Nonfiction > E.C. Stedman & E.M. Hutchinson, eds. > A Library of American Literature > 1835–1860
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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps.  A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes.  1891.
Vols. VI–VIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 1835–1860
 
The Dramatic Art
By Parke Godwin (1816–1904)
 
[Born in Paterson, N. J., 1816. Died in New York, N. Y., 1904. From an Address at the Reception of Henry Irving by the New York Goethe Society, 15 March, 1888.]

THE CREATOR has conferred upon his creatures no more benignant gift than the play-impulse, as Schiller calls it—the love of fun, which is the origin of all sports and pastimes, and a relief essential to our burdens of actual care. By contributing to this impulse, the dramatic art has diffused in all civilized nations an amount of innocent and wholesome pleasure it would be impossible to calculate. At the same time in doing this, it has called into exercise also other and higher functions whereby it takes a firmer hold of human sympathies than any other art, and becomes a more powerful instrument of good and evil to the community. This superiority it owes, partly, to its form, which brings it into immediate contact with the public, and enables it to address and capture not only its intellect and its senses, but the feelings which are our real motive powers. By the use of the human voice, and by living personal action, it catches directly the inspiration of popular life and gives its own inspiration back, heart-throb for heart-throb, we may say. Its singular felicity in this respect is that it appropriates and combines the virtues and charms of all other arts and superadds virtues and charms peculiar to itself. It does all that they can do, and it does more. Thus, while it abounds in “wise saws and modern instances” like ordinary prose; while it tells an absorbing story like the epic; while it pours forth the spontaneous emotions of the individual soul, like the lyric; while it presents to the eye noble and graceful figures like sculpture; while it surrounds these figures with brilliant and harmonious colors like painting; while it constrains the delicious assistance of music, it joins to these a power of characterizing persons, and of placing these persons in situations to excite terror, pity, affection, curiosity, merriment and sorrow, that immensely heightens and broadens and intensifies its capacities. In this portrayal of character in action, moreover, it is qualified to use, more variously and vividly than any other art, the most luscious, genial, and salutary of the powers of genius—the faculty of humor, ever twin-born with pathos, which steeps the muddled brain in baths of sunshine, and lubricates the grating hinges of action with an oil of gladness. For this reason the theatre has been and is preëminently a home and temple of humor and pathos—laughing pretension, self-righteousness, and folly off the face of the earth, and uniting the hearts of men in those soft and tender emotions which “make the whole world kin.”
  1
  Again, secondly, the drama owes its superiority of influence to its substance, or, the special attractiveness of its themes. Man is, of all things that man knows, the most interesting to man, and the drama concerns itself with man in the whole round of his being, in all the varieties of his social condition and in all the subtleties of his individual motive. From kings and princes to clowns and clod-hoppers—from stately and lovely women who surpass the ideals of our dreams to homely nurses and butter-fingered dairy-maids—from the heroic defenders of nations and sturdy burghers to those whimsical and eccentric fellows who seem a mere joke of nature,—not an atom of humanity escapes its scrutiny and, we might say, its love. Nor is there a shade of anything that concerns them to which it is indifferent: their relations to outstanding nature, to the state, to the family, and to one another,—as they act upon their surroundings and are acted upon by them,—are recognized, and all their collisions, struggles, loves and hates, their ambitions, and their humiliations, their whims and caprices even, furnish the materials of its magic.  2
  Each one of the vast and motley human throng is painted, to himself and to others, as he is, that others and himself, as impartial spectators, may see the dignity and worth, or the worthlessness, of what he does, or the certain issues of his character and conduct. In the well-worn phrase, “the drama holds a mirror up to nature,” that nature may see herself in her deformity as in her beauty, get ashamed thereby of her meanness and littleness, chastise her ugly excesses, and, as Goethe sings—
 Im ganzen, guten, schoenen
Resolut zu leben—
or to strive heartily to conduct her affairs in the lines of truth, goodness, and beauty.
  3
  By this anniversary of sympathy and of methods, dramatic art builds up a world of its own within the world of experience: all the grand literatures, indeed, do that, so that we possess a Homeric world, a Dantean world, a Cervantean world, and others,—but it is given to no literature to create so vast, multiform, and populous a world, and one which is so open to all mankind, as to the drama. You will say that it is only an ideal world—and that is so—sometimes of “buoyant and aerial texture,” floating between heaven and earth, tinged with the hues of the rainbow, and peopled by gay creatures of the element,—sometimes of chivalric emprise or romantic adventure, where the skies are soft sunshine only and the fields grow nothing but flowers,—whose inhabitants are visions of nobleness, sweetness, and grace, moving to an ethereal melody and the pert and humble spirit of mirth; sometimes of historic magnificence and solidity, where the high deeds of statesmen and warriors are transacted, amid crowds of courtiers, a pomp of banners, and the triumph-shouts or the death-wails of struggling nations; sometimes of weird and supernatural awfulness, tragic heroes and demigods contending against inexorable fate with rain and wind and fire and tempests as their ministers,—an ideal world truly, but a real world in this, that in every case it must be a moral world, as deep in its foundations of principle, as positive in its affirmations of law, as any more sensible world may be supposed to shadow forth. Dealing with what is the whole subject-matter of all moral science—human character and conduct—the drama, by its very nature and whatever may be its immediate constituents, lives and moves and has its being in an ethical element. It confronts not merely the every-day questions of right and wrong, but the mysterious problems of good and evil which perplex inquiry and strike every utterance dumb. “We English,” says an English writer, “excepting in the works of Milton, who drew from Revelation, can show no exposition of a moral theory equal to that of Æschylus, who drew from nature”; and an American writer asks, “Wherein is Shakespeare the greatest of authors?” answering, “Not in the perfection of his form, nor in his mastery of language, nor in the beauty of his images, nor even in his characterization, great as were his excellences in all these respects; no—his unique and surpassing greatness lies in his comprehension of the moral order of the world.” We might add, too, that his exposition of that order is more swift, compact, concentrated, impressive, and at times terrible, than any we get elsewhere. In our actual experiences, “the whirligig of time” is often laggard in its revenges; the retributions of history, which are said to vindicate eternal justice, are ticked off by the slow clocks of the centuries; and a remote and innocent hereafter only hears the solemn toll of the judgment bells. But dramatic genius, annihilating the limitation of time and space, frames the seasons of its own harvest;—hangs its Nemesis on the necks of events and freights the very flash of its auguries with the rattling thunder peals of their execution.  4
 
 
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