Poetic drama in the 20th century

Setting the stage for a growing trend in the 21st Century,

Verse plays make a comeback as theatre directors discover new audiences.

Back in the day, at the beginning of Western drama, the Greeks had it right. Plays and poetry are handmaidens. With the advent of naturalism and realism, poetic drama began to take a back seat— on Western stages, at least. It looks like the poets are on the march to reclaim what one might think is their natural habitat—the stage.

Poets Ruled!

greek actor statue

Poetry has intermittently ruled the stage since the time of the ancient Greeks: “There was a time when poetry and drama were indissoluble  . . .. [F]rom the theatre of ancient Athens until the English Civil War, the idea that some or all of a play might be written in verse was both conventional and uncontroversial.

In the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century, England in particular, the use of iambic pentameter in plays was so prevalent that imagining the theatre of the period without verse is like imagining its politics without religion. And into this perfect storm came William Shakespeare, who became the most famous and respected verse dramatist who ever lived, and inadvertently ruined everything for everyone.” – Richard O’Brien, “Whatever Happened to Verse Drama,” The Missing Slate

Who could dare to top that???

Verse drama had some popularity during the 16th and 17th Centuries but continued to decline, despite the popularity of some 20th Century writers like Christopher Fry (The Lady’s Not for Burning).  “[V] erse drama became a rarity in the 20th century, with a handful of exceptions: T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry led a revival between the wars and Caryl Churchill produced the 1980s hit Serious Money.” Kate Maltby, “Verse Makes a Comeback,” Standpoint

Poetry on Stage – Yawn??????

drama performance

We began to think of contemporary drama and poetry as distinct genres. Since the rise of realism and naturalism in the middle of the 20th century, most theatergoers have looked on what they call “poetic drama” as “closet drama,” plays written to be read rather than heard. It’s hard to blame them for that. A number of classic poets were far from successful at dramaturgy.

“Oh God, can things get any worse?
Another play in needless verse.”

Michael Spencer about Michael Frayn’s new play, Afterlife

Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote several plays that were unsuccessful. Reportedly, one of those plays had all the members of the English Parliament appear on stage for approximately two minutes and then exit. T.S. Eliot’s dramas are seldom produced today. I confess I painfully sat through Murder in the Cathedral and it would not have convinced me that “poetry” belonged on stage. It may have been the production, but . . .

The playwrights embracing dialogue as poetry or vice versa were swept away by the sturm und drang of the Angry Young Men and growth of realistic or naturalistic theater in the mid and late 20th C. “John Osborne comes to represent the theatre of the 1950s, while Christopher Fry is consigned to the dustbin of history.” Richard O’Brien, “Verse Makes a Comeback,” The Missing Slate

Contemporary critics have excoriated drama that smacked of verse or poetry. The English critic Michael Spencer has a particular distaste for verse and drama. He derided Joanna Laurens Five Gold Rings for setting “off down the same blind alley that lured T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry.” He disparaged Michael Frayn’s new play Afterlife by saying “Oh God, can things get any worse?/Another play in needless verse.”  Verse Drama in England, 1900 – 2015 by Irene Morra.

 Producers view the term “poetic drama” as box-office poison—and it often is. Pre-production publicity often eliminates the words poem, poetry, or verse from a play’s description.

But there is evidence that poetic drama, however one defines that, may be making a comeback on contemporary stages. One need only to look at the dialogue of Caryl Churchill, Paula Vogel, or David Ives to get a sense of how contemporary theatrical dialogue is being used.

The Brothers Size by Tarell Alvin McCraney and Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife reinvent storytelling on the stage.

To say nothing of the remarkable and moving plays devised by The Anthropologists, a 10+-year-old theater group. founded by Melissa Moschitto.

“The Anthropologists charge forward with humor, intensity, of and the madness of the moment.”

The Theatre Times

From start to finish, their process and their product is a definition of poetry on stage–found poems. ekphrastic poems, but always poems that escape the page and explode onto the stage to reveal to us who we were, who we are, and who we may become. Read next….

Poets Fight Back . . .

and What in the Heck is a Poem-Play?

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