The 1800s

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Modern Theatre in Context: A Critical Timeline

Poetic Drama

By the mid-nineteenth century the use of verse on the English stage had already become recognizably artificial. The Romantic admiration for Shakespeare, which produced the derivative archaism of Keats' King Otho or Shelley's The Cenci, led to the picturesque escapism of Swinburne or the neo-Elizabethan inflation of Tennyson's Becket (1884). Even before Ibsen and Shaw established new criteria of authenticity, verse had been relegated to historical pageants: a dressed-up speech for costume plays. And the theatrical attempts of poets such as John Masefield or James Elroy Flecker only confirmed the gulf between verse and modern experience.

Masefield retreated from contemporary subjects (The Tragedy of Nan, 1908) to Roman and Biblical themes (The Tragedy of Pompey the Great, 1910; Esther, 1921); and although - following W.B. Yeats and Gordon Craig - he experimented with Japanese Noh and medieval Miracle Play models, his imagery remained purely verbal. The sensuous lyricism of Flecker's Hassan (1914, unperformed until 1923 - when it caught the popularity of Oscar Asche's orientalist musical spectaculars) has an exotic attraction that led to its revival as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. But even when first produced, Hassan was received as a period piece, with its popularity due as much to the incidental music supplied by Delius and the ballets by Fokine, as to Flecker's highly romanticized Middle-Eastern legend.

Poetry, the traditional language for tragedy, was relegated to spectacle, or became attenuated in the symbolist drama of the late nineteenth century. Yet two viable models emerged, which developed the ideas of the symbolists in different ways. One was Yeats's "Plays for Dancers", based on the Japanese Noh plays; the other T.S. Eliot's style of drama, which layered a substructure of Greek myth beneath a superficially naturalistic depiction of modern life. Although Eliot's dramatic verse, specifically based on "the common speech of its time" became in his later plays almost indistinguishable from ordinary prose dialogue, his most overtly poetic piece, Murder in the Cathedral (1939) has become one of the most frequently performed of all modern English plays.

Eliot, together with W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and other poets of the 1930s joined the Group Theatre founded by Rupert Doone, which produced notable stagings of Eliot's first play, Sweeney Agonistes, and Auden's collaborations with Christopher Isherwood, particularly The Dog Beneath the Skin and The Ascent of F6. Many of these poets also wrote radio plays for the BBC, which became the main venue for verse drama after the Second World War, though Christopher Fry's plays with their verbal pyrotechnics were highly popular in the West End theatres of the mid 1940s through the 1950s.

Since then very little mainstream drama has been written in verse, although there have been a range of highly imagistic, non-naturalistic plays, such as Caryl Churchill's folklore evocation in The Skryker (1994), which contain poetic qualities.