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Modern Poetic Drama
Modern Poetic Drama
T. S. Eliot and W. B. Yeats are two of the tallest and most towering and influential figures in the sphere of the twentieth century literature in Great Britain. Both of them were desirous of making the theater once more poetical, not merely a place of entertainment and superficial imitation of the contemporary society, but a center of spiritual discipline where the spectators may have a chance of searching their souls and realizing the hidden depth below the surface. Both, again, were determined to liberate the modern poetic drama from the fetters of the Elizabethan imitation on the one hand and the supremacy of the commercial management and ambitious star actors on the other. But while Yeats started with the Irish legend, myth and folklore and ended with the highly symbolical and ritualistic short musical plays in the manner of the Japanese Noh plays, Eliot followed the route of religious drama, through classical themes and conventions, to the plays of the social realistic surface, steadily denuding the poetic medium of all its music, color and marked beauties till it became assimilated with the elements of common prose. W.B. Yeats reacted violently avenues of escape into the depth of the soul and supernatural mystery with the help of the legend, folklore, myth, symbol and the occult systems of East and West. His plays therefore, are mythical and symbolical and they all alike rely upon mask, symbol, ritual and formal stylization and remote association, in order first to liberate the spirit from the common concerns and associations, and then to induce a trance like state favorable for deeper glimpses into the heart of the mystery within and without. The result is that in plays like A the Hawke’s Well and The Dreaming of the Bones the external human and narrative surface has been refined away and the lyrical element has swallowed the dramatic and the symbolical has subjugated the human appeal. W.B. Yeats, thus, showed the great possibility of the poetic drama but failed to produce a play in which dramatic action, movement and vital characterization, blended with the music and symbolism of poetry, are effective alike with the small coterie of the literary elite and the common body of the less enlightened people.
It was this need of making drama at once poetical and popular, as it was in the age of Shakespeare when it provided something to every level of mind in the audience, that prompted Eliot to turn from poetry to play. He started as a religious dramatist and progressed to the social comedy with spiritual and psychological core, in an attempt to blend the popular and serious elements. Of the first phase the peak of achievement was attained in Murder in Cathedral, treating of the Christian idea of martyrdom and adopting the Greek device of chorus, which introduces some of the most splendid poetic passages ever produced on the contemporary stage. Generally speaking it is no exaggeration to say that this play represents the high watermark of religious drama in our secular age.
In the Family Reunion the surface is domestic and characters realistic yet the main theme is sin and expiation presented in terms of the Greek idea of a sinner hounded and pursued by Furies, as it was treated with splendid success by Aeschylus in his great trilogy, dealing with the story of Agamemnon, his murder and the dark consequence which flowed out of it. Poetry is flexible and subdued here and the tension is well sustained, yet the play is vitiated by the introduction of the Furies on the stage and the vagueness about the element of expiation on the part of Harry, who elects to himself the scapegoat for the sin of his family.
In his later social comedies, Cocktail Party and Confidential Clerk, T.S. Eliot illustrates his own percept that a modern poetic play should have a musical pattern with a double plane of action, the outer and the inner, the surface excitement blended with a core of serenity; that poetry here should be a medium not to look at but to be seen through, a poetry carved out of the living speech, showing how the men and women of to-day will speak, if they learn to speak in verse. But the upshot is that the soul of poetry is stifled and external action almost refined to nothingness and the plays themselves denuded of all elements of theatricality, inner or outer. The last play, the Elderman Statesman, is a romantic play with a pervasive warmth and subdued but fine lyricism, dealing with the profound truth of old king Oedipus’s dictum that love is the only salvation for man on his earth. The protagonist is redeemed by the pure love between his young daughter and her man and with awakened insight he faces his past resolutely and exercises its ghost which had darkened his life. In spite of his admirable effort and fair measure of success Eliot could not realize his ideal of poetic drama in which external movement, action and tension should blend with inner tranquility and poise to produce a musical pattern. The poets of Auden group tried their hands at poetic play writing and produced several plays.
Poetic drama in our unpoetical age of cheap mechanical entertainment and utter spiritual disintegration is bound to be in a minority. Its success will finally depend upon the dramatist’s capacity to animate the dramatic and theatrical outer structure with the vital wine pf poetry which, as Abercrombie has well said, can exalt and intoxicate us with visions and illusions ‘beyond the sphere of our sorrows’. In the words of a critic, ‘until poetry can people the stage again with actions which are at once poetry and drama, poetic drama will not exist.’