Justifying Emergence of Poetic Drama in the 20th Century: A Critical Overview


After the Restoration dramatists drama in English seems to have gone into hibernation, if it had not died altogether. There were at least two dramatists of great calibre in the closing years of the 19th century. Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde, but both of them steadfastly choose prose as the medium of their plays. The 20th century saw some powerful influence that exerted themselves on the drama, the influence of the great continental dramatists, and that of the Irish dramatic movement. It was, however, left to T. S. Eliot to rehabilitate poetic drama and place it on a sound footing.

There were several considerations which contributed to the emergence of poetic drama in the 20th century. There were at least a dozen factors which cumulatively worked in this direction. In the first place the prejudice against theatre going began to disappear. There was also, some relaxation in the rigour of censorship. Also there was a steady rise in the standards of judgment, due to the spread of education an increasing margin of leisure in the life of ordinary man and woman; a deepening conviction that a certain amount of recreation is the natural right of every human being. But the greatest factor of all is undoubtedly the change in the dramatist himself. The modern dramatist takes the drama seriously. His purpose is interpretation of life, and play-writing has become an art as well as a craft, of course all these factors worked for the revival of drama as a whole and not of poetic drama exclusively.

Poetic drama was a genre which evolved rather slowly. The first dramatists to make an impact were those who wrote prose. The writers, avoided poetic drama because it was unsuited to their temperament, but partly also because it did not accord with the themes they wanted to exploit, mainly the themes of social and economic import. They patronized a drama which was mainly a drama of wit. This also went well with the public demand for greater realism in treatment. However this over insistences on reality was bound to create its own creation in course of time and it was this reaction which was one of the factors which were conducive to the growth and evolution of poetic drama in England. Although there is a deep infusion of poetry in the plays of Ibsen, especially in his later plays, the qualities of dramas which were to influence other writers were not these, but his employment of greater realism and directness in the exploration of social problems. It was T. S. Eliot who argued that poetic drama is capable of being, used for exploring a large variety of themes which are outside of the scope of prose drama. 

The first to be explored was the reason why poetic drama could not meet with success in the 19th century attempted writing poetic drama, including such great names as Shelley, Browning and Tennyson, Eliot pointed out the fact that 19th century dramatists were either poets without any knowledge of the stage and its requirements, or men well-versed in stage craft but without a grain of poetry in them. In addition to this fundamental drawback, there was also the fact that 19th century drama tended to be of a miscellaneous character. Moreover, as Eliot and others pointed out convincingly, the failure of these dramatists was also assuredly the fact that they copied a wrong model.

Shakespeare, The most baneful aspect of the influence of Shakespeare was blank, verse, all whose possibilities were almost exhausted by him, so that those who wrote in blank verse at best produced pale imitations of his style.

19th century drama also failed because of the fact that dramatist were in most cases obsessed with the idea producing a great tragedy of the magnitude of King Lear. Both by percept and by example T. S. Eliot established the superiority of poetic drama over his prose counterpart.

Poetic drama is that kind of drama which generally written in poetry, but night be written in prose the prose which reads like poetry. It is not the medium of expression, but the spirit of the play which is the differential of poetic drama. Thus Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’, one of the best poetic dramas of modern times is written in prose. Let us now look at some of the characteristics of poetic drama.

Poetic drama deals with the essence of life-unchanging spiritual reality of life, in contradiction to prose drama which deals with the outermost reality prose drama gives an initiation of -the ready-made boot of existence as exactly as it can while the poetic drama speaks to intimate the core of life. Milton’s ‘Samson Agonistes’ records the essence of the religious thought of the century. Macbeth dramatizes the essence of human experience which is “sin recoils on the sinner.”
Poetic drama does not seek to diagnose the disease of life, and suggest cures: At least it does not attempt of satire the hesitancy of minds distracted by the problems that beset human life. Rather it is characterized by an escape from the problems of the contemporary society. Modern poetic drama arose out of the reaction against the obsession of the so-called problem plays with the problems of society. The great plays of Shakespeare, John Drinkwater, W. B. Yeats, Synge and T. S. Eliot have nothing to do with the ills - the rich, hurry and divided aims of modern life. The poetic plays generally deal with the themes distant in time and space. ‘Riders to the Sea’ treats the tragic life of the fisherman and peasants who live far-away from the vicious current of modern civilization. Yeats’ ‘The Countess Cathleen’ gives a poetical treatment of peasant life and the world of spiritual presences.

The characters of poetic dramas are themselves poetry. They are characters which, compared with ours hence undergone a certain powerful simplification and exaggeration So that primary impulse and being are more evident in what they do and say there in   speech and action of actuality’s affairs. In other words, in the characters of the poetic drama such promo vial traits of human being as motherly sentiment courage, nobility, ambition, emotional intensity and the like are described exaggeratedly. The characters of the poetic drama are much more vehement, emotional and impressive than the persons we come across in everyday life. The whole effect of the presence of such characters is obviously to give an exhibition of life intensified, life supposed at a higher pressure than actuality. In Macbeth ambition becomes predominant as to swallow up all other human traits such as pity, mercy and sense of duty. His whole being is actuated by ambition which becomes a master passion with him. In Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’ Maurya is the very embodiment of motherly feeling. She left no stone unturned to secure her sons against the all devouring teeth of sea but un fortunately she is ultimately left with no son living. When all is over with her, when Bartley, her last surviving son is dead, she remains grand and heroic like Macbeth. She says: “No man at all can be living for ever, and we must be satisfied.” Maurya like Macbeth and Eliot’s Becket or Shaw’s Joan may be rightly said to live an intensified life-life supposed at a higher pressure than actuality.

Emotion predominates in the life of the characters of poetic drama. It is the emotion which stirs their whole being, and shapes their utterance. Even when they talk on day-to-day affair or describe an ordinary object of nature they were emotional.

A sharp controversy rages as to the medium of expression in poetic drama, and this controversy will continue till the doomsday despite all the titanic efforts of T. S. Eliot to solve the controversy. Letting the controversy alone we might say that poetry is the best medium of expression for a poetic play, the very nature of the poetry. The characters are conceived on a highly emotional plane, and the primary impulses of being are strongly marked in their life such characters hardly help speaking in poetry.

The intensified life which Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Eliot’s Becket lives can be expressed adequately in poetry. But the modern age in not so fully prepared to welcome poetry as the medium of the dramatic expression as had been the age of Shakespeare. J. M. Synge is great and perhaps the best of the modern poetic playwrights by virtue of his evolving new medium which, is prose, but has all the emotional intensity and imagination colouring of poetry and which is more closely in accord with the spirit of his age.


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