Verse drama and dramatic verse

Verse drama is any drama written as verse to be spoken; another possible general term is poetic drama. For a very long period, verse drama was the dominant form of drama in Europe (and was also important in non-European cultures). Greek tragedy and Racine's plays are written in verse, as is almost all of Shakespeare's drama, Ben Jonson, John Fletcher and others like Goethe's Faust.

Verse drama is particularly associated with the seriousness of tragedy, providing an artistic reason to write in this form, as well as the practical one that verse lines are easier for the actors to memorize exactly. In the second half of the twentieth century verse drama fell out of fashion with dramatists writing in English, although the plays of prominent poets, Christopher Fry and T. S. Eliot continued the tradition.

Recently, there has been a resurgence in interest in the form of verse drama, particularly those plays in blank verse or iambic pentameter, which endeavor to be in conversation with Shakespeare's writing styles. King Charles III by Mike Bartlett, written in iambic pentameter, played on the West End and Broadway, as well as being filmed with the original cast for the BBC. Likewise, La Bete by David Hirson, which endeavors to recreate Moliere's farces in rhyming couplets, enjoyed several prominent productions on both sides of the Atlantic. David Ives, known best for his short, absurdist work, has turned to "transladaptation" (his word) in his later years: translating and updating French farces, such as The School for Lies and The Metromaniacs, both of which premiered in New York City.

With the renewed interest in verse drama, theatre companies are looking for "new Shakespeare" plays to produce. Companies such as Red Bull Theater in New York City (named after the historical theatre of the same name) specializes in producing Ives' "transladaptations" as well as obscure verse plays. Turn to Flesh Productions, a New York City theatre company founded by verse drama specialist, Emily C. A. Snyder, directly develops new verse plays with living playwrights, with a mission to create vibrant roles for women and those underrepresented in classical art. In 2017, the American Shakespeare Center founded Shakespeare's New Contemporaries (SNC), which solicits new plays in conversation with Shakespeare's canon. This was partially in response to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival commissioning "modern English" versions of Shakespeare plays.

Dramatic verse

Dramatic verse occurs in a dramatic work, such as a play, composed in poetic form. The tradition of dramatic verse extends at least as far back as ancient Greece.

The English Renaissance saw the height of dramatic verse in the English-speaking world, with playwrights including Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare developing new techniques, both for dramatic structure and poetic form. Though a few plays, for example A Midsummer Night's Dream, feature extended passages of rhymed verse, the majority of dramatic verse is composed as blank verse; there are also passages of prose.

Dramatic verse began to decline in popularity in the nineteenth century, when the prosaic and conversational styles of playwrights such as Henrik Ibsen became more prevalent, and were adapted in English by George Bernard Shaw. Verse drama did have a role in the development of Irish theatre.

Closet drama

An important trend from around 1800 was the closet drama: a verse drama intended to be read from the page, rather than performed. Byron and Shelley, as well as a host of lesser figures, devoted much time to the closet drama, in a signal that the verse tragedy was already in a state of obsolescence. That is, while poets of the eighteenth century could write so-so poetic dramas, the public taste for new examples was already moving away by the start of the nineteenth century, and there was little commercial appeal in staging them.

Instead, opera would take up verse drama, as something to be sung: it is still the case that a verse libretto can be successful. Verse drama as such, however, in becoming closet drama, became simply a longer poetic form, without the connection to practical theatre and performance.

According to Robertson Davies in A Voice From the Attic, closet drama is "Dreariest of literature, most second hand and fusty of experience!" But indeed a great deal of it was written in Victorian times, and afterwards, to the extent that it became a more popular long form at least than the faded epic. Prolific in the form were, for example, Michael Field and Gordon Bottomley.

Dramatic poetry in general

Dramatic poetry is any poetry that uses the discourse of the characters involved to tell a story or portray a situation.

The major types of dramatic poetry are those already discussed, to be found in plays written for the theatre, and libretti. There are further dramatic verse forms: these include dramatic monologues, such as those written by Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson and Shakespeare.

See also

Further reading

  • Denis Donoghue (1959), The Third Voice: Modern British and American Verse Drama
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