How to approach modern verse drama (and why almost no one does)

Setting yourself up as a verse dramatist in 2015 is a risky business. As dangerous, old-fashioned professions go, writing a play in iambic pentameter isn’t quite up there with chimney-sweeping. But since the hopefully-fragrant retirement of the last gong-farmers, who carried ‘night soil’ out of Tudor privies, few lines of work have attracted as much or disgust or pity – at least, at the hands of modern theatre critics.

As a poet who is taking his first verse play to the Edinburgh Fringe, I wanted to try to find out why this is. How did the form of writing in which the world’s most performed, most respected playwright – Shakespeare – made his name, come to be considered a tedious, pretentious ‘blind alley‘ by critics like Charles Spencer? And what, if anything, can I do to stop people saying the same about me? Having read a lot of verse plays – and a lot of critical reviews of verse plays – I’ve found a few common factors which I tried to avoid when writing my own script, Free for All.

  1. Don’t try to be Shakespeare

While no playwright is more quoted than Shakespeare, critics are extremely suspicious of any attempt by a writer to use the medium in which his memorable lines were so carefully crafted. It’s like some kind of proprietary software: Iambic Pentameter.

Unless – like Mike Bartlett’s unusually successful King Charles III – you’re writing an explicit pastiche, it’s best not to try to sound like the Bard. Shakespeare used a heightened, compressed form of contemporary language – and so should you. ‘Thee’s and ‘thou’s are out, unless you want to write something like Keats’s dreadful Otho the Great, which features a lot of people keeling over and shouting ‘Amaze!’ all the time.

  1. But don’t try too hard not to

That heightened language is nevertheless one of the main reasons people still perform Shakespeare today. One contemporary verse dramatist, Glyn Maxwell, compares his admiration of the writer to a young football fan watching Pele: ‘Does he say, “What the hell, forget it, I’ll get a job at McDonald’s”, or does he say, “Oh I want to be him, I want to do that”?

‘Poetic’ speech can quickly become affected, but it gives you the scope to move away from realism. Iambic pentameter can and does expertly mimic normal speech, but it can do a lot of other things as well: if your characters aren’t talking exactly like real people, your world doesn’t need to behave exactly like the real world. Our play starts with a rhyming ghost. You’re allowed to do that.

  1. Metre is your friend

Like Liam Neeson in Taken, writing in iambic verse means you have a very particular set of skills. You can do things which prose writers can’t. You can use every ten-syllable line as a miniature version of the whole play – a struggle for power, for focus, for control. Every time a character starts talking, she’s only got five beats and time is running out – this tight constraint means any interruption is charged with larger meaning.

And variations from the norm – an extra syllable, a limping line, a sudden shift into prose – are a breach of your basic contract with the audience. They let them know that something’s up – that a character is changing tack, or gearing up, or breaking down. If you start with rules, you can have much more fun breaking them.

  1. Tell a story

Eliot thought it would be easier for poets to learn to write plays than for dramatists to pick up verse, but Bartlett’s King Charles III is full of surprising shifts and reversals of power, at the level of line and scene. The narrative and dramatic structure is genuinely thrilling, and the verse – though workmanlike at times – adds to the sense of grandeur and gravitas.

All the tools carried over from his prose plays are still in evidence, unlike Eliot’s plays which (while their language is often brilliant), are weakened by foreknowledge: the dogmatic sense that we already know everything which is going to happen. Verse lends itself to long speeches, and these can slow things down. The language can’t control the play, but it can help you create all the things which will: tension, dynamics, plot and character.

  1. Shake it off

Verse drama is a lonely furrow to plough, and sometimes it will feel as if everybody’s throwing rocks at you. Glyn Maxwell wrote a harrowing diary which starts with joy at the production of his first play at The Globe, and ends with him feeling ‘worthless’ and ‘poisoned’. Peter Oswald described his work for the same theatre as ‘a mostly pretty desperate and grinding apprenticeship which apprenticed me to write plays that no other theatre wants to stage.’ The Restoration poet-playwright Thomas Otway, author of Venice Preserv’d, died aged 33 from choking on a piece of bread. Don’t do that.

Instead, take heart from the example of Christopher Fry. At one point in the 50s, before the earthquake of Look Back in Anger, Fry had three verse plays running simultaneously in London’s West End. When the climate changed, feeling ‘unwelcome’, he retired to Chichester. A spate of newspaper articles in the 80s and 90s repeatedly express their surprise that he was still alive, and remarkably serene about the whole experience, telling Dominic Cavendish ‘In literature in general, it would be very funny if you only had prose. Surely the life of the theatre must be the same. There should be room for everyone.’

As Taylor Swift reminds us, haters gonna hate. But luckily, she’s got a rhyme for that.

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