying cheerfulness like that which the poet himself has felt, fills the hearer who repeats the poet’s efforts; therefore the pain with the feeling of pleasure therefore the exaltation which outlasts the conclusion of the piece. And this stimulation of the creative imagination is, in the new drama, penetrated with still a milder light; for closely connected with it, is an exalting sense of eternal reason in the severest fates and sorrows of man. The spectator feels and recognizes that the divinity which guides his life, even where it shatters the individual human being, acts in a benevolent fellowship with the human race; and he feels himself creatively exalted, as united with and in accord with the great world-guiding power.
So the aggregate effect of the drama, the tragic, is with us related to that of the Greek, but still no longer the same. The Greeks listened in the green youth of the human race, for the tones of the proscenium, filled with the sacred ecstacy of Dionysus; the German looks into the world of illusion, not less affected, but as a lord of the earth. The human race has since then passed through a long history; we have all been educated through historical science.
But more than the general effect of the drama is denoted by the word tragic. The poet of the present time, and sometimes also the public, use the word in a narrower sense. We understand by it, also, a peculiar kind of dramatic effects.
When at a certain point in the action, there enters suddenly, unexpectedly, in contrast with what has preceded, something sad, sombre, frightful, that we yet immediately feel has developed from the original course of events, and is perfectly intelligible from the presuppositions of the play, this new element is a tragic force or motive. This tragic force must possess the three following qualities: (1) it must be important and of serious consequence to the hero; (2) it must occur unexpectedly; (3) it must, to the mind of the spectator, stand in a visible chain of accessory representations, in rational connection with the earlier parts of the action. When the conspirators have killed Caesar and, as they think, have bound Antony to themselves, Antony, by his speech stirs up against the murderers themselves the same Romans for whose freedom Brutus had committed the murder. When Romeo has married Juliet, he is placed under the necessity of killing her cousin, Tybalt, in the duel, and is banished. When Mary Stuart has approached Elizabeth so near that a reconciliation of the two queens is possible, a quarrel flames up between them, which becomes fatal to Mary. Here the speech of Antony, the death of Tybalt, the quarrel of the queens, are tragic forces; their effect rests upon this, that the spectator comprehends the ominous occurrences as surprising, and yet inseparably connected with what has preceded. The hearer keenly feels the speech of Antony to be a result of the wrong which the conspirators have done Caesar; through the relation of Antony to Caesar, and his behavior in the previous dialogue scene with the conspirators, the speech is conceived as the necessary consequence of the sparing of Antony, and the senseless and overhasty confidence which the murderers place in him. That Romeo must kill Tybalt, will be immediately understood as an unavoidable consequence of the mortal family quarrel and the duel with Mercutio; the quarrel of the two queens, the hearer at once understands to be the natural consequence of their pride, hatred, and former jealousy.
In the same technical signification, the word tragic is also sometimes used for events in real life. The fact, for example, that Luther, that mighty champion of the freedom of conscience, became in the last half of his life an intolerant oppressor of conscience, contains, thus stated, nothing tragic. Overweening desire for rule may have developed in Luther; he may have become senile. But from the moment when it becomes clear to us, through a succession of accessory ideas, that this same intolerance was the necessary consequence of that very honest, disinterested struggle for truth, which accomplished the Reformation; that this same pious fidelity with which Luther upheld his conception of the Bible against the Roman Church, brought him to defend this conception against an adverse decision; that he would not despair when in his position outside of the church, but remained there, holding obstinately to the letter of his writings; from the moment, also, when we conceive of the inner connection of his intolerance with all that is good and great in his nature,—this darkening of his later life produces the effect of the tragic. Just so with Cromwell. That the Protector ruled as a tyrant, produces, in itself, nothing tragic. But that he must do it against his will, because the partisan relations through which he had arisen, and his participation in the execution of the king, had stirred the hearts of the conservative against him; that the great hero from the pressure which his earlier life had laid upon him, could not wrest himself free from his office,—this makes the shadow which fell upon his life through his unlawful reign, tragic for us. That Conradin, child of the Hohenstaufens, gathered a horde, and was slain in Italy by his adversary,—this is not in itself dramatic, and in no sense of the word tragic. A weak youth, with slender support,—it was in order that he should succumb. But when it is impressed upon our souls, that the youth only followed the old line of march of his ancestors toward Italy, and that in this line of march, almost all the great princes of .his house had fallen, and that this march of an imperial race was not accidental, but rested on ancient, historical union of Germany with Italy,—then the death of Conradin appears to us specially tragic, not for himself, but as the final extinction of the greatest race of rulers of that time.
With peculiar emphasis, it must again be asserted that the tragic force must be understood in its rational causative connection with the fundamental conditions of the action. For our drama, such events as enter without being understood, incidents the relation of which with the action is mysteriously concealed, influences the significance of which rests on superstitious notions, motives which are taken from dream-life, prophesyings, presentiments, have merely a secondary importance. If a family picture which falls from its nail, shall portentously indicate death and destruction; if a dagger which was used in a crime, appears burdened with a mysterious, evil-bringing curse, till it brings death to the murderer,—these kinds of attempts which ground the tragic effect upon an inner connection which is incomprehensible to us, or appears unreasonable, are for the free race of the present day, either weak or quite intolerable. What appears to us as an accident, even an overwhelming one, is not appropriate for great effects on the stage. It is now several centuries since the adoption of such motives and many others, has been tried in Germany.
The Greeks, it may be remarked incidentally, were somewhat less fastidious in the use of these irrational forces for tragic effect. They could be contented if the inner connection of a suddenly entering tragic force, with what had preceded, were felt in an ominous shudder. When Aristotle cites as an effective example in this direction, that a statue erected to a man, in falling down, kills him who was guilty of the man’s death, we should feel in every-day life such an accident is significant. But in art, we should not deem it worthy of success. Sophocles understands how, with such forces, to make conspicuous a natural and intelligible connection between cause and effect so far as his fables allow anything of the sort. For example, the manner in which he explains, with realistic detail, the poisonous effect of the shirt of Nessos, which Deianeira sends to Hercules, is remarkable.
The tragic force, or incident, in the drama is one of many effects. It may enter only once, as usually happens; it may be used several times in the same piece. Romeo and Juliet has three such forces: the death of Tybalt after the marriage; the betrothal of Juliet and Paris after the marriage night; the death of Paris before the final catastrophe. The position which this force takes in the piece, is not always the same; one point, however, is specially adapted for it, so that the cases in which it demands another place, can be considered as exceptions; and it is relevant in connection with the foregoing to speak of this here, though the parts of the drama will be discussed in the following chapter.
The point forward from which the deed of the hero reacts upon himself, is one of the most important in the play. This beginning of the reaction, sometimes united in one scene with the climax, has been noted ever since there has been a dramatic art. The embarrassment of the hero and the momentous position into which he has placed himself, must be impressively represented; at the same time, it is the business of this force to produce new suspense for the second part of the piece, and so much the more as the apparent success of the hero has so far been more brilliant, and the more magnificently the scene of the climax has presented his success. Whatever enters into the play now must have all the qualities which have been previously explained—it must present sharp contrasts, it must not be accidental, it must be pregnant with consequences. Therefore it must have importance and a certain magnitude. This scene of the tragic force either immediately follows the scene of the climax, like the despair of Juliet after Romeo’s departure; or is joined by a, connecting scene, like the speech of Antony after Caesar’s murder; or it is coupled with the climax scene into scenic unity, as in Mary Stuart; or it is entirely separated from it by the close of an act, as in Love and Intrigue, where Louise’s writing the letter indicates the climax, and Ferdinand’s conviction of the infidelity of his beloved forms the tragic force. Such scenes almost always stand in the third act of our plays, sometimes less effective in the beginning of the fourth. They are not, of course, absolutely necessary to the tragedy; it is quite possible to bring along the increasing reaction by several strokes in gradual reinforcement. This will most frequently be the case where the catastrophe is effected by the mental processes of the hero, as in Othello.
It is worth while for us in modern times to recognize how important this entrance of the tragic force into the action appeared to the Greeks. It was under another name exactly the same effect; and it was made still more significantly prominent by the Attic critic than is necessary for us. Even to their tragedies, this force was not indispensable, but it passed for one of the most beautiful and most, effective inventions. Indeed, they classed this effect according to its producing a turn in the action itself or in the position of the chief characters relative to one another; and they had for each of these cases special names, apparently expressions of the old poetic laboratory, which an accident has preserved for us in Aristotle’s Poetics.9
Revolution (Penrieteia), is the name given by the Greeks to that tragic force which by the sudden intrusion of an event, unforeseen and overwhelming but already grounded in the plan of the action, impels the volition of the hero, and with it the action itself in a direction entirely different from that of the beginning. Examples of such revolution scenes are the change in the prospects of Neoptolemus in Philoctetes, the announcement of the messenger and the shepherd to Jocasta and the king in King Œdipus, the account of Hyllos to Deianeira, concerning the effect of the shirt of Nessos, in The Trachinian Women. Through this force specially there was produced a powerful movement in the second part of the play; and the Athenians distinguished carefully between plays with revolution and those without. Those with revolution prevailed in general, being considered the better. This force of the ancient action is distinguished from the corresponding newer only in this, that it does not necessarily indicate a turning toward the disastrous, because the tragedy of the ancients did not always have a sad ending, but sometimes the sudden reversion to the better. The scenes claimed scarcely less significance, in which the position of the persons concerned in the action was changed with relation to each other, by the unexpected revival of an old and important relation between them. These scenes of the anagnorisis, recognition scenes, it was especially, in which the agreeable relations of the heroes became apparent in magnificent achievement. And since the Greek stage did not know our love scenes, they occupied a similar position, though good-will did not always appear in them, and sometimes even hatred flamed up. The subjects of the Greeks offered ample opportunity for such scenes. The heroes of Greek story are, almost without exception, a wandering race. Expedition and return, the finding of friends and enemies unexpectedly, are among the most common features of these legends. Almost every collection of stories contains children who did not know their parents, husbands and wives, who after long separation came together again under peculiar circumstances, host and guest, who prudently sought to conceal their names and purposes. There was, therefore, in much of their material, scenes of meetings, finding the lost, reminiscences of significant past events, some of decisive importance. Not only the recognizing of former acquaintances but the recognition of a region, of an affair having many relations, could become a motive for a strong movement. Such scenes afforded the old-time poet welcome opportunity for the representation of contrasts in perception and for favorite pathetic performances in which the excited feeling flowed forth in great waves. The woman who will kill an enemy, and just before or just after the deed recognizes him as her own son; the son who in his mortal enemy finds again his own mother, like Ion; the priestess who is about to offer up a stranger, and in him recognizes her brother, like Iphigenia; the sister who mourns her dead brother, and in the bringer of the burial urn receives back again the living; and Odysseus’s nurse who, in a beggar, finds out the home-returning master by a scar on his foot,—these are some of the numerous examples. Frequently such recognition scenes became motives for a revolution, as in the case already mentioned of the account of the messenger and the shepherd to the royal pair of Thebes. One may read in Aristotle how important the circumstances were to the Greeks through which the recognition was brought about; by the great philosopher, they were carefully considered and prized according to their intrinsic worth. And it is a source of satisfaction to observe that even to the Greek, no accidental external characteristic passed for a motive suitable to art, but only the internal relations of those recognizing each other, which voluntarily and characteristically for both, manifested themselves in the dialogue. Just a glimpse assures us how refined and fully developed the dramatic criticism of the Greeks was, and how painfully conscientious they were to regard in a new drama what passed for a beautiful effect according to their theory of art.