Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Community and Conflict: A Practitioner's Perspective on Verse Drama *

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Community and Conflict: A Practitioner's Perspective on Verse Drama *

Article excerpt

For my doctoral thesis at the University of Birmingham, I undertook a historical investigation into the impact of Shakespeare on the development of the form of verse drama in England. Crudely summarised, the cultural history sketched in the course of this project suggested that the overbearing presence of Shakespeare in the English-language tradition has made it increasingly impossible for playwrights using verse not to reflect upon and attempt to justify their own formal choices. In the final stages of my research, I became acutely aware of how necessary such reflection felt, having myself written three verse plays in an attempt to explore through practice the unique possibilities offered by verse as a dramaturgical resource to poets and playwrights working today, by testing those possibilities in my own writing.

This article therefore takes up a prompt offered by Rob Conkie and Scott Maisano, the editors of a special issue of Critical Survey dedicated to the emerging trend of critical-creative inquiry within Shakespeare studies: "What if knowing why Shakespeare made use of [a wide range of familiar dramaturgic features] as he did depended on learning how (or at least trying) to do it ourselves?" (4-5). As a practitioner engaging with the self-imposed fetters of iambic pentameter verse drama in the model now most commonly associated with Shakespeare, I am not only developing my own creative practice, but learning as a scholar to identify "what kinds of critical insights are made possible only or especially via creative strategies" (Conkie and Maisano 3).

Since at least the early twentieth century, many of the verse dramatists whose work I have considered felt the need to offer reasoned defences of their own practice in response to presumed critical suspicion: a tradition in which my work here will follow. Some of the most persuasive commentary in defence of the form has been offered by Christopher Fry. In the two decades before his death in 2005, Fry-the author of The Lady's Not For Burning, who in 1951 had three plays running simultaneously on the West End, and had recently featured on the cover of Time magazine-gave a number of reflective interviews in which he attempted to account both for the particular advantages of his chosen form of theatre, and for its undeniable fall from grace. In 1992, he lamented to the Times that the contemporary verse dramatist feels unable to pursue his or her own practice in a climate of critical hostility: "Why does there have to be only one ruling taste? [...] Why can't we have theatre which contains the poetic, as well as other approaches to life?" (Lewis).

Why the absence of a poetic approach in contemporary drama matters-and the case I wish to make for its continued value-can be understood in part through Fry's own justification for the existence of verse drama as a theatrical form. His comments on the productive constraints of the medium, written for the mass culture audience of Vogue magazine, are worth engaging with in a serious way:

[i]n prose, we convey the eccentricity of things; in poetry, their concentricity, the sense of relationship between them; a belief that all things express the same identity, are all contained in one discipline of revelation. (Fry 137)

Fry's spiritually-inclined statement of intent positions verse drama as a form which is holistic, unifying, and democratic. This view of the medium is perhaps surprising: with regard to the best-known verse dramatist, Shakespeare, Kiernan Ryan notes that "most battles for the Bard have been won by forces intent on fabricating from his art a powerful apology for leaving the world as it is" (2). Anthony Easthope described iambic pentameter itself as the voice of "solid institutional continuity" (476), in which "the tradition itself, the abstract pattern, is beyond question" (488). As such, verse drama availing itself of this metre might operate as a "hegemonic form" implicitly confirming cultural norms (Easthope 486). …

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