Considering the wealth of poetic drama that has come down to us from the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods, it is surprising that so little of any value has been added since. It is not that poets have not tried. On the contrary, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries innumerable verse dramas were written and indeed performed, but none of this survives in the English repertoire. Nor is this very likely to be a case of unjust neglect. Classical companies have often searched for abandoned theatrical masterpieces from this fallow period, but have failed to come up with much of interest after Otway’s Venice Preserv’d (1682).
Nevertheless, poetic drama sometimes survives in modified forms. For instance, if Racine or Sophocles is to be performed on the English stage, a poetic translation will be needed, and since the idiom in which either of these playwrights wrote involved much that is very far from our own traditions, conscious poetic choices have to be made by the translator in order to find an idiom for the modern stage. Many poets have turned their hands to such work, which can be both an interesting challenge and a source of income (one of the rare sources of income for a poet which actually involves the writing of verse).
Another way in which poetic drama survives is by being set to music. We may never read Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’amuse, but if we know Verdi’s Rigoletto we know Hugo’s play—abridged, transposed, transformed, but still very much, in the feel of it, his play. We may never get to see Hugo’s Hernani on the English stage, but Verdi’s Ernani does indeed turn up in the repertoire.
In the same way, we may think we know nothing of Pushkin until we add up the number of musical adaptations of his work: Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov, Ruslan and Lyudmila, The Queen of Spades… What is more, Tchaikovsky’s Onegin not only makes us acquainted with the story and something of the atmosphere of Pushkin’s work: it is a remarkable fact that, if you are familiar with the phrases of the music, you will also be familiar with Pushkin’s measure—not the whole stanza, perhaps, but that characteristic four-foot line with its pattern of feminine and masculine endings. The composer incorporates such chunks of the original poem in his work, and sets them so audibly, that, without knowing a word of Russian, you will have a sense of the way the verse is constructed.
Schiller is a poet whose drama finds its way to us, this time disguised as Italian opera: Luisa Miller, Maria Stuarda, Guglielmo Tell, I Masnadieri, Don Carlo, Giovanna d’Arco… And if we think we know very little Goethe, we may be surprised to find how much has come to us through the medium of music, just as Shakespeare’s and Byron’s work has been transmitted musically through the non-English-speaking world.
All this should give us pause before we write off poetic drama as an extinct art form. One…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.
Copyright © 2002 by Salamander Press Ltd. All Rights Reserved.