THE GROWTH OF ENGLISH POETIC DRAMA
The English poetic drama had its hey day during the Elizabethan age. The University Wits, in general, and Marlowe and Shakespeare, in particular, contributed their mite to the growth and development of poetic drama. With the tremendous influence of the Renaissance, Marlowe poetised the Elizabethan drama. He breathed into English drama the life spirit of poetry through his “Mighty line”. Shakespeare, the master dramatist, gave a touch of perfection to the poetic drama especially through his tragedies like Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear and his tragic-comedies like Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest which are notable for their poetic excellence.
Shakespeare took drama to such poetic heights that none of his successors could continue it with the same spirit and vigour. After Shakespeare, only in Webster, particularly in his The Dutchess of Malfi, do we find almost perfect touches of poetic drama. Nevertheless, we may say that poetic drama died a natural death with Shakespeare.
No doubt, both the Romantic and the Victorian poets attempted poetic drama during the 19th century. Importantly, Keats, Shelly and Tennyson made a sincere attempt to revive Shakespearean poetic drama. But, as Mathew Arnold rightly points out, they lacked the “architectonics” of drama. Hence their failure to produce genuine poetic drama which is at once poetic and dramatic.
Poetic drama was revived only at the beginning of the 20th century and reached a sense of perfection in the hands of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry. English poetic dramatists like Stephen Phillips, John Masefield, John Drinkwater, Lasceiles Abercrombie and Bottomley and the Irish poetic dramatists like lady Gregory, W. B. Yeats and J. M. Synge paved the way for Eliot’s more creative and fruitful efforts, theoretical as well as practical, for “planting poetic drama on the stage to touch the heart and mould the thought of the public”.1
Stephen Phillips was hailed as “the saviour of modern poetic drama” by some critics. But other critics like A. C. Ward are of the view that Phillip’s poetic drama has little true poetry or true drama. He only encouraged other writers and led to further experiments in poetic drama His plays “exposed the limitations of pseudo-Elizabethan blank verse, and led poets to seek another medium”. 2
Masefield experimented widely and adopted many devices of the classical and the Japanese Noh drama and thus became one of the pioneers in the revival of modern poetic drama. But his verse with its “artless simplicity” sometimes seems too studied and self-conscious to be dramatically effective. John Drinkwater entered the dramatic field as a champion of imaginative verse drama in simple style and brought out the most popular play, Abraham Lincoln. His plays are remarkable for their human appeal and their intensity of passion.
Abercrombie and Bottomley have a greater significance in the development of English poetic drama before T. S. Eliot. For, they made a more successful attempt than Masefield and 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 poetic drama 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 and The Phoenix. Despite his lively interest in the theatre and his keen desire to revive poetic 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 the lyrical element in his poetry which resulted in the production of choral plays like Mid-Summer Eve. 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”.3 Naturally, his plays, like Shelly’s and Tagore’s, are more lyrical than dramatic, fit not for large audience but for small, interested body of listeners.
W. B. Yeats played a key role in the revival of modern poetic drama both as a theorist and 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 soul with symbolic scenery. In his crucial essay, The Tragic Theatre, he describes the prose play as an image of the common, mundane existence, as distinguished from the larger life of poetry where human 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”.4 He deviated from the path he had struck out in his early plays and adopted the Japanese Noh technique. The adoption of a foreign form precluded the possibility of its naturalization on the English stage, and, what is more, 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” 5 as a dramatist.
It is T. S. Eliot who steadily moved towards the popular theatre to make poetic drama a source 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. The problem 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 contemporary society.
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 its difference from the prose drama. He rightly observes:
What distinguishes poetic drama from
prosaic drama is a kind of doubleness
in action, as if it took place on two
planes at once. 6
Eliot emphasises the organic nature of poetic drama, where poetry is not only an integral part, but is also strictly subordinated to the purposes of the drama.
Eliot was very well aware of the necessity of discovery of a medium fit for the poetic drama he was striving to create for the theatre of his age. The matter is put in a nutshell by one of the speakers in A Dialogue of Dramatic Poetry:
We must find a new form of verse which
shall be as satisfactory a vehicle as
blank verse was for the Elizabethans. 7
Avoiding any echo of Shakespeare, Eliot preferred the versification of Everyman. He did not want to write in high style and in the manner of heroic drama. His task was Wordsworthian – “a return to everyday speech, a shearing of the decorative pictorial and static elements”. 8
With this aim in view, Eliot set to work and succeeded in discovering a flexible medium for his first great play, Murder in the Cathedral. Poetry is a prominent feature in this play, and especially in the choral songs it attains splendour and stateliness appropriate to the lofty sentiment inherent in the spiritual theme – martyrdom.
In his next play, The Family Reunion, Eliot selects a secular story with a modern setting and characters, dealing with the theme of sin and expiation. Its verse is flexible and transparent. Yet, poetic passages rich in lyricism and imagery abound in the play which remains a remarkable poetic composition.
In the plays that follow The Family Reunion, namely, The Cocktail Party. The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman, there is undoubtedly a growing awareness of the common, everyday life. Yet, Eliot fails to make a convincing treatment of the everyday life and its human agents because of his pre-occupation with a spiritual message, his distant emotion and his endeavour to make his verse as transparent as prose. In the absence of emotional appeal, Eliot’s transparent poetry in his later plays almost borders on bald prose. The Elder Statesman is a logical end of the development of poetic drama. In his Poetry and Drama Eliot says that “no play should be written in verse for which prose is dramatically adequate.” Perhaps, there is nothing in The Elder Statesman that could not be done in prose.
The last poetic dramatist is Christopher Fry, a master of eloquence. He is inspired by the noble aim of exploring the mystery of human life where God is not merely a sleeping partner, by means of comedy which he believed to be a good handmaiden of serious spiritual drama.
The most remarkable quality of Fry’s verse is its perfect suitability to the requirements of the theatre. It is fluent and flowing. It is free from poetic tricks such as inversion and ellipsis. Above all, it is progressive in movement. It can come down to colloquial level and then rise to lyrical intensity without the least trace of strain or effort. However, critics like Marius Bewley complain that Fry’s rhythm is not dramatic in that it does not convey the sense of a speaking voice, nor is it pliant to the shifts and turns of mood or emotion. 9
Poetry is the chief motive force of Fry’s genius. His muse sustains itself mainly on the sound, colour and pomp of verse. His most successful play, A Phoenix Too Frequent has simplicity and spark of liveliness. As a true poetic drama it is as successful as Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.
To conclude, the prospect of poetic drama is not very encouraging in view of the rapid growth of mass entertainment like cinema, radio and television which have jeopardised the very existence of the theatre, in general, and of the poetic theatre, in particular. So, the survival of poetic drama in our prosaic age will depend largely upon its capacity to adapt itself to the unfavourable circumstances created by hostile forces. Let us, however, hope that poetic drama will survive in its own right and by its own strength as a bulwark against forces which tend to desiccate and degrade the human heart. Let us be convinced that the poetic drama, as practised by Yeats, Eliot and Fry, is one of the best instruments for arresting the rot which is eating into the vitals of the human heart and mind at present.
1 K. S. MISRA: Twentieth Century English Poetic Drama (New Delhi: Vikas, 1981), p. 2.
2 A. C. WARD: Twentieth Century English Literature (Delhi, 1974), p. 94.
3 K. S. MISRA: Twentieth Century English Poetic Drama, (New Delhi: Vikas, 1981), Pp. 14,15.
4 JOHN GASSNER: Introduction, Playwrights on Playwriting: The Meaning and Making of Modem Drama From Ibsen to Ionesco. (New York, 1977), p. xi.
5 WILLIAM L. SHARP: “W. B. Yeats: A Poet Not in the Theatre”, The Tulane Drama Review, IV, 2, 1959, p. 67.
6 T. S. ELIOT: The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London, 1964), p. 153
7 T. S. ELIOT: Selected Essays (London: 1951), p. 57.
8 JOSEPH CHIARI: The Landmarks of Contemporary Drama
9 MARIUS BEWLEY: “The Verse of Christopher Fry” Scrutiny, XVII, (1951), p. 84.