Both the rights and the duty of the poet compel him, during his labor, to an incessant conflict with the pictures which history, the epic, and his own life offer him.
It is undeniable that ardor and the charm of invention, are frequently first given to the German poet by his characters. Such a method of creation appears irreconcilable with the old fundamental law for the forming of the action, that the action must be the first, the characters second. If pleasure in the characteristic nature of the hero can cause the poet to compose an action for it, the action stands under the dominion of the character, is fashioned through it, is invented for it. The contradiction is only an apparent one; for to the creating genius, the disposition and character of a hero do not appear as they do to the historian, who at the end of his work draws the results of a life, or as they appear to a reader of history, who from the impressions of different adventures and deeds, gradually paints for himself the portrait of a man. The creative power comes into the ardent mind of the poet more in such a way, that it brings out vividly and with charm, the character of a hero, in single moments of its relations to other men. These moments in which the character becomes a living thing, are in the work of the epic poet, situations; in the work of the dramatist, actions in which the hero proceeds with some commotion; they are the foundations of the action, not yet connected and full of life; in them, already the idea of the piece lies, probably not yet clarified and separate. But it is always a presumption of this first beginning of poetic work, that the character becomes a living, animated thing under the compulsion of some part of the action. Only under such a presumption is a poetic conception of it possible.
But the process of idealization begins in this way: the outlines of the historic character, or character otherwise deemed of worth, fashion themselves according to the demands of the situation which has appeared in the soul of the poet. The trait of character which is useful to the invented moments of the action, becomes a fundamental trait of the being, to which all the remaining characteristic peculiarities are subordinated as supplementary adjuncts. Suppose the poet is to grasp the character of Emperor Charles V.; he is able to perceive him poetically only when he makes him pass through a definite action. The emperor at the parliament of Worms, or standing over against the captive king, Francis, or in the scene in which the Landgrave of Hesse prostrates himself at Halle, or at the moment when he receives the news of the threatened incursion of the elector Moritz,—the emperor under the pressure of each of these situations, is every time quite a different person; he retains all the features of the historical Charles; but his expression becomes a peculiar one, and so dominates the entire picture that it cannot pass for a historic portrait. Yet the transformation quickly goes further. To the first poetic vision others are joined; there is a struggle to become a whole, it contains beginning and end. And each new member of the action, which develops itself, forces upon the character something of color and motive, which are necessary to its understanding. If the action is directed in this way, the real character is fully transformed under the hand of the poet, according to the needs of his idea. Of course the creative artist, all this time, during his entire work, carries in his soul the features of the real person, as an accessory picture or counter-portrait. He takes from this what he can use in details; but what he creates from this, is brought out freely according to the demands of his action, and with additions of its own is molten to a new mass.
A striking example is the character of Wallenstein in Schiller’s double drama. It is no accident that the figure in the poem was fashioned so different from that of the historical picture of the imperial general. The demands of the action have given him his appearance. The poet is interested in the historical Wallenstein; since the death of Gustavus Adolphus, this man has become enchanting. He has great plans, is a magnificent egotist, and has an unclouded conception of the political situation. Now a drama the business of which was to portray the end of his career, had the fewest possible presupposed conditions to represent, as the hero becomes a traitor by degrees, through his own guilt, and under the stress of his relations. Schiller saw in his mind’s eye the figure of Wallenstein, as from premonitions it seeks to learn its fate (probably the first vision), then as it comes in contact with Questenberg, then with Wrangel, then as the loyal men free themselves from him. These were the first moments of action. Now it was conceivable that such a criminal beginning, if the plans miscarried, would show the hero actually weaker, more shortsighted, smaller, than the opposing powers. Therefore, in order to preserve his greatness and maintain interest in him, a leading, fundamental trait of character must be invented for him, which should elevate him, and prove him free and independent, self-active before what allured him to treason, and which should explain how an eminent and superior man could be more short-sighted than those about him. In the real Wallenstein, there was something of this kind to be found; he was superstitious, believed in astrology—but not more than his contemporaries. This trait could be made poetically useful. But as a little motive, as a thing to wonder at in his character, it would have been of little use; it had to be ennobled, spiritually refined. So there arose the image of a thoughtful, inspired, elevated man, who in a time of carnage, strides over human life and human rights, his eye turned fixedly toward the heights where he believes he sees the silent rulers of his destiny. And the same sad, dreary playing with the inconceivably great, could exalt him out of, and above external relations; for the same fundamental characteristic of his being, a certain inclination to equivocal and underhand dealing, groping attempts and a feeling about, might gradually entangle him, the freeman, in the net of treason. Thus a dramatic movement of its own kind was found for his inward being. But this characteristic of his being was, in its essential nature, yet an irrational force; it held spell-bound; it placed him, for us, near the supernatural; it remained a great anomaly. In order to work tragically, the same characteristic must be brought into relation with the best and most amiable feelings of his heart. That belief in the revelations of powers incomprehensible to the hero, consecrates the friendly relations to the Piccolomini; that this same belief is not called out, but ominously advanced, by a secret need of something to honor, something to trust, and that this trust in men, which Wallenstein has confidently made clear through his faith; that this faith must destroy him,—this brings the strange figure very near to our hearts; it gives the action inner unity; it gives the character greater intensity. In such a way, the first-found situations, and the necessity of bringing them into an established connection of cause and effect, and to round them out to a dramatically effective action, have transformed the historical character feature by feature. So his adversary, Octavio, too, has been transformed by the tendency to give an inner connection with Wallenstein, of course in dependence on his character. A cold intriguer, who draws together the net over those who trust him, would not have sufficed; he must be exalted, and be placed intellectually near the chief hero; and if he were conceived as friend of the deluded one, who,—no matter from what sense of duty,—surrenders the friend, so it would be to the purpose to invent a trait of character in his life, which should weave his destiny with that of Wallenstein. Since there was needed in this gloomy material, a warmer life, brighter colors, a succession of gentle and touching feelings, the author created Max. This poor, unsuspecting child of the camp, was at once the opposite of his father and of his general. The poet cared too little, with respect to this figure, that it stood a fresh, harmless, unspotted nature, in contradiction to its own presupposed conditions, and to the unbridled life of a soldier, in which it had grown up; for Schiller was not at all careful to give motive to anything, if it only served his purpose. It satisfied him that this being, through character and aptness, could come into a noble and sharply-cut contrast with the hero and his opponent; and so him, and the corresponding figure of his beloved, the poet produced with a fondness which determined even the form of the drama.
Considered on the whole, then, it was not a freak, a chance discovery of the poet, which formed the character of Wallenstein and his counter-player. But of course, these persons, like every poetic image, are colored by the personality of the poet. And it is characteristic of Schiller to imbue all his heroes visibly with the thoughts which fill his own soul. This spirited contemplation, as well as the great, simple lines of a broad design, we perceive already as his peculiarity. The characteristic of his age was quite otherwise. Mastery in meditation and pondering is not, in Wallenstein, brought into equilibrium by a decisive power of will. That he listened to the voice of the stars, which at last becomes the voice of his own heart, would be expected. But he is represented as dependent on his environment. The Countess Terzky directs him; Max re-directs him; and the accident that Wrangel has disappeared, hinders, possibly, a reverse of results. Surely it was Schiller’s purpose to make prominent Wallenstein’s lack of resolution; but vacillation is, with us, a disadvantage, to be used for every hero of a play, only as a sharp contrast to a sustained power of action.
If this process of deriving the character from the internal necessity of the action seems a result of intelligent consideration, it is hardly necessary to confess that it does not thus perfect itself in the warm soul of the poet. Indeed, here enters during many hours, a cool weighing, a supervision, a supplementing, of creative invention; but the process of creation goes on still, in essentials, with a natural force in which the same thought is unconsciously active with the poet, the same thought which we in presence of the completed masterpiece, recognize through reflection as the indwelling law of intellectual production. Not only is the transformation of historical characters according to the demands of the action, specially shown to be different in different authors; but the same poetic mind does not always appear equally free and unembarrassed before all its heroes. It is possible that a strong poetic power may seek, for some purpose, to represent with special care, single historical traits in the life of a hero. In the completed work, then, this care is recognized in a peculiar wealth of appropriate features, which are valuable for purposes of characterization. Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. shows a fuller portraiture than any other heroic figure of that poet’s plays. This figure is entirely transformed in essentials, to conform to the needs of the action, and is separated by a wide gulf, from the historic Henry. But what is valuable for portraiture in the sketching, as well as the numerous considerations which the poet had for real history, in constructing the action, give to the drama a strange coloring. However numerous the traits in this richly endowed character are, it will seldom appear to an actor as the most remunerative role to study.
For similar reasons, the introduction and use of historical heroes whose portraits have become specially popular, for example Luther, and Frederick the Great, is very difficult. The temptation is too strong to bring out such well-known traits of the historical figure as are not essential to the action of the play, and therefore appear accidental. This addition to a single figure taken from reality, gives it in the midst of persons, the product of unfettered invention, a remarkable, a painfully pretentious, a repulsive appearance. The desire to present the most accurate reflection of the real being, will too strongly allure the actor to petty delineation. Even the spectator wants an accurate portrait, and is perhaps surprised if the other characters and the action are less effective, because he is so strongly reminded of an esteemed friend in history.
The requirement is easily given that the dramatic character must be true; that especially the life forces must be in unison with each other, and must be felt as belonging together, and that the characters must exactly correspond to the whole of the action, in respect to coloring and spiritual import. But such a rule, so generally expressed, will, in many cases, afford the beginning poet no aid, where the discord between the ultimate demands of his art, and of the historian’s art, and even of many a poetic truth, prepares secret difficulties.
It is understood that the poet will faithfully preserve the deliverances of history, where they are of service to him and cause no derangement. For our time, so advanced in historical culture and in the knowledge of the earlier relations of civilization, keeps an eye upon the historical culture of its dramatists. The poet must have care that he do not give his heros too little of the import of their own time, and that a modern perception and feeling in the characters do not appear to the educated spectator in contradiction to the well-known embarrassments and peculiarities of the life of the soul in older times. The young poets easily lend to their heroes a knowledge of their own times, a certain skill in philosophizing upon the most important occurrences, and in finding such points of view for their deeds as are current in historical works of modern times. It is uncomfortable to hear an old emperor of the Franconian or Hohenstaufen line express the tendencies of his time, so self-consciously, so for a purpose, so very shrewdly as, for instance, Stenzel and Raumer have represented. But not less dangerous is the opposite temptation into which poets come through the effort vividly to set forth the peculiarities of the past. The remarkable, that which deflects from our own nature toward older times, easily seems to them as characteristic and effective for their purpose. Then the poet is in danger of smothering the immediate interest which we take in the easily intelligible, the universally human, and in still greater danger of building the course of his action upon singularities of that past, on the transitory, which in art gives the impression of the accidental and arbitrary.
And yet there often remains, in an historical piece, an inevitable opposition between the dramatically arranged characters and the dramatically arranged action. At this dangerous point, it is profitable to tarry a little. Since it is a duty of the poet who uses historical material, to give special attention to what we call the color and costume of the time, and since not only the characters but the action, too, is taken from a distant age, there will certainly be, in the idea of the piece and of the action, in the motives and situations, much that is not universally human and intelligible to every one, but that is explained through what is remarkable and characteristic of that time. When, for instance, the murder of a king is committed by ambitious heroes, as in Macbeth or Richard, where the intriguer attacks his rival with poison or dagger, where the wife of a prince is thrown into water because she springs from the middle class,—in these and innumerable other cases, the embarrassment and the destiny of the heroes must be derived from the represented event, from the peculiarities and customs of their times.
If these figures belong to a time which has here been called the epic, in which man’s inward freedom has been in reality little developed, in which the dependence of the individual upon the example of others, upon custom and usage, is much greater, in which man’s inner being is not poorer in strong feeling, but is much poorer in the ability to express it by means of speech,—then the characters of the drama can not at all represent, in the essential thing, such an embarrassment. For since upon the stage, the effect is produced not by deeds, not by beautiful discourse, but by the exhibition of mental processes, through which feeling and volition are concentrated into a deed, the dramatic chief characters must show a degree of freedom of will, a refinement and a dialectic of passion, which stand in the most essential contrast with the actual embarrassment and naivete of their old prototypes in reality.
Now the artist would, of course, be easily forgiven for endowing his people with a fuller, stronger, and richer life than they had in the real world, if only this richer fulness [sic] did not give the impression of untruth, because individual conditions presupposed for the action, do not tolerate a character so constructed. For the action which is derived from history or from legend, and which everywhere betrays the social features, the degree of culture, the peculiarities of its time, the poet cannot always so easily imbue with a deeper import as he can individual characters. The poet may, for example, put into the mouth of an oriental the finest thoughts, the tenderest feelings of the sweetest passion, and yet so color the character that it contains the beautiful appearance of poetic truth. But now, perhaps the action makes it necessary that this same character have the women of his harem drowned in sacks, or have them beheaded. Then the contradiction between action and character crops out inevitably. This is, indeed, a difficulty of dramatic creation which cannot always be met, even by the greatest talent in that direction. Then it requires all art to conceal from the spectator the latent contradiction between the material and the vital needs of the action. For this reason, all love scenes in historic pieces present peculiar difficulties. Here, where we demand the most direct expression of a lovely passion, it is a difficult task to give at the same time the local color. The poet is most likely to succeed if, as in the case of Goethe and Gretchen, he can. in such a situation, paint peculiarities of character in a stronger color, and even approach the borders of genre painting. The quiet struggle of the poet with the assumptions of his subject-matter, which are undramatic and yet not to be dispensed with, occurs in almost every action taken from heroic legend or the older histories.
In the epic material which the heroic legends of the great civilized races offer, the action is already artistically arranged, even if according to other than dramatic requirements. The life and adventures of heroes appear complete, determined by momentous deeds; usually, the sequence of events in which they appear acting or enduring, forms a chain of considerable length; but it is possible to detach single links for the use of the drama. The heroes themselves float indistinctly in great outlines, while single characteristic peculiarities are powerfully developed. They stand upon the heights of their nationality, and display a power and greatness as sublime and peculiar as the creative phantasy of a people can invent; and the momentous results of their lives are frequently just what the dramatic poet seeks,—love and hate, selfish desire, conflict and destruction.
Such materials are further consecrated through the fondest recollections of a people; they were once the pride, joy, entertainment of millions. After their transformation through a creative popular spirit, which lasted for centuries, they were still flexible enough to afford to the invention of the dramatic poet opportunity for the intensification of character, as well as for alterations in the connection of the action. Many of them have come to us with the elaboration which they underwent in a great epic; the most of them, in their essential contents, are not, even according to our culture, entirely strange to us. What is here said is more or less applicable to the great cycles of Greek legends, of the legendary traditions which are interwoven with the earliest history of the Romans, of the heroic tales of the Germans, and Latins of the Middle Ages.
Indeed, upon a closer inspection, the characters of the epic tradition differ much from the persons necessary to the drama. It is true, the heroes of Homer and of the Nibelungen Lied are quite distinct personalities. A glance into the interior of a human soul, into the surging feeling, is not entirely forbidden to epic poets; indeed they often derive the fate of the hero from his character; they derive his ominous deeds from his passions. In the poetry of early times, the knowledge of the human heart, and the sane judgment which might explain a man’s destiny from his virtues, faults, and passions, are admirable. Not so well developed is the capability of representing the details of mental processes. The life of the persons expresses itself in little anecdotal traits which are often perceived with a surprising fineness: what lies before, the quiet labor within, what follows after such a deed, the quiet effect on the soul, is passed over or quickly disposed of.
How a man asserts himself among strangers, is victorious, or perishes in a strife with stronger powers which stand against him,—to relate this is the chief charm; also, describing high festivals, duels, battles, adventures of travel. The expression of feeling is most animated where the suffering man rebels against the unendurable; but here, too, the expression becomes rigid, relatively unanimated, in frequently recurring forms, complaints, prayer to the gods, perhaps so that the speaker holds up another’s fate in contrast with his own, or mirrors his situation in an elaborate picture. The speech of the hero is almost always scanty, simple, monotonous, with the same recurring notes of feeling. Thus the soliloquies of Odysseus and of Penelope are made in the poem, in which the peculiar life is most richly represented, and with the best individual traits. Where the inner connection of events rests upon the secret plots and the peculiar passion of a single person, also where a momentous action is developed from the inward being of a character, the analysis of the passion is scarcely at hand. Kriemhild’s plan to take revenge for the murder of her husband, all the emotions of soul of this most enchanting person, who lives so powerfully in the poet’s heart,—how brief, and concealed they are in the narrative! It is characteristic that in these German poems, the lyric accompaniments, monologues, complaints, genial observations, are much less numerous than in the Odyssey; on the other hand, every peculiarity of the chief characters, which determines their friendship or hostility to others, is elaborated with special vividness and beauty.
But as soon as one conceives of these powerful, shadowy forms of legend as human beings, and represented to human beings by human beings on the stage, they lose the dignity and magnitude of outline, with which the busied imagination has clothed them. Their speeches, which within epic narrative produce the most powerful effects, are in the iambics of the stage, circumscribed, heavy, commonplace. Their deeds seem to us crude, barbarous, dreary, indeed quite impossible; they seem sometimes like the old water sprites and goblins of ancient folk-lore, with no human and rational soul. The first work of the poet must be a transformation and intensifying of characters, by which they may become human and intelligible to us. We know how attractive such labor was to the Greeks.
Their relation to the material in their old heroic tales was peculiarly favorable. It was bound to the life of their present by a thousand threads, by local traditions, divine service, and the plastic arts. The more liberal culture of their times allowed important changes to be made; allowed what was transferred to them to be treated with the utmost freedom as raw material. And yet, the history of the Attic tragedy is the history of an inward warfare, which great poets waged with a realm of material that so much the more violently resisted the fundamental laws of dramatic creation, as the actor’s art developed, and the demand of the audience for a richer fulness [sic] of character increased.
Euripides is our most instructive example of how the Greek tragedy was disorganized by the internal opposition between its field of material and the greater requisites which the art of representation gradually brought into operation. None of his great predecessors understands better than he, how to imbue the persons of the epic legend with burning, soul-devouring passion. None has ventured to bring dramatic characters so realistically near the sensibility and the understanding of his audience; none has done so much to aid the actor’s art. Everywhere in his pieces, it is perceived distinctly that the actor and the needs of the stage have won significance.
But the treatment of his roles, effective from the actor’s point of view, an advance in itself, the undeniable right of the acting drama, yet contributed in this way to depreciate his pieces. What was wild and barbarous in the action must strike as repulsive, if persons like the Athenians of the poet’s own time, were made to think and feel and act like ungovernable Scythians. His Electra is an oppressed woman from a noble house, who in need, has married a poor but worthy peasant, and perceives with astonishment that beneath his tunic, a brave heart beats; but we can scarcely believe her assurance that she is the daughter of the dead Agamemnon. When in Iphigenia in Aulis, mother and daughter, entreating aid, place their hands on the chins of Achilles and Agamemnon, and taking an oath, according to the custom of their people, seek to soften these men; and when Achilles refuses his hand to Clytemnestra, who greets him,—this imitative invention was in itself an excellent histrionic motive; but it stood in striking contrast to the customary movement of the masked and draped persons; and while this advance of the actor’s art no doubt powerfully enhanced the effects of the scenes, in the eyes of the audience, it reduced Iphigenia at the same time to an oppressed Athenian woman, and made the proposed slaughtering of her more strange and untrue.
In many other cases, the poet yields so far to the desire of his player of pathos parts, for great song effects, that suddenly and without motive, he interrupts the intelligible and agreeable course of his action, by illuminating some old heroic trait, by ragings, by child murder and the like. With this intrusion of opera-like and spectacular effects, the causative connection of events becomes a subordinate matter, the tragic momentum is lost, the persons become vessels for different kinds of feeling; and sportive and sophistical, they are freed from any pressure from their past lives. In almost every piece, it can be felt that the poet finds his material from old legends, torn into fragments like a rotten web, through a well justified climax of stage effects, and entirely unserviceable for the establishing of a unified dramatic action. If pieces from other contemporaries had been preserved for us, we should probably recognize how others have struggled to secure a reconciliation between the given material and the vital requisites of their art. It must be repeated: what detracts from the poetic greatness of Euripides is not specially the lack of morale, of the manners and habits of the time, so peculiar to him; but it is the natural and inevitable disorganization which must come into the material used in a drama, but not essentially dramatic. Of course, the repeated use of the same material contributed to bring the disadvantage to light; for the later poets, who came upon great dramatic treatment of almost all the legends, had pressing occasion to win their audiences by something new, something charming, and they found this in setting a new and higher task for the art of the actor; but this adequate advance hastened the destruction of the action, and thereby, of the roles.
We Germans are far more unfavorable to the epic legend; it is for us a world in ruins. Even where our science has spread knowledge of it, throughout broad circles, as of Homer and The Nibelungen, the knowledge and the enjoyment of it are the prerogative of the learned. Our stage has become much more realistic than that of the Greeks, and demands in the characters far richer individual traits, an import not painfully wounding to our sensibilities. If upon our stage, Tristan had married one woman to conceal his relations with another woman, the actor of his part would incur the danger of being pelted with apples from the gallery, as a low-lived monster; and the bridal night of Brunhild, so effectively portrayed in the epic, will always awaken on the stage a dangerous mood in the minds of the spectators. To us Germans, history has become a more important source of dramatic subjects than the legend. For a majority of the younger poets, the history of the Middle Ages is the magic fountain from which they draw their plays. And yet, in the life of our German ancestors, there lies something difficult to understand, something that hides the heroes of the Middle Ages as with a mist,—indeed still more the circumstances of the people,—and that makes a princely scion in the time of Otto the Great, less transparent than a Roman prince in the time of the Second Punic War. The lack of independence of the man is far greater; every individual is more strongly influenced by the views and customs of the circle in which he moves. The impressions that fall upon the soul from without, are quickly covered with a new tissue, given a new shape, receive a new color, by the exercise of an active imagination. Indeed, the activity of sense is incisive, energetic; but the life of nature, the person’s own life and the impulse from others, are conceived far less according to an intelligible consistency of appearances, than transformed according to the intellectual demands. The egotism of the individual easily rears itself, and assumes the attitude of battle; just as ready is its submission to a superior force. The original simplicity of a child may be combined in the same man with effective cunning and with vices which we are accustomed to consider the outgrowth of a corrupt civilization. And this combination as well as the union of the—apparently—strongest contradictions in feeling and way of dealing, are found in the leaders of the people as well as among ordinary men and women. It is evident that in this way, the judgment concerning characters, their worth or worthlessness, their individual actions, concerning moods and motives of actions, is rendered difficult. We are to judge the man according to the civilization and moral feeling of his time, and judge his time according to the civilization and morals of our own.
Let it be tried to make a mental picture of the average morality among the people in any one of the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages, and it will be perceived how difficult this is. Could we judge from the penalties which the oldest popular justice inflicted upon all kinds of abominable crimes, or from the horrible practices at the Court of the Merovingians? There was still almost nothing of what we call public opinion, and we can say with positiveness that the historians give us the impression of men who merit confidence. When a royal scion arose in repeated rebellion against his father, to what extent was he justified or pardoned because of the notions of his time, or his own inmost motives? Even in the case of events which seem very clear and are received by us in a dazzling light, we perceive a lack in our comprehension, not only because we know too little of that time, but also because we do not always understand what has come down to us, as the dramatic poet must understand it, in its causative connections and in its origin in the germ of a human life.
Whoever would not more carefully investigate the real relations and the historical character of his hero, but would only make use of his name, in order to provide some events of his time, with bold observations on the stage, according to the report of a convenient historical work, would avoid every difficulty. But he would, in fact, hardly find a dramatic material. For this noble mass of dramatic material is embedded in the rock of history, and almost always only where the private, familiar life of the heroic character begins; there one must know how to look for it.
If one really takes pains to become acquainted as well as possible with the heroes of the distant past, one discovers in their nature something very undramatic. For as it is characteristic of those epic poems, it is characteristic also of historical life, that the inward struggle of man, his feelings, his thoughts, the existence of his will, have found from the hero himself no expression; nor have they found expression from an observer. The people, its poets, its historians, see the man sharply and well at the moment of his deed; they perceive—at least the Germans—with great penetration, what is characteristic of the expressions of his life, as connected with emotion, with exaltation, with caprice, with disinclination. But only the moments in which his life turns toward the external, are attractive, enchanting, intelligible, to that time. Even speech has but a meager expression for the inner processes up to the deed; even passionate excitement is best enjoyed in the effect which it has upon others, and in the light which it throws upon the environment. For the intellectual conditions, and the reaction which the occurrences have upon the sensibilities and character of the man, every technique of representation fails, interest fails. Even the depiction of apparent characteristic peculiarities, as well as a full elaboration of the occurrence, is not frequent in the narrative; a comparatively dry rehearsal of events is interrupted more or less by anecdotes, in which a single vital trait of importance to a contemporary, comes to view,—here a striking word, there a mighty deed. Preferably in such legends, remain the recollections which the people preserve of their leader and his deeds. We know that till after the Reformation, indeed, till after the middle of the last century, this same notion was not infrequent among educated people, and that it has not disappeared yet from among our people.
The poverty of dramatic life makes difficult to the poet the understanding and the portrayal of every hero. But in the temper of our ancestors, there was something very peculiar, something which made their character at times quite mysterious. Already in the most ancient heroic times, they evince in character, in speech, in poetry, in customs, the inclination to make prevalent a peculiar subtle introspection and interpretation. Not the things themselves, but what they signify, was the chief thing to the ancestors of our thinkers. The images of the external world press multitudinously into the soul of the old Germans, who are more versatile, quicker to recognize, endowed with greater receptivity, than any other people on earth. But not in the beautiful, quiet, clear manner of the Greeks, nor with the sure, practical, limited one-sidedness of the Romans, did what was received mirror itself again in speech and action; they worked it over slowly and quietly; and what flowed from them had a strong subjective coloring, and an addition from their own spirit, which we might, in the earliest times, call lyric. Therefore the oldest poetry of the Germans stands in most striking contrast to the epic of the Greeks; its chief affair is not the rich, full narrative of the action, but a sharp relief of single, brilliant traits, the connecting of the force to an elaborate image, a representation in short, abrupt waves, upon which is recognized the excited mind of the narrator. So in the characters, the defiant self-seeking, combined with a surrender to ideal perceptions, has given to the Germans since prehistoric time, a striking imprint, and has made themselves, rather than their physical power and martial rage, a terror to the Romans. No other popular morality has conceived of woman so chastely and nobly; no pagan faith has overcome the fear of death, as the German faith has; for to die on the battlefield is the German hero’s honor and joy. Through this prominence of spirit and courage, of ideal perception and feeling, the characters of German heroes very early receive in life, as in the epic, a less simple composition, an original, sometimes a wonderful stamp, which lends them, now a remarkable greatness and depth, now an adventurous and unreasonable appearance.
Let no one compare the poetic value of delineation, but the foundations of character, in the heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey, with the heroes in the Nibelungen Lied. To the bravest Greek, death remained a terror; the danger of battle weighed him down; it was not dishonorable to him, in one sense, to slay a sleeping or unarmed foe; it was by no means the least renown prudently to avoid the danger of conflict, and strike from behind an unsuspecting victim. The German hero, on the contrary, the same one who from fidelity to his commander performs the most atrocious act which a German can, and cunningly hits an unarmed man from behind,—just such a one can avoid death and destruction for himself, for his lord and for his posterity, if he only announces at the right time that danger is at hand. Supernatural beings have prophesied destruction for him and his friends, if the momentous journey is continued; yet he thrusts back into the stream the boats which make a return possible; again, at the king’s court, where death threatens him, a word to the benevolent king, an honest answer to a serious question, may divert the worst from him, but he keeps silent. Still more: he and his friends deride and enrage his embittered enemies; and with the certain prospect of death, they playfully challenge and incite to bloody strife.
To the Greek, to every other people of antiquity, possibly with the exception of the Gauls, such a kind of heroism would appear thoroughly unearthly and unreasonable; but it was true German, the wild, dark expression, the character of a nation in which to the individual, his honor and his pride were of more account than his life. Not otherwise is this consideration with historical heroes. The ideals which rule their lives, however unreasonable they were long before the development of chivalry, the duty of honor, of fidelity, the feeling of manly pride and of one’s own dignity, contempt for death, and love for individual men, often had a strength and power which we can scarcely appreciate, and do not always recognize as the governing motive.
Thus swings the soul of the German in the ancient times, in a bondage which to us is often no longer recognizable; pious surrender and longing,—superstition, and fidelity to duty, a secret magic word, or secret oath, advanced his resolution to deeds which we try vainly to explain on reasonable grounds taken from our civilization.
And into such a disposition eventuated, in the Middle Ages, the great cycle of moods, laws, and fantastic reveries, which surged in with Christendom. While on one side, the incisive contrast in which the gentle faith of renunciation stood to the rude inclinations of a victorious, war-like people, the contradiction between duty and inclination, between external and internal life, increased greatly, it corresponded on the other side in a striking manner, to the necessity of giving one’s self entirely to great ideas, which the German had long practiced. When instead of Wuotan and the slain Ase-god, the Father of the Christians and his only begotten Son came; when in place of the battle-virgins the hosts of The Holy One came, the life after death received a new consecration and a more sincere significance. And to the old powers, which in quietness had controlled human volition, to the magic word, to the approaching animal, to the drinking-bout, to the premonitions of heathen priests, and the prophesies of wise women, came the demands of the new church, its blessing and its curse, its vows and its shrifts, the priests and the monks. Following close on rude, reckless dissipation, came passionate repentance, and the strictest asceticism. Near the houses of beautiful women, were reared the cloisters of the nuns. How, since the dominion of the Christian faith, characters have been drawn in their deepest principles; how perception and motives of action have become more manifold, more profound and artistic, is shown, for instance, by the numerous figures from the time of the Saxon Emperor, where pious devotion was practiced by the most distinguished persons, and men and women were driven hither and thither, now by efforts to win the world for themselves, now by the penitent wish to reconcile heaven to themselves.
Any one who has ever felt the difficulty of understanding the men of the Middle Ages, who were formed by the thoughtful nature of the Germans and by the old church, will complete these brief suggestions in every direction.
Here, therefore, a former example is repeated, but from another point of view. What was working in the soul of Henry IV. as he stood in the penitent’s frock by the castle wall of Canossa? In order that the poet may answer this question by a noble art effect, he will first let the historian tell what he knows about it; and he will learn with astonishment how different the conception of the situation, how uncertain and scanty the received account, and how troublesome and difficult it is to sound the heart of his hero.
That he did not go to the pope with inward contrition, this haughty powerful man, who hated, in the Romish priest, his most dangerous opponent, is easy to comprehend. That he had long revolved, in his rebellious mind the bitter necessity of this step, and had not put on the penitent’s garment without a grim mental reservation, is to be assumed. But he came just as little as a crafty politician, who humiliated himself by a cool calculation, because he perceived a false step of his opponent, and saw growing from this surrender, the fruits of future victory. For Henry was a Christian of the Middle Ages. However intensely he hated Gregory, the curse of the church certainly had in it something uncomfortable, something frightful; to his God, and to the heaven of the Christian, there was no other way than through the church. Gregory sat on the bridge to heaven; and if he forbade, the angels, the new battle-virgins of the Christian, would not lead the dead warrior before the throne of the Father, but would thrust him into the abyss of the old dragon. The pope writes that the emperor has wept much, and besought his mercy, and that the attendants of the pope have with sobs and tears witnessed the emperor’s penance. Was the emperor firm in the faith that the pope had the right thus to torment him? This influence of the ecclesiastical conscience upon worldly aims, this adventurous and uncertain mingling of opposites, now pride, higher thought, enduring, imperturbable power, which we consider almost superhuman, and again a lamentable emptiness and weakness, which seems contemptible to us,—this offers the poet no easily accomplished task. Of course he is master of his subject; he can transform the historical character at will, according to the needs of his work. It is possible that the real Henry stood before the wall of Canossa, like an ungoverned and vicious knave, who was to undergo a severe chastising. What did the poet care for that? But just as binding as possible, is his duty to fathom to its deepest recesses the real nature of the emperor. Not only the sad penitent, but the cold politician, will become falsities under such an examination. The poet has to form the character of the prince out of component parts, for which he does not find in his own mind the corresponding intuitions, and which he has to convert into intuitions and warm perceptions through reflection. There are few princes of the Middle Ages who do not appear, in the essential occurrences of their lives, and measured by the standard of our civilization and habits, either as short-sighted dunces, or conscienceless scoundrels—not seldom as both. The historian performs his difficult task in his unpretentious manner; he seeks to understand the connections of their time, and tells us honestly where his understanding ceases. The poet draws these adventurous persons imperatively into the clear light of our day; he fills their being with warm life; he endows them with modern speech, with a good share of reason and of the culture of our times; and he forgets that the action in which he has them move, is taken from a former age and can not be so much transformed, and that it accords extremely ill with the higher human endowments given his characters.
The historical materials from the dim past, and from the little known periods of our national existence, allure our young poets, as once the epic materials allured Euripides: they mislead to the spectacular, as the epic did to declamation. Now their figures are not for this reason to be laid aside as useless; but the poet will ask whether the transformation which he is bound to undertake with every character of former times, is not possibly so great that all similarity to the historical person disappears, and whether the irrepressible presumptions of the action are not inconsistent with his free creation of character. This will certainly be sometimes the case.
Not less worthy of note is the conflict which the poet must wage in his roles, with what as nature, he has to idealize. His task is to give greater expression to greater passion; as an adjunct in this, he has the actor,—the passionate emphasis of the voice, of figure, of pantomime, of gesture. Despite all this abundant means, he may almost never, and just in the more exalted moments of passion, use the corresponding appearances of real life without great changes, however strongly and beautifully and effectively, in powerful natures, a natural passion expresses itself, and however great an impression it may make on the accidental observer. On the stage, the appearance is to have its effect in the distance. Even in a little theater, a comparatively large auditorium is to be filled with the expression of passion. Just the finest accents, but of real feeling in the voice, glance, even in carriage, are, on account of the distance, not at all so distinct to the audience and enchanting as they are in real life. And further, it is the task of the drama to make such laboring of passion intelligible and impressive at every moment; for it is not the passion itself which produces the effect, but the dramatic portrayal of it by means of speech and action; it must always be the endeavor of the characters on the stage to turn their inward being toward the spectator. The poet must then make choice for effects. The transient thoughts that flit through the mind of the impassioned one, conclusions arrived at with the rapidity of lightning, the varying emotions of the soul in great numbers, which now less distinctly, now more animatedly, come into view,—to all these in their disordered fulness [sic], their rapid course, art can not often afford even imperfect expression. For every idea, for every strong emotion, there is needed a certain number of words and gestures; their union by means of transition or sharp contrast demands a purposed play; every single moment presents itself more broadly, a careful progressive rise must take place,—in order that the highest effect be attained. Thus dramatic art must constantly listen to nature, but must by no means copy; nay, it must mingle with the single features which nature affords, something else that nature does not offer, and this as well in the speeches as in the acting. For poetic composition, one of the most ready helps is the wit of comparison, the color of the picture. This oldest ornament of speech comes by natural necessity, everywhere, into the discourse of men, where the soul, in a lofty mood freely raises her wing. To the inspired orator, as to the poet, to every people, to every civilization, comparison and imagery are the immediate expressions of excited feeling, of powerful, spirited creation. But now it is the duty of the poet to represent with the greatest freedom and elevation the greatest embarrassment of his persons in their passions, It will also be inevitable that his characters, even in the moments of highest passion, evince far more of this inward creative power of speech, of unrestrained power and mastery of language, expression, and gesture, than they ever do in natural circumstances. This freedom of soul is necessary to them, and the spectator demands it. And yet here lies the great danger to the poet, that his style may seem too artificial for the passion. Our greatest poets have often used poetic means and devices with such lavishness in moments of intense passion, as to offend good taste. It is well known that Shakespeare yields too often to the inclination of his time, and in his pathetic passages makes use of mythological comparisons and splendid imagery; on this account, there often appears in the language of his characters a bombast which we have to forget in the multitude of beautiful significant features, idealized from nature. The great poets stand nearer German culture; but even in their works,—among others Schiller’s,—a fine rhetoric intrudes upon pathos, which is not propitious to an unbiased apprehension.
If in every expression of passion, there is perceptible a contradiction between nature and art, this occurs most in the case of the most secret and genuine feelings. Here again, the love scene must be once more recalled. In real life, the expression of this sweet passion which presses from one soul to another, is so tender, is in so few words, is so modest, that in art it brings one into despair. A quick gleam from the eye, a soft tone of the voice, may express more to the loved one than all speech. Just the immediate expression of tender feeling needs words only as an accessory; the moments of the so-called declaration of love, frequently almost without words and with action scarcely visible, will escape the notice of one standing at a distance. Only through numerous devices can the highest skill of the poet and the actor replace for the spectator the eloquent silence and the beautiful secret vibrations of passion. Right here, indeed, poets and actors must use an abundance of speech and action which is improbable in nature. The actor may, of course, enhance and supplement the language of the poet, through tone and gesture; but that he secure these enhancing effects, the language of the poet must lead him, and to a high degree in conformity with a purpose, furnish the motive for the effects o£ the actor’s art; and therefore the actor requires also the creative activity of the poet, which gives, not an imitation of reality, but something quite different,—the artistic.
In the face of these difficulties which the expression of higher passion offers, if one dared to advise the poet, the best advice would be, to remain as exact and true to life as his talents would allow, to compress the single moments to a strong climax, and to expand as little as possible the embellishments of reflection, comparison, imagery. For while these give fulness [sic] to the lines, they too easily cover up desultoriness and poverty of invention. If everywhere, constant and exact observation of nature is indispensable to the dramatic poet, it is most indispensable in the delineation of violent emotion; but the poet must know most surely that he is here least of all to imitate nature.
Another difficulty arises for the poet through the inner contrast into which his art of creation comes, with the art of his colleague, the actor. The poet doĞes not perceive the perturbations of his characters as the reader perceives the words of the drama, nor as the actor apprehends his role. Character, scene, every force, is presented to him in the mighty rapture of creation, in such a way that the significance of each for the whole is perfectly clear; while all that has gone before, all that comes after, vibrate as if in a gentle harmony in his mind. What reveals the real life of his characters, what holds spellbound in the action, the effect of the scenes,—perceives as alluring, and powerfully so, perhaps, long before they have found expression in words. The expression which he creates for them, often gives back but imperfectly to his own apprehension, the beauty and might with which they were endowed in his mind. While he is concerned in embodying in words the spiritual essence of his persons, and in creating for them an outward form, the effect of the words which he writes being only imperfectly clear, he accustoms himself but gradually to their sound; moreover, the enclosed space of the stage, the external appearance of his persons, the effect of a gesture, of a tone of voice, he feels only incidentally, now more, now less distinctly. On the whole, he who creates through speech, stands nearer to the demands of the reader or the hearer, than to the demands of the actor, especially if he himself is not proficient in the actor’s art. The effects which he produces, then, correspond now more to the requirements of the reader, now more to those of the actor.
But the poet of greater feeling and perception must give a full and strong impression through speech; and the effects which one soul produces on another are brought about thus: its internal power breaks forth in a number of speech-waves, which rise higher and mightier, and beat upon the receptive mind. This demands a certain time, and with briefer, or more powerful treatment, a certain breadth of elaboration. The actor, on the other hand, with his art, requires the stream of convincing, seductive speech. Indeed, he needs the strong expression of passion, not always through speech. His aim is to attain something through other means, the effectiveness of which the poet does not apprehend so clearly. By means of a gesture of fright, of hatred, of contempt, he may often express more than the poet can with the most effective words. Impatient, he will always feel the temptation to make use of the best means of his own art. The laws of stage effects are for him and the audience sometimes different from those which are found in the soul of the creating poet. In the struggle of passion, a word, a glance, is often specially adapted to bring out the strongest pantomime effects for the actor; all the subsequent mental processes expressed in his speech, however poetically true in themselves, will appear to him and to his audience only as a lengthening. In this way, much is unnecessary in acting which is fully justified in writing and reading.
That the actor, for his part, has the task of carefully following the poet, and as much as possible working out the poet’s purposed effects, even with self-renunciation, is a matter of course. But not seldom his right is greater than that of the poet’s lines, for the reason that his equipment, voice, invention, technique, even his nerves, place restrictions upon him which the poet does not find cogent. But with this right which the actor has, in view of his labor, the poet will have the more difficulties to overcome the further he keeps aloof from the stage, and the less distinct to him in single moments of his creative activity is his stage-picture of the characters. He will also be obliged to make clear to himself through observation and reflection, how he may plan and present his characters rightly to the actor for the best stage effects. He must not, however, always conform to the actor’s art. And since it is his duty, at his desk, to be as much as possible the guardian of the histrionic artist, he must study most earnestly the essential laws of histrionic art.