Our Expanding Dramaverse
by Wendy Vardaman & Greer DuBois
What’s in a name? Verse drama, verse play, closet drama, poets/poets’ theatre/theater, monologue, performance poetry, choreopoem, Spoken Word, Hip Hop theater….Some of these names, like dramatic monologue and the blank verse drama, have been available a long time; the closet drama is newer; Hip Hop theater, relatively recent. Genres change—that sounds obvious, as does the corollary: we shouldn’t expect something written today to look exactly like what was written in the 16th century. The novel doesn’t, poems don’t, and neither do verse plays. This essay is meant to be a practical, not scholarly, tour of those changes and the shifting points where poetry and drama intersect, as well as some of the questions we have enjoyed thinking about, along with our sense of why those questions are important.
So what do we even mean by verse drama? A play, or any other piece of theater, written in poetry? Of course, this definition comes with problems, since the definition of neither “theater” nor “poetry” is clear. We often show what we mean by verse drama by mentioning its greatest practitioners: Shakespeare and the other Elizabethan dramatists; Sophocles, Aristophanes, and all Greek and Roman playwrights; and the great majority of traditional theater, folk theater, and theater before the 18th century. Theater and poetry formed together, through their common roots in music: the earliest poetry was always performed, and the earliest performances were always in verse. If we take the long view, then our period is the exception, with poets writing for the page and playwrights aspiring to naturalistic, you-could-hear-it-on-the-street language.
It’s only in the recent past—say the last two- or three-hundred years—that poetry and theater became separate. A quick overview since Shakespeare seems to support the commonplace that verse drama, though continuously written, has declined steadily in quantity and quality since that peak. In the Elizabethan era, playwrights had already begun writing in dramatic prose, often for comedy or low-class characters (Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, for example, is entirely in prose). By the end of the 18th century, the most popular plays were romantic comedies (written in prose) and sensational melodramas (theater set to music to avoid licensing laws). Verse drama left the commercial theaters and became the purview of the Romantic poets, especially Shelley and Byron. These poets wrote their plays as homages to Shakespeare and as exercises in blank verse. They didn’t even need an audience: Goethe had already pioneered the poetic closet drama, a play written for reading, not performing, and the English Romantics adapted this convention for their verse dramas. By the end of the 19th century, the naturalistic prose of writers like Ibsen and Chekhov began to dominate theater. A few straggling verse plays did come into fashion, Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac being the most famous, but these plays were deliberately archaic. Robert Bridges’ large body of verse plays, well-known in their time, certainly fit into that category; his friend, Gerard Manley Hopkins, considered them mostly unreadable and unperformable, with their insistence on Elizabethan language and their Shakespearian content and structure.
Few playwrights worked in verse in the early 20th century, but poets rediscovered the form. T.S. Eliot first wrote about this “revival” of verse drama in his essay, “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama”(1921). Eliot, as well as the many poet-playwrights who were his disciples, such as Christopher Fry, assumed that verse drama was a dead form that needed to be re-created from scratch, or at least from something basic, like music hall reviews (a “dangerous suggestion,” Eliot says) or light opera. This re-creation would be the task of educated poets, like Eliot himself, who applied what they knew about page poetry to stage poetry. Once they reestablished the form, an individual poet could perfect it—maybe, Eliot suggests in his essay, a Modernist Shakespeare, who would understand both Modernist poetic innovation and popular entertainment. Perhaps inspired by his ambitious ideas of revival, Eliot wrote his own plays, including Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Cocktail Party (1949). and the fragmentary Sweeney Agonistes (1926). Other pro-revival writers joined Eliot, including, in England, Christopher Fry (best known for The Lady’s Not for Burning (1948)); and in America, Maxwell Anderson (Winterset, 1935) and the poet Archibald MacLeish (whose 1958 J.B. won a Pulitzer and a Tony Award). In Ireland, where poetic language has always been tolerated in theater more than in the United States or Britain, Yeats wrote poetic dramas at the Abbey Theatre, followed by poet-dramatists like Austin Clarke. At the same time, poets were increasingly called upon to write librettos for operas and musicals: Auden is well-known for his collaborations with Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten, but Richard Wilbur wrote part of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. Among critics verse drama was a heavily trafficked topic for the New Critics in particular, though by 1955, the taste for verse drama that Eliot had described in “Poetic Drama” seems to have evaporated. Mainstream productions of verse plays were no longer commercially viable.
Among poets, however, interest in poetic drama continued throughout the 20th century, although its dominant mode shifted away from what Eliot meant by “poetic drama.” Closet dramas remained popular among formalists in particular, while something called “poets theater” emerged to replace (as some critics argue) verse drama. A number of non-affiliated groups, communities really, have used “poets theater” in their name, often to mean something very different. The Kenning Anthology of Poets Theater (an excellent book that surveys poetic drama from 1945 to 1985), describes how these eclectic verse play and poets theaters sprang up wherever poets formed communities. The Cambridge Poets Theatre, founded in 1951 (and also chronicled in Peter Davison’s The Fading Smile), included for a time Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Richard Wilbur, Richard Eberhardt, John Ciardi, Alison Lurie, Edward Gorey, Donald Hall, John Ashbery, and Frank O’Hara; it produced works of Lowell, Sexton, and Ashbery, along with Richard Wilbur’s translation of Molière’s The Misanthrope. The New York Poets Theatre, founded in 1961 by Diane di Prima, Amiri Baraka, Alan S. Marlowe, John Herbert McDowell, and James Waring, produced the works of New York City poets from di Prima herself to Baraka and Frank O’Hara.
Many more such theaters have existed and continue to be founded, from San Francisco to Chicago to Providence, including the Nuyorican Poets Theater/Cafe founded in the 70s; the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E-affiliated San Francisco Poets Theater, 1978-84; and the more recent and unrelated San Francisco Poets Theater, founded in 2000 by Kevin Killian, co-editor of The Kenning Anthology. Black Poetry Theater, founded in 2007 by Joseph Churchwell and Dasan Ahanu in Durham, North Carolina, uses a variation on the name, and incorporates poetry and Spoken Word into theater performances. Poetic Theatre Productions in NYC sponsors a Festival that promotes “Social Justice through Spoken Word, Hip Hop, & Slam.” Some current groups producing theater grounded in more traditional poetry include Verse Theater Manhattan, Caffeine Theatre, founded 2002 in Chicago, and Poets Theater of Maine, founded by formalist poet Annie Finch. (PTM has produced one verse play so far, Wolf Song (2011), conceived at Wisconsin’s Black Earth Institute, where Finch met biologist/collaborator Christina Eisenberg.) Although our list is by no means complete, everywhere, it seems, poets are collaborating with performance artists, actors, and musicians to create eclectic and often experimental performances.
While poets’ interest in poetic drama, by whatever name, has remained significant in the past thirty years, interest in the verse drama, per se, has risen once again. In 2007, the Poetry Foundation under John Barr (who writes verse dramas as well as poetry) established a Verse Drama Prize (whose first award went to John Surowiecki for My Nose and Me). Many poet-critics, influenced, perhaps, by Eliot, talk about verse drama in terms of revival and being able (or not) to re-create a dead form. Joel Brouwer posted a short piece on Harriet, the Poetry Foundation’s blog in 2009, in which he pronounced both verse drama and theater dead. (“The Possibility of a Poetic Drama,” poetryfoundation.org.) A parallel post on The Guardian’s theater blog (November, 2011), also takes a narrow view of poetry drama and a dim view of its viability. Glyn Maxwell, possibly the most successful traditional verse dramatist said in an interview last year: “I’m aware that ‘verse drama’ barely exists now beyond myself and a couple of other eccentrics, and has a unique burden to bear—the weight of the great ones and the almost total failure of everyone since... All I can do is keep trying to show that verse on stage can make the sound we make now on the street, in the pub, in the bedroom, in Parliament.” (http://www.cherwell.org/culture/stage/2011/03/03/interview-glyn-maxwell)
A verse-drama session at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs in 2011 featured poet-playwrights, such as Barr and David Yezzi (who appears in this issue of VW), reading from their verse dramas and discussing the form—past, present, and future. The session, “Writing Plays with Poetry: The Place of Verse Drama in Contemporary Literature and Theater,” left us with possibly more questions than when we arrived: Is this really what contemporary poetry drama looks like? Are we asking the right questions? Are we defining ourselves into a corner? Are we trying to confect/resurrect a verse drama that is less than it could be for writers, performers, and audiences, at the same time that we fail to recognize the verse drama that is happening already, in other places and spaces, in other forms, and by other measures?
Shakespeare himself didn’t write exclusively in blank verse. In the same play, he might incorporate rhymed tetrameter quatrains, prose, rhymed iambic pentameter, even sonnets, and, of course, songs and dance. His iambic pentameter, for that matter, includes an enormous amount of complex variation. The dramatic reasons for doing so—from keeping the reader awake, to characterization, have been widely written about, but are often simplified, even by very educated critics. The prose/blank-verse dichotomy, for instance, isn’t simplistically about differentiating low and high characters, a common assertion, but also about marking departures from particular states of mind within the same character’s speech (e.g., Hamlet, Prince Hal), and sometimes different interactions between the same pair of characters, and sometimes madness, and sometimes business communications, and sometimes turning points in action and thought (Richard DiPrima, The Actor’s (and Intelligent Reader’s) Guide to the Language of Shakespeare, The Young Shakespeare Players, 2010). When contemporary critics and writers consider the verse drama, the very form they want to revive is one they have a flattened understanding of.
Would Shakespeare, alive today and writing contemporary verse drama, insist on writing either in Elizabethan language or using only the tools available to an Elizabethan poet and playwright? We very much doubt it, although the subjects he wrote about then, the sentiments he expressed about many of them, his techniques for constructing a drama and for holding an audience, and the components of his poetry, his verse drama, are all incredibly vital. But the poetic tools, as well as the dramatic modes and the narrative strategies, available to a 21st century poet are vastly different than those available to a 16th century one. These include, to mention just a handful, free verse, the prose poem, collage, syllabic forms from haiku to Fibonacci to invented, sound poetry, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E Poetry, Projectivism, Objectivism, Spoken Word, Hip Hop, polyphony, unreliable narrators, multiple perspectives, the choreopoem, and yes, all the tools also available to Shakespeare—those don’t need to be thrown out just because they are “old,” as the recent work of formalists and playwrights working in blank verse reminds us.
What might contemporary verse drama look like if it incorporated an array of contemporary poetic strategies?
The same 2011 AWP conference included some fascinating women’s collaborations between poetry and performance arts—poetry and dance, poetry and theater, music and art and poetry—including a clip from the staging of Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler.
An inquiry to the Women’s Poetry Listserv produced a wealth of leads on women currently working in hybrid poetry/performance forms, from experimental to, well, experimental—jazz operas, choreopoems, one-woman performance pieces (e.g., Anne Carson’s “Lots of Guns: An Oratorio for Five Voices” in Decreation; Heather Raffo’s Nine Parts of Desire; Ntozake Shange, of course, whose ground-breaking for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf created the choreopoem; Virginia Grise’s recent, award-winning Blu; Caridad Svich; Lois Roma-Deeley’s High Notes; Wendy Brown-Baez; Karren L. Alenier; Sharon Bridgforth’s Theatrical Jazz; and some of the authors who appear in this issue of VW). Rather than writing iambic-pentameter verse plays, these women seem more inclined to include a little of this, a little of that, including blank verse, into their poetry drama.
The story among multi-ethnic writers—and there are many—who write poetry drama is, not surprisingly, also complex. Verse plays by well-established African American authors, like Smith (Blood Dazzler), Rita Dove (The Darker Face of the Earth), Derek Walcott (most recently, Moon-Child, a rhyming verse drama), Toni Morrison (Desdemona), Yusef Komunyakaa (Gilgamesh), are literary and well-crafted, at the same time that they’re intended for performance. We imagine there might also be dynamic verse plays coming from younger fellows of Cave Canem, which supports African-American poets and encourages a deep knowledge of traditional verse forms—Komunyakaa, Dove, and Smith have all been teachers there, and co-founder Cornelius Eady writes plays as well as poetry. In general these poets seem very invested in creating performable poetry, whether or not they’re writing poetic drama or dramatic poetry, invested in the voices of others and those unable to speak for themselves, and willing and capable of producing work that employs techniques from 16th century poetry alongside those from the 21st. Willing to risk dramatic language.
Dramatic, poetic language is also abundant in Hip Hop and Spoken Word Theater. Holly Bass, a Cave Canem fellow, journalist and performance artist, was the first person to use the term Hip Hop Theater in print in 1999, though the forms originate in 1970s/80s urban youth culture. As a wider art form, Hip Hop is a global movement located in the power of words, community, and social justice. With respect to theatrical performances, Spoken Word and Hip Hop Theater are multi-disciplinary and multi-cultural, with contributions, especially, from African American and Latino artists. Considering these forms only briefly, as represented in anthologies like Plays from the Boom Box Galaxy (ed., Kim Euell with Robert Alexander) or Say Word! Voices from Hip Hop Theater(ed., Daniel Banks), opens up a range of new language and new approaches to poetry dramas: from the agile mix of rap, rhymed poetry, and remixed/sampled Shakespeare (Deep Azure, Chadwick Boseman), to plays that include prose, DJs, and MCs who rap (Kristoffer Diaz’s Welcome to Arroyo’s), to choreopoems and solo performance poetry pieces in the tradition of Shange and others. The amount and use of poetry varies, and the aesthetics are often very different than those of “literary” verse drama, but these are compelling pieces written by well-educated, well-trained poets/performers making deliberate and considered choices. Commercial productions, from Broadway shows to new takes on classic verse, like the Q Brothers’ Funk It Up About Nothin’ (2011) at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, bring a probably more palatable version of this kind of poetic drama to an older, whiter, wealthier audience, but raise questions about commodification, co-option, and dilution of the form, if it is the same form. A good list of "Hip Hop Activist and Educational Organzations and Programs" is available here. See also the brief overview in this issue of the unique "First Wave" program at the UW-Madison.
We turn from a description of contemporary verse drama to its purpose: What does drama offer poetry? Do we even need verse drama? What is it about Shakespearian drama—or any good dramatic verse—that is so compelling? Historically, verse drama has existed in situations where drama required portability. (We might note that portability was also key to the development of Hip Hop, with its boom boxes and cardboard and scavenged linoleum stages.) In Elizabethan theater, there were no sets, no lights, and only minimal contemporary costumes. They staked everything on the words and the actors. Without spectacular images or effects, what did Shakespeare have that made him one of the most popular writers of his generation? Words. And because there were no extras in his productions—no flashing lights, no explosions—he had to decorate his stories using verse. In doing that he engages the audience more than is possible in any other form of entertainment. Shakespeare’s verse, and any good dramatic poetry, subconsciously engages the imagination. (Neurological research around this topic has been in the news a good deal recently; Philip Davis’s Shakespeare Thinking is one recent book.) Compelling words enter our brains, where we see images: “But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad/walks o’er the dew of yond high-eastward hill.” That’s an image of dawn that we’ll remember much better than colored lights illuminating a backdrop. And Shakespeare is, of course, not just using visual imagery, but sound, rhythm, repetition, and other poetic tools in nuanced combination for his effects: “In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:/It wearies me; you say it wearies you.” In the simplicity of this statement, in the sighing through the s- sounds, and the repetition of weary and you, who doesn’t instantly get an impression of this character’s state of mind?
No literature is as potent as the imagination itself. A good playwright’s job is to suggest a story, and a good actor’s job is to suggest a character. But the audience must be free to fill in other elements with imagination. This is exactly what makes verse drama so ideal. It combines the most suggestive language—poetry—with the most suggestive form of communication—live speech and movement by a group of actors or an individual actor—and shares it with an actively imagining audience. Verse drama’s unique power to engage groups of people has been understood for thousands of years. We believe, as playwright/actor Ellen McLaughlin argues in a 2009 commencement address, “Theatre and Democracy” (fluxtheatre.org), that the co-founding of Greek theater and democracy is no coincidence. Democracy depends on active, engaged citizens, who fill in the story behind a politician’s speech. Little wonder that our democracy can be so passive—how can a public educated on bad television ever develop the engagement necessary to vote?
Verse drama isn’t just important because Shakespeare did it. Poetry is drama’s native language. Performance is poetry’s native state.
Besides our broad and deeply held belief in the power of poetry and drama, singly and in unison, to activate the imagination and to help us to make meaning, a belief also critical to Hip Hop, there are a host of practical, artistic contributions that drama can make to poetry. The contemporary poetry reading emerges largely out of its use among Beat poets, as do the beginnings of performance poetry. It may have been fresh air in the poetry room at one point, but let’s confess: aren’t we all feeling a bit weary of poets in single-file, ourselves included, reciting our work out loud to small groups of fellow poets, whether or not we have performance competence? If it helps our writing to hear the poem read aloud, fine: maybe we should do that more within the context of a writing group than a public performance. But if we’re looking to engage and to increase the audience, then we need to think about how to perform more effectively. That’s one of the things drama might offer poetry.
Other contributions include collaboration, voice production, gesture, facial and vocal expression, performance that occurs after rehearsal, a deepened understanding of audience, timing, and the creation, even in a one-person show, of other voices/personae. David Yezzi’s essay “The Dramatic Element” (newcriterion.com), provides a good discussion of the techniques even “lyric” poets with no interest in the stage have borrowed and should continue to borrow from dramatists: character, voice, and dialogue or talk, which more poets would do well to pay more attention to. Maxwell, a poet-playwright, has this to say about what drama offers poetry:
Above all it has actors, who understand rhythm, coherence, balance, breath. Breath is the key to everything. A poem that doesn’t acknowledge the limitations and strictures of the breath will fail because it is failing to make a human sound (where human can be both adjective and noun, sound both noun and verb). Most new poetry is unmemorable not because it’s obscure, or self-absorbed, or trivial—terrific poems can be written in all those ways—but because most young poets have lost their sense of human sound. Or they know what it is, but can’t write the shape of it. All the wit and learning in the world can’t compensate for an inability to render persuasively the distinct voice of an actual breathing person.
And what does poetry do for drama? Poetry focuses on language. Not only its sounds, but its images, rhythms, diction, meanings, metaphors. It has the capacity to take the black and white, flattened prose of contemporary speech, and make it colorful and three-dimensional. It can focus attention on the hyperbole of the marketing world, the lies of politics and the part-truths of journalism, and invite scrutiny. It requires our attention. It fires our imaginations, or to use a 21st century metaphor, our synapses. It provides a mode, non-visual, where theater has it all over movies. Instead of seeing more productions that employ cinematic effects, we prefer theater that opposes passive “viewing” and engages the active participation of its audience through surprising, and sometimes challenging, language. Verse drama doesn’t insist on a political or social purpose, but it carries one, naturally, both by requiring its audiences to be present and engaged, and by creating a product that, with just a few exceptions, is pretty much designed and guaranteed to be, whatever the size of its audience, noncommercial.
Is “who is writing contemporary (Shakespearean blank) verse drama?” or “why isn’t there more (Shakespearean blank) verse drama?” the right question? We don’t believe it is. Does that mean that blank verse is unavailable to contemporary poet-playwrights? A resounding no! Metered verse, iambic or not, rhymed or not, is one poetic tool that contemporary poet dramatists would do well to master and to consider using sometimes—either as a way to write an entire drama, or as a way to write particular characters/voices, or as a means to mark a departure from the ordinary or for some other dramatic purpose in a play. The flat and sometimes slack language of much contemporary drama (and poetry, for that matter) could benefit from a more eclectic, and riskier, aesthetic. And be one way to differentiate poetry drama from the movies and build an audience for poetry and theater.
When was the last time we went to the theater? When was the last time we saw a verse drama? When did we last see a verse play by a living writer? Between the two of us, we go to a lot of readings and a lot of performances. And a lot of the performances we attend are verse dramas, old and new. Of the many productions that we attended in 2011, the most satisfying piece—prose or verse—was most definitely a contemporary poetry drama, An Illiad, at The Court Theatre in Chicago. Adapted from Homer by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, An Illiad is a one-person show in which the writers and performer brought the poetic text to life, with polyphonic, chaotic, and sometimes discordant elements that include Homer’s verse—in Greek and in translation, sound poetry, list and litany, stand-up comedy, performance poetry, and echoes of the play’s origin in improv, among others: in other words, a contemporary poetic idiom, asking contemporary and eternal questions about war and gender, among others. An Illiad unites contemporary and ancient poetry and drama, which comes, after all, from the Greek word meaning to do, to act.
What’s in a name? Poetry drama, verse play, dramatic poetry, closet drama, choreopoem, Spoken Word, Hip Hop Theater, Poets/Poetry Theater/Theatre, dramatic monologue…Oh, what the heck? This is Verse Wisconsin. Can’t we give the whole amazing range of possibilities, on occasion, an umbrella term, with the knowledge that what verse and drama means has changed since 1600, and will continue to change, though what was wonderful then, poetically and dramatically, is still available? Let the practice of 21st century verse drama be about appreciating different forms of each and different aesthetics; about learning/discerning what poetry and drama can still offer each other, as well as their audience; about transcending false divides between high and low, page and stage, elite and folk, us and them; about bringing what was once whole together again; about remembering that poetry, like the world, isn’t flat, and that the dramaverse, if not infinite, is at least bigger than we thought it was.
Greer DuBois is an actress and director, a student in the Dept. of Theatre at Northwestern University, and a poet.
Wendy Vardaman, wendyvardaman.com, is co-editor of Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press, and Poet Laurete (with Sarah Busse) of Madison. She works for The Young Shakespeare Players and likes to watch, and write poetry about, performance.