The Dramatic Element

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The subject of all art is passion, and a passion can only be contemplated when separated by itself, purified of all but itself, and aroused into perfect intensity by opposition with some other passion.

--W. B. Yeats, "The Irish Dramatic Movement"

And one of the three great things in the world is gossip, you know.

--Robert Frost

Not long ago, around the middle of the last century, it was possible for a poet to have a play on Broadway. Archibald MacLeish's verse play J.B., directed by Elia Kazan, ran for nearly a year in New York and received both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for best play in 1959. Maxwell Anderson's Anne of the Thousand Days, a verse drama about Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, was a smash when it opened with Rex Harrison in 1948, and later became an Oscar-winning film with Richard Burton and Genevieve Bujold (though only snippets of blank verse were retained for the film, such as Anne's Tower speech.)

Leafing through Kenneth Tynan's reviews of the 1950s reveals that, far from being a high-brow writer of closet dramas, T. S. Eliot was a noted British playwright of his day, regularly produced on the London stage. It would not be going too far to say that W. B. Yeats, whose groundbreaking verse plays include the Noh-inflected At the Hawk's Well (1920) and the bleak and stirring Purgatory (1938), helped to found modern Irish drama. Indeed, a great many twentieth-century poets saw drama as an essential part of their project: Thomas Hardy, W. H. Auden, Louis MacNeice, Robert Frost, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. E. Cummings, Robinson Jeffers, Dylan Thomas, Frank O'Hara.

Today, a steady stream of verse translations of classic plays continues to trickle forth, but relatively few original verse dramas are written, let alone produced. A few stragglers remain--Wole Soyinka, Derek Walcott, Tony Harrison, J. D. McClatchy (who has written thirteen opera libretti), and, in the younger generation, Glyn Maxwell--but mainly it is a preoccupation that poets no longer view as necessary or perhaps even possible. The loss for contemporary poetry is greater than it first appears. Beyond the absence of viable poetic dramas (for which, I suspect, the economics of the commercial theater are greatly, but only partly, to blame), the dramatic impulse seems to have receded from poetry in general.

This may say something particular about our age, in which the lyric has become the go-to mode. One finds, collected in book after book, an ever-expanding universe of short poems, typically by a solitary speaker, ruminating remotely on individual experience. Perhaps the brevity and pith of the lyric mode holds a special fascination for the information age: it's Twitter-brief, a terse announcement of the personal, full of news that may, but more likely will not, stay news. As Eliot writes in The Sacred Wood, dramatic poetry has disappeared at various times in the past, and long before the closing of the London playhouses:

    The epic, the ballad, the chanson de geste, the
   forms of Provence and Tuscany, all found their
   perfection by serving particular societies. The
   forms of Ovid, Catullus, Propertius, served a
   society different, and in some respects more
   civilized than any of these; and in the society
   of Ovid the drama as a form of art was comparatively
   insignificant. Nevertheless, the
   drama is perhaps the most permanent, is
   capable of greater variation and of expressing
   more varied types of society, than any other. 

Where Eliot describes a broad range of poetic forms, of which dramatic poetry is perhaps the most enduring, Yeats in his turn boils all poetry down to two basic kinds. Yeats's theory, like so many of his notions, strains credibility, yet it is interesting for the distinction it makes between lyric and dramatic poetry and the cycles by which these pass in and out of favor:

    There are two kinds of poetry, and they are
   commingled in all the greatest works. …