This article examines the effort to revitalise poetic drama on the English stage by notable English poets like W.B. Yeats, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, etc. It will look at the purpose of the attempt and analyse Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot as the best example of English modern poetic drama.
Modern Poetic Drama
During the early part of 19th century, certain theatre managers requested and even advanced money to their friends who had established themselves as great poets to create poetic plays for them. According to Downer (1950):
In the 1830’s Macready was begging his poetic friends to write for him, and got for his pains Browning’s A Blot in the Scutcheon and a dozen crabbed imitations of Shakespeare. Charles Kean advanced the unheard of sum of £400 to G.W. Lovell for The Wife’s Secret in 1848, and promised J.S. knowles £1000 for a poetic drama that never materialised. Henry Irving tried to make stage worthy vehicles out of the dramatic poems of Tennyson and treated the hack – written works of W.G. Wills as if they were genuinely poetic. In 1901, George Alexander commissioned Stephen Philips to write Paolo and Francesca.
The above statement is an eloquent commentary on the hunger and enthusiasm demonstrated by theatre managers at the material time for a new poetic drama. The hunger, notwithstanding, the effort failed to yield wonderful dividends because these poets either aped Shakespeare or failed to catch the spirit of the time. According to Alan S. Downer, a “modern poetic drama could only be created by men aware not only of the spirit of their times but of the poetic style which had been developed to give expression to that spirit”. The credit of creating a new poetic drama for the English stage is usually given to William Butler Yeats – a renowned Irish poet. Downer states that:
The necessities of the Irish Renaissance, however, drove him to thinking more precisely on the problem of the creation of drama which would so move the hearts and minds of men that they would depart with new understanding of their nature and destiny.
Although Yeats used Irish folklore and legends, his aim is to create plays that affect the soul, plays that are universal in appeal, plays that are a living thing, not encumbered by “artificial problems of a particular society”. He seeks to capture the nature of man’s existence. Yeats captures his intention in On Baile’s Strand (1904). Downer (1950) observes with respect to this play that:
The interpretation Yeats wishes to put upon his action is made clear by a dramatic device of wonderful simplicity. The play is opened and closed by two grotesque characters, a fool and a blind man; the fool can see without understanding, the blind can understand without seeing. They serve as chorus, through never in artificial sense since they are a natural part of the locale and the situation. “Life drifts between a blind man and a fool”, says one of the minor figures, and this little heroic drama is a tragic picture of the bitterness and bewilderment of existence.
The effort of Yeats was followed by unsuccessful attempts by Gordon Bottomley, Laurence Binyon etc., to revitalise poetic drama in the 1920s. Their failure is attributed to the fact that they were more skilled as poets than playwrights. Downer is of the opinion that, this has been “the constant problem of poetic theater, of course, since both poetry and drama demand technical equipment and skills that are rarely united in a single author”. These poets create beautiful poetry which sometimes fails to move the action forward or fits the character it is written for. The idea of balancing speech and action is a major problem that frequently confronts poets in the theatre.
However, the major effort to revive poetic drama in England occurred in the 1930s when established poets such as W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, T.S. Eliot, Stephen Spender, Macneice, among others, ventured into playwriting with the intention of dominating the theatre as its master.
In seeking a suitable dramatic form and poetic medium for the expression of their ideas they have not thrown out the baby with the bathwater by ceasing to imitate the panoramic form of the Elizabethans or discarding blank verse. Instead, they have created their forms out of whatever parts of the old traditions seemed useful and have chosen to write in a half – colloquial modern verse medium free of the glaze of the antiquity.
Their powerful poetic spirit and enthusiasm, notwithstanding, it was only T.S. Eliot that was able to make an indelible mark on the English stage in the direction of modern poetic drama with his Murder in the Cathedral. Tom F. Driver notes that “None of the four plays he wrote after Murder in the Cathedral comes near that work in power or in ‘relevance’, in spite of its technical weakness as a drama and its remoteness from the ostensible concerns of modern secular man” (The Theatre in Search of a Fix,p. 333). In fact, its splendid poetry makes it, according to Luis Vargas (1960), to be “commercially successful, and gave quite a fillip to the efforts of struggling verse dramatists”.
T.S. Eliot’s motivation for opting for poetic drama is similar to that of Yeats. He sees poetry as a natural utterance for intense and powerful feeling. According to him, “The human soul, in intense emotion, strives to express itself in verse”. In distinguishing prose drama and poetic drama, Eliot further states, “The tendency, at any rate, of prose drama is to emphasize the ephemeral and superficial; if we want to get at the permanent and universal, we tend to express ourselves in verse”. Poetic drama, therefore, aims at transcendence, for it seeks to take the audience from the mundane plane to the realm of the soul where emotions originate.
Biography of T.S. ELIOT
Thomas Stearns Eliot, popularly known as T.S. Eliot in literary circle, was born on 26 September, 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri, to Henry Wax Eliot and Charlotte Champ Stearns. Eliot was the youngest son of the seven children of the family and was born with a congenital problem of hernia and this necessitated the constant attention given to him by his mother and his old female siblings.
He was educated at Smith Academy and Milton Academy before proceeding to the Harvard University in 1906 for his bachelor’s and master’s programmes in Comparative literature and English literature. He equally did graduate studies in philosophy at the Sarbonne, Harvard and Merton College, Oxford. Between 1910 and 1911, Eliot confirmed his vocation as a poet with “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, “Portrait of a Lady”, “Rhapsody on windy Night”, etc.
In 1914, he traveled to England and got married to Vivien Haigh – Wood in 1915 at Hampstead Registry office, an idea not approved by his family. In 1916, he completed his Ph.D. Thesis in Philosophy but could not travel to Massachusetts for the defense. In London, he sustained himself temporary as a teacher; but in 1917, he got a permanent job as a bank clerk. This job gave him the financial security that enabled him to return to poetry. He published his first collection of poems entitled Prufrock and other Observations that same year. In 1920, he published his second collection entitled Poems.
However, in 1919, he lost his father without reconciling with him over the marital problem. This, in addition to Vivien’s worsening health problem, caused him to experience nervous breakdown. After his recuperation in Switzerland, he completed a long poem entitled “The Waste land”. This poem which is regarded as a masterpiece captures Eliot’s horror of life. “The waste land” and the Criterion published in 1922 made him very popular in London.
In 1923, he left the bank and became the editor of Faber and Faber publishing company. In 1927, he got baptised in the Church of England and became British citizen that same year. From this time of his attachment to the church, he began to write religious poems starting with “Journey of the Magi” (1927). The much celebrated Ash Wednesday was published in 1930
The dramatic writings of T.S. Eliot came late in his career. He wrote Sweeney Agonistes which now appears in fragments in 1932, The Rock (1934), Murder in the Cathedral (1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949), The Confidential Clerk (1953), and The Elder Statesman (1958). In 1948, T.S. Eliot’s contributions to literature earned him the Nobel Prize for Literature. Arnold P. Hinchcliffe notes that “His plays brought him fame and honour, and money too, but he got the Nobel Prize for his poetry” (11). Apart from poetry and drama, Eliot was a wonderful critic, philosopher and anthropologist. He died in 1965 at the age of 77 years.