1902 Encyclopedia > Drama > Drama - Introduction

(Part 1)

Drama - Introduction

Drama (from drao [Gk.]), signifies action. The term is applied to compositions which imitate action by representing the personages introduced in them as real and as employed in the action itself. The varieties of the drama differ more or less widely, both as to the objects imitated and as to the means used in the imitation. But they all agree as to the method or manner which is essential to the dramatic art, viz., imitation in the way of action.

The desire to give expression to feelings and conceptions is inseparable from human nature. Man expresses his thoughts and emotions by gesture and by speech, or by a combination of both ; and these expressions he soon learns in the society of other men—after ore especially on joyous or solemn occasions—to vary or regulate in dance and song. Another way of expression, often combined with the other, is imitation. To imitate, says Aristotle, is instinctive in man from his infancy ; and from all men naturally receive pleasure. Gesture and voice are means of imitation common to all human beings ; and the aid of some sort of dress and decoration is generally within the reach of children, and to the childhood of nations. The assumption of character, whether real or fictitious, is therefore the earliest step towards the drama. But it is only a preliminary step ; nor is the drama itself reached till the imitation extends to action.

Action, which man is not wont to attribute (except figuratively) to any but members of his own species and to the superior Being or beings in whose existence and power he believes, implies an operation of the will and an execution of its resolution, whether or not amounting to a fulfillment of its purpose. It implies a procedure from cause to result. Action must therefore present itself to the human mind as having its source in a human or superhuman will. Every imitation of action by is in germ a drama. But to this point not all notions have advanced. After this step has been taken, it only remains for the drama to assume a form regulated by literature, of which art it thus becomes a branch. We may then speak of a dramatic literature ; but this only a limited number of nations has come to possess. A nation may, however, have a drama without a dramatic literature ; it may even continue in possession of the former after having ceased to cultivate the latter. On the other hand, both before and after the drama of a nation has assumed a literary form, it may allow one or more of its adventitious elements—music, dancing decoration—predominately to assert themselves, and thus eventually to bring about the formation of new, or the revival of disused, dramatic species. But as a branch of literature the drama necessarily includes speech among its means of imitation; and its beginnings as such are accordingly, in the history of all literatures know to us, preceded by the beginnings at least of other forms of poetic composition, the lyric and the epic, or by those of one of these forms at all events. It is in the combination of both that the drama in its literary form takes its origin in the case of all national civilizations in which it has found a place and with which we are more than superficially acquainted.

The art of acting is the indispensable adjunct of the dramatic art, while the aid of all other arts is merely an accident. But though really inseparable from one another, the courses of the dramatic and the histrionic arts do not at all times run parallel. The actor is only the temporary interpreter of the dramatist, though he may occasionally be left to supply some of the proper functions of his text giver. On his side, the dramatist may in practice, though he cannot in theory, dispense with the actor’s interpretation ; but though the term literary drama is sometimes used of works kept apart from the stage, it is in truth a misnomer, since, properly speaking, no drama is such till it is acted.

The whole body of the laws and rules of the drama, could it be written down with completeness, would indicate, together with the ends proper to the art, the means by which it is able to accomplish them. But neither the great authorities of dramatic theory—an Aristotle or a Lessing—nor the resolute apologists of more or less transitory fashions—a Corneille or a Dryden—have exhausted the exposition of the means which the drama has proved or may prove capable of employing. The multitude of technical terms and formulae which has gathered round the practice of the art has at no time seriously interfered with the operation of creative power, whose inventive activity the existence of accepted systems has frequently—in the Greek drama, for instance, and in the Spanish—served to stimulate. On the other hand, it is self-evident that no dramaturgic theory has ever given rise to a single dramatic work of enduring value, unless the creative force was there to animate the form.

The task of this creative force begins with the beginnings of the dramatist’s labours. For it is in the dramatic idea that the germ of the action of a play lies—not in the subject, which is merely its dead material. The story of the Scottish thane as it stood written in the chronicle, is the subject, not the action, of Macbeth. To convert a subject—whatever its kind or source—into, the action or fable of a play is the primary task, which in its progressive development becomes the entire task, of the dramatist ; and though the conception may expand or modify itself with the execution, yet upon the former the latter depends. The range of subjects open to a dramatist may be wide as the world itself, or it may be limited by usage, by imperious fashion, by the tastes and tendencies of a nation or an age, by the author’s own range of sympathies, by a thousands restrictions of an historical, moral, or aesthetical origin ; it may be virtually confined (as with the earlier Greek tragedians) to a body of legend, or (as with the English comedians of the Restoration) to the social experiences of a particular epoch. But in all cases the transformation of the subject into the action is equally indispensable ; and an imperfect transformation in (as in the old Chronicle Histories0 the work of a rude, or (as ninetynine our of a hundred modern plays "founded upon fact") that of a careless method of dramatic production.

What, then, are the laws which determine the nature of all actions properly such, however they may vary either in subjects or in form? In the first place, a dramatic action must possess unity—and this requirement at once distinguishes it from the subject which has suggested its idea. The events of real life, the facts of history, the incidents of narrative fiction, are like the waves of a ceaseless flood ; that which binds a group or body of them into a single action is the bond of the dramatic idea, and this it is which the dramatist has to supply. Within the limits of a dramatic action all its parts claim to be connected together as contributions to a single stream ; and upon the degree in which they are true to this purpose their primary dramatic significance depends. The unity of action which a drama should possess, therefore, means that everything in it should form a link in a single chain of cause and efforts. This law is incumbent upon every kind of drama—alike upon the tragedy which solves the problems of a life, and upon the farce which sums up the follies of an afternoon.

Such is not, however, the case with certain rules which have at different time been set up for this or that kind of drama, but which have no absolute validity for any kind. The supposed necessity that an action should consist of one event is an erroneous interpretation of the law that it should be, as an action, one. For an event is but an element in an action, though it may be an element of decisive moment. The assassination of Ceasar is not the action of Caesar tragedy ; the loss of his treasure is not the action of The Miser. Again, unity of action does not exclude the introduction of one or even more subsidiary actions as contributing to the main action. The sole in-dispensable law is that these should always be treated as what they are—subsidiary only ; and herein lies the difficulty, which Shakespeare so successfully overcame, of solving a combination of subjects into the idea of a single action ; herein also lies the danger in the use of that favourite device of the modern drama—bye or under-plots. On the other hand, a really double or multiple action, logically carried out as such, is inconceivable in a single drama, though there is many a play which is palpably only two plays knotted into one. Every one is familiar with the dramatist who towards the drop of the curtain seems to be counting on his fingers whom he has killed or what couples he has to marry. Thirdly, unity of action need not unity of hero—for (or heroine) is merely a term signifying the principal personage of the action. And inasmuch as an action may consist in the joint contention of more than one will against the same obstacle—as in the instance of The Seven against Thebes, or Romeo and Juliet—it is only when the change in the degree of interest excited by different in a play results from a change in the conception of the action itself, that the consequent duality (or multiplicity) of heroes recalls a faulty uncertainty in the conception of the action they carry on. Such is the objection applying to the crucial case of Schiller’s Don Carlos. Lastly, the entirely arbitrary exactions of unity of time and of place are not, like that of unity of action, absolute dramatic laws. Their object is by representing an action as visibly continuous to render its unity more distinctly or easily perceptible ; but the effect of their observance cannot be to render it more really one. Thus they may in one sense to regarded as devices to avoid the difficulty experienced by the human mind in regarding an action as one when the eye beholds its different places, or when the process of its advance from cause to effect extends over what is supposed to be a considerable period of time. But the imagination is capable of constructing for itself the bridges necessary to preserve to an action, conceived of as such, its character of continuousness. In another sense these rules were convenient usages conducing to a concise and clear treatment as actions of subjects in themselves of a limited nature ; for they were a Greek invention, and the repeated resort to the same group of myths made it expedient for a Greek poet to seek the subject of a single tragedy in a part only of one of the myths open to him. The observance of unity of place, moreover, was suggested to the Greeks by certain outward conditions of their stage—as assuredly as it was adopted by the French in accordance with the construction and usages of theirs, and as the neglect of it by the Elizabethans was in their case encourages by the established form of the English scene. The palpable artificiality of these laws needs no demonstration, so long as the true meaning of the term action be kept in view. Of the action of Othello part takes place at Venice and part at Cyprus and yet whole is one in itself ; while the limits of time over which an action extends cannot be restricted by a revolution of the earth round the sun, or of the moon round the earth.

In a drama which presents its action as one, this action must be complete in itself. This law, like the first, distinguishes the dramatic action from its subject. The former may be said to have a real artistic, while the latter has only an imaginary real, completeness. The historian, for instance, aims indeed at a complete exposition of a body of events and transactions, and may even design to show their working to a definite end ; but he is aware that this aim can never be more than partially accomplished, since he may present only what he knows, and all human knowledge is partial. But art is limited by no such uncertainty. The dramatist, in treating an action as one, comprehends the whole of it in the form of his work, since to him who has conceived it, all its parts, from cause to effect, are equally clear. Accordingly, every drama should represent in organic sequence the several stages of which a complete action consists, and which are essential to it. This law of completeness therefore lies at the foundation of all systems of dramatic construction.

Every action, if conceived of as complete, has its causes, growth, height, consequences, and close. There is no binding law to prescribe the relative length at which these several stages in the action should be treated in a drama, or to enforce a more or less exact correspondence between the successive presentment of each, and technical divisions, such as acts, or scenes, which dramatic practice may find it convenient to adopt. Neither is there any law to assert any obligatory regulation of the treatment of such subsidiary actions as may be introduced in aid of the main plot, or of such more or less directly connected episodes which may at the same time advance and relieve its progress. But experience, as the parent of usage, has necessary from time to time established certain rules of practice, from which the dramatist, working under customary forms, will find it neither easy, nor in most cases advantageous, to swerve too widely ; and from the adoption of particular systems of division for particular species of the drama—such as that into five acts for a regular tragedy or comedy, which Roman examples has caused to be so largely followed—has naturally resulted a certain uniformity of relation between the conduct of an action and the outward sections of a play. Essentially, however, there is no difference between the laws regulating the construction of a Sophoclean or Shakespearean tragedy, a comedy of Molière or Congreve, and a well-built modern farce. And this, because all exhibit an action complete in itself.

The introduction or exposition forms an integral part of the action, and is therefore to be distinguished from prologue in the more ordinary sense of the term, which, like the epilogue (or the Greek parabasis), stands outside the action, and is a mere address to the public from author or actor occasioned by the play. Prologue and epilogue, greatly as they may have at times contributed to the success of a drama, are mere external adjuncts, and have as little to do with the construction of a play as the bill which announces it, or the musical prelude which disposes the mind for its reception. The introduction or exposition belongs to the action itself ; it is, as the Hindu critics called it, the seed or circumstance from which the business arises. Clearness being its primary requisite, many expedients have been at various times adopted to secure this feature. Thus, the Euripidean prologue, though spoken by one of the characters of the play, takes a narrative form, and places itself half without, half within the action of which it properly is part. The same purpose is served by the separate inductions in many of our old English plays, and the preludes or prologues, or by whatever name they may call themselves, in numberless modern dramas of all kinds—from Faust down to the favourites of the Ambigu and the Adelphi. Another such expedient is that of the inductive dumb-shows, which sought to secure rapidity together with impressiveness of exposition by the process of pantomimic summary. Such, again, are the opening scenes in French tragedy between hero and confidant, and those in French comedy and its derivatives between observant valet and knowing lady’s maid. But it is clear how all such expedients may be rendered unnecessary by the art of the dramatist, who is able outwardly also to present the introduction of his action as what it is—an organic part of that action itself ; who seems to take the spectators in medias res while he is really building the foundations of his plot ; who can dramatically account for an Iliad of woes without going back to Leda’s egg ; who touches in the opening of his action the chord which is to vibrate throughout its course—"Down with the Capulets! Down with the Montagues !" "—"With the Moor, sayest thou?"

The introduction ends with the opening of the movement of the action, a passage which it may prove highly effective to mark with the utmost distinctness (as in Hamlet, where it is clearly to be sought in the actual meeting between the hero and the ghost), but which in other instances is advantageously marked by the insertion of subsidiary action or episode (as in King Lear, where the opening of the movement of the main action would follow too sharply upon its exposition, were not the beginning of the subsidiary action of Gloster and his sons opportunely introduced between them). From this point the second stage of the action—its growth—progress to that third stage which is called its height or climax. All that has preceded the reaching of this constitutes that half of the drama—usually its much larger half—which Aristotle terms the desis [Gk.], or tying of the knot. The varieties in the treatment of the growth or second stage of the action are infinite, and it is here that the masters of the tragic and the comic drama—notably those unequalled weavers of intrigues, the Spaniards—are able most fully to exercise their inventive faculties. If the growth is too rapid, the climax will fail of its effect—and it is, therefore, at this stage that subsidiary actions and episodes are most largely used ; if it is too slow, the interest will be exhausted before the greatest demand upon it has been made—a fault to which comedy is specially liable ; if it is involved or inverted, a vague uncertainty will take the place of an eager or agreeable suspense, the action will seem to halt, or a fall will begin prematurely. In the contrivance of the climax itself lies one of the chief the contrivance of the climax itself lies one of the chief tests of the dramatist’s art ; for while in the transactions of real life their climax only a matter of assumption, in the action of a drama its climax should present itself as self-evident. In the middle of everything, says the Greek poet, lies the strength ; and the strongest or highest point it is the task of the dramatist to make manifest. Much here depends upon the niceties of constructive instinct ; much (as in all parts of the action) upon a thorough dramatic transformation of the subject. The historical drama here presents peculiar difficulties, and perhaps the example of Henry VIII., as compared with Shakespeare’s other historical plays, may be held to furnish an instructive example of defective (because hasty) workmanship.

From the climax, or height, the action proceeds through its fall to its close, which in a drama with an unhappy ending we still call its catastrophe, while to terminations in general we apply the term dénouement. This latter name would, however, more properly be used in the sense in which Aristotle employs its Greek equivalent lusis [Gk.]—the untying of the knot—of the whole of the second part of the action, from the climax downwards. If, in the management of the climax, everything depended upon making the effects, in the fall everything depends upon not marring it. This may be ensured by a rapid progress to the close ; but neither does every action admit of such treatment, nor is it in accordance with the character of those actions which are of a complicated kind. With the latter, therefore, the fall is often a return—i.e., in Aristotle’s phrase, a change into the reverse of what is expected from the circumstances of the action (peripeteia [Gk.]),--as in Coriolanus, where the Roman story lends itself so admirably to dramatic demands. In any case the art of the dramatist is in this part of his work called upon for the surest exercise of its tact and skill. The effect of the climax has been to concentrate the interest ; the fall must therefore, above all, avoid dissipating it. The use of episodes is not even now excluded ; but they must be of a more directly significant kind than is necessary in the earlier stages of the drama ; even where serving the purpose of relief they must help to keep alive the interest previously raised to its highest pitch. This may be effected by a return or revolution ; or again, by the raising of obstacles between the height of the action and its expected consequences, by the suggestion in tragedy of a seemingly recovery or escape from them (as in the wonderfully powerful construction of the latter part of Macbeth), by the gradual removal in comedy, or wherever the interest of the action is less intense, of such difficulties as the growth and climax have occasioned. In all kinds of the drama discovery will remain, as it was in the judgment of Aristotle, a most effective expedient ; but it should be a discovery which has been foreshadowed by that method of treatment which in its consummate master, Sophocles, has been termed his irony. Nowhere should the close or catastrophe be other than a consequence of the action itself. Sudden revulsions from the conditions of the action—such as the dues ex machina, or the revising officer of the emperor of China, or the nabob returned from India bring about—condemn themselves as unsatisfactory makeshifts. However sudden, and even, in manner of accomplishment, surprising, may be the catastrophe, it should not be unprepared, but like every other part of the action should preserve it organic connection with the whole. The sudden suicides which terminate so many tragedies, and the paternal blessings which close an equal number of comedies, should be something more than a signal for the fall of the curtain.

The action of a drama, besides being one and complete in itself, ought likewise to be probable. The probability required of a drama is not that of actual or historical experience—it is a conditional probability, or in other words the consistency of the course of the action with the conditions under which, and with the characters by which, the dramatist has chosen to carry it on. As to the former, he is fettered by no restrictions save those which he imposes upon himself, whether or not in deference to the usages of certain accepted species of dramatic composition. Ghosts appear neither in real life nor in dramas of real life ; but the introduction of supernatural agency is neither enjoined nor prohibited by any general dramatic law. The use of such expedients is as open to the dramatic as to any other poet ; the judiciousness of his use of them depends upon the effect which, consistently with the general conduct of his action, they will upon the spectator, whom other circumstances may or may not predispose to their acceptance. The ghost in Hamlet belongs to the action of the play ; the Persae is not intrinsically less probable, but the apparition seems to spring, so to speak, less naturally out of the atmosphere around it. Dramatic probability, a far deeper meaning than this. The Eumenides is probable with all its primitive mysteriousness, and Macbeth with all its barbarous witchcraft. The proceedings of the feathered builders of Cloudcuckootown are as true to dramatic probability as are the pranks of Oberon’s fairies. In other words, it is in the consistency of the action with the characters, and of the characters with themselves, that this dramatic probability lies. The dramatist has to represent characters affected by the progress of an actions in a particular way, and contributing to it in a particular way, because, if consistent with themselves they must be so affected, and must so act.

Upon the invention and conduct of his characters the dramatist must therefore expend a great proportion of his labour. His treatment of them will, in at least as high a degree as his choice of subject, conception of action, and method of construction, determine the effect which his work produces. And while there are aspects of the dramatic art under which its earlier history already exhibits as unsurpassed degree of perfection, there is none under which its advance is more perceptible than this. Many causes have contributed to this result ; the chief is to be sough in the multiplication of the opportunities for mankind’s study of man. The theories of the Indian critics on the subject of dramatic character are a scaffolding more elaborate than the edifice it surrounds. Aristotle’s remarks on the subject are scanty ; and it may be unhesitatingly asserted that the strength of the dramatic literature from whose examples be abstracted his maxims is not to be sought in the fullness or variety of its characterization. This relative deficiency the outward condition of the Greek theatre—the remoteness of actor from spectator, and the consequent necessity for the use of masks, and for the raising and therefore conventionalizing of the tones of the voice—undoubtedly helped to occasion. Later Greek and Roman comedy, with a persistency furnishing a remarkable illustration of the force of habit, limited their range of characters to accepted gallery of types. Nor is it easy to ignore the fact that these examples, and the influence of national tendencies of mind and temperament, have inclined the dramatists of the Romance nations to attach less importance to characterization of a closer and more varied kind than to interest of action and effectiveness of construction. The Italian and the Spanish drama more especially, and the French during a great part of its history, have in general shown a disposition to present their characters, as it were, ready made—whether in the case of tragic heroes and heroines, or in that of comic types, often moulded according to a long-lived system of local or national selection. It is in the Germanic drama, and in its master Shakespeare above all, that the individualization of characters has been carried to its furthest point, and that their significance has been allowed to work itself out in closest connection with the progress of the dramatic action to which they belong.

But, however the method and scope of characterization may vary under the influence of different historical epochs and different tendencies or tastes of races or nations, the laws of this branch of the dramatic art are everywhere based on the same essential requirements. What interests us in man or woman in real life, or in impression we form of historical personages, is that which seems to us to individualize them. As dramatic character must therefore, whatever, its part in the action, be sufficiently marked in its distinctive features to interest the imagination ; with these its subsequent conduct must be consistent, and to these its participation in the action must correspond. In order that such should be the result, the dramatist first have distinctly conceived the character, whatever may have suggested it to him. If, for instance, he has taken it as the phrase is, from history or from contemporary life, he must transform it, just as he must transform the subject of the action into the action itself. His task is not to paint a copy of nay particular man, but to conceive a kind of man—of which a particular individual may have occurred to him as a suggestive illustration—under the operation of particular circumstances. His conception, growing and modifying itself with the progress of that of that action, will determine the totality of the character he creates. The likeness the result bears to an actual or historical personage may very probably, from secondary points of view, concern the success of his creation ; upon its dramatic effect his likeness can have no influence whatever. In a different sense from that in which Shakespeare used the words, it should be possible to say of every dramatic character which it is sought to identify with an actual personage, "This is not the man." The mirror of the drama is not a photographic apparatus.

Distinctiveness, as the primary requisite in dramatic characterization, is to be demanded in the case of all personages introduced into a dramatic action, but not in all cases in an equal degree. Schiller, in adding to the dramatis personae of his Fiesco superscriptions of their chief characteristics, labels Sacco as "an ordinary person," and this suffices for Sacco. Between Bassanio’s two unsuccessful rivals in the trial of the caskets there is difference enough for the dramatic purpose of their existence. But with the great masters of characterization a few touches, of which the true actor’s art known how to avail itself, distinguish even their lesser characters from one another ; and every man is in his humour down to the third citizen. Elaboration is necessarily reserved for characters who are the more important contributors to the action, and the fullness of elaboration for its heroes. Many expedients may lend their and to the higher degree of distinctiveness. In characters designed to influence the whole of the action it must be marked early, in others in due relation to their contribution towards the course of the plot. Much is gained by a significant introduction of hero or heroine,—so Antigone is dragged in by the watchman, Gloucester enters alone upon the scene, Volpone is discovered in adoration of his golden saint. Nothing marks character more clearly than the use of contrast—as of Othello with Iago, of Octavio with Max Piccolomini, of Joseph with Charles Surface. Nor is direct antithesis the only effective kind of contrast ; Cassius is a foil to Brutus, and Leonora to her namesake the Princess. But besides impressing the imagination as a conception distinct in itself, each character must maintain a consistency between its conduct in the action and the feature it has established as its own. This consistency does not imply uniformity ; for, as Aristotle observes, there are characters which, to be represented with uniformity, must be presented as uniformly un-uniform. Of such consistently complex characters the great critic cites no instances, nor indeed are they of frequent occurrence in Greek tragedy ; in the modern drama, Hamlet is their unrivalled exemplar ; and Weislingen in Goethe’s Götz, and Alceste in the Misanthrope, may be mentioned as other illustrations in dramas widely different from one another. It should be added that those dramatic literatures which freely admit of a mixture of the serious with the comic element thereby enormously increase the opportunities of varied characterization. The difficulty of the task at the same time enhances the effect resulting from its satisfactory solution ; and if the conception of a character is found to bear a variety of tests resembling that which experience shows life to have at hand for every man, its naturalness, as we term it, becomes more obvious to the imagination. Naturalness is only another word for what Aristotle terms propriety ; the artificial rules by which usage has at times sought to define particular species of character are in their origin only a convenience of the theatre, though they have largely helped to conventionalized dramatic characterization. Lastly, a character should be directly effective with regard to the dramatic action in which it takes part,—that is to say, the influence it exerts upon the progress of the action should correspond to its distinctive features, the conduct of the play should seem to spring from the nature of its characters. Hence even the minor characters should not idly intervene, and, before they intervene significantly, we should be prepared by some previous notion of them. The chief characters, on the other hand, should predominate over or determine the course of the action ; its entire conception should harmonize with their distinctive features ; it is only a Prometheus whom the gods bind fast to a rock, only a Juliet who will venture into a living death fro her Romeo. Thus in a sense chance is excluded from dramatic action, or rather, like every other in it, bends to the dramatic idea. And in view of the predominance of character over action, we may appropriately use such expression as a tragedy of love or jealousy or ambition, or a comedy of character—by which is merely meant one whose preponderating interest lies in the effectiveness with which its conduct impresses upon the mind the conception of its chief character or characters.

The term manners (as employed in a narrower sense than the Aristotelian) applied to that which colours both action and characters, but does not determine the essence of either. As exhibiting human agents under certain conditions of time and place, and of the various relations of community existing or conceivable among men, the action of a drama, together with the characters engaged in it and the incidents and circumstances belonging to it, must be more or less suited to the external conditions assumed. From the assumption of some such conditions not even those dramatic species which indulge in the most sovereign licence, such as Old Attic comedy or burlesque in general, can wholly emancipate themselves ; and even supernatural characters and actions must adapt themselves to some antecedents. But it depends altogether on the measure in which the nature of an action and the development of its characters are affected by considerations of time and place, or of temporary social systems and the transitory distinctions they produce, whether the imitation of a particular kind of manners becomes a significant element in a particular play. What is of vanishing importance in one may be an adjunct of inestimable value in another. The Hindu caste-system is an antecedent of every Hindu drama, and the particular organization of Chinese society of nearly of every Chinese with which we are acquainted. Greek tragedy itself, though treating subjects derived from no historic age, had established a standard of manners from which in its decline it did not depart with impunity. The imitation of manners of a particular age or country may or may not be of moment in a play. The conjuncture of the Crusades is merely a felicitous choice for the time of action of Nathan the Wise ; but the dramatic conflict of Minna von Barnhelm derives half its life from the background of the Seven Year’s War. In some dramas, and in some species of drama, time and place are so purely imaginary and so much a matter of indifference that the adoption of a purely conventional standard of manners, or at least the exclusion of any definitely fixed one, is here desirable. The ducal reign of Theseus at Athens (when ascertained) does not date A Midsummer Night’s Dream ; nor do the coasts of Bohemia localize the manners of the customer of Autolycus. Where, on the other hand, as more especially in the historic drama, or in that kind of comedy which directs its shafts against the ridiculous vices of a particular age or country, the likeness of the manners represented to what is more or less known possesses significance, there the dramatist will use care in his colouring. How admirably is the French court specialized in Henry V., how completely are we transplanted among the burgers of Brussels in the opening scenes of Egmont! What a picture of a clique we have in the Précieuses redicules of Molière ; what a reproduction of a class in the pot-house politicians of Holberg! Yet even in such instances the dramatist will only use what suits his dramatic purpose ; he will select, not transfer in mass, historic features, and discriminate in his use of modern instances. The details of historic fidelity, and the lesser shades distinguishing the varieties of social usage, he will introduce at his choice, or leave to be supplied by the actor. Where the reproduction of manners becomes the primary purpose of a play, its effect can only be of an inferior kind ; and a drama purely of manners is a contradiction in terms.

No complete system of dramatic species can be abstracted from any one dramatic literature. They are often the result of particular antecedents, and their growth is often affected by peculiar conditions. Different nations or ages use the same name, and may preserve some of the same rules, for species which in other respects their usage may have materially modified from that of their neighbours or predecessors. Who would undertake to define, except in their successive applications, such terms as tragic-comedy or melodrama? Yet this does not imply that all is confusion in the terminology as to the species of the drama. In so far as they are distinguishable according to the effects which their actions, or those which the preponderating parts of their actions, produce, they may primarily be ranged in accordance with the broad difference established by Aristotle between tragedy and comedy. Tragic and comic effect differ in regard to the emotions of the mind which they excite ; and a drama is tragic or comic according as such effects are produced by it. The strong or serious emotions are alone capable of exercising upon us that influence which, employing a bold but marvelously happy figure, Aristotle termed purification, and which a Greek comedian, after a more matter-of-fact fashion, thus expressed:

"For whensoe’er a man observes his fellow
Bear wrongs more grievous than himself has known,
More easily he bears his own misfortunes;"

ie., the petty troubles of self which disturb without elevating the mind are driven out by the sympathetic participation in greater griefs, which raises while it excites the mind employed upon contemplating them. It is to these emotions—which are and can be no others than pity and terror—that actions and characters which we call tragic appeal. These which we term comic address themselves to the sense of the ridiculous, and their subjects are those vices and moral infirmities, the representation of which is capable of touching the springs of laughter. Where, accordingly, a drama excludes all effects excepts those of the former class, it may be called a pure tragedy ; when all except those of the latter, a pure comedy. In those dramas where the effects are mixed, it is the nature of the main action and of the main characters (as determined by their distinctive features) which alone enables us to classify such plays as serious or humorous dramas—or as tragic or comic, if we choose to preserve the terms. But the classification admits of a variety of transitions, from pure tragedy to mixed, from mixed, from tragedy to mixed comedy, and thence to pure comedy and her slighter sister farce. This method of distinction has no concern with the mere question of the termination of a play, according to which Philostratus and other authorities have sought to distinguish between tragic and comic dramas. The serious drama which ends happily (the German Schauspiel) is not a species co-ordinate with tragedy and comedy, but only one subordinate to the former, if, indeed, it be necessary to distinguish it as a species at all. Other distinctions may be almost infinitely varied according to the point of view adopted for the classification.

The historical sketch of the drama attempted in the following pages will best serve to indicate the successive growth of national dramatic species, may of which by asserting their influence in other countries and ages than those which gave birth to them, have acquired a more than national significance.

The art of acting, whose history forms an organic though a distinct part of that of the drama, necessarily possesses a theory and a technical system of its own. But into these it is impossible here to enter. One claim, however, should be vindicated for the art of acting, viz., that though it is a dependent art, and most signally so in its highest forms, yet its true exercise implies a creative process. The conception of a character is determined by antecedents not of the actor’s own making ; and the term originality can be applied to it only in a relative sense. Study and reflection enable him, with the aid of experience and of the intuition which genius bestows, but which experience may in a high degree supply, to interpret, to combine, and to supplement given materials. But in the transformation of the conception into the represented character the actor’s functions are really creative ; for here he becomes the characters by means which belong to his art alone. The distinctiveness he gives to the character by making the principal features recognized by him in it its groundwork ;—the consistency which he maintains in it between groundwork and details ;—the appropriateness which he preserves in it to the course of the action and the part borne in it by the character :—all these are produced by himself, though suggested by the conception he has derived from his materials. As to the means at hid disposal, they are essentially of two kinds only ; but not all forms of the drama have admitted of the use of both, or of both in the same completeness. All acting includes the use of gesture, or, as it has been more comprehensively termed, of bodily eloquence. From various points of view its laws regulate the actor’s bearing, walk, and movements of face and limbs. They teach what is aesthetically permitted and what is aesthetically pleasing. They deduce from observation what is appropriate to the expressions of particular affections of the mind and of their combinations, of emotions and passions, of physical and mental conditions—joy and grief, health and sickness, waking, sleeping, and dreaming, madness, collapse, and death—of particular ages of life and temperaments, as well as of the distinctive characteristics of race, nationality, or class. While under certain conditions—as in the masked drama—the use of bodily movement as one of the means of expression has at times been partially restricted, there have been, or are, forms of the drama which have altogether excluded the use of speech (such as pantomime), or restricted the manner of its employment (such as opera). In the spoken drama the laws of rhetoric regulate the actor’s use of speech, but under conditions of a special nature. Like the orator, he has to follow the laws of pronunciation, modulation, accent, and rhythm (the last in certain kinds of prose as well as in such forms of verse as he may be called to reproduce). But he has also to give his attention to the special laws of dramatic delivery, which vary in soliloquy and dialogue, and in much narrative or lyrical passages as may occur in his part.

The totality of the effect produced by the actor will in some degree depends upon other aids, among which those of a purely external kind will not be lost sight of. But the significance of costume in the actor, like that of decoration and scenery in an action, is a wholly relative one, and is to a large measure determined by the claims which custom enables the theatre to make, or forbids its making, upon the imagination of the spectators. The actor’s real achievement lies in it the transformation which the artist himself effects ; nor is there any art more sovereign in the use it can make of its means, or so happy in the directness of the results it can accomplish by them.

Read the rest of this article:
Drama - Table of Contents

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries