Page images
PDF
EPUB

SECOND LECTURE.

Theatrical Effect. Importance of the Drama as a Vehicle of Doctrines. Principal

Dramatic Species. Essence of Tragic and Comic. Earnest and Sport. How far Acquaintance with the Ancients attainable without Knowledge of the original Languages. Plan of the following Lectures on Ancient Drama.

From this cursory survey of the chart, as it were, of Dramatic Literature, we return to our investigation of the fundamental conceptions. Since the very form of the Drama implies, as we before said, the visible representation, and the Drama rests its pretensions there, a dramatical composition may always be regarded from a twofold point of view, how far is it poetical, and how far theatrical. The one consideration can very well be separated from the other. Let not the expression poetical be misunderstood : I do not speak of the versification and ornaments of diction—these, in themselves, and without a higher principle of animation, are precisely the things that tell least upon the stage—but I speak of the poetry in the spirit and general design of the composition, and this may exist in a high degree though the Drama be written in prose, as well as the

Now what makes a Drama poetical ? doubtless the same as does works in other departments. First it must be a connected, independent, satisfactory whole. But then this is only the negative definition of a work of art, whereby such a work is distinguished from the phenomena of Nature, whose character it is to run out into each other without clearly-marked boundaries and subsistence of their own. To be poetical, it is requisite that there be ideas, that is to say, such thoughts and feelings as are necessary and of eternal truth, transcending our earthly existence, which ideas the work must reflect from itself as from a mirror, and typically bring the same to view. What these ideas ought to be and may be, in the different species of the Drama, will be the subject of our investigation in the sequel; and on the other hand, we shall also show how the absence of these ideas makes a drama a mere prosaic and empirical thing, that is to say, a thing made up by the calculating understanding from the observation of literal realities.

converse.

But what makes a dramatic work theatrical, that is, adapted to appear with advantage on the stage? Whether it possesses this property is often difficult to say in the individual case. Especially there is apt to be much debating to and fro upon this point, when the self-love of author and actor mixes itself up with the question ; each shifts upon the other the blame of failure, and he who advocates the cause of the poet appeals to a perfection of theatrical and histrionic art, which he has in the conceptions of his own mind, and the means of realizing which are just not in existence. But to answer the question in general is not so difficult. The problem is, to work upon an assembled multitude, to keep their attention on the stretch, to excite their sympathy. The poet, therefore, has one part of his occupation in common with the public speaker. In what way does the latter chiefly attain his end? By clearness, rapidity, and emphasis. All that exceeds the ordinary measure of patience and comprehension he must diligently avoid. Further, when many people are congregated together, they mutually dissipate each other's attention, so long as eye and ear are not drawn to a common goal beyond their own company. Therefore the dramatic poet, as well as the public speaker, must, from the very commencement, by strong impressions, transport his audience out of themselves; he must command their attention in a bodily shape, as it were. There is a kind of poetry

. which gently stirs a mind attuned to contemplation, much as soft breezes call forth accords from the Æolian harp. Such poetry, however excellent in itself, would, but for other concomitants, die away into silence on the stage. The liquid tones of the harmonica are not calculated to time and invigorate the tramp of an army. This needs ear-piercing instruments, but above all a strong rhythm, quickening the pulse, and propelling the animal life into more rapid circulation. To make this rhythm perceptible in the onward progress of a drama, is the main thing required. Let the poet once effect this, and then he may all the sooner pause in his swift career and follow the bent of his own genius. There are points in a drama, when the most elaborate and polished

a

narrative, the most enthusiastic lyrics, the most profound thoughts and recondite allusions, the most ingenious play of wit, the most brilliant freaks of an airy antick fancy, are quite in their place, and the attuned audience, even such of them as cannot comprehend it all, shall listen to all this with eager ear, even as to a piece of music that is in unison with their tone of mind. Here the poet's great art is to avail himself of the effect of opposites, which makes it possible to produce reposeful stillness, abstracted reflection, even negligent self-abandonment of exhaustion, as decidedly as the most impetuous emotion, the most violent storm of the passions. In respect of theatrical capability, however, it must not be forgotten that something must always depend on the aptitude and propensities of the audience, and therefore varies in different nations and according to the existing grade of mental culture. Dramatic poetry is in some sense the most secular of all kinds; for it is not afraid to issue forth from the stillness of a rapt spirit into the most bustling stir of social life. The dramatic poet, more than any other, is obliged to court outward favour and loud applause. Of course, he must thus demean himself to his audience only in appearance, while in reality he is elevating them to his own ground.

In this working upon a congregated multitude the following circumstance deserves to be weighed, in order to discern that working in its full importance. In common intercourse men show each other only their outside. Mistrust or indifference withhold them from revealing to others what is within; and to speak, with any emotion and agitation, of what lies nearest our heart, would not befit the tone of polished society. The public speaker and the dramatic poet find means to break through these barriers of conventional habitual reserve. By reason of their transporting their hearers into such lively emotions that the outward signs thereof involuntarily break forth, each perceives the rest to be touched even as himself, and thus they who until now were strangers, suddenly become for the moment confidential intimates. The tears which the orator or the playwright constrains them to shed for calumniated innocence, for a hero going to death, form between them all a bond of friendship, of brotherhood. It is incredible what power there is in the visible communion of numbers to invigorate a heartfelt emotion which otherwise usually withdraws itself into privacy, or reveals itself

a

only in the confidence of intimacy. The faith in its truth and validity is rendered irrefragable by its diffusion; we feel ourselves strong among so many who share it with us, and all hearts and minds flow together into one great irresistible stream. But upon this very account the privilege of working upon an assembled multitude is exposed to perilous abuses.

As one may disinterestedly kindle their affections for what is good and noble, so another may entangle them in the nets of sophistry, and dazzle them by the glare of a false magnanimity, whose vainglorious crimes are depicted as virtue, nay, as devotion. Beneath the pleasing garb of oratory and poetry, corruption steals imperceptibly into ear and heart. But of all others, the comic poet needs to be on his guard, (seeing that by reason of his very task and destination he grazes upon the edge of this precipice,) lest he authorise the common and base elements of human nature to display themselves with unblushing effrontery. When once the sense of shame, which ordinarily keeps the baser part of our nature within the bounds of decency, is broken down by the sight of others' participation even in these ignoble appetites, complacent approbation of what is vile will soon break loose with unbridled audacity.

This power of indoctrination in good and evil has from of old (as meet it was) attracted to the Drama the attention of the legislature. Governments have sought to bend it to their objects and to guard it from abuse. Here the problem is, to reconcile that unconstrained freedom which is essential to the welfare of art and poetry, with those regards which are called for by the existing frame of government and morals. In Athens the theatre, under the patronage of religion, reached its maturity in almost unlimited freedom, and the public morality preserved it for a time from degeneracy. The inconceivably licentious comedies (as we should call them) of Aristophanes, in which the government and the people itself were unmercifully turned to ridicule, were the seal of Athenian popular freedom. Plato, on the contrary, who lived in this same Athens, and beheld the decline and fall of the art before his eyes, or at least at no great distance, was for banishing the dramatic poets altogether from his ideal republic. Few governments have deemed it necessary to subscribe to this severe sentence of excommunication; but few have seen fit to leave the theatre entirely to its own courses without any supervisal on their part. Indeed where it has been thought necessary to exercise this precaution in a previous censorship of the productions offered to be exhibited on the stage, and not merely by leaving author and actor to a subsequent responsibility, the test is hardest to apply precisely where it would be of the greatest importance, namely, to the spirit and total impression of the composition. The nature of the dramatic art requires the poet to put many sentiments into the mouths of his characters, which he nowise means to express his own approbation of; he desires to be judged in respect of his own sentiments by the context of his work as a whole. It may be that a play, tested by the several speeches, shall be quite inoffensive, and come off scatheless from all examination that goes no further than that, while, as a whole, its tendency and design are pernicious. We have lived to see, in our own times, abundance of plays—and they have had great success throughout Europe- overflowing with the ebullitions of a “good heart” and abounding in strokes of generosity, while nevertheless a keener eye cannot fail to detect the author's disguised purpose of undermining the strictness of moral principle and the reverence for all that ought to be sacred to man, the sentimentality being but a means of bribing to himself the languid soft-heartedness of his contemporaries. On the other hand, whoever would undertake the moral vindication of poor ill-famed Aristophanes, must insist upon the general scope and design of his productions, in which he approves himself at least a right-minded citizen and true patriot.

[merged small][ocr errors][merged small]

So much concerning the importance of our object. And now a few cursory remarks upon the two contrasted species into which dramatic poetry divides itself—the tragic and the comicand the notion upon which each is grounded.

The three principal kinds of poetry in general are the epic, lyric, and dramatic. All the other subordinate species are either deducible from one of these, or may be explained as a mixture of them. If we would apprehend those three leading kinds in their purity, let us go back to the form in which they manifest themselves among the Greeks. The theory is most easily applied to the history of Grecian poetry: for the latter is, so to speak, systematic; for every conception

« PreviousContinue »