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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.

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