Dramatic Poetry and Fermat’s Last Theorem

by Amit Majmudar

I used to think Shakespeare poisoned the soil like a eucalyptus. His leaves, medicinal, leeched something equal and opposite into the ground. The Tree of Life stands in a clearing. Creativity that dominant demands a sterile radius. We still stand in his. It’s the way energy could be neither created nor destroyed after the God of Genesis switched off the generator. No great ascents to heaven in Christianity, after Dante; no great verse plays in English, after Shakespeare. Call it the First Law of Succession. The First Law of Succession is that there are no successors.

Because it’s been done fairly well, elsewhere. Sometimes the Shakespearean seedling will take root far afield. Aleksander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, for example, or Schiller’s Wallenstein cycle—these poets derived, from Shakespeare’s history plays, a viable way of presenting the histories of their own people. The young Victor Hugo openly declared Shakespeare superior to Racine and the French neoclassical drama, producing some highly successful plays, like the contemporary sensation Hernani, in prose (a lesser Shakespearean Frenchman, who also wrote his plays in prose, was Alfred de Musset). In other instances, a poet writes a verse play on a different model entirely—Goethe’s Faust comes to mind. It might be argued that Faust Part I has some precedent in the Shakespearean tragedies, but by Faust Part II, Goethe is presenting a quite idiosyncratic riff on classical themes; but the farther away he goes from Shakespeare, the closer he gets to mere pageantry, the kind of court masque that Ben Jonson and John Milton wrote, but Shakespeare never did.

Actually, Shakespeare seems to inspire artists outside English to outdo themselves—consider the late operas of Verdi, Otello and Falstaff, in whose librettos Arrigo Boito produced some of his most dramatically effective verse. Where is the great English opera based on Lear? In the English-speaking world, Shakespeare has inspired performers to outdo themselves; he has inspired poets to redo Shakespeare.

What do I mean?

I mean: All for Love; or, The World Well Lost. The Borderers. Remorse. The Cenci. Otho the Great. Sardanapalus, Cain, Heaven and Earth, Marino Faliero. Queen Mary, Becket, Harold, The Cup and the Falcon.

Which is to imply: John Dryden. William Wordsworth. Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Percy Bysshe Shelley. John Keats. Lord Byron. Alfred Tennyson.

It seems that every ambitious poet has a failed blank verse drama in the Collected somewhere. Only Alexander Pope seemed practical enough to know he best not try such a thing. We don’t read these plays, not even as closet dramas. Sweet Keats writing about bloody murder and palace intrigue? That holy firebrand Shelley writing about incest in an Italian Renaissance family? We don’t want to read this kind of thing from our favorite poets. Who wants to see a ballerina in boxing gloves? Yet it’s not that these were exclusively lyric poets, either; Byron wrote widely read (in his time) narrative poems like The Giaour, and a highly readable (in our time) comic epic, Don Juan. Tennyson, too, had his Idylls of the King. But when it came to verse drama, they became pseudo-Shakespeares. With Byron, it was the blank verse:

SARDANAPALUS (speaking to some of his attendants).
Let the pavilion over the Euphrates
Be garlanded, and lit, and furnish’d forth
For an especial banquet; at the hour
Of midnight we will sup there; see nought wanting,
And bid the galley be prepared. There is
A cooling breeze which crisps the broad clear river:
We will embark anon. Fair nymphs, who deign
To share the soft hours of Sardanapalus,
We’ll meet again in that the sweetest hour,
When we shall gather like the stars above us,
And you will form a heaven as bright as theirs;
Till then, let each be mistress of her time,
And thou, my own Ionian Myrrha, choose,
Will thou along with them or me?

With neither of you, if that’s how you insist on talking. With Tennyson, over half a century on, the imitation actually gets worse. Tennyson mimicked everything—both the blank verse and the occasional “low prose” passages you find in Shakespeare:

Walter Map. Nay, my lord, take heart; for tho’ you suspended yourself, the Pope let you down again; and though you suspend Foliot or another, the Pope will not leave them in suspense, for the Pope himself is in suspense, like Mahound’s coffin hung between heaven and earth—always in suspense, like the scales, till the weight of Germany or the gold of England brings one of them down to the dust—always in suspense, like the tail of the horologe—to and fro—tick-tack—we make the time, we keep the time, ay, and we serve the time; for I have heard say that if you boxed the Pope’s ears with a purse, you might stagger him, but he would pocket the purse.

This is at once a long way from Falstaff—and not a long way from Elizabethan England. Byron stuck to writing bad Stately Shakespeare; Tennyson wrote every kind of Shakespeare badly, but Witty Shakespeare worst of all. Tennyson’s contemporary theatergoers felt that way, too, as did Byron’s. The most popular poets of their time, both Byron and Tennyson were failures at writing for the stage.

In the 20th century, the big names have a go at it still. Yeats has several plays, some in prose with verse songs, others, like the short late play “Resurrection,” in blank verse. (Auden attempted something in dramatic format called The Sea and the Mirror, which he himself called a “commentary” on The Tempest, and it would be a mistake to consider it a failed “verse play.”) Eliot is the poet who made the most sustained, most self-conscious attempts at the verse play in English, with The Cocktail Party and Murder in the Cathedral. In Eliot’s case, we are perhaps too close in time to accurately judge his success or failure; as of now, it would seem that his plays are for the Eliot specialists, while poems like The Waste Land, “Prufrock,” and “Four Quartets” will be how he is remembered.

We do have an example of a 20th-century writer making a reasonable success of a verse play. Christopher Fry is universally classified as a “dramatist” or “playwright,” not as a “poet”—and this is, to my mind, a crucial detail, one that proves just how successful he was with it. Yet it’s precisely in the poetry of his work that the trouble arises. While Eliot tried to create a distinctive, modern dramatic verse that owed something but not everything to the Elizabethans, Fry made the same mistake as Tennyson and Byron—only he made it more effectively. The briefest excerpt of Kenneth Branaugh’s production of The Lady’s not for Burning (available, as of this writing, on YouTube) shows us the Shakespearean actor quite at home speaking Fry’s blank verse. Fry’s most famous play is set in medieval England, after all; move this verse anywhere else, geographically or temporally, and its unsuitability becomes evident. Fry’s play is in dramatic verse, but his dramatic verse isn’t a viable dramatic idiom.

And that is what Eliot was trying to do: create a dramatic idiom that would also be poetry. He wasn’t the last to try. Contemporary poets like J. D. McClatchy and Glyn Maxwell are trying to do the same thing. Naturally their work goes unwelcomed by the main outlets for drama in our time—television and film. Their work for the stage isn’t in the tradition of Shakespeare and Racine, though on the surface it seems that way; Hollywood screenwriters have the same role in today’s society as the great verse playwrights did in theirs. The work of today’s verse dramatists is part of the larger phenomenon of “experimental theater”—something that began in the late 19th and 20th centuries, as the center of gravity shifted from stage to screen.

A Hollywood producer (go ahead, try pitching him your original verse screenplay) might take his cigar out of his mouth and tell you, with some impatience, that the contemporary audience doesn’t “want” dramatic poetry. But it would be just as accurate to say the audience doesn’t need dramatic poetry. We forget the role that poetry—and evocative language in general—had onstage before the advent of film and special effects in the 20th, and melodrama (drama with music) in the 19th. Poetry served as a kind of poor man’s special effect, a poor man’s background music.

Is this a dagger which I see before me, 

The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. 

I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. 

Art thou not, fatal vision, sensible 

To feeling as to sight? or art thou but 

A dagger of the mind, a false creation, 

Proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain? 

I see thee yet, in form as palpable 

As this which now I draw.

Macbeth’s seven-line hallucination makes the drawing of the knife infinitely more ominous than if he had simply slid it out. This effect would be expressed, in a film, with ominous-sounding background music and a close-up on the villain’s face. No language needed.

In Elizabethan times, Shakespeare’s stage was almost bare. The stage machinery of the court masque, meanwhile, was elaborate; the production and costumes were the thing; accordingly the poetry was weaker, even when written by poets like Ben Jonson. It’s the same reason opera librettos are impoverished of metaphor. You can’t follow the music and the complex language at the same time, and that confusion, that constant sense of missing something, is fatal to dramatic momentum. The Greek tragedies and French tragedies were simply staged, by any standard. (Simply sending a third actor onstage was considered, in Aeschylus’s time, revolutionary.)

Today, the camera presents a relatively massive amount of information to the eye; a gesture or facial expression can be magnified to the size of a theater wall. There is no necessity for language to evoke a physical scene or to express an emotion—we can see for ourselves now, thank you very much. The burden of expression has shifted away from the script. The technology of the screen makes poetry redundant, if not counterproductive. Language has atrophied in drama for the same reason portrait-painting has atrophied in art. To be displaced by a technology is usually a permanent exile.

The only poem written for the screen was written before the invention of the motion picture: Goethe’s Faust Part II, published in 1832, is a dramatic work one hundred and fifty years in advance of the cinematographic techniques required for its presentation. Formally, it is futuristic. But unlike Jules Verne, whose prophecies about submarines and lunar landings came true, Goethe, in his last crowning work, was the prophet of a dramatic art that was not to be. His Faust Part II was the first and last screenpoem.

The First Law of Succession is that there are no successors. There’s a rider to that law. Until someone succeeds.

I haven’t written this to say the obvious—dramatic verse is dead—or to explain the obvious obviously—because no one likes verse dramas anymore.

The interesting thing is, verse drama has died before. It flourishes randomly and briefly. The lasting Greek verse plays were written over a span of two generations; so were the lasting Elizabethan ones. In both cases, that curious explosion was followed by a long reign of comedies of manners and melodrama. Prose reasserted itself in drama, in both cases. Ancient Greek comedy, and eventually Roman comedy, developed from the example of Menander, not that of Aristophanes; similarly our situational comedies are closer, in form and substance, to Wycherly and Sheridan than they are to Measure for Measure.

This holds in more than one context: Racine and Corneille were contemporaries in France, just as Calderon and Lope de Vega were in Spain. Competition—from the ancient Dionysia, to the different companies of players in Shakespeare’s time, to the rival studios of Hollywood—seems to play a role here. It’s not an accident that great dramatists, unlike great poets, come in twos and threes; the example of a Marlowe drives a Shakespeare.

Is a brief, random, one- or two-generation explosion of verse plays impossible? The visual fixation of modern audiences—audience implies audition, hearing; perhaps we should call them viewers—makes it unlikely. The technological shift, from nearly bare stage to richly detailed screen, makes it even more unlikely. The emphasis among most poets on “lyric” poetry doesn’t help. (“Lyric” as distinguished from “dramatic” and “narrative” poetry, according to the traditional division; in practice, as we all know, these categories overlap.) The poets’ aversion to dramatic writing is matched by an aversion to poetry on the part of practicing screenwriters and playwrights—and, ahem, moviegoers and theatergoers.

So no, things don’t look good for the return of verse drama. (I can tell you’re surprised by that conclusion.) But is it impossible?

Verse drama, let us recall, withered long before the advent of film and television. I drew an analogy earlier between portrait-painting and dramatic verse; but it wasn’t totally accurate. We can observe a sharp decline in portraiture, and realism in European art generally, that is coeval with the development and dissemination of photography. The centuries match. But with dramatic poetry, that’s not the case. Technology may well have salted the earth. But we don’t know that.

As for poets and playwrights, their ideas about their art tend to change rapidly. There are no idees fixes when it comes to aesthetics. One generation likes Tennyson, the next likes Eliot, the one after that, Plath. The screen, meanwhile, has no allegiances at all, which is another way of saying its only allegiance is to whatever works. So the burden is, as it has always been, on the writer—it’s up to the writer to make it work. To make it work for the people in the seats and the critic in his or her head. To create something dramatic—as in I have to see what’s going to happen next; as in conflict, argument, violence, resolution—that is also poetic—as in the top of the head being taken off. To combine these two characteristics, the dramatic and the poetic, is to the English language what Fermat’s last, insoluble Theorem is to number theory. (Did I say insoluble? Did I say is? My mistake: A proof was published in 1995.) This particular “insoluble” literary problem has stumped everyone from Dryden to Eliot.

Let’s get to work.