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of perfection that the identity of their genius was clearly revealed.
One cannot define pleasure, or name the difference between imaginative literature and realism; but it is easy to tell them apart. Imaginative work leaves us happy. But Ibsen and Tolstoy, and the modern heavy hewers of fiction, by whatever name they may call themselves, cloy the mind. Your true artist leaves behind an exhilaration and not a problem. He gives us brain-spun realities which have no function except to be apprehended by the brain. Such things on the stage will prove to be either comedy or tragedy; and sometimes they can be taken as either one or the other, according to one's mood. Many scenes throughout Shakespeare are both comic or tragic, as one may choose to think. In the “Merchant of Venice” the baffled rage of Shylock was staged as low comedy for a hundred and fifty years, till someone found out that the warp and woof of tragedy was in it. In “King Lear” Shakespeare has, here and there, mingled the two elements in one dialogue, in one conception, in one flash. The scheme of thought that runs behind his work is deeper than either tragedy or comedy. They are but parts of the masque that is danced in the foreground. The power that moves them lies behind and underneath the action.
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The plays have come down to us, and have held the boards for three hundred years, throughout all the changes in social life and stage usage. Their plots and characters live in the public mind as the Greek myths lived in the mind of a Greek audience; and half the playwright's work is thus done before the curtain rises. When first staged, they were hardly divided into scenes; but consisted of a mere stream of personages, costumed sufficiently to distinguish them from one another, mounted on a primitive staging in a small theatre, who recited their lines at a rate not very different from the pace of ordinary conversation. There was little to distract the mind of the audience from the text.
The whole Elizabethan drama shows plainly enough that the age was an age of naturalism tinctured by a passion for rant and bombast. It was a furious, riotous, tatterdemalion kind of drama, and the extreme length of many of the plays proves the rapidity with which the scenes must have followed one another. The Elizabethan theatre was a mill for grinding out stories, tales, adventures, historical incidents, novels, and romances. The plot and its outcome were what the audience cared for; not problems, not tableaux, not spectacles. Such things occur, to be sure, but they seem to be dragged along sideways in the rush of the story. The public was
so fond of stories that it would go to see boys act grown-up plays; not in the least because the audiences wished to encourage the drama or cared a farthing about the boys, but because of the excitement of the plots. No one to-day, except a student, would go twice to a veritable Shakespeare performance, if such a thing were possible. The chances are that we should find the old pronunciation hard to follow, and the place would seem to us like bedlam.
The plays have come down to us with a good deal of baggage which did n't belong to them originally, but which we cannot throw away en masse. The right staging of Shakespeare is a question of edging away from practices, whether ancient or modern, which obscure the effectiveness of the text. All the different devices that have been assembled must dissolve and disappear in the performance, showing not the stage, but the drama as it unrolled, not on a stage but in the mind of Shakespeare, who has given the best example to the rest of the troupe by disappearing himself.
That Shakespeare is overloaded with thought is indubitable, yet the very plays which are most overloaded with thought are the ones where the action moves most rapidly. The “Tempest,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” the “Merchant of Venice” hold the public to-day by their pristine appeal as stories. They hold it in spite of the fact that all the improvements in stage management since Shakespeare's time, whether in costume, lighting, enlargement of theatre decoration, music, or drop curtains, tend to delay the action and fix the attention of the audience on something besides the story.
You cannot keep Shakespeare off the stage. The plays veer toward the boards as ducks veer toward the water when passing a pond; and this lurch is felt, not only in the whole drift and action of a play, but in its scenes and incidents, its decorative passages, its dumb show. These dramas excite the dramatic ambitions of every reader, they create good actors, and they have maddened the bad ones in all ages. Little scenes cut out of them are thrilling if properly done; and the great speeches, soliloquies, and harangues are the best monologues in existence. No actor has ever given a final interpretation of any one of the great rôles. Even when they are murdered by bad actors, they come to life again, as true creatures of the stage should do. The rôles are so elastic and so theatrical that they encourage bad acting. Let a man point up the speeches and pause for applause, and he gets it.
There is much in all the Elizabethan dramas, including Shakespeare's own, which encourages rant. Exaggeration, whether of laughter or of tears, is a dramatic element. To tear a passion to tatters is a human need, and clowns have always “laughed themselves, in order to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh, too.” It is partly because Shakespeare lends himself to dramatic abuses, and is himself a "sweet, sweet poison to the age's tooth,” that he has survived. Indeed Hamlet's advice to the players is at war with Shakespeare's own style, and with the spirit of English literature. It is Shakespeare himself, who, in a warning against excess, gives us one of the best examples of excess in all literature:
Therefore, to be possess'd with double pomp,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess. Hamlet's advice to the players is a pretty speech by an amateur, “For in the torrent and tempest and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that shall give it smoothness!” But the tragedies of "Macbeth,” “King Lear,” and “Richard III” were not written by a man who was “acquiring and begetting temperance of expression”; and I should hate to see them played by an actor who took Hamlet's advice seriously. The tragedians of all nations have found that Shakespeare's storms will stand bellowing, and that overacting does not kill the plays, which respond like blooded chargers under the spur — nay, they run away with their riders, while the audience enjoys the sport.
The question of how to act Shakespeare is an open question; for no one has as yet appeared who was powerful enough to shut it. Iago is excellent as a sharp-eyed American gambler, or as a bluff Italian innkeeper. Richard III will hold an audience as a gladiator with a talent for rant, or as a sickly, embittered hunchback of the malevolent introspective type. He could hold the stage if he should play the tyrant in one scene and the sycophant in the next. There is an incomprehensible power behind the text