Verse on Stage – Poets Fight Back

Poetic drama or verse drama has successfully reared its head along the way: Under Milkwood by Dylan Thomas who understood theatricality and resonance and dramatic cadence, for example. I once saw a production of that play by the National Theatre of the Deaf with signing from the stage which was not only functional but as beautiful as a ballet.

And I have observed poets muscling their way back into their natural habitat for some time. Spoken Word Poetry has become the darling crowd-pleaser at many coffee bars, bistros, and small theaters. Verse—specifically iambic pentameter—has even found its way into film and televisionland through the contemporary play by Mike Bartlett, Charles III, which imagines the early death of Queen Elizabeth II and the resulting ascension of Charles to the throne.

Contemporary playwrights and poets are making their way to the altar to plight their troth—and what beautiful children they might bear together.

When asked why he had chosen to write the play in blank verse, a form associated with Shakespeare’s era, Bartlett responded, “The verse was never written to be aesthetically wonderful and beautiful. It was there to help the drama, to help the characters and help the different levels in the play. For the same reason that Shakespeare uses verse with his kings, it’s to find a voice that you can believe a King speaking in.” (RadioTimes, Why Are They Speaking in Blank Verse? By Huw Fullerton)

. . . And Up the Ante

Contemporary playwrights and poets are making their way to the altar to plight their troth—and what beautiful children they might bear together.
Poets like Richard O’Brien are choosing to write their first verse play.

Mike Bartlett’s success with Charles III might give writers like O’Brien hope that they are not indulging in an academic exercise. (Sometimes, I wonder if poets have just gotten tired of not being paid for their work while novelists and playwrights have a slim chance at least of earning a pittance.)

But wait! Modern poetry is bringing other sounds and voices to the theater. The Spoken Word phenomenon across the country has affianced the world of “serious” drama to the world of Hip-Hop. (Anyone heard of Hamilton? Or, in an earlier time, The Dutchman or Jackpot Melting: A Commercial by Amiri Baraka?)

In fact, poetry in all its forms and manifestations has never completely left the stage. The dialogue one hears in sitcoms and police procedurals on television is vastly different from that in a contemporary play.

It conveys information, establishes who is whom, and drives a plot or a joke forward to the punch line. The same is true of many modern films, a field which emerged from a silent genre. The image is all. The language of film and television is largely utilitarian. Words spoken on the stage, however, dominate.


Juanita Rockwell, a contemporary playwright, champions the natural poetic underpinnings of dramatic dialogue:

“Language is never just about information. As playwrights, we can get caught up in using language as a vehicle for information about plot or character or theme, but language holds the potential for expressing many different layers of meaning. As audience members, we may not receive all those layers consciously, but they enrich our multifaceted experience of the work. This multifaceted experience is poetry, and is what engages me, whether as playwright or audience.”

The dialogue in most successful contemporary plays conveys play and character but does much more. It layers the characters and the themes. It is pleasing and elegant to the ear.

There are so many ways that the art of the poem is infusing the art of the drama. Gone (almost) are drawing room or kitchen sink dramas and comedies. Plays have begun to take place (as Shakespeare’s did) on battlefields, cornfields, space stations, and the edge of cliffs. Time is not necessarily linear but elastic like a Mobius strip.

Some plays (Knives in Hens by David Harrower) thrust the audience out of time and space and into a journey in which language and power and learning is supremacy.


Knives in Hens is set in a nameless, timeless, rural village where the characters are a field-hand, Young Woman; Pony William, a ploughman, and Gilbert Horn, a Miller. The play opens:

Young Woman – I’m not a field. How’m I a field? What’s a field? Wet. Black with rain. I’m no field.
William – Never said that.
Young Woman – Says I’m a field sitting here.
William – Said you’re like a field.
Young Woman – Said I’m a field sitting here.
William – Said you’re like a field. Like a field.
Young Woman – ‘S the same thing.
William – Nothing close, Woman.”

Knives in Hens – David Harrower
field

And thus begins a journey into the struggle of the intersection of language and power in the human landscape.

But even “realistic” plays can bring the power of poetry into the language of their dialogue. David Mamet is praised for writing the way people speak. He is much more of a poet than many give him credit for:

All train compartments smell vaguely of shit. It gets so you don’t mind it. That’s the worst thing that I can confess. You know how long it took me to get there? A long time. When you die you’re going to regret the things you don’t do. You think you’re queer? I’m going to tell you something: we’re all queer. You think you’re a thief? So what? You get befuddled by a middle-class morality? Get shut of it. Shut it out. You cheated on your wife? You did it, live with it. You **** little girls, so be it. There’s an absolute morality? Maybe. And then what? If you think there is, then be that thing. Bad people go to hell? I don’t think so. If you think that, act that way. A hell exists on earth? Yes. I won’t live in it. That’s me. You ever take a dump made you feel like you’d just slept for twelve hours?-

Glengarry Glen Ross, David Mamet

This is how we speak? Hardly—perhaps aside from the profanity. It’s how we would speak if we had hours to craft our next words into a perfect rhythm, a rant with cadence and measured tempo, leading up to a big bang.

Put Up or Shut Up

I have always believed in giving a green light to plays which manifested themselves through some form of non-conversational dialogue or structure. (Truthfully, most playwrights know that all dialogue is non-conversational if it’s going to work.

I’ve even put my money where my mouth is by publishing some works which rely heavily on a poetic structure of form or dialogue.

Between Trains, Juanita Rockwell

Rockwell’s Between Trains is one of those. Her main character, Wendell, emerges naked, as if born, from a mound of suitcases in a train station and is mysteriously provided a coat at the beginning of the play.

(The play is written to be performed in an actual train station.) In subsequent scenes, she acquires many other “gifts,” suggested by projected titles.

In an early scene entitled “loud noises: in which wendell learns fear” Wendell is confronted by a large, ragged man, Dawke.

DAWKE: It’s HUGE furious all teeth and snarl-
WENDELL: Where?
DAWKE: And not alone you can bet that.
WENDELL: Who? I don’t see anybody but you.

Between Trains, Juanita Rockwell

It is the rhythm and cadence of the language that drives the play forward. This is poetry that sits easily on the ear:

DAWKE: Wait…
Sounds like it’s backing off again. I think I scared it off. For now, anyway.
Never heard anything like it. That sound grabbing my heart and the bright slash in the sky you never know where sometimes two places at once – how does it do that?

This is the drama that shows us who we are, who we can become. Alternately menacing and comforting, the words are poetry. And we, the audience, can connect easily with their intent.

And then there is Gillette Elvgren’s sometimes bawdy poetic adaptation (with music) of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. At the mention of Chaucer, a lot of eyes glaze over at the thought of a fusty, old poet they had learned about from Cliff Notes to avoid actually reading the text. They didn’t know what they were missing—at least in Elvgren’s adaptation. This is from a scene from “The Pardoner’s Tale” with the travelers to Canterbury stopping at a tavern:

SOP: Here lads, to cut the night air,
We’ll stop here, for a pint of Old Peculiar,

DICEY: A pint or two or three…

GLUT: Or four! For if you ask me,
The tipster’s task ain’t done
‘til we’ve wiped the floor with his sodden bun
And licked the last grisly morsel
From a moldy haunch of venison.

SOP: Food, drink, I’m talking to one of you girls,
You there, the one with the sweet little curls,
Come fan my fires of lechery,
With a keg of yer finest, and I don’t mean tea. . .

Canterbury Tales, Chaucer, adapted by Gillette Elvgren

It doesn’t take a dictionary or a thesaurus to translate that scene.

Some poets are taking it even further. Read next…

What in the Heck is a Poem-Play?

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