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great moral truth as well as dramatic beauty.” “ But, the language of these assassins was low !!! as well as their condition and feelings ! rbeneath the Alexandrine pomp !7 To have given them elevated sentiments would have been to detract from the truth of character.”
This is absolute squeamishness; especially, as Schiller's rogues are polished metaphysicians, who offend much more in the sublimity of their matter than the vulgarity of their manner. It is amusing enough to hear the French transposer's efforts to concoct all the substance of this scene into one long-winded recital, which, however, would not do; because it was a palpable absurdity to make one villain comment upon the vices of his accomplices to an auditor whom he was seeking to corrupt.
- This obligation, of putting into description what should be in action, is a dangerous shoal to the French tragic poets. Recitals are scarcely ever naturally placed: he who relates is not called, by his situation or interest, to relate what he does. Besides, they lead the poet to select details, so much less dramatical, as they are mere articulations.”
He instances the superb description which Theramenes, in “ The Phedra,” gives to Theseus, of his son's fall.
“ Racine, unable to produce Hyppolitus bleeding, mangled, and in the convulsions of death, as Euripides had done, was obliged to narrate his catastrophe; and this obligation has forced him to wound nature and probability, by a profusion of poetical details which a friend never could have enlarged upon, nor a father listened to.”
We are glad to hear that French writers are aware of some of the “ inconvéniens” of the unities.
« They circumscribe tragedies, the historical in particular, within a space that renders their composition very difficult. They oblige the poet to neglect, both in the incidents and characters, the truth of gradation, the delicacy of the shading. Racine has overcome this; but in Voltaire we perceive chasms and abrupt transitions. This is not Nature's way of working, we are sensible. She does not stride on so rapidly---she does not skip over the intermediate steps in this manner.”
Now for the utility of these unities :
“ Changes of place, how adroitiy soever they be managed, oblige the spectator to account to himself for the mutation of scene, and thus train off a share of his attention from the main interest. After each scenic alteration he has to replace himself under the illusion from which he has been dragged. The same thing occurs, when he is reminded of the time elapsed from one act to another. In both cases the poet re-appears, as it were, in front of his personages; and there is a kind of tacit prologue or preface, which breaks the continuity of the impression.”
Yet M. Constant never hinted any fear of the interest being suspended or interrupted by a chorus, the very presence of
whom must keep the mind on a continual stretch to account for their whereabout. The error appears to be in asking leave of the senses, to play upon the imagination and the passions. As if the understanding were the mighty Prospero, who raises the tempest, and commands the beguiling airs !-as if it were not led like a sleep-walker, its eyes all open, beneath the wand of imagination and as if the senses could bide unclosed, and note the passing time, while passion was rolling in thunders, and upheaving the continent of man, like an earthquake within him!
The French, who pay this homage to the intellect, before they dare to invoke the fancy or the heart, very grossly abuse that sovereign lord, if they think he is deceived by such shallow plausibilities as the unities. No understanding ever yet admitted the coincidences, or successions in a given time, at one place, which they include in one act. The artifice, by which one person is hurried on and another off, that not a moment may be lost, is more palpable and more destructive of illusion, than any change of scene could be: and as for the “ continuity of interest,” it is, in reality, as much broken by removal of the person who excites it, as by removal of the scene. When he is gone, the mind goes off the stage with him, or only reverts thither, to ask itself, who comes next-a question that too frequently obtrudes itself in Racine's best plays; but there is no such thing any where as a continuous impression. There is only a succession of impulses that make the bosom vibrate, in proportion to their energy and number; and it no more destroys that succession to originate the next impulse from a new place than from a new comer. The true delusion is to dim the senses through the passions—to efface all recollections, but that of one absorbing emotion—to “ annihilate both time and space,” rather than protrude them on our attention by the very care that is betrayed in reconciling appearances.
Another point of contrast, in which the French and German theatres are put, is novel and striking:
“ The French, even in their tragedies founded upon history or tradition, paint only an event or a passion. The Germans paint an entire life or character.
“I do not mean to say, that they embrace the whole period of the life of their hero; but they omit no extraordinary event in it; and the union of that which is transacted on the stage, with that which is told in recitals or allusions, forms a complete picture of scrupulous exactness.
- It is the same with character. The Germans leave out of that of their personages nothing that constitutes their individuality. They present them to us, with all their weaknesses, inconsistencies, and that fluctuating unsteadiness, which belongs to human nature, and forms real existences. « The French have a besoin d'unité (?) that makes them pursue a different course. They expunge from their characters all that is not fit to set off the passion, which they design to paint. They suppress every part of the antecedent life of their hero, not linked to the fact which they have chosen.”
The most remarkable instance produced is Racine’s“Orestes," where the love of that prince for Hermione is all that gives life to his character. He appears to have forgotten the murder of his mother, and is occupied only with his passion for Hermione. “The remembrance of his crime was irreconcilable with such a love as he is made to feel. A son, stained with his mother's blood, and forgetful of all but his mistress, would bave produced a revolting effect.” Racine, therefore, suppressed all allusion to the parricide in his “ Andromaque.”
“ This isolated position of the fact and of the passion has its incontestable advantages. In disengaging the fact, selected from all anterior facts, the interest is more closely directed upon a solitary object. The hero is more fully in the possession of the poet, who has rid himself of past occurrences. It is true, there may be a colouring somewhat less real in his picture, because art can never perfectly supply the place of truth ; and because the spectator, even when ignorant of the liberty taken by the poet, is apprized by some indefinable instinct, that the being presented to him is not a historical personage, but a fictitious hero, the mere creature of invention.”
We leave it to the reader to determine, whether the pros or the cons have it in the above, as well as the following:
“ In portraying a passion only, instead of embracing an entire character, we obtain effects more constantly tragic; because, individual characters, being always of a mixed quality, injure the unity (again!) of the impression. But truth is probably somewhat sacrificed in our system. The question continually arises, “What would these heroes be, if they were not governed by the passion that actuates them ?' And the answer is, that there would remain but little reality in their whole existence."
One of the génes to which their system reduces them is,
“ The less variety that there is in the passions fit for the stage, than in the characters of individuals, such as Nature creates them. Characters are innumerable: theatrical passions very few in number.
“Without doubt, the admirable genius of Racine, which triumphs over every difficulty, throws a diversity even into this uniformity. The jealousy of Phedra is not that of Hermione, nor the love of Hermione that of Roxana; but the distinction appears to me to consist rather in the passion itself, than in the character of the individual.
“ The character of Polyphontes suits almost every tyrant; while that of Shakspeare's · Richard the Third' suits only Richard the Third."
And he traces very distinctly the traits that individualize this character, as if he were unawed by the spirit of our own “ great leviathan of literature,” who laid it down so authoritatively, that the characters of Shakspeare were not individuals, but species.
M. Constant meant to have copied the Germans, in his portraiture of Wallenstein, and to have made him, as he was in life, “ ambitious, but, at the same time, thoughtful, superstitious, and infirm of purpose (so far a living Macbeth]; jealous of the success of strangers in his native land, even when that success favoured his designs; and often going counter to his object, by yielding himself to the guidance of his disposition.” How he has mutilated this fine conception, with such a model before him, is unaccountable ; but no one, who reads his “ Wallstein,” can picture to himself the aspiring usurper, to whom “ fate and metaphysical aid” seemed to present "the golden round;” who was " subject to all the skyey influences,” full of remorse before the deed, and “preternatural solicitings;” in whose ambition were ingulfed the affections of the man; and in whom “the laws of spirit” had extinguished all notions of right or wrong; who lived through faith, the irresponsible agent of destiny, and died meekly, a martyr to that faith.
It would seem that such a superstitious ground-work would be ridiculous in the eyes of a sceptical people. Dramatic characters thus become untransferable from one language to another, on account of differences of national character. M. Constant has almost obliterated all trace of the character of Thekla, the daughter of Wallenstein, though deeply sensible of its beauty. We the more readily give his sketch of this character, such as it is drawn in Schiller, because it has not been dwelt upon in any of the reviews of " Wallenstein ” that we have seen. It includes the reasons for its rejection on the French boards.
“Thekla excites a universal enthusiasm in Germany. The admiration which she begets, arises from their way of considering love. The French regard it as a passion, that leads our reason astray, whose sole aim is to obtain pleasure. The Germans look upon love as something religious—an emanation of the Deity—a fulfilment of destiny-a mysterious link, as it were, between God and man. When viewed as a passion, it can only interest by its violence and delirium; but when felt as a ray of the divine effulgence, that comes to warm at once and purify the heart, it is both calmer and stronger; it presides over every thing around it ; it may have to combat circumstances, but not duties, for it is itself the first of duties, and lords it over all the rest. It cannot descend to crime nor to deceit, without belying its nature; it cannot yield to obstacles ; nor yet put itself out by an act of the will.
“ Thekla is a being raised above our common nature. She is calm, because her determination is irrevocable; confiding, because her attachment is all solemn; undisguised, because her love is not a part, but the whole of her existence. She is an aërial spirit, that hovers over this crowd of ambitious fiends, traitors, and ruthless warriors, whom strong positive interests excite against each other. We feel that this is not her sphere; that she is destined back again to the heavens,
whence she came. Her voice, so soft; her form, so delicate; the purity of her soul, opposed to their greedy calculations; her angelic calmness, contrasted with their fiend-like agitation, fill us with an unceasing, melancholy emotion, such as no modern tragedy has produced. She is not a heroine, whom passion makes strong, or sensibility weak, to win or to yield up her love. Other heroines struggle with their passion, or are subdued by external importunity; they can make sacrifices of themselves. Not so Thekla : she loves, and waits, unchangeable. Her lot is fixed; she can have no other ; nor can she advance it by contending with the world. Her strength is all internal. She requires no disguise; she reveals her love in all its depth, singleness, and purity; she speaks of it unreservedly even to her lover: "Where shouldst thou find truth upon the earth, if thou wert not to hear it from my lips ?' is her touching language to him.”
This is, to the life, one of Shakspeare's heroines--another Imogen. “A pure abstraction of the affections,” existing only in her attachment to another; and that attachment outliving hope, and foregoing form, propriety, with every thing dear to a woman's nature, but the essence of it.
“In France this craltation, without wandering or delirium, never could be tolerated in a young girl. It could not serve as a basis to a general system, and nothing is liked in France, but what admits of general application. The moral of a play is founded upon feeling in Germany ; upon reason, in France. A sincere, strong, and unrestrained emotion appears, to them, to ennoble and sanctify what it inspires. But with us, the feeling that leads to a breach of duty is an aggravation of the sin. We pardon it much more reluctantly than a fault proceeding from self-interest, on account of the address and respect for appearances of this last. The former braves opinion; the latter temporizes with it, and this is a species of deference, not distasteful to the world.”
The notes of M. Benjamin Constant de Rebecque contain a body of historical information, that tends very much to illustrate the “ Wallenstein” of Schiller; and to explain the reason why tragedies apparently so defective in their structure are witnessed with such intense satisfaction in Germany.
“ All that relates to the thirty-years' war is national with the Germans, and as such is known by every body. The names that occur awake recollections that have no existence in us. Hence, Schiller had at command a number of allusions, which his countrymen caught at once, but which no one in France would comprehend.
“ There is,” he proceeds, “ among us, a certain neglect of foreign history that proves a bar to the composition of historical dramas, such as are found in neighbouring literatures. The tragedies which succeed best in France are either those of pure fiction, which require but few preliminary notions, or those drawn from Grecian mythology and Roman history, which form part of our early education."