Full of Sound and Fury: Poets as Playwrights
The verse drama has gone the way of the affordable cup of coffee and unironic mustaches and I'm not sure why. It seems to me that the inherent artificiality of a stage production in this age of hyperrealistic entertainment should push playwrights to experiment with language in more interesting ways than they do. As it is, the limitations of the stage place the bulk of a production's weight on its dialogue. Why shouldn't playwrights seek a language that shoulders past the sputtering rhythms of everyday speech into the realm of the poetic?
Yes, naturalistic language, when done well, is as beautiful as any poem. At its best, a play's dialogue is talk as we wish talk could be. It is distilled, crystalline, and every bit as artificial as iambic pentameter. In early and middle career Mamet, for example, his long profane soliloquies were so breathtaking exactly because they danced spastically on that line between the way Americans really talk and a sharper, more concise and funnier portrayal of it.
When watching a movie, you are meant to immerse yourself in its world. Even Science Fiiction and Fantasy films like Avatar or Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland strive for realism. They may be set in imaginary lands but their audiences' imagination is not activated. The filmmakers have imagined their worlds right down to the last CGI pimple on the last CGI troll's backside. The importance of dialogue is diminished by the camera's ability to move and by the editor's blade so that a film's silences say as much as its words. Whereas, when watching a play you are, or at least I am, very aware that it is a façade. Stage drama is all about that fourth wall. It is about that liminal space between actors and audience. It is about imagining a world while all the visual cues that come with it are fighting against you. Stage plays' worlds reside almost entirely in their language. They demand not so much a suspension of disbelief, but a willing participation in the artifice by players and audience alike.
The use of "natural" language on stage seems to me to ignore the strengths and possibilities of the form. I think looking back to the Greeks whose drama was more ritual than entertainment, or to Shakespeare and Marlowe whose language was never meant to seem "real," and re-animating their spirit for this post-modern age is something that would be worth playwrights' and their audience's while.
Below are a few examples from Harris County Public Library's collections of verse drama written (or translated) in the last one hundred years or so.
Imamu / Amiri Baraka (in Black Theater U.S.A: Forty-Five Plays by Black Americans)
The Cocktail Party: A Comedy / T. S. Eliot
The Complete Plays / T. S. Eliot
Murder in the Cathedral / T. S. Eliot
Robert Frost [website]: Two one act plays The Death of the Hired Man & The Housekeeper
Five Plays / Langston Hughes
Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life / Langson Hughes & Zora Neale Hurston
Gilgamesh: A Verse Play / Yusef Komunyakaa
Blood Wedding | Bodas de Sangre / Federico Garcia Lorca
La Casa de Bernarda Alba / Federico Garcia Lorca
Yerma / Federico Garcia Lorca
Samson Agonistes [eBook] / John Milton
Phaedra: A Tragedy in Five Acts / Jean Racine; trans. by Richard Wilbur
Don Juan: A Comedy in Five Acts / Moliere; trans. by Richard Wilbur
Oedipus Rex / Sophocles; trans. by W. B. Yeats
Last Operas and Plays / Gertrude Stein
Under Milk Wood: A Play for Voices / Dylan Thomas
Candide / Music by Leonard Bernstein; lyrics by Richard Wilbur, et al.
The Yeats Reader: A Portable Compendium of his Best Poetry, Drama & Prose / W. B. Yeats
Comments, suggestioins for future posts, and brickbats are always welcome.
Thanks for reading.
Photo Credit: Chimp Does Hamlet by King Chimp / Riley Bob