Because verse is so rarely used in contemporary theatre, it no longer feels – as it must have done in the seventeenth-century heyday of English verse drama – like ‘an art/Lawful as eating’. This quote from The Winter’s Tale springs to mind because, in Shakespeare’s anniversary year, I feel that today’s poets might justifiably wonder how and why the link between poetry and theatre has been so comprehensively severed. Shakespeare’s dramatic verse is highly artificial, but historically he has been greatly praised for his naturalness, especially in fitting speech into the structures of metre: what Milton referred to as his ‘easy numbers’. How could we, as poets, work towards making poetry feel equally ‘natural’ or ‘lawful’ in a modern script for theatre? And conversely, how can we channel the benefits of its unnaturalness? In this post I’m going to give some provisional responses based on my own experience, which I hope might suggest directions of travel for a poet approaching theatre writing for the first time, even if your own practice is very different.
It’s clear that writing, or listening to, poetry for theatre no longer feels natural to most of us in a contemporary context. Tony Harrison, one of the few modern verse dramatists to achieve some measure of success (though not without his fair share of critical panning) describes his anxiety about this issue in the introduction to his play Square Rounds. In the modern world, writes this champion of reclaiming the classics, ‘defensive as even I am about ‘verse drama’, I had to find a reason for the verse of the … play.’ In order to ‘create a new poetic theatre that drew from the past, but which looked straight into the depths and disturbance of our own times’, Harrison had to find, within the internal logic of this play, something that would give him ‘licence’ to write dramatic poetry.
When I started work on my first verse play, Free for All, I also confronted this need for reasons and licences. Why write verse drama today at all? And if I was to go ahead and do it anyway (and I had made some pretty definite promises that I would to the Arts and Humanities Research Council), what would verse mean in a contemporary playscript? If you choose to write a verse play, you might come up with some very different answers, but I decided to focus on a few related areas. I knew that verse was often (though by no means always) associated with higher-status characters, and that the world of my play – a free school open evening that goes horribly wrong – was going to bring conflicts of class and power to the forefront. I started to see verse within this world as something that could connote authority; control; comfort with the dramatic situation. The school’s headmaster, Torben, starts off as a slick, confident showman, and I wanted his command of verse to create a sense of fluency and self-assurance:
See, what I mean is freedom – after years
of desks in lines and one man at the board
and targets, tests, the tedium of chalk,
we’re taking matters into our own hands,
Not all characters are so at ease in this social world, however, and I saw the opportunity for verse to serve as a register of language, a marker of mobility similar to Received Pronunciation. Some characters, like Kerry, a gutsy union activist, could easily code-switch (or defiantly choose not to.) Some, like Angela, a pushy mother from a poorer background, would find this more difficult, and Angela’s awkward, metronomic verse could convey a sense of unease, of hypercorrection:
It’s wonderful to see you, Dr Krill.
What an occasion. Such a special day.
And you, Mrs McEntee, though I must
insist, I don’t yet have a doctorate…
A travesty. Well, neither does my Keith,
as you can tell from that ill-timed remark –
I must apologise reservedly:
a shameful comment. From a governor!
I decided that one character in particular – Starfish, an anxious schoolgirl feeling over-burdened with extra-curricular activities – would speak an especially heightened verse. The pressure being put on her would come through formally in a rigorously pressurised verse-form: a four-beat, trochaic line, organised into rhyming couplets. As such, the verse could help verbally echo the sense of a tightly-wound person constantly on the verge of snapping:
Physics Challenge, Silver Medal,
Semi-finals county netball,
Youth Ambassador to Calais,
ten years tap, eleven ballet …
Teenage Vegan Essay Contest,
Cuckoo drowning in a swan’s nest!
On the other hand, Mademoiselle Tatlow – a disgraced former French teacher with a nefarious agenda – was the sort of character who kept buttonholing people who were trying to get away, so I gave her a six-beat (alexandrine) line, making it sound like she was always going on just slightly too long. These breaks from the iambic norm were formal devices which made these characters stand out in the world of the play: they would be intrinsically hard parts to play naturalistically. In this respect, I was using the verse form as a kind of internal stage direction: Approach with caution, or perhaps Don’t take this too seriously.
This became important to me when thinking, during my PhD research into the development of verse drama, about the relationship between verse, naturalism, and the supernatural. Leontes above, after all, is actually talking about magic. To paraphrase another Shakespeare quote, from the Chorus to Henry V, we’re used to poetry working on ‘our imaginary forces’ to make us see and believe in things that aren’t really there: demons and fairies and ghosts. One common argument is that the decline of verse drama parallels the rise of Enlightenment rationalism: that the bourgeois, post-industrial, everyday world no longer has the kind of dark corners of mystery verse was suited to illuminate, and conversely, that prose is the only appropriate medium for a world of iPhones and spiralizers – anything else would feel overblown, redundant, ridiculous. I decided I didn’t believe in this at all, not least because I wanted my very modern verse play to have a ghost in it.
I started thinking, instead, that verse in theatre could be used to transcend these kinds of contingencies – that it could directly address the society we live in, while moving beyond flat-pack naturalism. That switching the world of a play into verse was a way of signalling that those mimetic rules no longer had to apply – that there was no wall between actor and audience, that ghosts could get into the lighting rig, that reality could become a game. Like Tony Harrison, I felt I needed a licence for my verse, but that once I had made it my own instrument, the verse was able to give me licence.
T.S. Eliot suggested something similar – that verse in theatre can be a way of addressing other modes of experience, even as it captures recognisable ordinary life. Eliot summarised the domain of verse drama as ‘a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action.’ I don’t disagree with his sense of poetry in the theatre as a kind of numinous toothbrush, reaching the parts other plays can’t reach. But I don’t think verse plays in the twenty-first century need to turn their back on ‘action’, either, as Eliot’s often did, and I think the possibilities verse offers to convey shifting social and political structures is a large part of its appeal to me as a poetic dramatist.
If you’d like to see what that means in practice, you’re very welcome to attend Free for All at Hansom Hall, Leicester, on Jan 28th. But I’m hoping you might also like to try it out for yourself, and in this year of celebrating the most famous poet-playwright in world culture, make your own case for why theatre today needs poetry as much as ever.
Free for All tours Midlands venues from the 27th-29th January. More details can be found on the Haunted House Theatre website, and tickets are available for the Leicester show here. The production is funded by AHRC, our Kickstarter donors, and the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership.
Richard O’Brien is a poet and PhD student researching Shakespeare and the development of verse drama at the University of Birmingham. His most recent pamphlets are A Bloody Mess (Dead Ink/Valley Press) and The Emmores (The Emma Press). His work has also appeared in Oxford Poetry and The Salt Book of Younger Poets, and in 2015 he won the Sonnet category of the inaugural London Book Fair Poetry Prize.