A photo of vacant seats in a theater

A Vacant Niche

I’ve been wondering why no one is writing verse drama these days. Writing stage plays in verse is as old as literature itself. For the ancient Greeks and the Elizabethans, verse drama was the only drama. Think of Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus. Think of Shakespeare and Marlowe. All of them wrote their plays in metrical verse. It was not until Ibsen and Modernism that staged plays settled into prose. Since then poetry and stage drama have continued to thrive but separately, not as a hybrid art. While opera, another hybrid art, continues to reinvent itself, why is the place for verse drama a vacant niche?

To be fair, it’s not completely vacant. Our major Modernist poets have written verse dramas through the past century (Yeats, Eliot, Robert Lowell, Archibald MacLeish, Wilbur’s translations of the classic French theater), but their principal metier was always lyric poetry. And our major playwrights stick to prose.

Writing poems and writing plays are kindred activities in the literary arts, but they’re not the same thing. A poem tells us what it has to say. We the listeners hear a single voice speaking, that of the poet (or sometimes the poet through a persona). In contrast a play shows us, through characters acting on one another — colliding and bouncing off each other like bumper cars.

The field of action for a lyric poem is interior reality, the action takes place within the poet’s mind. A play where no action happens, on the other hand, is dead on arrival. For the proof of that pudding, imagine a play without deaths and entrances, arguments and love affairs, exits and alarums. Now imagine a poet up there on the stage talking at us for two hours, and ask yourself if that would be a play. A successful playwright generates action from moment to moment, agile as a moviemaker, to stave off the natural impatience of a live audience. (“The question is,” says David Mamet, “can you put the asses in the seats and keep the asses in the seats? That’s not me, that’s Aristotle. I’ve forgotten the Greek for it.”). To succeed, verse drama must serve two masters. It has to work as poetry and it has to work as drama on the stage.

One possible explanation for the vacant niche: The nature of the plays has changed. Shakespeare wrote his plays in blank verse but also in occasional prose, and there is a pattern. The blank verse, as the more elevated speech, is used by the high-born, the aristocrats and royalty. The low-born characters, the commoners, speak in prose. The same could be said of Greek drama: The gods and heroes speak in poetry. In modern drama there are no gods and few heroes. And so the muse, perched on the playwright’s shoulder, whispers: This should be in prose.

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