What is Verse Drama?

Verse drama, as a genre, can be described quite broadly as any drama written inverse, and such a form may also be called ‘poetic drama’. In poetic drama the dialogue is written in verse, and the forms of such verse vary according to languages and at time literary traditions. For instance, poetic drama in English is usually in blank verse, which consists of lines in iambic pentameter which are unrhymed. In French, the verse in poetic drama is the twelve- syllable line called the alexandrine.

Drama in verse was for several centuries the most dominant mode of drama in bothEuropean and non-European literary and artistic cultures. Most dramatic works in Elizabethan and Restoration England were in verse, including the plays of Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. In Germany, Johann Wolfgang Goethe’s much acclaimed and influentialFaust, among others, was a verse drama as well. Due to its continued use in the literary works of the ‘Golden Age’ of literature, especially in England, verse drama has come to be associated with the seriousness, heroism, and grandeur of tragedy. Aside from the artistic and aesthetic pull of this form, a more practical advantage of verse drama is that lines in verse are often easier for the actors to memorize in the original, precise form.

The immediate period following the end of the second World War in the twentieth century, proved to be a period conducive to the revival of drama written in verse. The ravages of war, the social and moral upheaval of society, as well as a general desire for optimism made the theatre scene prime for the richness of poetic plays.

In what David Daiches calls “by far the most interesting development in dramatic literature in the first half of the twentieth century” (1109), writers such as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot began their experiments in reviving poetic drama. Yeats, especially, began by writing fantastical plays on Irish mythological themes, but from the beginning he showed a symbolic power in both action and imagery, which suggested levels of meaning the drama had not sought after for a long time (Daiches 1109). The period also saw the verse-drama of John Millington Synge, whose poetic prose based on the speech rhythm of the Irish peasantry provided him with some of the resources of his unique vocabulary, which in drama was both poetic and real, both rich and natural (Daiches 1110). T. S. Eliot, another stalwart of this tradition, attempted to restore ritual to drama; Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral (1935), arguably remains the most successful of his plays because the poetic, lilting ritualistic element is implicit in the situation (Daiches 1111). Christopher Fry followed in this tradition with an airy exuberance in both imagery and wit, with A Phoenix Too Frequent (1946), The Lady’s Not for Burning (1948), and Venus Observed (1950).

The sudden and intense popularity of such verse-drama was also a reaction to the realistic ‘problem’ plays of G. B. Shaw orJohn Galsworthy written in straightforward prose. While these plays provided an understanding of the social ills of the age in great depth, their tone often bordered on pedantic and did little to address the sentimental requirements of the immediate post-war age.

As societal narratives progressed, and the ideas of fragmentation, minimalism, and alienation took hold and the dramatical aesthetic of England other neighbouring countries, verse-drama rapidly declined in popularity, making the poetic plays of Yeats, Eliot, Synge, and Fry the last of a rich and long tradition.

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