In an action, through characters, by means of words, tones, gestures, the drama presents those soul-processes which man experiences, from the flashing up of an idea, to passionate desire and to a deed, as well as those inward emotions which are excited by his own deeds and those of others.
The structure of the drama must show these two contrasted elements of the dramatic joined in a unity, efflux and influx of will-power, the accomplishment of a deed and its reaction on the soul, movement and counter-movement, strife and counter-strife, rising and sinking, binding and loosing.
In every part of the drama, both tendencies of dramatic life appear, each incessantly challenging the other to its best in play and counter-play; but in general, also, the action of the drama and the grouping of characters is, through these tendencies, in two parts. What the drama presents is always a struggle, which, with strong perturbations of soul, the hero wages against opposing forces. And as the hero must be endowed with a strong life, with a certain one-sidedness, and be in embarrassment, the opposing power must be made visible in a human representative.
It is quite indifferent in favor of which of the contending parties the greater degree of justice lies, whether a character or his adversary is better-mannered, more favored by law, embodies more of the traditions of the time, possesses more of the ethical spirit of the poet; in both groups, good and evil, power and weakness, are variously mingled. But both must be endowed with what is universally, intelligibly human. The chief hero must always stand in strong contrast with his opponents; the advantage which he wins for himself, must be the greater, so much the greater the more perfectly the final outcome of the struggle shows him to be vanquished.
These two chief parts of the drama are firmly united by a point of the action which lies directly in the middle. This middle, the climax of the play, is the most important place of the structure; the action rises to this; the action falls away from this. It is now decisive for the character of the drama which of the two refractions of the dramatic light shall have a place in the first part of the play, which shall fall in the second part as the dominating influence; whether the efflux or influx, the play or the counterplay, maintains the first part. Either is allowed; either arrangement of the structure can cite plays of the highest merit in justification of itself. And these two ways of constructing a drama have become characteristic of individual poets and of the time in which they lived. By one dramatic arrangement, the chief person, the hero, is so introduced that his nature and his characteristics speak out unembarrassed, even to the moments when, as a consequence of external impulse or internal association of ideas, in him the beginning of a powerful feeling or volition becomes perceptible. The inner commotion, the passionate eagerness, the desire of the hero, increase; new circumstances, stimulating or restraining, intensify his embarrassment and his struggle; the chief character strides victoriously forward to an unrestrained exhibition of his life, in which the full force of his feeling and his will are concentrated in a deed by which the spiritual tension is relaxed. From this point there is a turn in the action; the hero appeared up to this point in a desire, one-sided or full of consequence, working from within outward, changing by its own force the life relations in which he came upon the stage. From the climax on, what he has done reacts upon himself and gains power over him; the external world, which he conquered in the rise of passionate conflict, now stands in the strife above him. This adverse influence becomes continually more powerful and victorious, until at last in the final catastrophe, it compels the hero to succumb to its irresistible force. The end of the piece follows this catastrophe immediately, the situation where the restoration of peace and quiet after strife becomes apparent.
With this arrangement, first the inception and progress of the action are seen, then the effects of the reaction; the character of the first part is determined by the depth of the hero’s exacting claims ; the second by the counter-claims which the violently disturbed surroundings put forward. This is the construction of Antigone, of Ajax, of all of Shakespeare’s great tragedies except Othello and King Lear, of The Maid of Orleans, less surely of the double tragedy, Wallenstein.
The other dramatic arrangement, on the contrary, represents the hero at the beginning, in comparative quiet, among conditions of life which suggest the influence of some external forces upon his mind. These forces, adverse influences, work with increased activity so long in the hero’s soul, that at the climax, they have brought him into ominous embarrassment, from which, under a stress of passion, desire, activity, he plunges downward to the catastrophe.
This construction makes use of opposing characters, in order to give motive to the strong excitement of the chief character; the relation of the chief figures to the idea of the drama is an entirely different one; they do not give direction in the ascending action, but are themselves directed. Examples of this construction are King Œdipus, Othello, [King] Lear, Emilia Galotti, Clavigo, Love and Intrigue.
It might appear that this second method of dramatic construction must be the more effective. Gradually, in a specially careful performance, one sees the conflicts through which the life of the hero is disturbed, give direction to his inward being. Just there, where the hearer demands a powerful intensifying of effects, the previously prepared domination of the chief characters enters; suspense and sympathy, which are more difficult to sustain in the last half of the play, are firmly fixed upon the chief characters; the stormy and irresistible progress downward is particularly favorable to powerful and thrilling effects. And, indeed, subjects which contain the gradual rise and growth of a portentous passion which in the end leads the hero to his destruction, are exceedingly favorable for such an action.
But this method of constructing a play is not the most correct, dramatically; and it is no accident, that the greatest dramas of such a character, at the tragic close, intermingle with the emotions and perturbations of the hearer, an irritating feeling which lessens the joy and recreation. For they do not specially show the hero as an active, aggressive nature, but as a receptive, suffering person, who is too much compelled by the counter-play, which strikes him from without. The greatest exercise of human power, that which carries with it the heart of the spectator most irresistibly, is, in all times, the bold individuality which sets its own inner self, without regard to consequences, over against the forces which surround it. The essential nature of the drama is conflict and suspense; the sooner these are evoked by means of the chief heroes themselves and given direction, the better.
It is true, the first kind of dramatic structure conceals a danger, which even by genius, is not always successfully avoided. In this, as a rule, the first part of the play, which raises the hero through regular degrees of commotion to the climax, is assured its success. But the second half, in which greater effects are demanded, depends mostly on the counter-play; and this counter-play must here be grounded in more violent movement and have comparatively greater authorization. This may distract attention rather than attract it more forcibly. It must be added, that after the climax of the action, the hero must seem weaker than the counteracting figures. Moreover, on this account, the interest in him may be lessened. Yet in spite of this difficulty, the poet need be in no doubt, to which kind of arrangement to give the preference. His task will be greater in this arrangement; great art is required to make the last act strong. But talent and good fortune must overcome the difficulties. And the most beautiful garlands which dramatic art has to confer, fall upon the successful work. Of course the poet is dependent on his subject and material, which sometimes leaves no choice. Therefore, one of the first questions a poet must ask, when contemplating attractive material, is “does it come forward in the play or in the counterplay ?”
It is instructive in connection with this topic, to compare the great poets. From the few plays of Sophocles which we have preserved, the majority belong to those in which the chief actor has the direction, however unfavorable the sphere of epic material was for the unrestrained self-direction of the heroes. Shakespeare, however, evinces here the highest power and art. He is the poet of characters which reach conclusions quickly. Vital force and marrow, compressed energy and the intense virility of his heroes, impel the piece in rapid movement upward, from the very opening scene.
In sharp contrast with him, stands the tendency of the great German poets of the last century. They love a broad motiving, a careful grounding of the unusual. In many of their dramas, it looks as if their heroes would wait quietly in a self-controlled mood, in uncertain circumstances, if they were only let alone; and since, to most of the heroic characters of the Germans, conscious power, firm self-confidence and quick decision are wanting, so they stand in the action, uncertain, meditating, doubting, moved rather by external relations than by claims that have no regard to consequences. It is significant of the refinement of the last century, of the culture and spiritual life of a people to whom a joyful prosperity, a public life, and a self-government, were so greatly lacking. Even Schiller, who understood so well how to excite intense passion, was fond of giving the power of direction to the counter-players in the first half, and to the chief actors only in the second half, from the climax downward. In Love and Intrigue, therefore, Ferdinand and Louise are pushed forward by the intriguers; and only from the scene between Ferdinand and the president, after the tragic force enters, Ferdinand assumes the direction till the end. Still worse is the relation of the hero, Don Carlos, to the action ; he is kept in leading strings, not only through the ascending half, but as well through the descending half. In Mary Stuart, the heroine has the controlling influence over her portentous fate, up to the climax, the garden scene; so far she controls the mental attitudes of her counter-players; the propelling forces are, however, as the subject demanded, the intriguers and Elizabeth.
Much better known, yet of less importance for the construction of the drama, is the distinction of plays, which originates in the last turn in the fate of the hero, and in the meaning of the catastrophe. The new German stage distinguishes two kinds of serious plays, tragedy and spectacle play (trauerspiel and schauspiel). The rigid distinction in this sense is not old even with us; it has been current in repertoires only since Iffland’s time. And, if now, occasionally, on the stage, comedy, tragedy, and spectacle play are put in opposition as three different kinds of recitative representation, the spectacle play is no third, co-ordinate [sic] kind of dramatic creation, according to its character, but a subordinate kind of serious drama. The Attic stage did not have the name, but it had the thing. Even in the time of Æschylus and Sophocles, a gloomy termination was by no means indispensable to the tragedy. Of seven of the extant tragedies of Sophocles, two, Ajax and Philoctetes, indeed also, in the eyes of the Athenians, Œdipus at Colonos had a mild close, which turns the fate of the hero toward the better. Even in Euripides, to whom the critics attribute a love of the sad endings, there are, out of seventeen extant plays, four, besides Alcestis, Helena, Iphigenia in Tauris, Andromache, and Ion, the endings of which correspond to our spectacle play; in several others, the tragic ending is accidental and without motive. And it seems, the Athenians already had the same taste which we recognize in our spectators; they saw most gladly such tragedies as in our sense of the word were spectacle plays, in which the hero was severely worried by fate, but rescued at length, safely bore off his hide and hair.
On the modern stage, it cannot be denied, the justification of the spectacle play has become more pronounced. We have a nobler and more liberal comprehension of human nature. We are able to delineate more charmingly, more effectively, and more accurately inner conflicts of conscience, opposing convictions. In a time in which men have debated the abolition of capital punishment, the dead at the end of a play may be more easily dispensed with. In real life, we trust to a strong human power that it will hold the duty of living very high, and expiate even serious crimes, not with death but by a purer life. But this changed conception of earthly existence does not bring an advantage to the drama in every respect. It is true the fatal ending is, in the case of modern subjects, less a necessity than in the dramatic treatment of epic legends, or older historical events; but not that the hero’s at last remaining alive makes a piece a spectacle play, but that he proceeds from the strife as conqueror, or by an adjustment with his opponent, goes away reconciled. If he must be the victim at last, if he must be crushed, then the piece retains not only the character but the name of tragedy. The Prince of Homburg is a spectacle play, Tasso is a tragedy.
The drama of modern times has embraced in the circle of its subjects, a broad field which was unknown to the tragedy of the ancient Greeks, indeed, in the main, to Shakespeare’s art: the middle-class life of the present time, the conflicts of our society. No doubt, the strifes and sufferings of modern life make a tragic treatment possible; and this has fallen too little to their lot; but what is full of incident, what is quiet, what is full of scruple, connected as a rule with this species of material, affords artistic conception full justification; and just here it brings forward such strifes as in real life we trust to have and want to have adjusted peaceably. With the broad and popular expansion which this treatment has won, it is proper to propose two things: first, that the laws for the construction of the spectacle play and the life of the characters are, in the main, the same as for the tragedy, and that it is useful for the playwright to recognize these laws as found in the drama of elevated character, where every violence done them may be dangerous to the success of the piece; and second, that the spectacle play in which a milder adjustment of conflicts is necessary in the second part, has a double reason for laying motives in the first half by means of fine characterization, for the hero’s stout-hearted and vigorous desire in the second half of the play. Otherwise, it is exposed to the danger of becoming a mere situation-piece, or intrigue-play; in the first case, by sacrificing the strong movement of a unified action to the more easy depiction of circumstances and characteristic peculiarities; in the second case, by neglecting to develop the characters, on account of the rapid chess-board performance of a restless action. The first is the tendency of the Germans; the second of the Latins; both kinds of preparation of a subject are unfavorable to a dignified treatment of serious conflicts; they belong, according to their nature, to comedy, not to serious drama.