Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

4: British and American Drama

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

4: British and American Drama

Article excerpt

The New Verse Drama

Mr. T.S. Eliot has already discovered how difficult a task the poet who attempts to write a verse play that would be representative of his own generation has to face. He writes, as Eliot observes, with the echoes of Shakespeare and the exuberant vernacular of the Elizabethans at the back of his head. Since the great age of blank verse there has been nothing written in that medium, or for the verse stage, that has not imitated the Elizabethans.

The tradition of realism in our own age, begun with Ibsen and Strindberg, is now being worn out at the fringes, and the superrealistic medium of the cinema and the documentary play has almost worn out the naturalistic dialogue that is at its best in plays of the Shavian or Noël Coward type. People are, according to the realists, willing to hear themselves be represented naturally on the stage. They want things to be as they are - the nineteenth-century viewpoint of Flaubert, de Maupassant, Zola and Dickens, which has dried up at its mouth in the extra-realistic school of the American novelists. And writers like Hemingway, O'Hara and James T. Farrell may be just as applicable today.

There is a great deal of audience fascination in hearing yourself represented on the stage, but a reaction to the drab and natural in art is expected, and this is shown in the trend that modem postwar writing has taken. Henry James and tiie supematuralists like Kafka and the precious mandarin style of writing has not reached the stage yet, and if it does it will probably have a very short existence. The premature cry that realism is dead is a hope. Orson Welles, in writing of the documentary film, has complained that it is very easy to show a dirty sink full of greasy dishes and call it realism and possibly even artistry, but it is not art in permanence. There are other hopeful directions.

What has the modem verse playwright to face besides the ghost of Shakespeare and the complex directions of a modem world that is more concerned with Marx and science than with literary truths? He has the most difficult job of forging a new rhythm exact enough in the metrics of contemporary speech. Blank verse was easy on the Elizabethan ear. It was a scholarly, almost pedantic age, an age of leisurely punctuation and a careful choosing not so much of separate words as of the position of pauses and stress in speech. Shakespeare's prose, which no doubt mirrored the language of ordinary people in the comedies, carries a rhythm that is scholarly even in the vernacular. Bombast and rhetoric were the things to be admired. The Shakespearean hero is an exaggerated conception.

The modem hero is sunk in the morass of Freud; complexes and a lack of positivism have just about killed the playwright and any chance of creating a Don Juan or dashing-cavalier type. The last of that generation was Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac, who was a hero in caricature, a man with a tremendous nose and a florid love of the rhetorical. Today we laugh at noble loves and benighted maids unless the heroes and heroines have a gun or a Martini in one hand and utter tough clichés behind cigarette smoke. A hero without metaphor is the murderer of any hope for a poetic stage. Falstaff and Quixote and Henry V can shout their language and be bereaved because the language and man go together with the sensibility of the age. Bolingbroke's

By heaven me thinks it were an easy leap

To pluck bright honour from the pale faced moon.

I'll get honour if it's the last


I'll get honour if it's the last thing I do. It's a cinch.

"American culture," you say. Or the moral sickness of a civilization that has produced the greatest bundle of dictators in the world's short history. How can the verse dramatist attack this situation? He may have to revitalize the past; to use one of the old grand themes. Christopher Fry and Eliot are using history and myth a great deal. Fry has gone a step further - a genuine poet filled with Elizabethan fever, he has made an informal attack on rhetoric and brought a bright antique flavour to our drab, realistic stage-boards. …

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