This article originally appeared on The Missing Slate.
There was a time when poetry and drama were indissoluble. That time was most of literary history: from the theatre of ancient Athens until the English Civil War, the idea that some or all of a play might be written in verse was both conventional and uncontroversial. In sixteenth and seventeenth century England in particular, the use of iambic pentameter in plays was so prevalent that imagining the theatre of the period without verse is like imagining its politics without religion. And into this perfect storm came William Shakespeare, who became the most famous and respected verse dramatist who ever lived, and inadvertently ruined everything for everyone.
In any broad-brush summary, the history of verse drama in English since Shakespeare is a story of decline. Today, most new plays in verse are greeted by a Greek chorus of critical loathing. I have a database on my computer which might as well be called “Mean Things The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer Has Written About Modern Verse Plays”, which range from “fey and dated”, to “musty”, “dusty”, and at the far end of the spectrum, “freshly-squeezed bullshit“. As a result, theatres are often scared to commission them. AGuardian article last year described the curious case of a ‘major theatre’ whose publicity material nervously avoided any mention of the use of verse in their upcoming production.
That play was Mike Bartlett’s ‘King Charles III’, a block-busting hit which transferred to the West End and left skeptics flabbergasted: Time Out’s Andrzej Lukowksi wrote that a “Shakespearean-styled historical drama, written in blank verse and iambic pentameter’ about the royal family in 2014 ‘[o]bviously … sounds like a terrible idea,” before giving the play five stars.
Two of those words seem worth examining, for what they tell us about the critics’ preconceptions: “Shakespearean” and “obviously”. It’s clear that the sheer of level of adulation and cultural prestige enjoyed by Shakespeare is the elephant in the room. How could anything compare to the master of the form, and why would anyone be so foolhardy as to bother trying? To continue the animal analogy, daring to write a play in the same medium as the world’s most performed and quoted writer is like walking blindfold along a tightrope over a pit of lions.
Christopher Fry was a verse dramatist who enjoyed such acclaim in the 1950s he once had three plays simultaneously running in London’s West End. He confessed this very inhibition to one interviewer in the 1990s, thirty years after he had basically retired, having come to feel “more or less unwelcome”: “It was terribly damaging, horrifying really, to be compared to Shakespeare. It made everything so overwrought.” And Peter Oswald, the first contemporary playwright to be Writer-in-Residence at Shakespeare’s Globe, bemoaned how “you couldn’t have a script discussion without everything being compared to Shakespeare in some way or another which is really, for a writer, very atrophying and very hard.”
But Fry and Oswald weren’t the first playwrights to deal with this difficult inheritance. In 1678, John Dryden introduced All for Love – his taut, claustrophobic take on the Antony and Cleopatra story, where the classical lovers rage like trapped animals — by giving due props like a Restoration-era Kanye West. Shakespeare, he writes, who “began dramatic poetry amongst us, untaught by any” — which, by the way, isn’t true — “perform[ed] so much that in a manner he has left no praise for any who come after him”. In other words, he wrote the best verse plays OF ALL TIME.
Dryden was anxious not only about measuring up to Shakespeare, but to Ben Jonson and the Renaissance playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher, whose plays were then (he tells us) acted twice as frequently as those of both writers. This sense of barren ground was, he wrote, “a good Argument to us either not to write at all, or to attempt some other way.” The traditional symbol of poetic achievement, the laurel-wreath, couldn’t be achieved by imitation of the earlier style:“there is no bays to be expected in their Walks.”
As such, many Restoration poets turned to writing plays in rhyming couplets, inspired by French dramatists like Racine. They viewed this model as the only form of verse drama “left free to us”, but it was short-lived and, frankly, hard work: one modern critic compared Dryden’s two-part blood-and-thunder marathon The Conquest of Granada to “being pelted with a succession of pellets” for ten rhyming acts.
Ludicrous though this play might be, it represents an attempt to do something — anything — different, and the rhyming couplet has its own rewards. It can set up, reward, and frustrate expectations, and when characters’ language is confined to neatly matching binary patterns, any departure from this strict scheme is an extremely charged moment: life bursting through the strait-laced seams.
That writers themselves viewed it as a cul-de-sac, however, is obvious enough: Dryden’s ‘All for Love’ signalled a return to blank verse, and Thomas Otway’s ‘Venice Preserv’d’, written in robust, lively pentameters in 1682, went on to enjoy spectacular success. Its stage life lasted well into the 19th century, competing with Shakespeare as a timeless classic of the genre, but most reviews of last year’s London revival began by telling us how rarely it was seen.
Among the many inherited conditions from which verse plays suffer seems to be a tendency to fall from grace. If you’ve ever seen a Dryden or an Otway live on stage, then congratulations and I’d love to hear from you. Some brave directors do intermittently attempt to breathe life back into work in a medium which most reviewers I’ve consulted delight in pronouncing dead (except for Shakespeare, who is of course immortal), but when it comes to revivals, verse drama is mostly striking by its absence. John Osborne comes to represent the theatre of the 1950s, while Christopher Fry is consigned to the dustbin of history.
And the result is a narrowing of scope, a kind of cultural amnesia; as the repertoire fills up with prose and realism, we lose sight of everything else that theatre could be, and once was, at the time when it produced some of its most enduring and memorable successes.
Could there be thousands of fantastic verse plays waiting in the wings of history? I suspect not — but how hard it is to answer the question knowledgeably and fairly tells its own story. These works have been shuffled off stage, out of the limelight, and into the footnotes of theatrical history. And if the door of the theatre is almost totally shut to poetry, you have to ask: why is Shakespeare still so firmly, so resplendently, inside? If the memorable shaping of his language into poetic lines isn’t what makes him different from any other writer — what is? And if that is the source of his appeal, then aren’t modern theatres — and modern audiences — missing a trick?
Now might be the time to declare a vested interest: I’m a poet who has just written his first verse drama. And given all of the above, despite my firm beliefs in the power of poetic theatre, I’m a little scared. Dryden’s right, after all: we can’t all be Shakespeare. But Shakespeare wasn’t the first writer to use iambic pentameter, or the last before it became indelibly associated with his name. So why should we have to be?
Others playwrights since Dryden have actively rejected the Shakespearean model, and it’s easy to see why. T S Eliot set about his own plays with a clear brief — “to avoid any echo of Shakespeare”— believing that “the rhythm of blank verse had become too remote from the movement of modern speech.” I don’t think it has, and I’m interested to see if anyone else agrees with me. From day to day, we live prosaic lives: but does the theatre have to simply reflect reality, or can it offer something different, stranger; a heightened version of our language and ourselves? Isn’t it high time we tried going blank again?