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26 June, 2013
The Theory of the Theatre and Other Principles of Dramatic Criticism|
Blank Verse on the Contemporary Stage
by Hamilton, Clayton
| It is amazing how many people seem to think that the subsidiary fact that a
certain play is written in verse makes it of necessity dramatic literature.
Whether or not a play is literature depends not upon the medium of
utterance the characters may use, but on whether or not the play sets forth
a truthful view of some momentous theme; and whether or not a play is drama
depends not upon its trappings and its suits, but on whether or not it sets
forth a tense and vital struggle between individual human wills. The
Second Mrs. Tanqueray fulfils both of these conditions and is dramatic
literature, while the poetic plays of Mr. Stephen Phillips stand upon a
lower plane, both as drama and as literature, even though they are written
in the most interesting blank verse that has been developed since Tennyson.
Shore Acres, which was written in New England dialect, was, I think,
dramatic literature. Mr. Percy Mackaye's Jeanne d'Arc, I think, was not,
even though in merely literary merit it revealed many excellent qualities.
Jeanne d'Arc was not a play; it was a narrative in verse, with lyric
interludes. It was a thing to be read rather than to be acted. It was a
charming poetic story, but it was not an interesting contribution to the
stage. Most people felt this, I am sure; but most people lacked the courage
of their feeling, and feared to confess that they were wearied by the
piece, lest they should be suspected of lack of taste. I believe thoroughly
in the possibility of poetic drama at the present day; but it must be drama
first and foremost, and poetry only secondarily. Mr. Mackaye, like a great
many other aspirants, began at the wrong end: he made his piece poetry
first and foremost, and drama only incidentally. And I think that the only
way to prepare the public for true poetic drama is to educate the public's
faith in its right to be bored in the theatre by poetry that is not
dramatic. Performances of Pippa Passes and The Sunken Bell exert a very
unpropitious influence upon the mood of the average theatre-goer. These
poems are not plays; and the innocent spectator, being told that they are,
is made to believe that poetic drama must be necessarily a soporific thing.
And when this belief is once lodged in his uncritical mind, it is difficult
to dispel it, even with a long course of Othello and Hamlet. Paolo
and Francesca was a good poem, but a bad play; and its weakness as a play
was not excusable by its beauty as a poem. Cyrano de Bergerac was a good
play, first of all, and a good poem also; and even a public that fears to
seem Philistine knew the difference instinctively.
Mme. Nazimova has been quoted as saying that she would never act a play in
verse, because in speaking verse she could not be natural. But whether an
actor may be natural or not depends entirely upon the kind of verse the
author has given him to speak. Three kinds of blank verse are known in
English literature,—lyric, narrative, and dramatic. By lyric blank verse I
mean verse like that of Tennyson's Tears, Idle Tears; by narrative, verse
like that of Mr. Stephen Phillips's Marpessa or Tennyson's Idylls of the
King; by dramatic, verse like that of the murder scene in Macbeth. The
Elizabethan playwrights wrote all three kinds of blank verse, because their
drama was a platform drama and admitted narrative and lyric as well as
dramatic elements. But because of the development in modern times of the
physical conditions of the theatre, we have grown to exclude from the drama
all non-dramatic elements. Narrative and lyric, for their own sakes, have
no place upon the modern stage; they may be introduced only for a definite
dramatic purpose. Only one of the three kinds of blank verse that the
Elizabethan playwrights used is, therefore, serviceable on the modern
stage. But our poets, because of inexperience in the theatre, insist on
writing the other two. For this reason, and for this reason only, do modern
actors like Mme. Nazimova complain of plays in verse.
Mr. Percy Mackaye's verse in Jeanne d'Arc, for example, was at certain
moments lyric, at most moments narrative, and scarcely ever dramatic in
technical mold and manner. It resembled the verse of Tennyson more nearly
than it resembled that of any other master; and Tennyson was a narrative,
not a dramatic, poet. It set a value on literary expression for its own
sake rather than for the purpose of the play; it was replete with
elaborately lovely phrases; and it admitted the inversions customary in
verse intended for the printed page. But I am firm in the belief that verse
written for the modern theatre should be absolutely simple. It should
incorporate no words, however beautiful, that are not used in the daily
conversation of the average theatre-goer; it should set these words only in
their natural order, and admit no inversions whatever for the sake of the
line; and it should set a value on expression, never for its own sake, but
solely for the sake of the dramatic purpose to be accomplished in the
scene. Verse such as this would permit of every rhythmical variation known
in English prosody, and through the appeal of its rhythm would offer the
dramatist opportunities for emotional effect that prose would not allow
him; but at the same time it could be spoken with entire naturalness by
actors as ultra-modern as Mme. Nazimova.
Mr. Stephen Phillips has not learned this lesson, and the verse that he has
written in his plays is the same verse that he used in his narratives,
Marpessa and Christ in Hades. It is great narrative blank verse, but
for dramatic uses it is too elaborate. Mr. Mackaye has started out on the
same mistaken road: in Jeanne d'Arc his prosody is that of closet-verse,
not theatre-verse. The poetic drama will be doomed to extinction on the
modern stage unless our poets learn the lesson of simplicity. I shall
append some lines of Shakespeare's to illustrate the ideal of directness
toward which our latter-day poetic dramatists should strive. When Lear
holds the dead Cordelia in his arms, he says:
Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low,—an excellent thing in woman.
Could any actor be unnatural in speaking words so simple, so familiar, and
so naturally set? Viola says to Orsino:
My father had a daughter loved a man,
As it might be, perhaps, were I woman,
I should your lordship.
Here again the words are all colloquial and are set in their accustomed
order; but by sheer mastery of rhythm the poet contrives to express the
tremulous hesitance of Viola's mood as it could not be expressed in prose.
There is a need for verse upon the stage, if the verse be simple and
colloquial; and there is a need for poetry in the drama, provided that the
play remain the thing and the poetry contribute to the play.