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 may say, Yes, I know the kind of thing that happens in opera, only too well, alas: the whole art is ridiculous. But it is not ridiculous to sing in drama, unless it is ridiculous, altogether, to raise our voices in song. And it is not ridiculous to think of writing poetic drama, unless it is also ridiculous to raise our voices in poetry.
What then is the source of our unease in the face of the term “poetic drama”? Do we expect something pseudo-Shakespearean? That danger surely passed a long time ago. Or do we expect something which, while not necessarily written in verse, is poetic in the sense that it is anti-realistic, that is symbolist, that it uses a specially ornate language, like Oscar Wilde’s Salome (one of those plays which is only tolerable today as an opera)? Whatever horror lies at the back of our mind, the best thing is to search it out and examine it, because when we examine these horrors we find they lose their power to harm us.
For instance, I have a horror of choruses and “verse-speaking,” but when I examine this horror it is really a horror of Eliot’s choruses in Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and the “verse-speaking” pioneered by Anglicans in the middle of the last century, the Anglicans who got together to perform Eliot’s plays and other poetic dramas of the period. I don’t in the least have a horror of Auden’s choruses from the same period (they are the best things in his plays), or of Eliot’s unfinished Sweeney Agonistes, which actually plays very well, even when performed by amateurs, and which was rightly said to anticipate much of the spirit of Pinter’s (prose) drama.
We all have these horrors, which can be so hard to explain. I cannot bear verse dialogues of the eclogue form, whoever writes them, and yet there are other forms of pastoral I delight in. I would rather stay at home with a bad book than attend a brilliant performance of The Cocktail Party, but I would be delighted to find that someone had succeeded in writing a good poetic drama, or a great verse libretto for an opera.
For just as there was a time in English drama when it seemed natural that the bulk of a play should be written in verse, so also there was a time in the history of European opera when it seemed clear that the job of the composer was to serve the words of the poet well. After all, the original impetus behind opera had been the urge to rediscover the lost mode of drama of the Greeks. So at the heart of the musical concept was the poetic text. But in due course, over the years, the poets in the world of opera lost caste, and we became hacks and drudges and garret-dwellers. And at the same time the composers became more and more overweening, so that Bellini felt entitled to set the police onto his librettist Romani, in order to ensure that a deadline was met.
What this means is that there is ground lying idle. As poets, we have a title to assert—a part of our inheritance lies unclaimed. And the way we assert our title is by writing. The way we refute, say, the death of the sonnet, or the reported demise of the epic, is not by argument but by assertion. My sonnet asserts that the sonnet still lives. My epic, should such fortune befall me, asserts that the heroic narrative is not lost—that it is born again, perhaps in some form which seems hardly at first recognizable, but nevertheless, there it is, born again.
As poets we do not ask permission before we begin to practice, for there is no authority to license us. We do not inquire whether it is still possible to pen a drama, for the answer to that question is ours alone to give. It is our drama, spoken or sung, that asserts our right to the title of poet. It is our decision that counts, and not the opinion of some theater management, or the ponderings of the critic, or even the advice of our friendliest mentors. It is our decision, our assertion, that alters the whole state of affairs.
This is possible, we assert, because this is what I have just done. This is achievable, because I wanted enough to achieve it.
September 26, 2002