In the history of the world, the drama and dramatic art have been most potent factors in the education of mankind. From the miracle play on to Richard Wagner's musical epics and Shakespeare's mirror of a thousand lives, and even to the modern drama with all its powers and trivialities, the people's heart has throbbed responsive to the mimic tragedy and laughter, — aye, and mystic symbolism of the soul's transition through this world of cares and sorrows, joys and conquests and defeats; and sometimes, too, of purest happiness and peace serene. Through all its tawdry trappings, tinsel shows and crude pretense, the power of thought and fancy glints and gleams and sparkles, sometimes blazing forth in shining revelations of life and destiny and human weal, and the resistless operations of the Law Divine.
Abstract philosophy is vague to many minds; preaching too often clashes with our self-esteem; the lessons of common experience are wrapped in mists of fearful doubt and clouds of pain and passion; but the contemplation of the woes of others, and the pictured joys we are not jealous of, awakens the vibrations of that chord of sympathy which makes the whole world kin; the Brotherhood of the common heart that beats as one beneath the ebb and flow of changing circumstance. Carried out of self, we achieve with the hero; die bravely with the martyr; are jubilant with the delight of pure innocence, and watch with breathless strain the issue of the conflict between light and darkness in the soul of man!
Thus! stolen unawares from our petty selves and limited concerns, we become one with the life of all, and know through the imagination — that magic servant of the mind and will — the cause, the meaning and the wherefore of pains and struggles, failure and success.
This is the ideal mission of dramatic art; and, of its influence, one with its spirit and intent, are all the literature and art creations which figure forth the gamut of the human soul's experience. The interpreter — one who embodies in his living presence and action the light of meaning buried in the silent tomes of past soul-messages, is the high-priest of life's mysteries, the revelator of mankind to man, the radiant witness of the reality of meaning within the inner chamber of the consciousness of all.
The drama is a mighty force! What is its origin, and what its message to the human race in every age?
First of all — the drama of existence is the progressive revelation of the soul's nature and destiny. This record is preserved in the consciousness of great souls; and these, contemplating the surging life about them, perceive by the sure light of intuition, the secret springs of action, and the undercurrents of cause and influence which are hidden from common observation. The genius of a Shakespeare, which correlates the powers of all dramatic writers, reflects the real life of every age and every class he contemplates. Had he a motive in writing any play? If not — the motive had him. Every great work of art is the expression of a necessity moving from within.
I wish to emphasize the belief that nothing truly great and lasting is constructed by the intellectual powers alone; a greater power lies behind — understood or not by him through whom it speaks — and this power is universal! The character and purity of the creation given to the world depends upon how much of the universal the individual can express, and the grade, or spiritual plane to which he rises. The ascending spiral of man's development towards divinity has a sure compass in the heart of every being, that secret aspiration, the guardian of which is conscience. The right intent will to great degree remedy the worst mistakes, and win forgiveness of God and of all his children. The spectator sitting at a play, will often understand what all his experience cannot teach him, and feel a charity of which he seems incapable in common life.
The great drama pictures the operations of the Law and the causes and motives at work in life. Thus we often perceive moral values more clearly than in the midst of the struggles and emotions of our personal experience. In the drama is seen the proportion of cause and effect, which is not so evident to the casual observer in the lives of the individuals whom he contacts. Upon the stage we see, epitomized, results of causes; these results, by a careful study of life's tendencies, are seen to be inevitable, and we are led to perceive that the occurrences of life are not brought about by mere chance, but are the results of causes implanted deep within ourselves. The great drama reveals all this.
Why are these things so little impressive in our common playhouses? Do we not find the works of real genius too often passed by for the sensational excitements of meretricious trumpery? — the drama of a day written for money merely, or for superficial popularity? The crowd are easily diverted by that which is of small significance and great sensation; but they know, notwithstanding, that there is a deeper note. Another reason for the limited realization of the divine in art is that too many of those who claim the attention of the public, cater but to vanity; they are not possessed by consecration to ideals. It is not my purpose to condemn, however. It is hard to stem the tide of worldly frivolity and selfishness — but we need faith to believe that "what is true of us in our private hearts is true of all" — that far beneath the seeming is the real, — that after all, the world is made of souls, and howsoe'er bewildered by the shows of things, the soul awakes and rises up in response to the soul-call of heroism, of real, unselfish service, and the magic touch of God-inspired genius.
Is it not true that the real power of art at last is in its authoritative vindication of ideals? "People do not care for good music," says one. True, the taste of the people needs cultivation. It is not the performance of the messages of the great masters that the people need, however; but the awakening to life of the original meaning buried there. We cannot all be Wagners or Shakespeares, you will say; true, but let the interpreter be silent until the same necessity compels him, too, to lift his voice, and the same message cries within to be let forth. The true interpreter is he who relates the soul of the listener to the soul of the master sleeping within the framework of his phrase.
That which is true of the drama is true of poetry as well. The soul of the prophet lies waiting to be voiced, and tells its message only through the one who is responsive to its secret meaning, and cares more to speak his message than to win applause!
Let it be understood that the significance I point to is not an attempt to define the sole interpretation of any play or subject; but is a line of thought revealed in one of a thousand lights that might be flashed upon it from the heaven of intelligence. Emerson has said: "Every eye was placed where a certain ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray."
The light of truth was conveyed to the people of old time by the dignity and grandeur of the true mystery-play. A noble example of this is seen in the "Eumenides" of Æschylus, which is the history of a soul's emancipation from sin and turbulent passion through the intervention of divine justice in the person of Pallas Athena — the goddess of Wisdom and Love.
Now turn to Shakespeare, the thousand-souled, in whom we see the combined beauties of the drama of more recent times. The same grand music of the soul breathes through his voice, revealing the secret springs of human action, and showing in jewelled fragments the magic potency of divine law.
There is, in all the messages of this great master of life's mysteries, the unmistakable ring of healthy moral conclusions, and over all the halo of harmonious probability, the strands of life weaving the web of the "Beautiful Necessity."
From the contemplation of the lyric drama, we turn to some dramatic lyrics:
"To him who, in the love of nature
Holds communion with her visible forms,
She speaks a various language."
If the drama pictures to us the moods and deeper impulses of human life, — the moods of nature and her secret impulses lie all accessible to the poet's soul. The birds' ecstasy; the whispering or boisterous winds; the deep-toned and mysterious sea, and all the sounds and odors and flashing beauties of the world, are voicing the message of the Infinite, and deeply teaching lessons high and pure.
The great poet is a savior of the heart of man, and, when "songs gush from his heart," even the sordid millions pause in their mad rush after wealth and worldly fame, and listen for a moment to his singing. In that moment, the man of the world, who ordinarily argues against all "visionary things," dares to admire, and wonder at the sublime imagination of the poet, and yields unconsciously to the compelling music of his thought.
The Poet — child of Nature — is in sympathy with the beatings of her heart; and "sings his hymns unbidden," for
"Till the world is wrought
To sympathize with hopes and fears
It heedeth not."
The poet, yearning to express his meaning, gives tongue to the winds of heaven, and language to the song of birds. The spirit of nature has its dramatic action also. Nature has a supreme language — it is the finger of God writing His symbols on the walls of time. There is an attunement of inspiration in the poet's soul as he apostrophizes and personifies the spirits of the woods, the air, the waters.
Shelly's Skylark is an embodiment of the poet's aspiration — saluted by the human self which has to strive with the cares and burdens of life and which cries:
"Hail to thee! blythe spirit!"
A companion piece to this is his "Ode to the West Wind," which has in it the impassioned cry of the imprisoned soul to be free; to compel the recognition of the hearts of men.
"Be thou — spirit fierce — my spirit!
Be thou me, impetuous one!
Drive my dead thoughts over the universe —
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
* * * * *
Be, through my words, the trumpet of a prophesy!"
To my mind, these lyrics are dramatic as voicing the soul's experience and struggles. How sweetly the "Chambered Nautilus" of Holmes breathes of the soul's ascending cycles, and the final liberation awaiting the triumphant conqueror of life's limitations!
"Thanks for the heavenly message sent by thee!
Child of the wandering sea, cast from her lap forlorn!"
* * * *
"Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul —
As the swift seasons roll
Leave thy low-vaulted past.
Let each new temple, nobler than the last,
Shut thee from heaven with a dome more vast,
Till thou, at length, art free;
Leaving thy outgrown shell by life's unresting sea!"
In the light of this revelation we look no longer backward with regret or longing, but look upward from the "eternal now," and the soul knows!
In the language of Emerson, our poet-seer: "As great an utterance awaits you, as that which fell from the pen of Dante or of Moses." Ah, the genius is not a spectacle for vain display, but is the prophet's voice speaking for all mankind. It is only in great moments that we realize what life might be.
"Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time; —
Footprints that perhaps another,
Sailing o'er life's solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait."
What a picture of life's changes and contrasts is in some passages of Whittier's "Snowbound," crowned with the faith that illumines the mysterious beyond!
"Alas! for him who never sees
The stars shine through his cypress trees.
* * * *
Who hath not learned in hours of faith
The truth to flesh and sense unknown,
That Life is ever lord of Death,
And love can never lose its own!"
More strictly dramatic is that gem of love's prophetic vision — "Evelyn Hope," by Browning; the inspired contemplation of the future fulfillment of all life's broken meanings. The lover places a leaf in the "sweet, cold hand" of Evelyn, and says:
"There — that is our secret — go to sleep,
You will wake, and remember — and understand!"
Aye! we feel that we, too, shall one day wake, and remember and understand! Wake from this blighting dream of the commonplace; remember whence we came; understand our mission, and whither all is tending!
Thus art — dramatic, lyric, musical and pictured — is, after all, the handmaid of religion. If we have in part forgotten this, let us arise, and by consecration restore in full the divine birthright of the past! Will not this be the motive of the artwork of the future, — heralding religion, not of creed and dogma, but the universal spirit of Divinity?"