"The questions—why there is no poetic drama to-day, how the stage has lost all hold on literary art, why so many poetic plays are written which can only be read, and read, if at all, without pleasure—have become insipid, almost academic."
So wrote T. S. Eliot in "The Possibility of a Poetic Drama," published in The Sacred Wood (1922). Some fourscore years on, how has the situation of poetic drama changed?
Well, if there was no poetic drama then, I guess there's something like less than none now. You could argue that between then and now we've seen dramatists whose language has bent more toward the poetical--Beckett's monologues, the folk songs in Brecht, even the blank verse which lurks beneath much of Mamet's dialogue--but why are so few poets interested in writing--and not just writing but producing--plays in verse?
I'm sure some will argue that verse drama is very much alive, pointing to Glyn Maxwell, Verse Theater Manhattan, Christopher Logue, and other authors and organizations. All very true; I'm not saying the form is extinct. But even if we postulate for the sake of argument that there are dozens, if not hundreds of verse dramas being written this minute, I think we can still agree that verse drama is not well represented in print or on the stage. When did you last go to see a play? When did you last go to see a verse play? When did you last see a verse play by a living writer?
I've been thinking about this phenomenon a good deal for a number of reasons. First, I had a lot of trouble hammering out issues of point of view in the poems in my most recent book. Far too late into the development of the manuscript, I thought to myself, damn, this would have been much easier to do as a play. Second, the increasingly virtualized nature of our cultural discourse--by which I simply mean that I can sit here at this same screen and watch a movie, attend a photography exhibit, hear a concert, read a poem, chat on this blog, etc.--has led me to ponder theater's great anachronistic strangeness, namely, you have to be there. Third, I've always liked thinking about fallow or forgotten genres and media, like those things we made in junior high where you wrapped colored string around finishing nails tacked into plywood to learn about asymptotes. Fourth, sigh, you knew this was coming, I think I might be working on a verse play myself. Hoo. Ray. Kill me now.
Four possible reasons why you haven't been to see an original verse drama in as long as you can remember, if ever:
1. Because theater itself is a dying art, and verse drama is just one passenger on that sinking ship.
2. Movies. Duh.
3. Modernism. The concept of "verse drama" became antique when authors like Beckett began to write plays in prose that made meaning like a poem.
4. Thanks to advances in publishing technology and the internet, all of poetry's DIY energy is going into the creation of books, journals, and web sites, where it once might have gone into memorizing lines from your friend's verse play in order to mount a production of it in your back yard. No, really! Think about it! Well, maybe not. I'm just thinking out loud here, people!
Any other ideas? I'd be glad to hear them.
Drinkwater to solve the crucial problem of the medium appropriate to poetic drama.Abercrombie, in his essay on
The Function of Poetry in Drama,
claimed the superiority of poeticdrama over the prose drama. According to him, poetic drama deals with the core and Kernal of life
“life intensified” whereas prose drama is confined to the “eternal shell of reality.” What he
professed in theory, he practised in his plays like
Deborah, The End of the World, The Deserter
Despite his lively interest in the theatre and his keen desire to revivepoetic drama which could penetrate into the dark depth of the human heart and paint its drives
and impulses in vivid terms, he failed chiefly because he was “more of a poet than a dramatist.”
Bottomley followed a different line of development of poetic drama by cultivating thelyrical element in his poetry which resulted in the production of choral plays like
He revolted against the naturalistic stage with its focus on the surface of
life and sought “to
cultivate the unrealistic poetic drama, remote from the actual humdrum human existence and
capable of expressing the voice and grace of the soul”.
Naturally, his plays, like Shelly’s andTagore’s, are more lyrical than dramatic, fit not
for large audience but for small, interested bodyof listeners.W. B. Yeats played a key role in the revival of modern poetic drama both as a theoristand a practitioner of the democratic craft. Naturally opposed to the modern commercial theatre,Yeats endeavoured to revive a poetic drama capable of stirring the heart and liberating the soulwith symbolic scenery. In his crucial essay,
The Tragic Theatre,
he describes the prose play as animage of the common, mundane existence, as distinguished from the larger life of poetry wherehuman nature escapes the limits of time and space.In his long dramatic career, Yeats went on making experiments. But, as John Gassner
points out, “There is always a breach between ambition and attainment”.
He deviated from thepath he had struck out in his early plays and adopted the Japanese Noh technique. The adoptionof a foreign form precluded the possibility of its naturalization on the English stage, and, what ismore, its symbolic and allusive nature placed it beyond the comprehension of the popular
audience. Thus, as William Sharp has justly remarked, Yeats’s “own views on the public theatre precluded his success”
as a dramatist.It is T. S. Eliot who steadily moved towards the popular theatre to make poetic drama asource of moral and spiritual uplift of the secular audience. Eliot was fully convinced of the
greatness of poetic drama as well as of the “permanent craving” for it implanted in human
nature, yet he was equally alive to the great difficulties lying in the way of its realisation. Theproblem before him was two-fold
avoidance of Shakespearian versification and bridging of gulf between the language of poetry and the living speech of the people in the contemporarysociety.
Eliot’s greatness lies in solving this naughty problem by creating a poetic drama which is
at once poetic and realistic. First of all, Eliot was quite clear of the nature of poetic drama and itsdifference from the prose drama. He rightly observes:What distinguishes poetic drama fromprosaic drama is a kind of doubleness