Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Revival of Poetic Drama in the Modern Age—Eliot’s Contribution

19th Century Failure of Poetic Drama: Its Causes

The 19th century in England, says G.S. Frazer, although rich in other kinds of literature, is weak in drama. Between Sheridan’s School for Scandal and the early Comedies of Oscar Wilde and Bernard Shaw in the 1890s, no drama of any significance was produced.
The Elizabethan age was a great age of poetic drama, and all through the 19th century practically all the great poets, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Browning, Arnold, Tennyson, tried their hands at poetic drama, but failed to bring about a revival of this literary genre. As Eliot puts it, at the opening of the century, there were plays written by poets who had no knowledge of the stage, or by men who knew the stage but were no poets at all. The 19th century verse drama failed because it was not a ‘whole’, it was a hotch-potch of farce, rhetoric, and melodrama. Besides this, the shadow of Shakespeare was always there. All verse-dramatists tried to use the traditional blank verse. That is why Galsworthy says, “the shadow of the man Shakespeare was across the path of all who should attempt verse drama in those days.” Further, there was a tradition of Shakespearean scholarship, but the emphasis was laid on the study of individual scenes and passages, rather than on the plays as dramatic wholes.

Failure of Prose Drama: The Rise of Poetic Drama

English poetic drama in the present century arose as a reaction to the naturalistic prose drama of Ibsen, Shaw and Galsworthy. By the second decade of the century, this prose drama had reached a dead end. On the whole, this prose drama, in a decadent stage after the best work of Shaw, had failed to grasp the depth, tension and complexity of contemporary life. It was a mere entertainment and did not maintain any high levels. It concerned itself entirely with social and economic problems to the entire exclusion of deeper and more fundamental issues. It aimed at photographic realism, avoided the romantic and the poetic, and had grown too intellectual and sophisticated. It appealed to the mind rather than to the heart. The result was that a number of writers, who had made their first reputation as poets, and not as dramatists, tried to revive the tradition of verse play for the “Little Theatre”, i.e. theatre for specialised audiences. Herod, the first poetic-play of Stephen Phillips, appeared in 1901, and this marks the beginning of the revival of poetic drama in the 20th century. Irish dramatists, like W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, Sean O’Casey, also played a significant part in the moment for the revival of verse play. Other great names in the revival movement are John Masefield, Cristopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Cristopher Fry. However, it is T.S. Eliot who, both through his theory and practice of poetic drama, has achieved considerable success in establishing tradition of poetic plays in the 20th century.

Eliot: Creation of Suitable Atmosphere

Eliot took to writing plays comparatively late in his career; he came to theatre as a mature critic and poet. He had a full understanding of the nature of poetic drama, the difference between verse drama and prose drama, the causes of the failure of 19th century verse dramatists, the problem, technical and otherwise, which face a writer of verse plays in the modern age. Through his critical writings, he tried to demolish many of the misconceptions about verse drama, emphasised its superiority over prose drama, and in this way created a favourable atmosphere, “a current of fresh ideas”, as Matthew Arnold would put it, for the flourishing of poetic drama. Through his own practice, he showed that verse drama is possible in the modern age.

Solved the Thematic Problem

Eliot emphasised that there are certain conditions which must be fulfilled before success can be achieved in this field. First, it must be realised that the difference between prose drama and verse drama is not merely one of medium. The themes of the two are, and must be different. Poetic drama has been thought fit only for such themes as cannot be appropriately dealt with by the naturalistic prose drama T.S. Eliot writes, “… play should be written in verse for which prose is dramatically adequate”. The dramatic adequacy then demands a poignant theme, involving symbolic characters with imaginative atmosphere; this means a fall back on the elemental, emotional realities of life in contradistinction to the socio-economic issues which constitute the realm of the naturalistic prose drama. Through his practice, Eliot solved the thematic problem. His verse-plays are not concerned with socio-economic problems; they are concerned not with the outer, but with the inner emotional and psychic realities. Thus the core of his first play, Murder in the Cathedral, is the psychic struggle of the hero with the temptations offered to him, and that of The Family Reunion the psychological guilt-complex of Harry, the hero of the play; The Cocktail Party is a study in the awareness of personal inadequacies of married life in the modern context. In these plays, he has also demonstrated the relevance of religion to all human activity. They are all Christian plays, the purpose of the dramatist being, “to train people to be able to think in Christian categories.” In this way, “Eliot has been contributing to the creation of the kind of wholeness of outlook without which poetic drama cannot be accepted as the normal mode of drama.”

—(D.E. Jones)

Evolved Suitable Medium of Communication

The second pre-condition for the success of a poetic play is the availability of a form of verse, the rhythms of which are closer to those of the spoken language, and which is flexible enough to be organised into the word-order of dialogue. Blank verse was such a verse with the Elizabethan dramatists. But its continued use or non-dramatic purposes had exhausted its potentialities, so that by the time the renaissance of poetic drama started, it had become a handicap. T.S. Eliot achieved success after a lot of experimentation. Murder in the Cathedral marks the first conspicuous success of his experimentation: with its neutral style and avoidance of the echoes of Shakespearean blank verse, it had only a negative value in that, “it succeeded in avoiding what had to be avoided, but it arrived at no positive novelty.” With The Family Reunion he succeeded in evolving a rhythm-pattern closer to the contemporary spoken language with, “a line of varying length and varying number of syllables, with a caesura and three stresses. The caesura and the stresses may come at different places, almost anywhere in the line; the stresses may be close together or well-separated by light syllables; the only rule being that there must be one stress on one side of the caesura and two on the other.” In The Cocktail Party he put his verse on a very thin diet, and used contemporary idiom and rhythm.

Emphasised the Functional Value of Poetry

The third important condition is that poetry must not be used as a mere decoration. Poetry is not an embellishment to look at, but a medium to be looked through. Eliot distinguishes between false and true rhetoric and says that the employment of false rhetorical utterances is incompatible with the concept of poetry as a medium. The presence of false rhetoric not only brings to consciousness the remoteness of the rhetorical dialogue from the spoken language, but also exploits the sentiments of the auditors, and in this way destroys the dramatic detachment of the audience. The contention that poetry should become a medium, and not a decoration, implies that it should serve the following purposes: first through poetic images as the objective correlatives of the states of mind, poetry should help in the revelation of the personality—pattern of the characters; secondly, through poetic symbolism it should work out the implications of the theme; thirdly, the scenic setting of the play should be revealed through poetic manipulations of references.

Poetic Plays on Contemporary Themes; Conditioned the Response of the Audience

The fourth and the last condition for the successful revival of poetic drama, according to Eliot, is the re-orientation of the attitude of the audience. The Elizabethan audience accepted with, “willing suspension of disbelief, the convention of making the high personages speak in verse and the low in prose. No such frame of mind exist today, with the result that the attention of audience is distracted from the play to poetry, the moment any character starts speaking in verse. The situation is worsened by mixture of poetry and prose in the same play, because the transition from the one to the other mode of speaking makes the audience much more conscious of the difference between the two; in juxtaposition with the prose, the poetic mode of speaking looks all the more artificial. Thus a dramatist should avoid any mixture of the two. “As I have said”, writes T.S. Eliot, “people are prepared to put up with verse from the lips of personages dressed in the fashion of some distant age; they should be made to hear it from people dressed like ourselves, living in houses and apartments like ours, and using telephones and motor cars and radio sets what we have to do is to bring poetry into the world in which the audience lives and to which it returns when it leaves the theatre; not to transport the audience into some imaginary world totally unlike its own, an unreal world in which poetry is tolerated……”. It was in keeping with this theory that after The Murder in the Cathedral, he wrote four plays in contemporary setting with remarkable success. In this way says T.S. Pearce, “in choosing to write poetic dramas about common, everyday experiences, Eliot was undertaking the most startling experiment of all his works. At no period, had any previous writer attempted to do anything like this.”

Demolished Popular Fallacies

Fifthly, Eliot, through his critical writings, demolished the fallacy that in the history of a nation there can be only one great age of poetic drama. The age of Elizabeth in England, the 5th century in Greece, and the 17th century in France, were great ages of poetic drama, and there had not been another greater age of verse plays in any of these countries. Eliot rejected such fatalistic philosophies, as he called them, and emphasised that verse is the natural language of men at moments of intense, emotional excitement. A poetic dramatist makes articulate the deeper passions of men. Besides, he emphasized, “the craving for poetic drama is permanent in human nature.” Poetic drama, he said, is possible in the 20th century, but, “it cannot be the work of one man or of one generation working together, but has to evolve by the small contributions of a number of people in succession, each contributing a little.” Poetic drama in the modern age must be a social creation. He placed a high ideal of verse drama before his age, an ideal which he said was unattainable. But constant experimentation and exploration were necessary for greater and greater approximation to the ideal. Every age has its own requirements and its own tools. Verse dramatists in the modern age must avoid looking like Shakespeare. They should work within the framework of naturalism, and transform it by constant effort. He could achieve such success only because his approach to the problem was a practical one.

Another popular fallacy was the belief that verse is artificial, and the use of prose is natural and realistic. He pointed out that prose as used for dramatic dialogue is as different from conversational speech as verse. The drama itself is an illusion; it is something artificial. Verse is equally suitable for drama, only the playright should use the contemporary idiom, and try to make his verse flexible enough to suit all situations and all characters. This flexibility can be acquired only through long and painstaking efforts. In his own practice, he demonstrated that a verse can be achieved which allows the dramatist, “to modulate deftly from passages of light and rapid conversation, in the key of comedy, to passages expressing grave disquiet or, as at the end of Elder Statesman, grave serenity.”

—(G.S. Frazer)

Demonstrated the Wide Range of Poetic Drama

Further, Eliot emphasised that instead of limiting the emotional range, the use of verse enlarges the appeal and influence of the play. Verse drama can appeal to the most varied audience:

“For the simplest auditors there is the plot, for the more literary the words and phrasing, for more musically sensitive the rhythm, and for auditors of greater sensitiveness and understanding a meaning which reveals itself gradually.”

His own dramas bear out this increased range and capability of poetic drama. On the surface, they have many of the characteristics of contemporary farces, comedies of manner, and melodramas. Beneath the surface, there is an underpattern for the more sensitive and conscious among the audience. There is thus a doubleness of action, as if it took place on two planes at once. This sense of a higher pattern is conveyed through phrase and imagery; it cannot be conveyed through the use of prose.

Enlarged the Scope and Solved Its Problems

Eliot took a considerable step forward towards establishing a tradition of poetic drama in the 20th century. He demonstrated that contemporary setting and themes can be the subjects of poetic drama, and in this way enlarged the scope of the verse-play. He solved the medium of communication. He succeeded in developing a verse-form which has grown from contemporary idiom, which suggests the contemporary environment, which approaches prose very closely—yet remains sufficiently far from it so as not jar on the ears when a more heightened verse is used—and which can be spoken to an ordinary audience by an ordinary actor. He could invent plots which entertain, but which also put across a Christian vision of the world without becoming didactic or sentimental. He could succeed in dramatising complex states of our spiritual and moral being. He could do all this, and it is a creditable achievement. A long step forward has been taken. But, as he himself emphasised, the creation of a poetic drama is a social function. Eliot’s work must be taken up and carried on by his successors, before his dream of a powerful tradition of verse drama in the modern age can be realised.

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