- Sophoclean Shaw with Solos
Early in the Poetics, Aristotle briefly mentions that Aeschylus added a second actor and Sophocles added a third; that is, they increased the number of embodied characters on stage at the same time from one to two, then from two to three—both dramaturgical leaps forward. Considering the size of the Athenian theater, if there were more than three characters on stage, all played by men wearing masks, spectators would have difficulty distinguishing who was talking. Even in twentieth-and twenty-first-century productions of Greek tragedies with male actors wearing masks, in indoor theaters smaller than Greek amphitheaters, spectators often have trouble identifying which actor is speaking.
Although the change created by Aeschylus was the more revolutionary, since it made dialogue possible, this essay’s concern is the change Sophocles made. One can imagine the impact on a young Athenian playwright after seeing a new play with three characters on stage together. He may have been overwhelmed by what this innovation made possible: overlapping entrances and exits. Instead of a duologue, then an exit, then one character killing time with a soliloquy or making small talk with the Chorus, a dramatist could have an entrance by a third character, dialogue among three characters, an exit by one, followed by a duologue between the other two while the third actor changed costumes and masks, preparing to enter as another character. This technical transformation could and did make a play more realistic.
As we know, Aristotle’s reference to these innovations may be a précis of elementary Athenian Theatre History before dealing with the subject in depth. This elementary material is in the same paragraph (the last paragraph of chapter 4) in which he says that the iambic meter is the most colloquial, the most conversational.
Although the reference to realism at the end of the penultimate paragraph is therefore not far-fetched, it should not imply that soliloquies could not be made to seem realistic. In post-Athenian classical drama, [End Page 169] perhaps the most obvious examples of soliloquies that seem realistic are in Hamlet and Macbeth. Nor is this possibility out of the question in modern realistic drama. Take Uncle Vanya, for example. Vanya, Sonya, and Elena, each alone onstage in different parts of the play, soliloquize realistically on his and her feelings and thoughts. Nor is the one-line soliloquy that ends an act on a dramatically high note inimical to modern dramatic realism. In The Three Sisters, Irina, alone onstage at the end of Act II, longingly cries, thrice, for Moscow. Because this feature, often a curtain speech, has nothing to do with allowing time to elapse before another character enters, this article leaves it out of consideration.
The convention of an actor reciting a soliloquy while alone onstage was widespread in the nineteenth century, as was an actor’s performance of pantomime, which Aristotle does not mention. After all, his work is usually titled the Poetics or The Art of Poetry, of which pantomime is not a part. Shaw’s audiences, who were familiar with both of these conventions, readily accepted them as realistic. Remember Thornton Wilder’s intelligent definition of a theatrical convention as a lie that audiences accept as true. 1 The major concern here is the soliloquy or pantomime that fills time before another character or characters enter. Call this “pre-Sophoclean.” In realistic plays, one is apt to be put off by such a device.
Even Ibsen’s realistic prose plays are to some extent tied to these nineteenth-century conventions. At the beginning of the third act of A Doll House, Mrs. Linde is alone in the home of the Helmers, waiting for Krogstad to arrive. When he does, they have a dialogue. After he leaves, she soliloquizes while she gets her coat and hat, uttering such phrases as “How different now!” and “Oh, if only they’d come!”—referring to the Helmers, who are at a party upstairs. 2 Then the Helmers arrive, making dialogue possible again. This soliloquy, which seems pre-Sophoclean, registers onstage as cumbersome, even when a good actress performs it. 3 This observation about Mrs. Linde...