« AnteriorContinuar »
A SECOND group of arts has grown up from the effort to give expression to ideas of such a kind as no mere sensational means can adequately embody. An elaborate system of signs has been devised, which in itself having no claim to the honor of a fine art, has yet laid the basis of this extensive class, in moral if not æsthetic power-the very highest of all. They pertain to the domain of letters, consisting of the kindred branches of Argument, Narrative, Description, Oratory, the Drama, and the Stage.
The first mentioned embraces literary productions belonging to the heads of treatise or essay, which are constructed according to the laws of logic and rhetoric proper; the province of the latter being to find out and arrange arguments, and that of the former to test their validity. Every grace, wherewith an argument can be illustrated, adorned, and rendered agreeable and effective, belongs of native right to the essay,
but its indispensable frame work is a structure of reasoning.
The limits of narrative and description are as wide as the whole field of human knowledge—the latter being an account of the nature and condition of any subject at any given period, and the former a record of the changes passing upon it in the course of time.
The object of the drama is to represent, in ideal
excellence and real personages, some event in either actual or imaginary life, by means of exhibiting the various actors in the principal stages of its progress.
All these branches may take the garb of either verse or prose, which are distinguished by the former possessing a rhythmical arrangement of syllables in lines of symmetrical length, and sometimes rhyme.
Though oratory has been sustained and improved by the art of writing, and belongs to the same generic head, it is certainly of older date—arising, obviously, from the natural wish to highten and prolong some of the more stirring efforts of conversation. Properly, it is the art of oral persuasion ; but practically, it is spoken prose composition. A writer's whole language is confined to words; the orator adds thereto the powerful elements of tone, sympathetic emotion, and the whole expression of the human body.
What oratory is to prose, the histrionic art is to poetry. The actor is an artist, whose material is himself; body and mind alike are called into action, both to prepare and to execute. He appears as the bodily presence of a poet's thought. If it is remembered that only with the greatest effort do we comprehend the vast conceptions of a mind superior to our own, and that it is almost, if not altogether, impossible to rise to sympathy with feelings loftier or purer than we have experienced, the difficulty of the histrionic art will be immediately recognized—inasmuch as it calls not only for the appreciation of every variety of emotion, from the coarsest excitement of selfishness to the most beautiful attendant on the purest conceptions of genius, but also for the reproduction of it in action. Consequently, there are advantages of personal appearance, as well as of intellectual capacity and emotional habits, without which success is not to be hoped for by the actor. So diverse are the faculties called for in tragic and comic characters, that few actors are found equally competent to both.
Were it possible to ascertain precisely and fully all the conception of the poet, it might be laid down as the utmost boundary of histrionic art to reproduce that conception glowing in its original magnitude and delicacy of coloring; but, as ordinary language is inadequate to communicate so completely the beautiful imaginings of a highly poetic mind, and barely gives brief and fragmentary indications of them, it becomes necessary for the actor to possess a quick and accurate apprehension of the import of such indications, and a keen sensibility to the most delicate shades of emotion, and even to be himself a poet, in order to supply by intonation, look and gesture, much that words have failed to convey. Consequently, the highest object of the art is not a mere reproduction of the ordinary acceptation of the poet's words, but to represent the ideal perfection of that particular degree and tone of thought and feeling therein indicated ; not, indeed, by adding to the poet's words, though even that is not entirely forbidden-but by filling out their meaning, and perfecting it, through those varieties of intonation, countenance and gesture - those accelerations and
suspensions of utterance natural to the state of mind represented, and sometimes, also, by omitting or laying little stress upon what the poet has improperly introduced. One of the most difficult things in the art is to seize upon the proper degree of emotion. It is not the most violent exhibition of passion which is most affecting; but that perfect propriety which adapts itself precisely to the circumstances and supposed exciting cause—and this involves the consideration of different temperament, of race, nation, education, age and clime. Herein are the force, originality and genius of an actor manifested; and all the accessories of the art, as scenery, music, stage-machinery, etc., are to be valued only as they forward the same chief end. True acting is a living commentary upon the poet, as well as a full translation of his thoughts into action.
It follows that, though men of low character may entertain the low and immoral among the audience, and pass for good actors, in ordinary parts, none but those of righteous principle and elevated soul can possibly perform the part of a pure and lofty personage to the approbation of a correctly appreciating audience. The low morals of actors inevitably drag down the stage to their own level. A debauchee may act the part of a saint, but it will be as a hypocrite, by merely mimicking a few externals, to the disgust of all spectators whom it can be an honor to please; nor less, when a man of vile heart attempts to represent a hero, does every discriminating eye see that the thing personated is only a hollow blackguard, and avert itself in loathing. The audience, which otherwise would give respectability and support to the stage, withdraw from it, preferring to read the poet by their own firesides to having the sensibility offended by histrionic hypocrisy, misconception and vulgarity.
The necessary consequence of moral corruption in the actors, is shallow acting of all the characters of the drama which are most interesting to a virtuous
a audience-travesty of all the best personages of tragedy—the thinning of that class of spectators who give respectability to public entertainments, and the consequent recourse of the stage to low comedy and farce—sinking still lower and lower, to suit the taste of the vicious rabble.
The state of society which calls for and sustains a good theater, is that wherein a high degree of intellectual activity and prevalent poetic taste coëxist with scanty means of information, few books and few readers—ingredients that can seldom come together except in the earlier part of a language's literary history. The maturing refinement of Athens, ere books had accumulated to meet the demands of her fully awakening intellect, gave birth to the greatest tragedians of the ancient world, and the most virtuous drama. Dramatic poetry was never popular in Rome, save in the days of her youthful civilization; and the same is true of the French and English languages. The reign of Elizabeth and of James I. was the true age of the English drama. Later efforts to revive it, though sustained by much talent, have been only