Fresh Meat’s Poetry Problem

VOD: Oggs. More poetry for you.

OREGON: Right. I’ll get the wheelbarrow.

— Fresh Meat. Series 4, Episode 4.

On Thursday night, I went to the London launch of Magma, a poetry magazine with a rotating editorship which devotes each issue to a chosen theme. The theme of Issue 64 was ‘Risk’, and guest editors Jon Stone and Dom Bury raised an interesting question: to what extent can any poetic technique or manoeuvre in the Arts Council-cosseted, privileged, decadent West be considered risky? On the other hand, doesn’t writing in a genre as maligned and mocked as contemporary poetry bring with it the inherent risk that no one gives a fuck what you have to say?

I’ve been thinking recently about something Jon wrote in response to a snide, belittling article the Sunday Times published on T. S. Eliot winner Sarah Howe, and the backlash it inspired from poets and feminists:

The crux of the problem with Oliver Thring’s condescending profile of Sarah Howe in the Sunday Times is that journalists don’t know how to approach poetry. They struggle to say anything intelligent or intelligible about it, so they mostly talk *around* it, rooting around for journalistic cliches in the life of the poet or the decor of their flat. The poetry itself has to fit a superimposed narrative template, of which there are very few: ‘Old, oblique sage-poet is national treasure’, ‘Young/black poet is introducing new generation to poetry’, ‘Young/black/female poet tackles political/personal issues’. If you’re young/black/female and aren’t transparently addressing (to the point of name-checking) personal and political issues in your poems, the journalist is all but rudderless.

And I’ve been thinking, especially, about Fresh Meat, the Channel 4 dramedy about the intellectual and emotional growing pains of six students at Manchester Medlock University whose fourth and final season is about to come to an end. A running thread of season 4 sees the establishment of the Oregon Shawcross Poetry Prize. Like the Student Union President herself, played by Charlotte Ritchie, the Shawcross Prize is a mix of blatant egotism and misguided good intentions. But it also allows Fresh Meat, much more perceptively than Oliver Thring, to talk *around* poetry for a variety of other storytelling purposes. In so doing, the Shawcross plotline is extremely revealing about the contested cultural position of poetry today.

Oregon (Charlotte Ritchie) defends her investment

Oregon initially turns to poetry, and the funding of a major prize for contemporary work, as something that will look good on a Fulbright application, making the candidate’s CV ‘basically bomb-proof.’ What kind of poetry the prize might favour or encourage isn’t clear at this stage, except that it will ‘inspire and energise all of us’: this is poetry as prestige project. This kind of blanket assertion of the value of poetry, David Clarke suggests, is what makes it so culturally suspect:

Poetry never lost its place on the school curriculum, despite a decline in its public profile, a situation which some poets have benefited from in terms of royalties and paid work with schools. However, when school is the only forum in which young people encounter poetry, the individual poem becomes a kind of test, a sort of overly-complex crossword clue which has to be decoded in order (literally) to make the grade.

The second episode of the series, scripted by Tom Basden, declares the £20,000 Shawcross prize ‘the most lucrative poetry prize in the UK.’ This is technically at least half-true: the Edwin Morgan Award also gifts its winner a cool £20,000, but this is awarded on the basis of a full collection and only Scottish writers are eligible; the T S Eliot has also recently risen to £20,000. As such, the Shawcross represents the richest pickings a single poem from the UK as a whole can reasonably hope for. This particular cash bonanza is apparently instrumental in reviving a dead form. ‘I’m bringing poetry back. Hard,’ says Oregon proudly: poetry as good cause; poetry as charity case.

Rosa (Ayda Field) is unimpressed

When the financial implications of this are revealed, however, the response of university administrator Nas is a resounding ‘Oh fuck.’ Not only can the University not fund poetry to this extent, it’s not even something it ought to countenance. Doing so would entail cuts to areas of investment which are, it is heavily implied, of far greater worth, either due to their popularity or their necessity to quality of life: these include both mainstream and disability sports, and the campus’s Nightline service. Former colleague Rosa lays out the choice in Penelope Skinner’s third episode:

You took away their special minibus. The one that takes them from the outreach programme to the disadvantaged youth centre. And you used the money to fund poems for a prize named after yourself.

Poetry is worth less than any of these things. If poetry requires defunding these activities, it undermines Oregon’s claims to be a socially progressive president: she associates rugby with ‘loaded landed toffs’, but ignores its contribution to the lives of students with disabilities. The high cultural worth of poetry, as suggested by its appeal to the Fulbright judges, does not translate into any comparable monetary value. Investing in it is self-evidently the wrong financial priority for a modern university: poetry as billionaires’ budget; poetry as elitist and reactionary; poetry as land-grab.

The situation isn’t helped by Oregon’s choice to name the prize after herself, nor by the reference to Christ (‘I won’t be the first person to be crucified for trying to do something good’) she argues is an allusion, not a comparison: ‘It’s a subtle difference, and one that, if you read more poetry, you’d understand.’ This is poetry as vanity project; poetry as snobbery; poetry in the service of a messiah complex.

Ultimately, the outrage over this misappropriation of funds leads to impeachment. ‘A majority of the student body’ are involved in a vote of no confidence in Oregon’s presidency. They’re up in arms not least over the reimbursements claimed by Tony Shales, English Literature Professor and turbot obsessive: poetry as expenses scandal. Justifying the measure she’s taken to balance the books, Oregon channels George Osborne: ‘we – I – have had a lot of tough decisions to make, and we – I – have always had the best interests of the student body at heart.’ Poetry is identified with the unjust exercise of power: it sparks a revolution, not by energising the populace as Oregon wishes, but by being exactly the last thing the students of Medlock want or need. It’s a waste of money, and one that brings about the leader’s downfall. This is poetry as political football; poetry as huge, trumpeting white elephant.

Professor Tony Shales (Tony Gardner) — would you trust this man to judge your poetry prize?

And perhaps that’s the end of the story. Oregon’s presidency is, after all, at an end, and the series has only one more episode to go. But although it seems unlikely, I’d like to hope to think this isn’t the end of the Shawcross Prize. Firstly, there are genuine plot reasons for it to play out: two housemates, Vod and JP (Zawe Ashton and Jack Whitehall) are in financial trouble £20,000 would do a lot to resolve, and both have shown some interest in poetry in previous episodes. Vod’s friend on the hippie commune in episode 3 is a ‘sand-poet’, who has written ‘over 1,000 poems in the sand’; in Jon Brown’s fourth instalment, JP attempts to enter the competition with a series of limericks which Oregon instantly rejects.

These glimpses of what poetry might mean in the Fresh Meat universe bring me to my final point, which links to Jon Stone’s question of approach. The plotline circles around and around the potential prize-winner – we see wheelbarrows full of unread entries being cremated in the house’s garden – but at no point has the show what kind of poem might win, except by negative example. JP’s limericks are too frivolous, however well-crafted (I liked the ‘Stowe/blow’ rhyme), for what seems to be an inherently weighty matter: ‘You’re not going to win with a limerick’, Oregon bluntly declares. Paz’s sand-poems, with their inbuilt transience, receive a sceptical response: ‘and that’s… good, is it?’ By the standards of the prize’s founder, we can assume that a worthy winner would offer something both serious and lasting, but beyond that, we don’t get any closer to what the show or its characters consider ‘good poetry’ to be. To get structural for a moment, ‘poetry’, and especially the implied term ‘good poetry’ becomes a shifting signifier whose signified is endlessly deferred. This allows for all of the plot points details above, but also suggests a fundamental uncertainty over what value poetry actually has in this narrative: whether ‘good poetry’ exists in this world at all, or the whole art form is only there to be mocked.

Asking Tony to sift the entries, Oregon tells the lecturer she needs someone to ‘shovel through the shit and find the gold’. So if there is gold out there, what does it look like? Presenting a poem as worthy in its own terms is something the series consistently avoids, like staring directly at the sun. Having trailered Jeanette Winterson as a judge, it would be fascinating to see Fresh Meat nail its colours to the mast and have her cameo in episode six. Would the scriptwriters commission a real poet to provide the winning entry, or put something together themselves that stays true to the voice of a familiar character? If the latter, will the poem be merely revealing of that character’s inner struggles, or presented within the world of the show as a work of actual literary value? And will we, at home, be expected to agree?

One answer might be offered by the end of Skinner’s episode three, where Josie, Vod and Oregon read through the entries on a car trip back to Manchester. In turn, the three friends dismiss as ‘Shit!’ and throw out of the window three poems: one with a run of sing-song rhymes (‘said/dead/Maidenhead’), one which is cut off almost immediately after the sentimental trigger-word ‘alone’, and one which begins ‘Whose woods these are I think I know./His house is in the village, though.’ This is, of course, the opening of Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening’, and is proclaimed unanimously ‘Shit!’ by all three students. Reading it with the same inflexion as the first shit entry, Kimberley Nixon’s Josie seems to be conveying that this, too, is doggerel.

For the viewer who doesn’t know the original, this might seem pretty accurate: the final entry in a terrible triumvirate. For one who does, it’s a fun in-joke, but also poses an interesting problem: what do the show’s creators think of this poem, and how does it fit within Fresh Meat’s discourse on the place of poetry? Assuming they don’t also think it’s shit, is this a comment on the callowness of youth, and how much less these characters know than they believe they do? While in-keeping with some of the show’s more recent developments, this seems too harsh. I wonder it’s more a comment on the fact that no poem, however powerful or canonical, can adequately convey its pleasures in a speeding car as the latest in a long, dull pile. Read in the context of the competition, Frost’s opening does sound like doggerel. But if we accept it isn’t, we also have to accept that poetry requires time to yield its benefits; that it can’t be judged at speed, and at face value. We have to accept that there is some value to poetry, even some need for it, given the right circumstances — even if the framework of cultural associations built up around it makes it very hard to know exactly what that is.

It’s hard to be the Bard – but why?

Judging by the songs available on YouTube, the Broadway musical Something Rotten strikes an interesting balance between propagating familiar pop-cultural myths about the early modern period and unpicking some of those assumptions through playful anachronism. The opening number, for example, welcomes us to ‘the Renaissance/Where everything is new’: far from a transitional period still processing and remaking its medieval heritage, the 16th century is presented as a new broom. ‘Our mugs are made of pewter,/Our houses all are Tudor’: the Middle Ages are banished entirely, and one writer is securely ‘the top’. Can you guess who it is yet?

When William Shakespeare first appears, according to at least one dodgy video (mea culpa – the show’s UK transfer is yet to be confirmed), he’s far above us, at an open window. Fans crowd around on the lower stage, behind a Hollywood-style red rope. This visual elevation is notable partly because the fellow writers who we have just heard about, in a fairly comprehensive roll-call, all pranced about on that lower level. Shakespeare isn’t alone, after all – the lyrics, by Wayne and Karey Kirkpatrick, go so far as to include a ‘Woo!’ for Thomas Dekker – he’s just higher. Better.

This introduction is based around the very post-Renaissance concept of Shakespearean exceptionalism, where all roads lead to the Bard. Other early modern authors get their moment in the sun on condition that they endorse, and help to create, the Shakespeare myth (here, as in other posts, I’m channeling the great article by Peter Kirwan footnoted below.) Rather than one among many, Shakespeare is the One who crowds literally kneel and worship – his celebrity, his popularity, and what he himself (not in this play…) refers to as ‘vile participation’ (Henry IV Part 1, 3.2.87), all feed into this sense of a democratically-elected superiority. As the character announces in a moment which sits between the mass market Shakespeare of Victorian cheap print and the modern dictator’s personality cult, ‘I am the will of the people now.’

In this context, even the repudiation of Shakespeare is a kind of naughty thrill that re-affirms his centrality. To sing along with fictional rival playwright Nick Bottom’s ‘I Hate Shakespeare‘ – the song released, complete with lyric video, as a kind of promotional digital single – you have to say the name ‘Shakespeare’ itself no less than fourteen times. And though Bottom’s attack makes points that seem fair from a twenty-first-century focus on clarity and originality – ‘He’s a hack with a knack for stealing anything he can’, who makes the audience ‘feel so dumb’ – these things are enjoyable because we know we’re not really supposed to say them. If Shakespeare is the will of the people, joining in these admissions of antipathy has a transgressive quality – we’re watching a musical about Shakespeare, after all.

So what impact does the desire to reclaim Shakespeare as an essentially modern celebrity – a figure set apart from his Renaissance context, even as that context is made to feel more distinctly modern by virtue of his position as its leader – have on Something Rotten’s depiction of Shakespeare himself? Well, in simple terms, it goes to his head. Christian Borle’s Bard is arrogant, preening – ‘a rock star in a leather jacket’, as one interviewer addresses him. He also, intriguingly, suffers from writer’s block.

By being acclaimed ‘the soul of age’ in his own lifetime (not after his death, as in Jonson’s poem), Shakespeare leaves the age behind, becoming defined instead by notions of authorship which not only post-date Shakespeare but which also arguably arose in response to his daunting influence. When Borle laments how his busy schedule and the ‘trappings of fame’ prevent him sitting down to compose, he’s referring to a way of treating authors as public property which is justified by the sense of the author as unique genius, a biographical figure whose life is celebrated as the source of the ‘inspired’ work.

Jonathan Bate has argued that ‘Shakespeare was the first writer in Western high culture to be praised specifically for his supposed artlessness’, for ‘genius in the sense of ‘native endowment’ as opposed to ‘the art which could be achieved by study’. Through Shakespeare, genius becomes associated with a model vision of authorship, which from the Romantic period onwards has increasingly foregrounded authors as figures worthy of public fame. In the promotional video, we see Borle’s Shakespeare trying and failing to exercise the native genius expected of him:

and you’re trying to find
an opening line
or a brilliant idea
and you’re pacing the floor
and hoping for uh
just a bit of divine intervention

so you write down a word
but it’s not the right word
so you try a new word
but you hate the new word

Shakespeare here is swamped by expectations, by the pressure of a whole culture looking in at his window, constantly aware of ‘This bar that I’m raising/To be this amazing.’ He has become subject to the anxiety of his own influence: ‘Hard to alleviate, the pressure to create!/(It’s hard)/Hard to do something as good as the last thing I did that was already great!’ In other words, he is blocked by what are essentially modern assumptions about how good Shakespeare should be. This is a far cry from the inherited idea of Shakespeare’s genius which relies directly on his lack of creative inhibition: Milton praised his ‘easy numbers’, and Jonson carped that ‘hee flow’d with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stop’d’. While Shakespeare as presented by Jonson ‘never blotted out line’, Borle (like Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love) is practically throwing reams of unsatisfying drafts out of the window.

In emphasising how exceptional Shakespeare’s writing is, Something Rotten thus paradoxically makes him seem a lot more like us. There is an image, and there is a person onstage struggling with his own creative process who might not be able to quite live up to it. Kirkpatrick’s lyrics don’t tell us it’s hard to be Shakespeare – they announce ‘it’s hard to be the Bard’, a version of ‘Shakespeare’ that audiences like us have created. Shakespeare holds the cultural prestige of the untouchable literary superstar partly because of the old narrative of his artlessness, his facility – one that survives in part because, as Richard Burt argues, ‘mass culture narratives rely on dated scholarship.’ Here, however, this is precisely the version of himself that Borle’s Bard – because of his hyperinflation as a cultural symbol – is conspicuously failing to deliver. Everything is new in Something Rotten’s Renaissance – except for the difficulty of finding anything new to say. This is a cultural problem which the narrative of Shakespeare’s pre-eminence, his ease, has done a great deal to create; so much that it now finds its way back into narratives of Shakespeare himself at work.



— Peter Kirwan. “‘You Have No Voice!’: Constructing Reputation through Contemporaries in the Shakespeare Biopic.”Shakespeare Bulletin 32.1 (2014): 11–26.

— Richard Burt. “Shakespeare in Love and the End of the Shakespearean: Academic and Mass Culture Constructions of Literary Authorship” in Shakespeare, Film, Fin de Siècle, eds. Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 215.

— Jonathan Bate. The Genius of Shakespeare. 2nd ed. London: Picador, 2008.

— & & &

Whatever Happened to Verse Drama?

This article originally appeared on The Missing Slate.

 Mike Bartlett's King Charles III was "a block-busting hit which left skeptics flabbergasted." Is it time for a verse drama revival? Image via Mark Shenton

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.

There was a time when poetry and drama were indissoluble. That time was most of literary history…

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.”

Among the many inherited conditions from which verse plays suffer seems to be a tendency to fall from grace.

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?

Jonathan Strange and the Friends of English Verse Drama

This article was originally published by Blogging Shakespeare.

 ‘This other magic, it will not do, sir.’

– Gilbert Norrell

‘But Shakespear’s Magick could not copy’d be,
Within that Circle none durst walk but he.’

– John Dryden

It’s entirely possible that my thesis is giving me tunnel vision, but the way characters discuss the ‘wild, cruel, medieval’ magic of the Raven King in the BBC’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell series is starting to seem eerily familiar to me. The terms being used are remarkably similar to what writers in the century and a half after the Restoration say about Shakespeare’s poetry.

The ‘magic of the modern age’ championed by Gilbert Norrell in the Regency world of the Susanna Clarke adaptation is defined by its refinement, its restriction, its unwillingness to ‘meddle’ with powerful but dangerous forces. His polite, precise, bookish discrimination is associated with Georgian Englishness, a particular view of national identity which his magic is intended to further in the Napoleonic wars.

Jonathan Strange, by contrast, is something of a Romantic: an untamed and untaught free agent, intent on exploration of the possibilities of the world and the self, the ‘mysteries and dreams of the past’, even if they lead him into madness. Strange draws his inspiration from the half-understood, controversial and dramatically unpredictable showmanship of a lost past master: the Raven King.

These positions are staked out as the show’s key opposition, between modern and ancient magic. But they don’t exist in a vacuum: they arise from a hundred and fifty years of debate about art, poetry, and the powers of the imagination in the real society which inspired the show. These debates – about what English literature, and verse in particular, ought to look like – take shape at least partly in reaction to the legacy left by Shakespeare.

John Dryden, in a Prologue to the version of the The Tempest he co-wrote with William Davenant in 1667, acknowledges his forebear’s talents as different in kind to those of other writers:

But Shakespear’s Magick could not copy’d be,
Within that Circle none durst walk but he.

His praise is mingled with a kind of admonition: such writing is no longer possible in his more enlightened times, and can only be justified by reference to Shakespeare’s elevated (and removed) status:

I must confess ’twas bold, nor would you now,
That liberty to vulgar Wits allow,
Which works by Magick supernatural things:
But Shakespear’s pow’r is sacred as a King’s.

Similarly, the Raven King’s abandonment of England is linked to the demise of an older form of magic. Norrell tells Strange – the vulgar wit whose liberty he repeatedly curbs – that the King’s loss ‘took the best part of English magic with him’, and it isn’t coming back: ‘such magic belongs to an England that is dead. And it is out of our control.’

Scattered throughout Dryden’s commentaries on Shakespeare and drama are concerns about belatedness, lost powers, and control. Praising the use of rhyme over blank verse, he argues that it is necessary because ‘it bounds and circumscribes the fancy. For imagination in a poet is a faculty so wild and lawless, that, like an high-ranging spaniel, it must have clogs tied to it, lest it outrun the judgment.’

Undeniably hilarious though this image of a tied-up (or shoe-wearing) dog might be, it shouldn’t blind us to Dryden’s message: wild and lawless forces can’t be allowed to roam free, because we don’t know what will happen. Shakespeare’s example, as an ‘untaught’ artist, is an especially dangerous one: it isn’t safe for him to be operating this kind of equipment. Dramatic theorist Thomas Rymer also described the ‘fancy’ as ‘wild, vast and unbridled’, and ‘art’ over the following century gradually came to be associated with restraining just this kind of unpredictable, free-flowing force. Playwrights such as Otway and Lee who tended towards older traditions were criticised as undisciplined, drunk on language to the point of madness.

‘Nat Lee, the Mad Poet’

As Scipio comments in James Thomson’s Sophonisba (1730), ‘Real glory/Springs from the silent conquest of ourselves’, and the rational conduct needed to build and manage a global empire was seen partly to spring from self-restraint of the messy, disruptive emotions. The old magic – the unconstrained, liberated imagination – might still be possible, but if so, Norrell says, it would be best for everyone if we ‘let it alone’.

There were moments of nostalgia among this self-assertion, but many works argue that the writers of the present century understand humanity, and poetry, far better than the primitive, barbaric playwrights of ‘the last age’. We have moved on too far to go back now, even if we wanted to. Jonathan Strange’s backward-looking impulse criticises just such aggressive modernity: ‘Surely magic should be magical? Surely magic is to dream? Where is the wonder of England’s past? Of magic’s golden age?’

But in 1714, Alexander Pope mocked Nicholas Rowe for writing his play Jane Shore ‘professedly in Shakspear’s style; that is, professedly in the style of a bad age.’ Faced with this level of cultural resistance, it is easy to imagine writers wondering: what exactly was so ‘bad’ about it? What were the powers and resources they were being denied in the name of propriety and modern English restraint?

By 1769, the tide was turning in favour of Shakespeare, led by David Garrick, the Drury Lane actor-manager who organised a Shakespeare Jubilee in his hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon, complete with Garrick himself reciting an Ode in tribute to this ‘blest genius of the isle’. The association between Shakespeare and Englishness is starting to take shape, though it would go through many further stages of negotiation.

Garrick’s ‘Ode’ is keen to stress the benign nature of Shakespeare’s ‘magic art’. But his anxious caution to diminish the dangerous aspects of the great power of this writing in favour of its wholesome and morally improving qualities tells a slightly different story:

What tho’ with more than mortal art,
Like Neptune he directs the storm,
Lets loose like winds the passions of the heart,
To wreck the human form;
Tho’ from his mind rush forth, the Demons to destroy,
His heart ne’er knew but love, and gentleness, and joy.

‘What tho” indeed. There seems to be a genuine concern about what might happen

When our Magician, more inspir’d,
By charms, and spells, and incantations fir’d,
Exerts his most tremendous pow’r …

The greatest fanboy of the 18th century wishes that his poetry could even begin to imitate Shakespeare’s, but in describing the power that his idol possesses, something strange happens in the picture Garrick is painting:

O from his muse of fire
Could but one spark be caught,
Then might these humble strains aspire,
To tell the wonders he has wrought.
To tell,—how sitting on his magic throne,
Unaided and alone,

In dreadful state,
The subject passions round him wait;
Who tho’ unchain’d, and raging there,
He checks, inflames, or turns their mad career;
With that superior skill,
Which winds the fiery steel at will,
He gives the aweful word—
And they, all foaming, trembling, own him for their Lord.

With these his slaves he can controul,
Or charm the soul …

For a moment, the most renowned poet in English history doesn’t sound quite as benevolent and uplifting a national symbol as Garrick might hope. Sitting on his demonic throne, surrounded by foaming minions whose dark forces he can unleash at will, he doesn’t sound a lot like a friend to England, or even a friend of English magic. He sounds a lot more like the Raven King.

Speaking the Speech

This article was originally published on Blogging Shakespeare.

As Christopher Marlowe anachronistically says in Anonymous, six years after his historical death: ‘It’s difficult to write, isn’t it? After watching something like Hamlet. It eats at you – at your soul…’ And it’s especially difficult to write a verse play. I’m a PhD researcher at the Shakespeare Institute looking at the history of verse drama in the wake of Shakespeare, and one theme that comes up again and again, in critical reviews and the words of verse playwrights themselves, is a certain anxiety over measuring up.

Shakespeare’s verse plays, after all, are the reason people come from across the world to watch a horse-drawn cake parade through the crowded streets of a charming market town four hundred years after he wrote them, and light enormous Wicker Man-style effigies of his face. How could anyone else ever approach the same form of writing without a slight inferiority complex?

Over the last few months, however, I’ve immersed myself in exactly this cauldron as I put together my own verse play: a script called Free for All, which will make its debut at the Edinburgh Fringe. In this series of posts, I’ll be sharing some of my reflections on verse drama as a medium, from the twin perspectives of an impartial researcher and an increasingly fretful, overly invested writer, as the play moves towards its first performance.

Auditioning actors this week got me thinking about a field of debate unique to this kind of theatre: verse speaking. Even the existence of the phrase suggests a specific skill-set, an understanding that lines of poetry have a different aural character from chunks of prose. We talk about pace, diction, and so on as actors, directors and reviewers, but we never argue about ‘prose speaking’ as a concept. And yet, as far as I can tell, a good proportion of what’s currently being spoken in theatres doesn’t sound very much like verse. It just sounds like… speaking.

To write this in 2015 will make me seem, like the Doctor, hundreds of years older than I actually look. Of course, Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is designed to capture the rhythms of natural speech (the key word being ‘capture’, as opposed to ‘liberate’). But I wonder if a focus on the deftness of his poetry has obscured everything about it which is unnatural, and whether these artificial constraints aren’t exactly what raises it above ordinary conversation into the realms of memorable art.

One of the most acclaimed Shakespearean performances of the year has been Maxine Peake’s Hamlet. I loved her livewire energy, and clearly a slightly delirious sense of speed and attack was central to her reading of the role. But sometimes, as the actor barrelled through key speeches like a runaway train, individual words and line endings fell by the wayside. The play was becoming all Peake and no trough.

And much of this feeling was to do with verse speaking: I felt that by spending a little more time observing the architecture of the text, Peake’s Prince could have found room to pause and think, and to let her language expand beyond the fury which impelled it. It’s hard when discussing this topic not to fall into the sonorous traps of the ‘voice beautiful’, but what I’m talking about is using the verse as a counterweight – an equal and opposite tension to that which is generated in Hamlet’s seething brain, reflecting and contributing to the character’s sense of confinement and restriction in the Danish court. (For comparison, set one of his wrought verse soliloquies against the expansive, baggy prose of a character like Toby Belch, who refuses to ‘confine [him]self within the modest limits of order.’)

Soon after the Hamlet live-screening, I caught Jasper Britton as Barabbas in the RSC’s The Jew of Malta (to return to both Marlowe and cauldrons) and was struck by the difference. Britton worked with the verse to find nuance and progression, showing us a character assessing and calculating his next thought or move at the end of each line. Admittedly, Marlowe’s writing makes it easier to separate experience into discrete ten-syllable units, and part of the skill in working with Shakespeare is using the verse itself as punctuation when the words, written as prose, might tell a different story. But it still took Britton’s methodical work to make sure we knew where we were within the speeches, each foot and line building on the foundations of the last, and this allowed us to see the character growing and changing.

The approach to Shakespeare’s text which I’m favouring is quite an unfashionable one – but then, there’s nothing more unfashionable than poetry, and nothing more integral to how Shakespeare works. And fixed lines and line-breaks, in the vast majority of cases, are the only thing poetry has which prose doesn’t and can’t. By ignoring these, we lose sight of the way in which the text has structured its characters’ experience and the movement of their minds. We lose the thread which, however strongly an individual speech might push against it, stitches the delicate world of Shakespeare’s verse plays together.

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.