The same laws which have been enumerated for the action, apply also to the characters of the stage. These, too, must possess dramatic unity, probability, importance and magnitude, and be fitted for a strong and progressive expression of dramatic life.
The persons of the drama must exhibit only that side of human nature, by which the action is advanced and given motive. No miser, no hypocrite, is always miserly, always hypocritical; no scoundrel betrays his degraded soul in every act he performs; no one always acts consistently; the thoughts which contend with each other in the human mind, are of infinite variety; the directions in which spirit, mind, volition, express themselves, are infinitely different. But the drama, like every form of art, has no right to select with freedom from the sum of all the things which characterize a man’s life, and combine them; only what serves the idea and the action belongs to art. But only such selected impulses in the character as belong together and are easily intelligible, will serve the action. Richard III. of England was a bloody and unscrupulous despot; but he was not such always nor toward everyone; he was, besides, a politic prince; and it is possible, according to history, that his reign appears, in some directions, a blessing to England. If a poet sets himself the task of showing the bloody rigor and falseness of a highly endowed, misanthropic hero-nature, embodied in this character, it is understood that the traits of moderation and perhaps of benevolence, which are found to some extent in the life of this prince, the poet dare accept, only so far as they support the fundamental trait of character needed for this idea. And as the number of characterizing moments which he can introduce at all, is, in proportion to the reality, exceedingly small, every individual trait bears an entirely different relation to the aggregate than it bears in reality. But whatever is necessary in the chief figures is of value in the accessory figures. It is understood that the texture of their souls must be so much the more easily understood, the less the space which the poet has left for them. The dramatic poet will scarcely commit great mistakes in this. Even to unskilled talent, the one side from which it has to illuminate its figures, is accustomed to be very distinct.
The first law, that of unity, admits of still another application to the characters: The drama must have only one chief hero, about whom all the persons, however great their number, arrange themselves in different gradations. The drama has a thoroughly monarchic arrangement; the unity of its action is essentially dependent on this, that the action is perfected about one dominant character. But also for a sure effect, the first condition is that the interest of the spectator must be directed mostly toward one person, and he must learn as early as possible who is to occupy his attention before all other characters. Since the highest dramatic processes of but few persons can be exhibited in broad elaboration, the number of great roles is limited to a few; and it is a common experience that nothing is more painful to the hearer than the uncertainty as to what interest he should give to each of these important persons. It is also one practical advantage of the piece to direct its effects toward a single middle point.
Whoever deviates from this fundamental law must do so with the keen perception that he surrenders a great advantage; and if his subject matter makes this surrender necessary, he must, in doubt, ask himself whether the uncertainty thus arising in the effects, will be counterbalanced by other dramatic advantages.
Our drama has for a long time entertained one exception. Where the relations of two lovers form the essentials of an action, these persons, bound by spiritual ties, are looked upon as enjoying equal privileges, and are conceived as a unit. Thus in Romeo and Juliet, Love and Intrigue, The Piccolomini, also in Troilus and Cressida. But even in this case, the poet will do well to accord to one of the two the chief part in the action; and where this is not possible, he should base the inner development of the two upon corresponding motives. In Shakespeare, Romeo is the leading character in the first half of the play; in the second half, Juliet leads. In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony is the leading character up to his death.
But while in Shakespeare, Lessing, Goethe, the chief hero is unmistakable, Schiller, not to the advantage of his construction, has a peculiar inclination toward double heroes; this appears as early as The Robbers; and in his later years, after his acquaintance with the ancient drama, they become still more striking,—Carlos and Posa; Mary and Elizabeth; the hostile brothers, Max and Wallenstein; Tell, the Swiss, and Rudenz. This inclination is easily explained. Schiller’s pathetic strain had only been strengthened by his acquaintance with Greek tragedy; not seldom in his dramas, it comes into contradiction with a greater poetic quality, dramatic energy. So under his hand, there were disjoined two tendencies of his own nature, which were transferred to two separate persons, one of whom received the pathetic part, the other the leading part of the action, the second sometimes also receiving a share in the pathos. How this division rendered less prominent the first hero, who was the pathetic character, has already been explained.
Another error the poet finds it more difficult to avoid. The share of the persons in the advancement of the action must be so arranged, that what they do shall have its logical basis in an easily understood trait of character, and not in a subtlety of judgment, or in a peculiarity which seems accidental. Above all, a decided advancement of the action must not proceed from the marvellous in a character, which has no motive, or from such weaknesses as in the eyes of our observant audiences lessen the enrapturing impression. Thus the catastrophe in Emilia Galotti, is, according to our notion, no longer tragic in a high degree, because from Emilia and her father, we demand a more virile courage. That the daughter fears being debauched, and the father, instead of seeking an escape from the castle for himself and his daughter, dagger in hand, despairs because the reputation of the daughter is already injured by the abduction,—this wounds our sensibilities, however beautifully the character of Odoardo is fashioned for this catastrophe. In Lessing’s time, the ideas of the public regarding the power and arbitrariness of royal rulers were so vivid, that the situation had a far different effect than it has now. And yet with such assumptions, he could have motived the murder of the daughter more powerfully. The spectator must be thoroughly convinced that any escape for the Galotti from the castle, is impossible. The father must seek it with the last accession of power, he must thwart the prince by violence. For there remains still the greater disadvantage, that it was much more to Odoardo’s advantage to kill the rascally prince, than his own innocent daughter. That would have been more according to custom, and humanly truer. Of course this tragedy could not bear such an ending. And this is an evidence that what is worthy of consideration in the piece, lies deeper than the catastrophe. The German atmosphere in which the strong spirit of Lessing struggled, still renders the creation of great tragic effect difficult. The brave Germans, like noble Romans of the imperial time, thought, “Death makes free?”22
When it is unavoidable to represent the hero, in an essential respect shortsighted and limited in the face of his surroundings, the oppressive burden must be lightened by the complementary side of his personality, which turns toward him an increased degree of respect and sympathy. This is successfully done in Goetz von Berlichingen and Wallenstein; it was tried, but did not succeed in Egmont.
The Greek author of The Poetics prescribed that the characters of the heroes, in order to awaken interest must be composed of good and evil; the law is still valid to-day, and applicable to the changed conditions of our stage. The figures, and all the material from which the German stage makes, preferably, its poetical characters, are from real life. Where the poet deems figures from legend worthy of use, he attempts more or less successfully to endow them with a more liberal humanity and a richer life, which invites to the idealization of historical characters or persons in the real world. And the poet will be able to use every character for his drama, that makes the representation of strong dramatic processes possible. Absolute and unchangeable goodness or evil are hereby excluded for chief characters. Art, in itself, lays no further restriction upon him; for a character which allows the most powerfully dramatic processes to be richly represented in itself, will be an artistic picture whatever may be its relation to the moral import, or to the social views of the hearer.
The choice of the poet is also limited, especially through his own manly character, taste, morality, habits, and also through his regard for the ideal listener,—the public. It must be of great consequence to him, to inspire his audience with admiration for his hero, and to change his audience to fellow players, following the variations and mental processes which he brings to view. In order to maintain this sympathy, he is compelled to choose personages which not only enrapture by the importance, magnitude, and power of their characters, but win to themselves the sentiment and taste of the audience.
The poet must also understand the secret of ennobling and beautifying for his contemporaries the frightful, horrible, the base and repulsive in a character, by means of the combination which he gives it. The question for the German stage, how much dare the poet venture, is no longer doubtful since Shakespeare’s time. The magic of his creative power works, perhaps, on everyone who himself attempts to poetize, most powerfully through the completeness which he gave to his villains. Richard III. and Iago are models, showing how beautifully the poet can fashion malevolence and wickedness. The strong vital energy, and the ironical freedom in which they play with life, attaches to them a most significant element which compels an unwilling admiration. Both are scoundrels with no addition of a qualifying circumstance. But in the self-consciousness of superior natures, they control those about them with an almost superhuman power and security. On close inspection, they appear to be very differently constituted. Richard is the son of a wild time full of terror, where duty passed for naught, and ambition ventured everything. The incongruity between an iron spirit and a deformed body, became for him the foundation of a cold misanthropy. He is a practical man, and a prince, who does only such evil as is useful to him, and is merciless with a wild caprice. Iago is far more a devil. It is his joy to act wickedly; he perpetrates wickedness with most sincere delight. He gives to himself and to others as his motive for destroying the Moor, that Othello has preferred another officer to him, and has been intimate with his wife. All this is untrue; and so far as it contains any truth, it is not the ultimate ground of his treachery. His chief tendency is the ardent desire of a creative power to make attacks, to stir up quarrels, especially for his own use and advantage. He was more difficult, therefore, to be made worthy of the drama than was the prince, the general, to whom environment, and his great purpose gave a certain importance and greatness; and therefore Shakespeare endowed him more copiously with humor, the beautifying mood of the soul, which has the single advantage of throwing upon even the hateful and low a charming light.
The basis of humor is the unrestricted freedom, of a well-endowed mind, which displays its superior power to those about it in sportive caprice. The epic poet who in his own breast, bears inclination and disposition for these effects, may exhibit them in a twofold manner in the creatures of his art: he can make these humorists, or he can exercise his own humor on them. The tragic poet, who speaks only through his heroes, may of course, do only the first, because he communicates his humor to them. This modern intellectual inclination continually produces on the hearer a mighty, at the same time an enchanting and a liberating influence. For the serious drama, its employment has a difficulty. The conditions of humor are intellectual liberty, quiet, deliberation; the condition of the dramatic hero is embarrassment, storm, strong excitement. The secure and comfortable playing with events is unfavorable to the advance of an excited action; it almost inevitably draws out into a situation the scene into which it intrudes. Where, therefore, humor enters with a chief character, in order that this character may be raised above others, it must have other characteristics which prevent it from quietly delaying. It must have strong impelling force, and beyond this, a powerfully forward-moving action.
Now, it is possible so to guide the humor of the drama that it does not exclude violent commotions of the soul, so that an unobstructed view of one’s own and another’s fate is enhanced, through a corresponding capability of the character to express greater passion. But this is not to be learned.
And the union of a profound intellect with the ' confidence of a secure power and with superior fancy, is a gift which has hardly been conferred upon an author of serious dramas in Germany. When one receives such a gift, he uses it without care, without pains, with certainty; he makes himself laws, and rules, and compels his admiring contemporaries to follow him. He who has not this gift strives for it in vain, and tries in vain to paint into his scenes something of that embellishing brilliancy with which genius floods everything.
It was explained above, how in our drama, the characters must give motive to the progress of the action, and how the fate which rules them must not be anything else than the course of events brought about by the personality of these characters,—a course which must be conceived every moment by the hearer as reasonable and probable, however surprising individual moments may come to him. Right here the poet evinces his power if he knows how to fashion his characters deep and great, and conduct his action with elevated thought, and if he does not offer as a beautiful invention what lies upon the beaten track of ordinary understanding, and what is next to a shallow judgment. And with a purpose, it may be emphatically repeated, that every drama must be a firmly connected structure in which the connection between cause and effect form the iron clasps, and that what is irrational can, as such, have no important place at all in the modern drama.
But now mention must be made of an accessory motive for the advancement of the action, a motive which was not mentioned in the former section. In individual cases, the characters may receive as a fellow-player, a shadow, which is not gladly welcomed on our stage—the mischance. When what is being developed has been, in its essentials, grounded in the impelling personality of the characters, then it may become comprehensible that in the action, a single man is not able to guide with certainty the connection of events. When in King Lear, the villain, Edmund; when in Antigone, the despot, Creon, recall the death sentences which they have pronounced, it appears as an accident that these same sentences have been executed so quickly and in such an unexpected manner. When in Wallenstein, the hero will abrogate the treaty which he has concluded with Wrangel, it is strongly emphasized with what incomprehensible suddenness the Swede has disappeared. When in Romeo and Juliet, the news of Juliet’s death reaches Romeo before the message of Friar Laurence, the accident appears of decisive importance in the course of the piece. But this intrusion of a circumstance not counted upon, however striking it may be, is at bottom no motive forcing itself in from without; it is only the result of a characteristic deed of the hero.
The characters have caused a portentous decision to depend on a course of events which they can no longer govern. The trap had already fallen, which Edmund had set for the death of Cordelia; Creon had caused Antigone to be locked up in the burial vault; whether the defiant woman awaited starvation or chose a death for herself—of this he had no longer the direction; Wallenstein has given his fate into the hands of an enemy; that Wrangel had good grounds to make the resolve of the waverer irrevocable, was evident. Romeo and Juliet have come into the condition, that the possibility of their saving their lives depends on a frightful, criminal, and extremely venturesome measure, which the priest had thought of in his anguish. In this and similar cases, the accident enters only because the characters under overpowering pressure have already lost the power of choice. For the poet and his piece, it is no longer accident, that is, not something extraneous which bursts asunder the joints of the action; but it is a motive like every other, deduced from the peculiarities of the characters; in its ultimate analysis, it is a necessary consequence of preceding events. This not ineffective means is to be used with prudence, and is to be grounded in the nature of the characters and in the actual situation.
For guiding the characters through individual acts, a few technical rules are to be observed, as has already been said. They will be brought forward, in this place, briefly, once more. Every single person of the drama is to show the fundamental traits of his character, as distinctly, as quickly, and as attractively as possible; and where an artistic effect lies in a concealed play of single roles, the audience must be, to a certain extent, the confidant of the poet. The later a new characteristic trait enters the action, the more carefully must the motive for it be laid in the beginning, in order that the spectator may enjoy to the full extent the pleasure of the surprise, and perceive that it corresponds exactly to the constitution of the character.
Brief touches are the rule, where the chief characters have to present themselves at the beginning of the play. As a matter of course, the significant single characteristics are not to be introduced in an anecdotal manner, but to be interwoven with the action,—except that little episodes, or a modest painting of a situation, are thus allowed. The scenes at the beginning, which give color to the piece, which prepare the moods, must also at the same time present the ground texture of the hero. Shakespeare manages this with wonderful skill. Before his heroes are entangled in the difficulties of a tragic action, he likes to let them, while still unembarrassed in the introduction scenes, express the trend of their character most distinctly and characteristically; Hamlet, Othello, Romeo, Brutus, Richard III., illustrate.
It is not an accident that Goethe’s heroes,—Faust, both parts, Iphigenia, even Götz,—are introduced in soliloquy, or in quiet conversation like Tasso, Clavigo. Egmont enters first in the second act. Lessing follows the old custom of his stage, of introducing his heroes by means of their intimates; but Schiller again lays great stress on the characteristic representation of unembarrassed heroes. In the trilogy of Wallenstein, the nature of the hero is first presented in rich mirrorings in The Camp, and in the first act of The Piccolomini; but Wallenstein himself appears, introduced by the astrologer, in the circle of his family and friends, out of which during the entire play, he is seldom removed.
It has already been said that new roles in the second half of the drama, the return action, require a peculiar treatment. The spectator is inclined to consider with mistrust the leading of the roles through new persons. The poet must take care not to distract or make impatient. Therefore the characters of the second part require a richer endowment, attractive presentation, most effective detailed delineation, in compact treatment. Excellent examples of elaboration are, besides those already named, Deveroux and Macdonald in Wallenstein, while Buttler, in the same piece, serves as model of a character whose active participation is saved for the last part,—not towed as a dead weight through the first, but interwoven with its internal changes.
Finally, the unpracticed playwright must take care, when it is necessary to have another person talk about his hero, to attach no great value to such exposition of the character; and will only, when it is entirely to the purpose, allow the hero to express a judgment concerning himself; but all that others say of a person, or what he says of himself, has little weight in comparison with what is seen coming into being, growing in counter-play with others, in the connections of the action. Indeed, the effect may be fatal if the zealous poet commends his heroes as sublime, as joyous, as shrewd, while in the piece, in spite of the poet’s wish, it is not accorded them to show these qualities.
The conducting of characters through the scenes must occur with strict regard to the tableaux, or grouping, and the demands of scenic representation. For even in the conducting of a scene, the actor, as opposed to the poet, makes his demands prevail, and the poet does well to heed them. He stands in a delicate relation with his actor, which places obligations on both sides. In the essential thing, the aim of both is the same. Both exercise their creative power upon the same material; the poet as a silent guide, the actor as an executive power. And the poet will soon learn that the German actor, on the whole, adapts himself with a ready fervor and zeal to the effects of the poet, and seldom burdens him with claims, through which he thinks to place his own art in the foreground to the disadvantage of the poetry. Since, indeed, the individual actor has in his eye the effects of his role, and the poet thinks of the aggregate effect, in many cases there may be in the rehearsal of the piece, a division of interests. The poet will not always accord to his associate the better right,—if it is necessary to temper an effect, or to suppress a single character in single moments of an action. Experience teaches that the actor, in such a contradiction of the conceptions on either side, readily falls into line as soon as he receives the notion that the poet understands his own art. For the artist is accustomed to labor as a participant in a greater whole, and when he will give attention, right well perceives the highest demands of the piece. The claims which he puts forward with right,—good roles, strong effects, economy of his strength, a convenient arrangement of scenes,—must be as much a matter of concern to the poet as to him.
These requirements may be traced back to two great principles, to the proposition which may be stated: The stage effect must be clear to the poet while he is composing; and to the short but very imperative proposition: The poet must know how to create great dramatic effects for his characters. In every individual scene, specially in scenes where groups appear, the poet must keep well in mind the general appearance of the stage; he must perceive with distinctness the positions of the persons, their movements toward and away from each other as they occur gradually on the stage. If more frequently than the character and the dignity of the role allow, he compels the actor to turn toward this or the other person, in order to facilitate subordinate roles, or correct them; if he delays the motive, the transitions from one arrangement into another, from one side of the stage to another, as he presumes it to come at a later moment of the scene; if he forces the actor into a position which does not allow him to complete his movements unrestrained and effectively, or to come into the proposed combination with a fellow actor; if he does not remember which of his roles every time begins the play, and which continues it; further, if he leaves one of the chief characters unoccupied for a long time on the stage, or if he attributes too much to the power of the actor,—the final result of this and similar difficulties is a representation too weak and fragmentary of the course on the stage, of the dramatic action which the poet may have perceived clear and effective in its course through his mind. In all such cases, the claims of the actor must be respected. And the poet will also, on this ground, give special attention to the claims of stage custom. For this, there is no better means of learning than to go with an actor through a new role which is to be practiced, and carefully watch the rehearsal under a competent stage director.
The old requirement that a poet must adapt his characters to the special line of work of the actors, appears more awkward than it really is. Well established principles once current for the government of chief rôles, have been abandoned by our stage; having once received an artist into the circle of prescriptions and prohibitions, they made it impossible for an “intriguer” to play a rôle outside of the first rank; and they separated the bonvivant from the “youthful hero,” by a wide chasm, almost impassable. Meantime, there remains so much of the custom as is useful for the actor and the stage director, in order to draw individual talent towards its special province, and to facilitate the setting of new rôles. Every actor rejoices in a certain stock of dramatic means which he has developed within his branch: the quality of his voice, accent of speech, physical bearing, postures, control of facial muscles. Within his accustomed limits, he moves with comparative security; beyond them, he is uncertain. If now the poet lays claim to the accustomed readiness of different specialties in the same rôle, the setting will be difficult, and the result, perhaps, doubtful. There is, for instance, an Italian party-leader of the fifteenth century, as to outsiders, sharp, sly, concealed, an unscrupulous scoundrel; in his family, warm in feeling, dignified, honored and honorable,—no improbable mixture;—his image on the stage would strike one very differently, when the character player or the older and dignified hero father represented him; probably in any setting, the one side of his nature would fall short.
This is no infrequent case. The advantage of correct setting according to special capability of actors, the dangers of an inappropriate setting, can be observed in witnessing any new piece. The poet will never allow himself to be guided by such a prudent respect for the greater sureness of his results, when the formation of an unusual stage character is of importance to him. He is only to know what is most convenient for himself and his actors.
And when at last it is required of the poet that he fashion his characters effectively for the actor, this claim contains the highest requirement which can be placed upon the dramatic poet. To create effectively for the actor, means, indeed, nothing else than to create dramatically, in the best sense of the word. Body and soul, the actor is prepared to transform himself into conscious, creative activity, in order to body forth the most secret thought, feeling, sentiment, of will and deed. Let the poet see to it that he knows how to use worthily and perfectly this mighty stock of means for his artistic effects. And the secret of his art,—the first thing given a place in these pages and the last,—is only this: Let him delineate exactly and truly, even to details, however strongly feeling breaks forth from the private life as desire and deed, and however strong impressions are made from without upon the soul of the hero. Let him describe this with poetic fulness [sic], from a soul which sees exactly, sharply, comprehensively, each single moment of the process, and finds special joy in portraying it in beautiful single traits. Let him thus labor, and he will set his actors the greatest tasks, and will worthily and completely make use of their noblest powers.
Again it must be said, no technique teaches how one must begin, in order to write in this way.