poetic drama



  • A play written wholly or mainly in verse. As this was the normin early drama (a tradition crowned by the works of Shakespeare),the term is usually reserved for works written since the Restoration(1660); by this time only tragedies were still composed in verse,comedies being more commonly written in prose.

    In the late 17th century the great works of Corneilleand Racine established the rhyming couplet as the standardform for tragedy and serious historical dramas. Despite the effortsof Dryden, however, the form never took root in the Englishtheater. In the early romantic era a revival of verse drama was ledby the Germans Goethe and Schiller, whose earlyworks consciously invoke the example of Shakespeare. Goethe's greatestpoetic drama was the two-part Faust (1829 and 1854), whileSchiller's historical plays Maria Stuart (1801) and WilhelmTell (1804) have held the stage in German-speaking countries.

    In Britain, the romantic poets Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron,Shelley, and Keats all wrote plays, although most of these come intothe category of closet dramas; only Coleridge's Remorse(1813) and Byron's Marino Faliero (1821) were staged duringthe lifetimes of the authors. Shelley's The Cenci, a gothictale of incest and murder written in 1819, was produced in 1886 andis still sometimes revived. The pitfalls of verse drama were demonstratedeven more thoroughly by the Victorian poets Tennyson and Browning,whose work for the stage rarely rises above the feeblest Shakespeareanpastiche.

    Although Ibsen's early works Brand and Peer Gyntare amongst the most successful poetic dramas to have been writtensince the Jacobeans, his later plays were chiefly responsible forestablishing prose as the natural vehicle for serious modern drama.The triumph of realism in the late 19th century has madeverse drama seem an increasingly marginal form. Amongst those to leada reaction against prose realism was W. B. Yeats, who turnedto the Japanese Nō theater for inspiration.

    The attempt to find a contemporary idiom for verse drama didnot really bear fruit until the 1930s, when poets such as T. S. Eliotand W. H. Auden began to use free verse. In Britain there was a shortlivedvogue for poetic drama in the years after World War II, when suchplays as Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning(1948) and Eliot's The Cocktail Party (1949) were presentedsuccessfully in the West End. In 1945 - 46 the actor and directorE. Martin Browne (1900 - 80), who directed all of Eliot's plays,produced a season of new verse drama at London's Mercury Theatre.