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 almost completely out of fashion with dramatists writing in English (the plays of Christopher Fry and T. S. Eliot being possibly the end of a long tradition).
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 such as Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare developing new techniques, both for dramatic structure and poetic form. Though a few plays, such as 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.
Main article: 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. Lord 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 William Shakespeare.
Collaborative play writing
Collaborative play writing for verse drama is available at Wikiversity (see below).
- Denis Donoghue (1959), The Third Voice: Modern British and American Verse Drama
The news that former poet laureate Andrew Motion is writing a play, to be premiered at this year's High Tide festival sounds like something of a surprise on first hearing. However, the more I think about it, the more I think this might be a cause for cautious celebration.
Let's be honest, neither "verse-drama" nor "poetic theatre" has an alluring ring, does it? I have to remind myself that actually I quite like that sort of thing. I don't know whether it's simply cultural – whether we subconsciously hear the word "poetic" as a synonym for "painfully slow" – or whether it's specific to when the word is attached to "theatre", another word with a rich tapestry of negative connotations (most commonly as a synonym for show-offy, or something dishonest). But I refuse to believe it's just me who hears the words "poetic drama" and first imagines something slowly woven from pastel shades of twee. It has an identity problem.
At first glance, poetic drama hasn't been having a great time of it for a while now. I remember being fascinated, when researching my book about the history of the National Student Drama festival , to read an account by Sir Harold Hobson of a session at one of the first festivals back in 1958, when Robert Robinson spent an afternoon tearing apart the work of Christopher Fry. The way Hobson tells it, this was the writing on the wall for the British verse-drama movement.
With hindsight, it can certainly look as if the Angry Young Men swept the genre off the British stage for years afterwards.
But is that really the case? On one hand, there are recent turkeys like Fram and Afterlife , appearing to confirm that we're still not terribly sure we want any verse at all back on stage just yet, thank you very much. On the other hand, leaving aside for the moment the striking fact that Britain's single most successful theatrical export and our national poet, Shakespeare, is mostly famous for his plays, which are largely written in verse – some of the best ever constructed in English – there has actually been quite a lot of poetry smuggled into theatre.
Consider, for example, Ranjit Bolt or Martin Crimp's translations of Molière. Seamus Heaney's work on the Greeks or Ted Hughes's Racine, or current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy's collaborations on adaptations of the Grimm's fairy tales with Tim Supple.
There are also those dramatists who have published books of poetry, ranging from Howard Barker to Chris Goode .
And finally, there's the work of such theatrical poets as Samuel Beckett and Sarah Kane; possibly two of the most influential dramatists of the last half-century.
Indeed, the more I think about it, far from poetry and theatre being opposed, when combined they can result in some of the most arresting work ever created for the stage.
After all, poetry can do precisely what even the best naturalistic reproduction of everyday speech can't – it can show us our language again. Poetry rejoices in the crackle of thought and the impact of word upon word. Rather than trying to "get right" what everyone already says, the job of the poet is to try to remake language enough to be able to say something new; to take all the words which are exhausted day-to-day and make them strange and unpredictable; to let them mean more. What better thing for performers to speak on stage? But, for God's sake, let's find a better name for it.