The century in which the romance has become the prevailing species of poetry, will no longer consider verse an indispensable element of poetics. There are many dramas of a high order, favorite pieces upon our stage, composed in prose. At least in dramatic subjects from modern times, it is claimed, prose is the most appropriate expression of such thoughts and sentiments as can be placed on the stage, from a well-known real life. But the serious drama hardly concludes to abandon the advantages which verse affords, in order to win those of prose.
It is true, prose flows along more rapidly, more easily, indeed, in many respects more dramatically. It is easier in it, to discriminate the different characters; it offers, from the construction of the sentence to the qualities of voice and tones, the greatest wealth of colors and shades; everything is less constrained; it adapts itself quickly to every frame of mind; it can give to light prattle or to humorous delight a spirit which is very difficult to verse; it admits of greater disquiet, stronger contrasts, more violent movement. But these advantages are fully counterbalanced by the exalted mood of the hearer which verse produces and maintains. While prose easily incurs the risk of reducing the work of art to copies of ordinary reality, speech in verse elevates the nature of the characters into the noble. Every moment the perception and feeling of the hearer are kept alive to the fact that he is in the presence of a work of art which bears him away from reality, and sets him in another world, the relations of which the human mind has ordered with perfect freedom. Moreover, the limitation which is placed on logical discussion, and sometimes on the brevity and incisiveness of expression, is no very perceptible loss. To poetical representation, the sharpness and fineness of proof-processes are not so important as the operation on the mind, as the brilliance of imaginative expression, of simile and antithesis, which verse favors. In the rhythmic ring of the verse, feeling and vision raised above reality, float as if transfigured, in the hearer’s soul; and it must be said that these advantages can be very serviceable, specially to subjects from modern times; for in these, the exaltation above the common frame of mind of every-day life, is most necessary. How this can be done, not only The Prince of Homburg shows, but the treatment which Goethe gave the undramatic material of The Natural Daughter, though the verse of this drama is not written conveniently for the actor.
The iambic pentameter has been our established verse since Goethe and Schiller. A preponderating trochaic accent of German words makes this verse peculiarly convenient. Of course, it is rather brief in relation to the little logical units of the sentence, the coupling of which in pairs makes up the essence of the verse-line. In its ten or eleven syllables, we cannot compress the fulness [sic] of meaning which it has, for example, in the terse English speech; and the poet thus inclined toward a rich, sonorous expression, falls easily into the temptation of extending part of a sentence into a line and a half or two lines, which it would be better to extend in an uninterrupted, and thus finer flow of words. But the pentameter has the advantage of the greatest possible fluency and flexibility; it can adapt itself more than any other kind of verse to changing moods, and follow every variation of the soul in time and movement.
The remaining kinds of verse which have been used in the drama, suffer the disadvantage of having too marked a peculiarity of sound, and more than a little limit characterization by speech, which is necessary to the drama.
The German trochaic tetrameter, which among many other measures for instance, Immermann used effectively in the catastrophe of his Alexis flows like all trochaic verse, too uniformly with the natural accent of our language. The sharp timebeats [sic] which its feet make in the speech, and the long elevated course, give to it in the German language, a restlessness, a surging, a dark tone-color which would be appropriate only for high tragic moods. The iambic hexameter, the cæsura of which stands in the middle of the third foot, the tragic measure of the Greeks, has, so far, been used but little in Germany. From its translations from the Greek, it acquired the reputation of stiffness and rigidity which do not essentially belong to it; it has a vigorous movement and is capable of many variations. Its sonorousness is majestic, and full for rich expression which moves forward in long undulations, and is splendidly adapted to its use. It has only this disadvantage, that its chief division, which even in the drama must be made after the fifth syllable, gives to the parts of the verse very uneven length. Against five syllables stand seven, or eight if there is a feminine ending. A second cæsura intrudes so easily into the second half verse, that the line is divided into three parts. This aftertone of the longer half makes a masculine ending of the verse desirable; and the foretone of the masculine ending contributes to give weight, sometimes, hardness. The Alexandrine, an iambic hexameter, the cæsura of which lies after the third arsis, and divides the line into two equal parts, cuts the discourse too markedly in the German drama. In French, its effect is entirely different, because in this language the verse accent is much more covered and broken up in a greater number of ways, not only through the capricious and movable word accent, but through the free rhythmic swing of spoken discourse through a mingling and prolongation of words, which we cannot imitate; and this rests on a greater prominence of the element of sound, sonorousness, with which the creative power of the speaker knows how to play in an original manner. Finally, there is another iambic verse in the German, specially adapted to a vigorous movement, yet little used,—the hexameter of The Nibelungen, in the new language an iambic hexameter, the fourth foot of which may be not only an iambus, but an anapest, and always has the cæsura of the verse after the first thesis. What is characteristic and specially adapted to the German language, is the position of the cæsura so far along in the verse, which, deviating from all ancient measures, as a rule, shows a greater number of syllables in the first half. If the verses of this measure are not joined in strophes, but are used with slight variations in construction as continuous long verses, with a line frequently passing over into the next as a single sentence, then this measure is excellent and effective for the expression even of impassioned progress. It is possible that its nature, which, perhaps, corresponds best to the rhythmic relations of the German language, avails for animated narrative, and wins some significance for one species of comedy. To the elevated drama, rhyme, which in this measure, two long verses cannot dispense with as a connecting element, will always seem too harmonious and sportive, however well it may be modified through a rapid transition of voice, from one line to another.
For the modern drama, further, likeness of tone color and uniformity of measure is indispensable. Our speech, and the receptivity of the hearer are, so far as the relations of sound are concerned, little developed. The differences in the sounds of the verses are conceived more as disturbing interruptions than as stimulating aids. But further, interest in the intellectual import of the discourse and in the dramatic movement of the characters, has come to the front to such an extent, that even for this reason, every verse unit which, in its contrast with what has preceded, calls attention to itself, will be counted a distraction.
This is also the ground that should easily exclude prose passages from between poetic passages in our drama; for by means of them, the contrast in color becomes still stronger. Inserted prose always gives to scenes something of the barren imitation of reality; and this disadvantage is increased, because prose serves the poet as a means of expressing moods for which the dignified sonorousness of verse appears too excellent.
The iambic pentameter has a fluency for the German poet, whose soul has accustomed itself in its soarings, to think and feel most easily during the process of composition. But its being made the vehicle of dramatic expression is still difficult for the German poet, and the poets are not numerous who have perfectly succeeded in it. And so distinctly this verse expresses the poet’s quality, which is here called dramatic, that the reader of a new piece is able to perceive from a few verses of animated dialogue, whether this dramatic power of the poet is developed or not. Of course, it is always much easier for the Germans to feel the possibly dramatic than to express this inner life in a becoming manner in verse.
Before iambic verse is available for the stage, the poet must be in a position to make it correct, euphonious, and without too great effort; chief cæsura and secondary cæsura, arsis, thesis, masculine endings, feminine endings, must come out according to well-known laws, regularly and in pleasing variations.
If the poet has gained the technique of versification and succeeded in writing musical verse with pleasing flow and pithy substance, his verse is certainly not right undramatic; and the more difficult labor begins. Now the poet must acquire another art of rhythmic feeling, which shall occasion, in place of regularity, to place apparent irregularities, to disturb the uniform flow in manifold ways, which means, to imbue with strong dramatic life.
Previously it was said, that in French, the Alexandrine was animated and varied by the introduction of irregular modulations and cadences. The dramatic speech of the Germans does not allow the actors, like the French, unlimited play with words, through a rapidly changing rate of utterance, sharp accent, through a prolongation or tossing of the sounds, which proceed almost independently of their meaning, when representing single words. On the other hand, there is given to the German in an unusual degree, the capability of expressing the movements of his mind, in the structure of his verse, through the connecting and separating of sentences, through bringing into relief, or transposing single words. The rhythmic movement of the excited soul comes more into relief among the Germans, in the logical connection and division of sentences, than among the Latin races in the sonorous swing of their recitation.
In the iambus of the drama, this life enters by interrupting the symmetrical structure of the verse, checking it, turning it this way and that into the infinite shadings which are produced by the movements of the characters. The verse must accommodate itself obediently to every mood of the soul; it must seek to correspond to each, not only through its rhythm but through the logical connection of sentences which it combines. For quiet feeling and fine mental action, which move forward in repose and dignity or with vivid animation, he must use his purest form, his most beautiful euphony, and even flow of eloquence. In Goethe, the dramatic iambus glides thus in quiet beauty. If feeling rises higher, if the more excited mood flows out in more adorned, long-breathed lines, then the verse must rush in long waves, now dying out in preponderating feminine endings, now terminating more frequently in powerful masculine endings. This is, as a rule, Schiller’s verse. The excitement becomes stronger; single waves of speech break over one verse, and fill a part of the next; then short impulses of passion throng and break up the form of single verses; but above all this eddying, the rhythmic current of a longer passage is quietly and steadily moving. So in Lessing. But the expression of excitement becomes stormier and wilder; the rhythmic course of the verse seems wholly disordered; now and again a sentence from the end of one verse rings over into the beginning of the next; here and there a part of a verse is torn from its connections, and attached to what has preceded or what follows; speech and counter-speech break the grammatical connections; the first word of a sentence, and the last,—two important places,—are separated from others and become independent members of a sentence; the verse remains imperfect; instead of the quiet restful alternations of strong and weak endings, there is a long series of verses with the masculine ending; the cæsura is hardly to be recognized; even in those unaccented syllables or groups, over which, in the regular course, the rhythm would flow swiftly, massive, heavy words throng together, and the parts of the verse tumble against each other as in chaos. This is the dramatic verse, as it produces the most powerful effects in the best passages of Kleist, in spite of all the poet’s mannerisms; thus it whirls and eddies away more magnificently, more finished, in the passionate scenes of Shakespeare.
As soon as the poet has learned to use his verse in such a manner, he has imbued it with a dramatic life. But he must always keep in mind one dramatic rule: Dramatic verse is not to be read or recited quietly, but to be pronounced in character. For this purpose, it is necessary that the logical connection of sentences be made perfectly clear, through conjunctions and prepositions; and further, that the expression of sentiment correspond to the character of the speaker, not break off in unintelligible brevity, nor be prolonged to prolixity; finally, that uneuphonious combinations of sounds and indistinct words are to be carefully avoided. Spoken speech yields its thought, sometimes with more ease, sometimes with more difficulty. A dissonance which the reader hardly notices, when pronounced, distracts and offends in a marked degree. Every obscurity in the connection of sentences makes the actor and the hearer uncertain, and leads to false conceptions. But even for accurate expression in fine and spirited explication, the reader is more penetrating and receptive than the easily distracted and more busily occupied spectator. On the other hand, the actor may make many things clearer. The reader in a comparatively more quiet mood, follows the short sentences of a broken speech, the inner relations of which are not made plain by the usual particles of logical sentence sequences; but he follows with an effort which easily becomes exhaustion. To the actor, on the contrary, such passages are the most welcome as the foundation of his creative work. By means of an accent, a glance, a gesture, he knows how to render quickly intelligible to the hearer, the last connection, the omitted ideas necessary to completeness; and the soul which he puts into the words, the passion which streams forth from him, become a guide which fills out and completes for the hearer the import of the suppressed and fragmentary speech, and produces perhaps a powerful unity. It happens that in reading, long passages of verse give the impression of the artificial, of something vainly sought for; but this on the stage changes into a picture of intense passion. Now, it is possible that the actor has done his best with it; for his art is specially powerful where the poet has left a blank in the thought. But just so often the poetic art has the best right; and the fault is in the reader, because his power of following and thinking along with the poet, is not so active as it should be. It is easy to recognize this peculiarity of style in Lessing. The frequent interruptions in the discourse, the short sentences, the questions and chance remarks, the animated dialectic processes which his persons pass through, appear in reading as artificial unrest. But, with a few exceptions, they are so accurate, so profoundly conceived, that this poet, just on this account, is the favorite with actors. Still more striking is the same peculiarity in Kleist, but not always sound, and not always true. In the restlessness, feverishness, excitement of his language, the inner life of his characters, which struggles violently, sometimes helplessly for expression, finds its corresponding reflection.
But a useless interruption of the discourse is not infrequent,—unnecessarily invented animation, purposeless questions, a misunderstanding that requires no explanation. For the most part, he has a practical purpose in this; he wishes to make very prominent individual ideas which appear of importance to him. But that seems to him important sometimes, which can really claim no significance; and the frequent recurrence of little leaps aside from the direct line of the action, disturb not only the reader but the hearer.
The effect of verse can be increased, in the German drama, by parallelisms, as well of single verses as of groups, especially in dialogue scenes; where proposition and denial come into sharp opposition, such a rotation of verses is an excellent means of indicating the contrast.
The expansion which the rhythmic sweep of the Greek drama had, the Germans cannot imitate. Owing to the character of our speech, we are in a position to set over against one another in our dramatic composition, every four verses as a unit, so that the hearer will distinctly perceive coincidence and contrast of accent. In a recitation, which makes the logical side less prominent, and brings out the euphony which allows the voice stronger variations, one may set a longer series of verses effectively over against another. If the Greeks, by means of their art in recitation, could combine ten trimeters into a unit, and in the reply to this, could repeat the same accent and cadence, there is nothing incomprehensible to us in it. Possibly, in the older times of Greek tragedy, there were a number of recitation melodies, or refrains, which were specially invented for each piece, or were already known to the hearers, and which without elevating the speaking tones of the recitation to a song, bound a longer group of verses into a unit.
This method of delivery is not to be used by us. Even in using the customary rotation verses, which beat, one against one, two against two, three against three, a limit is set. For our kind of dramatic composition rebels against any artifice which restrains the movements of characters and their sentiments. The pleasure from the rhetoric of such counter-speeches is less than the danger that the truth of representation may be lessened by artistic limitation. The poet will, therefore, do well to modify this little effect, and take from it the severity and appearance of artificiality; this may be done by interspersing parallel propositions in verse, with irregularly placed verses.
In the soul of the poet, at the same time with the foundation of the characters and the beginnings of the action, the color begins to flash. This peculiar adjunct of every subject matter is more developed among us moderns than in earlier times; for historical culture has greatly enhanced our sense for, and interest in what deviates from our own life. Character and action are conceived by the poet in the peculiar circumstances which the time, the place, the relations of the civilization in the time of the real hero, his manner of speech and of dealing, his costume, and the forms of intercourse,—have in contrast with our own time and life. Whatever of the original clings to the material of a play carries the poet back in his artistic work, to the speech of his hero, to his surroundings, even down to his costume, the scenery and stage properties. These peculiarities the poet idealizes. He perceives them as determined by the idea of the piece. A good color is an important matter. It works at the beginning of the piece, at once stimulating and enchanting to the hearer; it remains to the end a charming ingredient, which may sometimes serve to cover weaknesses in the action.
These embellishing colors do not develop in every poet with equal vividness; they do not come to light with the same energy in every subject. But they never entirely fail where characters and human circumstances are depicted. They are indispensable to the epic and the romance, as they are to the drama. Color is of the most importance in historical themes; it helps here to characterize the heroes. The dramatic character itself, must, in its feeling and its volition, have an import which brings it much nearer a cultured man of the present, than its original in reality corresponds to our conception of it. But it is the color which gracefully covers for the hearer the inner contradiction between the man in history and the hero in the drama; the hero and his action it clothes with the beautiful appearance of a strange being, alluring to the imagination.
The newer stage rightly takes pains, therefore, to express in the costume which it gives to the actors, the time in which the piece is laid, the social position, and many peculiarities of the characters presented. We are now separated by about a century from the time when Cæsar came upon the German stage with dagger and wig, and Semiramis adorned her riding coat with much strange tinsel, and her hair with many jewels and striking trimmings, in order to give herself a foreign appearance. Now, on many prominent stages, imitation of historical costume has gone very far; but in the majority of cases, it remains far behind the demands which the audience, in its average historical knowledge, is justified in demanding with respect to scenic equipment. It is clear that it is not the duty of the stage to imitate antiquarian peculiarities; but it is just as clear that it must avoid shocking a multitude of its patrons by forcing its heroes into a costume which, perhaps, nowhere and never, certainly not in this century, was possible. If the poet must keep aloof the antiquarian enthusiasm of the over-zealous from the clothing of his heroes, because the unusual, the unaccustomed in accessory does not advance, but rather disorders his piece, he will oftener have occasion, in for instance, a Hohenstaufen drama, to forbid a Spanish mantle, and to refuse to put upon a Saxon emperor a glittering lead armor, which changes his Ottos and Henrys into gold-beetles, and proves by their intolerable brilliancy that they were never struck by a blow from a sword.
The same holds true with the scenery and stage properties. A rococo table in a scene from the fifteenth century, or a Greek pillared hall where King Romulus walks, have already been long painful to the spectator. In order to make such remissnesses difficult for individual directors and actors, the poet will do well, in pieces from ancient or remote times, to prescribe exactly upon a page devoted to that purpose, not only the scenic apparatus but the costumes.
But the most important means for his use in giving color to his piece, is the language. It is true, the iambus has a certain tone color and modifies the characteristic expression more than prose. But it admits of a great wealth of light and shade; it allows even to words a slight tint in dialect.
In subjects from remote times, a language must be invented, possessing a color corresponding to the period. This is a beautiful, delightful labor, which the creating poet must undertake right joyfully. This work will be most advanced by a careful reading of the written monuments received from the hero’s time. This strange speech works suggestively on the mind of the poet, by its peculiar accents, its syntactical structure, its popular forms of expression. And with pen in hand, the poet arranges what appears useful to him for powerful expression,—striking imagery, telling comparison, proverbial dialect. Among every foreign people whose literature is accessible, such work is beneficial, and most advantageous with respect to any nation’s own earlier times. Our language had in former periods, as the Sclavonic has still, a far greater proportion of figurative expressions, suggestive to the power of imagination. The sense of the words had not been evaporated through a long scientific labor; everywhere there attached to them something of the first mental expression, from the popular mind where they originated. The number of proverbs is large, as also is the number of terse forms and Biblical phrases, which the reflections of our time replace. Such ingredients the creating artist may hold firmly in mind; upon their melody his talent amplifies almost involuntarily, the ground tone and moods of the speech of the drama.
With such an inspection of the written works of old times, there remain connected with the poet, still others,—little traits of character, anecdotes, many striking things which may complete and illuminate his pictures.
What he has thus found, he must not use pedantically nor insert in his speeches like arabesques; each item may signify something to him; but the suggestion which he receives from it, is of highest value.
This mood which he has given his soul does not forsake him; even while he is conducting his hero through the scenes, it will suggest to him, not only the right kind of language, but the cooperation of persons, the way they behave toward each other, forms of intercourse, customs and usages of the time.
All this is true of the characters and their movements in the scenes. For at every point in the drama, in every sentiment, in every act, that which in the material of the play struck us as characteristic, clings to what is humanly exalted in the ideal figures as embellishing additions. It is seldom necessary to warn the poet that he is not to do too much with these colors toward scenic effects; for his highest task is, of course, to have his heroes speak our language of passion, and exhibit what is characteristic in them, in such vital expressions as are intelligible to every period, because, in every time they are possible and conceivable.
Thus the color of the piece is visible in the endowment of language, in the characters, in the details of the action. What the poet communicates to his play by color, is as little an imitation of reality, as his heroes are,—it is free creation. But this accessory helps so much the more to conjure up a picture in the imagination of the hearer, which has the beautiful appearance of historic truth, the more earnestly the poet has taken it upon himself to master the real circumstances of that old time, if he does not lack the power of reproducing what he perceived to be attractive.