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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Dramatic Action

By Joseph Jefferson (1829–1905)

[From The Autobiography of Joseph Jefferson. 1890.]

PERHAPS it is well to define, to the non-professional reader, what is meant by dramatic action, as sometimes this term is mistaken for pantomime. Pantomime is action, certainly; but not necessarily dramatic action, which is the most essential element in the construction of a play. A drama will often give one no idea of its strength in the reading of it; even in rehearsal it will sometimes fail to reveal its power. I have on several occasions seen even the author of a play surprised at the exhibition of it on its first representation, before an audience, he himself not being aware that his work contained the hidden treasure, until the sympathy of the public revealed it. Sometimes the point of unexpected interest consists in the relationship between two characters, or the peculiar emphasis laid upon a single word that has been spoken in a previous act. But to illustrate more fully what I desire to explain, I will take two dramatic actions, one from comedy and the other from tragedy, to set forth the subject clearly.

In one of Victorien Sardou’s plays—and this gentleman is perhaps the most ingenious playwright of our time—the following incident occurs: The audience are first made fully aware that a lady in the play uses a certain kind of perfume. This is done casually, so that they do not suspect that the matter will again be brought to their notice. She abstracts some valuable papers from a cabinet, and when they are missed no one can tell who has taken them. The mystery is inexplicable. Suspicion falls upon an innocent person. The audience, who well know how the matter stands, are on tenter-hooks of anxiety, fearing that the real culprit will not be detected. When this feeling is at white heat one of the characters finds a piece of paper in the desk and is attracted to it by the perfume. He puts it to his nose, sniffs it, and as a smile of triumph steals over his face the audience, without a word being spoken, realize that the thief is detected: Observe here, too, the ingenuity of the dramatist: the audience are in the secret with him; they have seen the papers stolen; it is no news to them; but when the characters in whom they are interested become as much enlightened as they are the climax is complete.

For an illustration of this point, as applied to tragedy: After the murder of Duncan, Macbeth, standing with his wife in a dark and gloomy hall, looks at his bloody hands and apostrophizes them in these terrible words:

  • “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
  • Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather
  • The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
  • Making the green one red.”
  • Now there is a silence, and when he is alone there echoes through the castle a knocking at the gate. The friends of the murdered guest have come for him; and they thunder at the portals, while the blood-stained host stands as if stricken down with terror and remorse. It is not the dialogue, as powerful as it is, which strikes the audience with awe; it is simply a stage direction of the great dramatic master—a “knocking at the gate.” It will, I think, be seen by these two illustrations that a fluent and imaginative writer may construct plots, create characters, and compose exquisite verse, and yet not succeed as a playwright unless he possesses the art or gift of creating dramatic action.