The acts—this short foreign word has driven the German term into the background—are divided for stage purposes into scenes. The entrance and exit of a person, servants and the like being excepted, begins and ends the scene. Such a division of the acts is necessary to the management, in order easily to supervise the efforts of each single role; and for the presentation on the stage, the scenes represent the little units by the combination of which the acts are formed. But the dramatic passages out of which the poet composes his action, sometimes embrace more than one entrance and exit, or are bound together in a greater number, by the continuance on the stage, of one person. This passage, this single dramatic movement, takes its form through the various stages in which the creative power of the poet works.
For, like the links of a chain, the nearly related images and ideas interlock, themselves during the poet’s labor, one evoking another with logical coercion. The single strokes of the action thus arrange themselves in such single parts, while the great outlines of the action the poet carries in his soul. However diverse the work of the creative power in different minds may be, these logical and poetical units are formed in every poetic work by necessity; and anyone who gives careful attention, may easily recognize them in the completed poem, and perceive in individual instances the greater or less power, fervor, poetic fulness [sic], and firm, neat method of work.
Such a passage includes as much of a monologue, of dialogue, of the entrance and exit of persons as is needed to represent a connected series of poetic images and ideas, which somewhat sharply divides itself from what precedes and what follows. These passages are of very unequal length; they may consist of a few sentences, they may embrace several pages; they may alone form a short scene, they may, placed in juxtaposition, and provided with introductory words and a conclusion leading over to what follows, form a greater complete whole, within an act. For the poet, they are the links out of which he forges the long chain of the action; he is well aware of their intrinsic merit and characteristic quality, even when he, with powerful effort is creating and welding them, one immediately after another.
Out of the dramatic moments, the poet composes scenes. This foreign word is used by us with various meanings. It denotes to the director, first, the stage-room itself, then the part of the action which is presented without change of scenery. To the poet, however, scene means the union of several dramatic moments which forms a part of the action, carried on by the same chief person, perhaps an entire scene, from the director’s point of view, at all events, a considerable piece of one. Since a change of scenery is not always necessary or desirable at the exit of a leading character, the scene of the poet and the scene of the director do not always exactly coincide.20 An example may be allowed here. The fourth act of Mary Stuart is divided by the poet into twelve parts (entrances), separated by one shifting of scenery within the act into two director scenes. It consists of two little scenes and one great scene, —thus three dramatic scenes. The first scene, the intriguers of the court, is composed of two dramatic moments, (i) after a short key note, which gives the tone of the act, the despair of Aubespine, (2) the strife between Leicester and Burleigh. The second scene, Mortimer’s end, connected with the preceding by Leicester’s remaining on the stage, (1) Leicester’s connecting monologue, (2) interview between Leicester and Mortimer, (3) Mortimer’s death. The third great scene, the conflict about the death sentence, is more artistically constructed. It is a double scene, similar to the first and second, only with closer connection, and consists of ten movements, of which the first four, the quarrel of Elizabeth and Leicester, united in a group, and the last six, the signing of the death warrant, stand in contrast. The six movements of the second half of the scene, coincide with the last six entrances of the act; the last of these, Davison and Burleigh, is the close of this animated passage, and the transition to the fifth act.
It is not always easy to recognize these logical units of the creating spirit, from a completed drama; and now and then the critical judgment is in doubt. But they deserve greater attention than has so far been accorded to them.
It was said in the last section, that every act must be an organized structure, which combines its part of the action in an order, conformable to a purpose and an effect. In it, the interest of the spectator must be guided with a steady hand, and increased; it must have its climax a great, strong, elaborate scene. If it contains several such elaborate climaxes, these must be united by means of shorter scenes, like joints, in such a manner that the stronger interest will always rest on the later elaborate scene.
Like the act, every single scene, transition scene as well as finished scene, must have an order of parts, which is adapted to express its import with the highest effect. An exciting force must introduce the elaborate scene, the spiritual processes in it must be represented with profusion, in effective progression, and the results of the same be indicated by telling strokes after its catastrophe, toward which it sweeps forward, richly elaborated; the conclusion must come, brief, and rapid; for once its purpose attained, the tension slackened, then every useless word is too much. And as it is to be introduced with a certain rousing of expectation, so its close needs a slight intensifying, specially a strong expression of the important personalities, at the time they leave the stage. The so-called exits are no unwarranted desire of the player, however much they are misused by a crude effort for effect. The marked division at the end of the scene, and the necessity of transferring the suspense to what follows, rather justify them as an artifice, specially at the close of an act, but of course in moderate use.
The poet has frequent occasion, during the presentation of a piece on our stage, to rage against the long intervals which are caused by the shifting of the scenery, and sometimes by the useless changing of costumes. It must be the poet’s concern, as much as possible to restrict the actor’s excuse for this practice; and when a change of costume is necessary, have regard to it in the arrangement of the action of the piece. A longer interval—that should never be more than five minutes—may, according to the nature of the piece, follow the second or third act. The acts which stand together in closer relation, must not be separated by a pause; what follows a pause, must have the power to gather up forces, and excite a new suspense. Therefore, pauses between the fourth and fifth acts are most disadvantageous. These last two parts of the action should seldom be separated more markedly than would be allowable between two single scenes. The poet must guard against the production, in this part of the action, of closing effects which, on account of the shifting of scenery hard to manage, and the introduction of new crowds, occasion delay.
But even the shifting of scenery within the limits of an act, is no indifferent matter. For every change in the appearance of the stage during an act, makes a new, strong line of separation; and the distraction of the spectator is increased, since the custom has been adopted in modern times, of concealing the process of changing scenes from the spectator, by the drop curtain. For now it is impossible to tell, except by the color of the curtain, whether the break is made only for the sake of the management, or whether an act is ended. In view of this inconvenience, it must be the poet’s zealous care to make any change of scenes in the act unnecessary; and it will be well if during the process of composition, he relies on his own power to achieve everything in this direction; for frequently a change of the scenery seems to his embarrassed soul quite inevitable, while in most cases, by slight alterations in the action, it might be avoided. But if the shifting of curtains is not entirely unavoidable during an act, care may yet be taken, at least not to have it occur in the acts which demand the greatest elaboration, specially the fourth, where without this the full skill of the poet is necessary in order to secure progressive power. Such a disturbing break is most easily overcome in the first half of the action. In the alternation of finished and connecting scenes, there lies a great effect. By this, every part of the whole is set in artistic contrast with its surroundings; the essentials are set in a stronger light, the inner connection of the action is more intelligible in the alternating light and shadow. The poet must, therefore, carefully watch his fervid feeling, and examine with care what dramatic forces are for the essentials of his action, what for accessories. He must restrain his inclination to depict fully certain kinds of characters or situations, in case these are not of importance to the action; if, however, he cannot resist the charm of this habit, if he must deviate from this law and accord to an unessential force broader treatment, he will do it with the understanding that by special beauty of elaboration and finish, he must atone for the defect thus caused in the structure.
The subordinate scene, however, whether it be the echo of a chief scene, or the preparation for a new scene, or an independent connecting member, will always give the poet the opportunity to show his talent for the roles, in the use of the greatest brevity. Here is the place for terse, suggestive sketching, which can, in a few words, afford a gratifying insight into the inmost being of the figures in the background.