The fashioning of the dramatic characters, among the Germanic peoples, shows more distinctly than the construction of the dramatic action the progress which the human race has made since the appearance of dramatic art among the Greeks. Not only the natural disposition of our people, but its altitude above the historic periods of a world spread out to full view, and the consequent development of an historic sense, declare and explain this difference. Since it has been the task of the new drama, by means of the poetic and histrionic arts to represent upon the stage the appearance of an individual life, even to illusion, the delineation of character has won a significance for the art, which was unknown to the ancient world.
The poetic power of the dramatic poet displays itself most immediately in the invention of dramatic characters. In the construction of the action, in the adaptation to the stage, other characteristics help him: a true culture, manly traits of character, good training, experience; but when the capability for a sharp defining of characters is small, a work, perhaps correct from the point of view of the stage, may be created, but never one of real significance. If, on the other hand, peculiar power of invention makes the individual roles attractive, a good hope may be cherished, even if the cooperation of the figures for a collective picture is quite lacking. Right here, then, in this part of artistic creation, less help is gained from instruction than in any other part. The poetics of the Greek thinkers, as we have received it, contains only a few lines on the characters. In our time, too, the technique is able to set up nothing but a few bare directions, which do not essentially advance the creating poet. What the rules for work can give, the poet carries, on the whole, securely in his own breast; and what he does not possess, they are not able to give.
The poet’s characterization rests on the old peculiarity of man, to perceive in every living being a complete personality, in which a soul like that of the observer’s is supposed as animating principle; and beyond this, what is peculiar to this being, what is characteristic of it, is received as affording enjoyment. With this tendency, long before his power of poetic creation becomes an art, man transforms all that surrounds him into personalities, to which, with busied imagination, he attributes much of the character peculiar to human beings. In thunder and lightning, he perceives the form of a god, traversing the concave heaven in a war chariot, and scattering fiery darts; the clouds are changed into celestial cows and sheep, from which a divine figure pours the milk upon the earth. Also the creatures which inhabit the earth with man, he perceives as possessed with a personality similar to that of man himself—thus bears, foxes, wolves. Every one of us imputes to the dog and to the cat ideas and emotions which are familiar to us; and only because such a conception is everywhere a necessity and a pleasure, are animals so domesticated. This tendency to personify expresses itself incessantly: in intercourse with our fellow men, daily; at our first meeting with a stranger; from the few vital expressions which come to us from him; from single words, from the tone of his voice, from the expression of his countenance, we form the picture of his complete personality; we do this especially by completing with lightning rapidity the imperfect impressions, from the stock of our phantasy, according to their similarity with previous impressions, or what has been previously observed. Later observation of the same person may modify the image which has fallen upon the soul, may give it a richer and deeper development; but already, at the first impression, however small the number of characteristic traits may be, we perceive these as a logical, strictly computed whole, in which we recognize what is peculiar to this man, upon the background of what is common to all men. This creating of a form is common to all men, to all times; it works in every one of us with the necessity and the rapidity of an original power; it is to each one a stronger or a weaker capability; it is to each a rapturous necessity.
Upon this fact rests the efficacy of dramatic characterization. The inventive power of the poet produces the artistic appearance of a rich individual life, because he has so put together a few vital expressions of a person—comparatively few—that the person, understood and felt by him as a unity, is intelligible to the actor and to the spectator as a characteristic being. Even in the case of the chief heroes of a drama, the number of vital expressions which the poet, limited in time and space, is able to give, the aggregate number of characterizing traits, is much too small; while in the case of accessory figures, perhaps two or three indications, a few words, must produce the appearance of an independent, highly characteristic life. How is this possible? For this reason: the poet understands the secret of suggesting; of inciting the hearer, through his work, to follow the poet’s processes and create after him. For the power to understand and enjoy a character is attained only by the self-activity of the receptive spectator, meeting the creating artist helpfully and vigorously. What the poet and the actor actually give is, in itself, only single strokes; but out of these grows an apparently richly gotten-up picture, in which we divine and suppose a fulness [sic] of characteristic life, because the poet and the actor compel the excited imagination of the hearer to cooperate with them, creating for itself.
The method of fashioning characters, by different poets, is of the greatest variety. It varies with different times and different peoples. The method of the Latin races is very different from that of the Germanic races. With the early Germans, the enjoyment has always, from the first, been greater in the invention of characterizing details; with the Latins, the joy has been greater in compactly uniting, for a special purpose, the men represented, in an artistically interwoven action. The modern German reaches more deeply into his artistic product; he seeks to put upon exhibition a richer inner life; what is peculiar, indeed what is specially rare, has the greatest charm for him. But the Latin perceives what is restricted to the individual, specially from the point of view of convenience and adaptability to purpose; he makes society the center, not the inner life of the hero, as the German does; he is glad to set over against each other, persons fully developed, often with only hasty outlines of character. It is their diverse tendencies that make them interesting to each other in the counterplay. Where the special task is the accurate representation of a character, as in Moliere, and where characteristic details elicit special admiration, these characters, the miser and the hypocrite, are inwardly most nearly complete; they are exhibited with a monotony at last wearisome, in different social relations; in spite of the excellence in delineation on our stage, they become more and more foreign to us, because the highest dramatic life is lacking to them—the processes of coming into being, the growth of character. We prefer to recognize on the stage how one becomes a miser, rather than see how he is one.
What fills the soul of a German, then, and makes a subject of value, what stimulates to creative activity, is especially the peculiar transformations of character in the chief persons; the characters blossom first in his creating mind; for these he invents the action; from them beams the color, the warmth, the light, upon the accessory figures: the Latin has been more strongly attracted by the combinations of the action, the subordination of individual elements to the dominion of the whole, suspense, intrigue. This contrast is old, but it comes down to the present time. It is more difficult for the German to construct an action for his clearly conceived characters; for the Latin, the threads interlace easily and spiritedly into an artistic web. This peculiarity occasions a difference in the productiveness and the value of the dramas. The literature of the Latins has little that can be compared with the highest products of the German mind; but frequently, in the condition of our people, no piece available for the stage comes from their weaker talents. Single scenes, single characters, command attention and admiration; but they lack, as a whole, in neat elaboration and power to excite feeling. Mediocrity succeeds better outside of Germany; and where neither the poetic idea nor the characters lay claim to poetic value, the shrewd invention of intrigue, the artistic combination of persons for animated life, is found entertaining. While with the Germans, that which is most highly dramatic,—the working out of the perceptions and feelings in the soul, into a deed,—comes to light more seldom, yet once in a while, in irresistible power and beauty in art, with the Latins is found more frequently and more productive the second characteristic of dramatic creation,—the invention of the counter-play, the effective representation of the conflict which the environment of the hero wages against his weaknesses.
But further, in the work of every individual poet, the method of characterization is diverse; very different is the wealth of figures, and the pains and distinctness with which their essential nature is presented to the hearer. Here Shakespeare is the deepest and richest of creative geniuses, not without a peculiarity, however, which often challenges our admiration. We are inclined to accept it, and we learn it from many sources, that his audience did not consist entirely of the most intelligent and cultured people of old England; we are also justified in supposing that he would give to his characters a simple texture, and accurately expose their relation to the idea of the drama, from all sides. This does not always occur. The spectator, in the case of Shakespeare’s heroes, does not remain in uncertainty as to the chief motive of their actions; indeed the full power of his poetic greatness is evident just in this, that he understands, as no other poet does, how to express the mental processes of the chief characters, from the first rising perception to the climax of passion, with extremely affecting power and truth. The propelling counter-players in his dramas, Iago and Shylock, for instance, do not fail to make the spectator a confidant in what they wish. And it may be well said that the characters of Shakespeare, whose passion beats in the highest waves, allow the spectator to look into the depths of their hearts, more than the characters of any other poet. But this depth is sometimes unfathomable to the eyes of the histrionic artist, as well as to the sight of the audience; and his characters are by no means always so transparent and simple as they appear at a casual glance. Indeed, many of them have something about them peculiarly enigmatical, and difficult to understand, which perpetually allures toward an interpretation, but is never entirely comprehended.
Not only such persons as Hamlet, Richard III., Iago, in whom peculiar thoughtfulness, or an essential characteristic not easily understood, and single real or apparent contradictions are striking, come into this list, but such as, with superficial observation, stride away down the straight street, stage fashion.
Let the judgments be tested which for a hundred years have been pronounced in Germany on the characters in Julius Cæsar, and the glad approval with which our contemporaries accept the noble effects of this piece. To the warm-hearted youth, Brutus is the noble, patriotic hero. An honest commentator sees in Caesar, the great, the immovable character, superior to all; a politician by profession rejoices in the ironical, inconsiderate severity with which, from the introduction forward, the poet has treated Brutus and Cassius as impractical fools, and their conspiracy as a silly venture of incapable aristocrats. The actor of judgment, at length, finds in the same Cæsar whom his commentator has held up to him as a pattern of the possessor of power, a hero inwardly wounded to death, a soul in which the illusion of greatness has devoured the very joints and marrow. Who is right? Each of them. And yet each of them has the notion that the characters are not entirely a mixture of incongruous elements, artfully composed, or in any way untrue. Each of them feels distinctly that they are excellently created, live on the stage most effectively; and the actor himself feels this most strongly, even if the secret of Shakespeare’s poetic power should not be entirely understood.
Shakespeare’s art of character building represents to an unusual extent and perfection, what is peculiar to the Germanic method of creation, as opposed to that of the old world, and that of those peoples of culture, not pervaded with German life. What is German is the fulness [sic], and affectionate fervor which forms every single figure carefully, accurately, according to the needs of each individual masterpiece of art, but considers the entire life of the figure, lying outside of the piece, and seeks to seize upon its peculiarity. While the German conveniently casts upon the pictures of reality, the variegated threads spun by his teeming fancy, he conceives the real foundations of his characters, the actual counterpart, with philanthropic regard, and with the most exact understanding of its combined contents. This thoughtfulness, this fond devotion to the individual, and again the perfect freedom which has intercourse, for a purpose, with this image as with an esteemed friend, have, since the old times, given a peculiarly rich import to the successful figures in German dramatic art; therefore, there is in them, a wealth of single traits, a spiritual charm, a many-sidedness, through which the compactness, necessary to dramatic characters, is not destroyed, but in its effects, is greatly enhanced.
The Brutus of Shakespeare is a high-minded gentleman, but he has been reared an aristocrat; he is accustomed to read and to think; he has the enthusiasm to venture great things, but not the circumspection and prudence to put them through. Cæsar is a majestic hero who has passed a victorious, a great life, and who has proved his own excellence in a time of selfishness and pretentious weakness; but with the lofty position, which he has given himself above the heads of his contemporaries, ambition has come upon him, simulation and secret fear. The fearless man who has risked his life a hundred times and feared nothing but the appearance of being afraid, is secretly superstitious, variable, exposed to the influence of weaker men. The poet does not hide this; he lets his characters, in every place, say exactly what occurs to them in such a business; but he treats their nature, as in itself intelligible, and explains nothing; not because it has become distinct to him through cool calculation, but because it has arisen with a natural force from all the presupposed conditions.
To the admirer of Shakespeare, this greatness of his poetical vision presents here and there difficulties. In the first part of Julius Cæsar, Casca comes prominently into the foreground; in the following action of the piece, not a word is heard about him; he and the other conspirators are apparently of less consequence to Shakespeare than to the audience. But he who observes more carefully, sees the reason for this, and perceives that this figure which he made so benevolently prominent at first, the poet throws aside immediately without ado. Indeed, he indicates this in the judgment which, by way of exception this time, Brutus and Cassius let fall concerning Casca. To him and to the piece, the man is an insignificant tool.
In many subordinate roles, the great poet stands strikingly silent ; with simple strokes, he moves them forward in their embarrassment. The understanding of their nature, which we occasionally seek, does not at last remain doubtful, but it is clear only by streaks of light falling upon it from without. Anne’s changes of mind, in Richard III., in the celebrated scene at the bier, are, in a manner, concealed. No other poet would dare venture these; and the role, otherwise brief and scanty, would have been one of the most difficult. The same thing holds good of many figures which, composed of good and evil, appear to help forward the action. In the case of such roles, the poet trusts much to the actor. Through suitable representation, the artist is able to transform many apparent and real harshnesses into new beauty. Indeed, one often has the feeling, that the poet omitted some explanatory accompaniments, because he wrote for a definite actor, whose personality was specially adapted to fill the role. In other cases, a man is distinctly seen, who, more than any other dramatic author, is accustomed as actor and spectator to observe men in the better society, and who understands how to conceal or let peep through, the characteristic weaknesses which are behind the forms of good manners. In this style, most of his courtiers are fashioned. Through such silence, through such abrupt transitions, he affords the actor more gaps to fill than any other dramatist does. Sometimes his words arc merely like the punctured background of embroidery; but everything lies in them exactly indicated, felt to be adapted to the highest stage effects. Then the spectator, surprised by good acting, beholds a rich, well-rounded life, where in reading, he saw only barren flatness. It once in a while happens to a poet, that he really does too little for a character. Thus the little role of Cordelia, even with good acting, does not come into the proportion which it should bear toward the rest of the piece. Much in some characters appears strange to us, and in need of explanation, which was transparent and easily understood by the writer’s contemporaries, as a reflection of their life and their culture.
What is greatest in this part, however, is, as has already been said, the tremendous impelling force which operates in his chief characters. The power with which they storm upward toward their fate, as far as the climax of the drama, is irresistible—in almost every one a vigorous life and strong energy of passion. And when they have attained the height, from which by an overpowering might they are drawn downward in confusion, the suspense has been relieved for a moment in a portentous deed; then come in several passages, finished situations and individual portrayals, the most sublime that the new drama has produced. The dagger scene and banquet scene in Macbeth, the bridal night in Romeo and Juliet, the hovel scene in Lear, the visit to the mother in Hamlet, Coriolanus at the altar of Aufidius, are examples. Sometimes, the interest of the poet in the characters appears to become less from this moment; even in Hamlet, in which the graveyard scene—however celebrated its melancholy observations are—and the close decline, when compared to the tension of the first half. In Coriolanus, the two most beautiful scenes lie in the second half of the play; in Othello, the most powerful. This last piece, however, has other technical peculiarities.
If Shakespeare’s art of characterization was sometimes dark and difficult for the actors of his time, it is natural that we perceive his peculiarities very clearly. For no greater contrast is conceivable than his treatment of characters, and that of the German tragic poets, Lessing, Goethe, and Schiller. While in Shakespeare we are reminded through the reservedness of many accessory characters, that he still stood near the epic time of the middle ages, our dramatic characters have, even to superfluity, the qualities of a period of lyric culture, a continual, broad and agreeable presentation of internal conditions upon which the heroes reflect with an introspection sometimes dismal; and they use sentences which doubtless make clear the shifting point of view of the characters in relation to the moral order of things. In the German dramas, there is nothing dark, and, Kleist excepted, nothing violent.
Of all the great German poets, Lessing has best understood how to represent his characters in the surge of intense dramatic excitement. Among his contemporaries in art, the poetic power of the individual is most esteemed according to his characters; and in just this matter of characterization, Lessing is great and admirable; the wealth of details, the effect of telling, vital expressions, which surprise by their beauty as well as by their truth, is, in his works, in the limited circle of his tragic figures, greater than in Goethe, more frequent than in Schiller. The number of his dramatic types is not great. About the tender, noble, resolute maiden, Sara, Emilia, Minna, Recha, and her vacillating lover, Melfort, Prince, Tellheim, Templer, the serving confidants range themselves; the dignified father, the rival, the intriguer, are all written according to the craft of the troops of players of that time. And yet in these very types, the multiformity of the variations is wonderful. He is a master in the representation of such passions as express themselves in the life of the middle classes, where the struggle toward beauty and nobility of soul stands so marvelously near crude desire. And how conveniently all is thought out for the actor! No one else has so worked out of his very soul for him; what seems in reading, so restless and theatrically excited, comes into its right proportion only through representation on the stage.
Only at single moments, his dialectic of passion fails to give the impression of truth, because he over-refines it and yields to a pleasure in hair-splitting quibbles. In a few places, his reflections expand to where they do not belong; and sometimes in the midst of a profound poetic invention, there is an artificial stroke which cools instead of strengthening the impression. Besides much in Nathan the Wise, there is an example of this in Sara Sampson, III. 3, the passage in which Sara discusses passionately with herself whether she shall receive her father’s letter. This stroke is specially to be made use of as a brief detail in characterization; for this purpose, also, it is to be treated as a suggestion; in broad elaboration, it would be painful.
For a long time yet, Lessing’s pieces will be a fine school for the German actor; and they will still preserve the fond respect of the artist on our stage, if only a more manly culture shall make the spectator more sensitive to the weakness of the return action in Minna von Barnhelm, and Emilia Galotti. For the great man erred in this, that violent passion suffices to make a poetic character dramatic, since it depends much more on the relation in which the passion stands to power of will. His passion creates sorrow and excites sometimes in the spectator a protesting pity. Still his chief characters vacillate—though this is not his badge, but that of his time—driven hither and thither by strong emotion; and when they are brought to commit an ominous deed, this often lacks the highest justification. The tragic development in Sara Sampson rests upon this: Melfort perpetrates the indignity of appointing a rendezvous between his former mistress and Miss Sara; in Emilia Galotti, the maiden is stabbed by her father, out of caution.
The freedom and the nobility with which the poetic characters of the last century express their spiritual moods, is not accompanied with a corresponding mastery of performance; only too frequently a time is perceived in which the character, even the best, was not firmly drawn out, and hardened to steel by a strong public opinion, by the strong, certain import which public political life gives one. Arbitrariness in the moral point of view, and sensitive uncertainty, disturb the highest artistic effects of even the power of genius. The reproach has often been made against Goethe’s plays that here is only indicated the progress that was introduced with dramatic effects by him and Schiller.
In the characterizing details of his roles, Goethe is not more abundant than Lessing, —Weislingen, Clavigo, Egmont, are dramatically even more scanty than Melfort, Prince, Tellheim; —his figures have nothing of the violently pulsating life, of the restless, feverish element, which vibrates in the emotions of Lessing’s characters; nothing artificial disturbs; the inexhaustible charm of his spirit ennobles even what is lacking. In the first place, Goethe and Schiller have opened up to the Germans the historical drama, the more elevated style of treating characters, which is indispensable to great tragic effects, even if Goethe did not attain these effects particularly by the power of his characters, not by the action, but by the unsurpassable beauty and sublimity with which he made the spirit of his heroes ring out in words. There especially, where from his dramatic persons the hearty sincerity of lyric feeling could ring through, is seen, in little traits, a magic of poetry which no other German has even approximately attained. Thus operates the role of Gretchen.
It is not by chance that such supreme beauty in Goethe’s female characters is effective; the men do not, as a rule, drive forward; they are driven; indeed, they sometimes claim a sympathy on the stage, which they do not merit, and appear as good friends of the poet himself; and their good qualities are known only to him, because they do not turn their good side to the society into which he has invited them. What makes Faust our greatest poetic masterpiece is not its fulness [sic] of dramatic life, least of all, in the role of Faust himself. If, however, the impelling force of Goethe’s heroes is not powerful enough to make sublime effects and mighty conflicts possible, their dramatic movement in single scenes is compact, skilful and adapted to the stage; and the connection of the dialogue is admirable. For the greatest beauty of Goethe’s plays is the scenes which have their course between two persons. Lessing understands how to occupy three persons on the stage, with great effect, in passionate counter-play; but Schiller directs a great number with firmness, and superior certainty. Schiller’s method of delineating character in his youth is very different from the method of his riper years. He shows great progress, but not entirely without loss. What a transformation from his conception of beautiful souls which in The Robbers he erected into something monstrous, and later into the heroic, and at last in Demetrius, into the firm compactness of character similar to that of Shakespeare’s persons!
During more than half a century, the splendor and nobility of Schiller’s characters have ruled the German stage; and the weak imitators of his style have not long understood that the fulness [sic] of his diction produced so great an effect only because beneath it there lies a wealth of dramatic life, covered as by a plating of gold. This dramatic life of his persons is already very striking in his earliest plays. In Love and Intrigue, it won such significant expression, that in this direction in later works, an advance is not always visible. To verse and the more elevated style, he has added at least pithy brevity, an expression of passion suitable to the stage, and many a consideration for the actor. His expression of feelings and perceptions becomes continually fuller in speech and more eloquent. His characters, also,—specially the fully elaborated ones,—have that peculiar quality of his time, impressively to enunciate to the hearer their thought and feeling at many moments in the action. And they do it in the manner of highly cultured and contemplative men; for a beautiful, and often a finished picture, depends for them on passionate feeling; and the mood which sounds forth from their souls is followed by a meditation, an observation,—as we all know, often of highest beauty,—through which the moral grounds of the excited feeling is made clear, and the confusion, the embarrassment of the situation, through an elevation to a higher standpoint, appears for the moment cleared away. It is evident that such a method of dramatic creation, of the representation of strong passion, is in general not favorable, and will certainly in some future period cease to appear among our successors. But it is just as certain that it perfectly repeats the manner of feeling and perceiving which was peculiar to the cultured Germans at the end of the last century, as no other poetic method does, and that upon it rests a part of the effect which Schiller’s dramas produce to-day upon the people; certainly only a part, for the greatness of the poet lies in this, that he who accords to his characters so many resting places, even in excited movements, knows how to keep these in extreme tension; almost all have a strong, inspired, inner life, a content with which they stand securely against the outer world. In this embarrassment, they sometimes give the impression of somnambulists, to whom a disturbance from the outer world becomes fatal; thus the Maid, Wallenstein, Max, Thekla; or who at least need a strong shock to their inner life, to be brought to a deed, like Tell, even Cæsar and Manuel. Therefore, the impassioned agitation of Schiller’s chief characters, is in the last analysis, not always dramatic; but this imperfection is often covered by the rich detail and beautiful characterization with which he equips the accessory figures. Finally, the greatest advance which German art has made through him, is that in a powerful tragic material, he makes his persons participants in an action which has for its background, not the relations of private life, but the highest interests of man, of the state, of faith. His beauty and power will always be dangerous to young poets and actors, because the inner life of his characters streams forth richly in speech. In this, he does so much that there remains, often, little for the actor to do; his plays need less from the stage than those of any other poet.