Poetic Drama in English literature
Poetic drama is not merely a drama which is written in verse, because prose may also be its effective medium. It is, in fact, a blending of the poetic and dramatic elements in a fruitful union. Here poetry is an integral part of the play, twined with plot, character and their interplay, not an element of isolated beauty or lyricism for its own sake, as is the case with splendid lyricism in some parts of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus, for example. At the same time the dramatic elements must be capable of sustaining the poetic grace and intensity. It means its themes and characters should be poetically convinced and should be larger than the average humanity and humdrum monotony of daily life, the passions and emotions permeating them should be naturally productive of the poetic expression, calculated to lift the mind of the spectator above the sphere of our ordinary joys and sorrows and send the penetrating gaze of his inner vision far down below the surface of life to the very springs of human action and human drives. Moreover, drama being so intimately bound up with the stage condition and the historic skill its practitioner must combine mastery over the poetic resources, with a real understanding of the peculiar needs and modes of the dramatic representation in the theatre. The history of the poetic drama in England is littered with the frozen anatomies of poetic plays written by the distinguished poets of the nineteenth century who failed to subordinate poetry to the general dramatic spirit and adapt the plays to the conditions and requirements of the stage.
Poetic drama reached its glorious peak in Elizabethan England when the general conditions of society and richness of language combined with the whole nation’s insatiable craving for amusement and edification and the writer’s intimacy with the theater to make the stage a national institution. But the glory did not last long and its decline was precipitated by the victory of the puritan fanaticism which sounded its death-knell. When it was revived again in the Restoration era, the conditions had changed and the heroic tragedy in rhyming couplet was simply the fury and the violence of its ghost. A sort of artificial respiration was given to it is the blank-verse tragedies which followed. They, however, failed to sustain its life and with one flash of life in Otway’s Venice Preserved it gave up the ghost.
The nineteenth century efforts by the great poets were splendid failures on the big commercial stage, for which the writers themselves were partly to blame because they could not rise above the slavish imitation and adaptation of the Elizabethan blank-verse tragedy to re-orient the poetic drama to changed conditions of society and the taste and sensibility of the spectators. This was the condition when the present century opened with the prospect of a great dramatic Renaissance.
The realistic drama of ideas was already taking root on the English stage in the wake of Ibsen’s bold experiments which were getting powerful impetus from the crusading zeal of Shaw and his allies in the teeth of bitterest opposition of the orthodox critics and commercial managers and directors of the fashionable English theater. Amid this din and bustle the poetic drama made its prosperous debut with the poetical pieces of Stephen Phillips supported by the skill of great players and all possible extraneous aids available to the theater in those days. The plays were immediately popular and Philips was hailed as a new Messiah of the English poetic drama. But before the sound of the public applause had settled down to quieter judgements the poetic gold of Philips began to reveal the nature of its false glitter and before long the saner critics were convinced that the new dramatist had simply given a more vigorous shake to the old Elizabethan mode and set its bones rattling with the deceptive intimation of new life returning to its skeleton. The period which is covered by the present study of Stephen Philips at one end and Christopher Fry on the other, they have family likeness in the sense that they both affect a glamorous poetic style which is at once attractive and thrilling, but the first impression created by it is not destined to last long because this glamor of language and rhythm is not supported by the real blood and flesh of drama. It is poetry without dramatic backbone, popular in performance, but lacking in the essence of literature distilled from the depth and vitality of the human life and human experience.
Very soon, therefore, it was realized that the real progress of the poetic drama must rest upon twofold experiment, firstly the creation of a new style and verse based upon the current language of the day, and secondly the incorporation of the old conventions and devices with the materials provided by the contemporary life and outlook. Simplification and vitalization of language and a deeper alliance between the actual life and the poetic play were rightly regarded as the requisite condition for the regeneration of the poetic theater in England. The Georgian poets worked in the light of this conviction and some measure of success was achieved in the works of Masefield, Gibson, Davidson, Gordon Bottomley and Abercrombie. Masefield’s Tragedy of Nan, for example begins as a domestic peasant play in prose but the treachery of the people around her creates a deeper insight in the heroine who slowly rises to the stature of a great tragic figure contemptuous towards the emptiness of life and wickedness of men and women and thrilled with the prospect of death, the deliverer, which she is now determined to embrace. With this emotion and spiritual exaltation of the prose medium gets impregnated with the fiery essence of poetry and its vital rhythmic beat.
Parallel to this, and still more exciting and successful is the case with the Irish dramatist, Synge, the most precious discovery of the Irish Revival, which was especially committed to the creation and propagation of poetic drama. Synge, the most precious discovery of the Irish revival, was especially committed to the creation and propagation of poetic drama. Synge concentrated attention upon the unsophisticated Irish peasantry with a language as vital, vivid and poetical as the Elizabethan English tongue. ‘in Ireland for a few years more’ Synge observes. ‘We have a popular imagination that is fiery, and magnificent and tender; so that those of us who wish to write, start with a chance that is not given to the writers in places where the spring-time of the local life has been forgotten, and the harvest is a memory only, and the straws have been turned into bricks’. Out of these materials he created The Riders to the Sea and The Play Boy of the Western World, whose vitality and permanence of appeal remain unaffected by familiarity and the corrosion of time. The first play is brief and local in its attachment but the awful stoicism of the old mother, who has been deprived of all her sons and bread winners by the voracious and inexorable sea, reaches a height of dignity which has not been equaled by any play of the present century. Here realism, folklore and crude materials of everyday life are woven into a dramatic symphony which grips the attention with the first dialogue and keeps the imagination captivated and entranced till the last utterance of breaved motherhood, wringing the light of hope from the universal darkness which has enveloped her life.
This brings us to the bolder experiments made by knottier and more learned heads to vitalize the poetic drama, so as to make it once more an efficient instrument for the revelation of those deeper and spiritual truths of life which the realistic prose drama, with all its earnestness to interpret the contemporary life and consciousness, had miserably failed to touch.