Like the rest of the literature of the twentieth century, drama is marked by excessive realism-almost naturalism. In the early years of the century English drama under the influence of Ibsen, Shaw and Galsworthy was too realistic and too involved in contemporary social problems to be tolerant of any poetry-least of all, poetic expression. Prose-witty, serious, pathetic, or ironical-was the accepted medium of drama.
But that does not mean that poetic drama was dead beyond hope. At least a few early twentieth-century dramatists like Stephen Philips did write poetic drama. In the later years of the century, thanks to Yeats, Abercrombie, Bottomley, and most of all, T. S. Eliot, poetic drama came to its own once again and could thereafter compete with prose drama without needing any special excuses. In fact, in the twenties of our century there is a clear evidence of a marked reaction against the naturalistic drama of the earlier years; there is, conversely what Allardyce Nicoll in British Drama calls, “a renascence of imagination.” The ascendency of imagination and the challenge to realism took in the field of drama three divergent directions as below:
(i) The establishment of poetic drama.
(ii) The coming into its own of the modernistic Continental School.
(iii) The arrival of the historical dramatists.
Stephen Phillips (1864-1915):
But even before this “renascence of imagination” we find some dramatists writing verse drama in the early years of the twentieth century. Of these dramatist Stephen Phillips deserves the first mention. Paolo and Francesco was his greatest achievement, though he wrote some other verse plays also, like Herod, Ulysses, The Sin of David, and Nero. His work is not original, for unlike T. S. Eliot, he does not try to subject an old traditional style to the needs of the modern age. “He,” says Nicoll, “looks backward always and can think of nothing save the continuance of the wornout nineteenth century styles based on uncritical admiration of the Elizabethans.” Now that is just not sufficient. Phillips is a fossilized Elizabethan. In spite of their flamboyantly melodramatic elements and wooden characters, his plays dazzled nis contemporaries, at least for a time, but could not succeed in creating an appreciable public demand for poetic drama.
Nor did he found a tradition, though some dramatists like Rudolf Besier and J. E. Flecker tended somewhat in his direction. Besier’s The virgin Goddess is written much in the same style as Phillips’. Flecker’s Hassan (published in 1922 and staged in 1923) is different in the sense that it is related to the Middle East. It does capture much of the gorgeous splendour of the East with its hedonistic lustfulness and grotesque sadism, but its characterisation and incidents (mostly of the melodramatic kind) are quite crude and incapable of interesting the more discerning of readers and spectators. There is some really splendid poetry also no doubt, but, to quote Allardyce Nicoll, it is “a mere patchwork of heterogeneous elements without harmony and without form.” Edward Knoblock’s Kismet (1912) is another Eastern phantasmagoria.
John Masefield (1878-1967):
John Masefield was not affected by the Middle East, but he was influenced a great deal-especially in his later dramatic work-by the Japanese drama which was introduced in English for the first time in 1913. In the beginning Masefield tried his hand at domestic and historical themes, in such plays as The Tragedy of Nan, the prose play The Tragedy ofPompey the Great, and Philip the King (written in heroic couplets)-. The Japanese influence is perceptible first in The Faithful (1915). His later plays mostly on religious and historical themes, show an appreciable evidence of the Japanese influence. Good Friday(1915), A King’s Daughter (1923), The Trial of’ Jesus (1925), Tristran and Isolt (1927), and The Coming of Christ (1928) are his important later plays. In them he skilfully combines prose and verse, and, following the precedent of the ancient classical stage, introduces choral interludes. His language is well-wrought but lucid. His Christianity is quite conventional and as such unacceptable to the moderns. But there is a childlike quality in his conception and presentation which cannot go unobserved and uncommended.
John Drinkwater (1882-1937):
John Drinkwater is best known for his prose historical drama Abraham Lincoln (1918) which secured for him international fame. But here we are concerned with his poetic dramas which came only before 1918 and which include The Storm (1915), The God of Quiet (1916), and X=O: A Night of the Trojan War (1917). These plays were not as popular as Abraham Lincoln and even his other historical dramas like Mary Stuart and Oliver Cromwell, but they helped to promote and preserve the vogue of poetic play. The Storm is indeed very effective and puts one in mind of Synge’s Riders to the Sea. A young woman is waiting fearfully for her husband who has been overtaken by a furious storm. Her mind, torn between hope and fear, comes to a settlement with the bringing in of the dead body of her husband. The play is meditative rather than expressive of action. The storm in the soul of the young woman going to be bereaved is given more importance than the physical storm raging outside her cottage. Her tragedy which she takes with an agonized silence is really pathetic and heart-writing. X-O attempts a smart exposure of the evils of war. Even the most expensive war yields no profit in the end: it comes to zero. Drinkwater has presented in the play an imaginary episode during the course of the Trojan War. The chief characters of the play are four—two Trojan friends and two Greek friends. At night one of the Trojans leaves his friend behind to kill some Greek straggler, and, likewise one of the Greeks goes to ambush some unwary Trojan. The Greek and the Trojan left behind happen to become the victims. It is discovered by the Greek and the Trojan assasins when they come back from their respective errands. Drinkwater, aware as he was of the tragedy of war, was not yet a pacifist-as his Abraham Lincoln shows. Lincoln turned to war when things went out of hand, though he did so with a deep spiritual agony.
Yeats and the Irish Movement:
The Irish Movement contributed a lot to English drama, both prose and verse. The leaders of the Irish Movement were W. B. Yeats (1865-1939) and Synge. Their followers were many and included some very talented writers. Synge wrote plays in a poetic language all his own. but it was prose not verse. Hence he will not detain us here.
Yeats was a poet of considerable powers. His poetic plays posed a serious challenge to the products of the realistic prose school. They were poetic not only in form but spirit also. They were full of rich symbolism, mystic esotericism. and delicate refinements which characterise much of his poetry. Yeats “deprecated the conversion of the theatre into the lecture-platform and the pulpit by realistic playwrights.” His was, say Moody and Lovett, “the first dramatic verse since Jacobean days that was really related to human impulse and expression and was not a mere decoration; he took the new Anglo-Irish poetry, with its tendency towards rhetoric and its gleams of racial imaginativeness, and he gave it an aesthetic form that was to be the greatest influence on the next generation of Irish writers.” The Countess Cathleen (which came towards the end of the nineteenth century), The Land of Heart’s Desire, The King’s Threshold, On Baile’s Strand, and Deirdre are his chief plays. For sheer poetry and emotional effectiveness The Countess Cathleen occupies the most prominent place. It is the story of a Christ-like countess who offers her own soul for hell in return for the release of many others. She is a benevolent Faustus. On finding her dead even the unsophisticated peasants express themselves poetically:
A Peasant. She was the great white lily of the world. A Peasant. She was more beautiful than pale stars. An Old Peasant Woman. The little plant I love is broken
The grief of Aleel, the Countess’s lover, finds a Shakesperean expression. He breaks the Countess’s mirror and exclaims:
I shatter you in fragments, for the face
That brimmed you up with beauty is no more:
And die, dull heart, for she whose mournful words
Made you a living spirit has passed away
And left you but a ball of passionate dust.
And you proud earth and plumy sea, fade out!
For you may hear no more her faltering feet,
But are left only amid the clamorous war
Of angels upon devils.
Yeats was a dramatist of visions and symbols which were to him
Forms more real than living men;
Nurslings of immortality.
“I had unshakable conviction”, he once remarked, “arising how or whence I cannot tell, that invisible gates would open as they did for Blake, as they opened for Swedenborg.” The “gates” might not have opened wide for Yeats, but at least some wickets did.
Lascelles Abercrombie (1881-1938):
Abercrombie’s verse plays, like Deborah (1913), The Adder (1913), The Endofthe World(1914), Staircase (1920), The Deserter (1922), and Phoenix (1923), struck a note of departure from the fanciful and symbolical plays of Yeats. Abercrombie had nothing to do with the land of fairies or mysticism. He was a poet, no doubt, but he was also a realist. He took upon himself the task of adapting the blank verse of the Elizabethan age to the contingencies of the modern times. Refering to Abercrombie’s work, Moody and Lovett maintain: “fundamentally, Abercrombie endeavoured to bring his poetry into close contact with reality. He was not another singer from fairyland as was Yeats: he deliberately departed from the Elizabethan tradition which kept so many writers of the past in its thraldom. Consciously he sought to find a form of blank verse expression which might adequately convey to modern spectators or readers the immediate emotions of our times in terms of poetry. The powerful resonance of his verse, with its peculiar welding of highly imaginative language and common expressions presents a notable contribution to dramatic form.” Abercrombie’s plays are poor in characterisation and stage effects. Moreover, there is a sizable proportion of narrative which does not fit well into the dramatic framework. Anyway, Abercrombie scored an advance upon the unthinking Elizabethanism of Stephen Philips by showing a much greater awareness of contemporary taste and conditions.
Dr. Gordon Bottomley:
Whereas Abercrombie tried to poetise ordinary speech and thus combine poetry with realism, Dr. Gordon Bottojnley endeavoured to ake an altogether new start. In his search for a new poetic medium he did not turn to the Elizabethans or their Victorian imitators, but the No drama of Japan and the classical drama of Greece. In his youth Bottomley was an enthusiastic admirer of D. G. Rossetti in whom he found, to quote himself,
The lost Italian vision, the passionate
Vitality of art more rich than life,
More real than the day s reality.
Later, however, his enthusiasm for aestheticism dwindled considerably. His plays can be roughly divided into two groups as follows:
(i) The earlier group; and
(ii) the lyric, choral plays.
What attracts our attention in the plays of the earlier group is the solidity of Bottomley’s characterisation and his pleasing inventiveness. These plays include some with Shakespearean themes-such as King Lear’s Wife and Gruach-which are extremely interesting. Gruach tries to show the background of Lady Macbeth and succeeds in convincing us psychologically.
In the choral plays Bottomley further removed dramatic dialogue from common speech. His experiments are quite interesting even though hey could not excite much emulation.
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965):
T. S. Eliot has been the greatest shaping force in the literature of the twentieth century-in poetry, criticism, and drama. Long before he came forward with a poetic play^of his own, he had started defending poetic drama. In The Possibility of Poetic Drama, The Need for Poetic Drama, Aims of Poetic Drama, and Poetry and Drama he strongly advocated the cause of poetic drama. At one point, comparing prose and verse as the media of drama, he conveyed his belief that “poetry is the natural and complete medium of drama, that the prose play is a kind of abstraction capable of giving you only a part of what the theatre can give, and that the verse play is capable of something much more intense and exciting.”
But all this verbal pleading would have been of little avail if Eliot had not, with his own practice, proved the potentialities of poetic drama in the modern age. He wrote some seven poetic plays which are:
Murder in the Cathedral
The Family Reunion
The Cocktail Party
The Confidential Clerk
The Elder Statesman
Of all of them Murder in the Cathedral is the most outstanding. Bamber Gascoigne observes in Twentieth Century Drama: “It is the highest tribute to a poetic drama to say, as one can of Murder in the Cathedral, that it is both intensely dramatic and inconceivable in prose.” Eliot’s plays are quite complex (like his poetry), but they are satisfying in their poetry and the evocation of the desired moods by a wonderful handling of the verse medium.
W. H. Auden in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood wrote some good poetic plays-TTze Dog Beneath the Skin, The Ascent of, F6, and Frontier. Miss Dorothy Sayers in The Zeal of Thy House and The Devil to Pay followed T. S. Eliot’s lead in handling religious subject-matter. Stephen Spender with The Trial of a Judge came out with a powerful poetic play depicting the fate of Liberals and Socialists in the Nazi Germany of Hitler. This play, as Nicoll points out, “despite its brilliance in execution, exhibits a burning emotion so consuming as to destroy that simple structure from which a stage play must be built.” Christopher Fry in his poetic plays imported some mystical suggestions and philosophical speculations. For this very purpose he preferred verse to prose. His verse is quite suggestive but is sometimes marred by a little immaturity and incomprehensibility. Consider an instance showing both his excellence and weakness:
The world is an arrow
Or larksong, shot from the earth’s bow and falling
In a stillborn sunrise.