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Peter Oswald On Verse Drama

Actually Do. Advocating for Verse Drama
A difficult client. Firstly, the term is stone dead. Drama is ok, but ‘verse’ describes a kind of poetry in uniform, at drill not in combat. It gets worse, when you arrive at the term blank verse. Here the poor soldiers don’t even have live ammunition.

Things improve alot when you get to the exponents. Euripides. Marlowe. Lorca. To name but a few. But they’re all gone. A Guardian critic, interviewing me, opened with, ‘Verse drama has an illustrious past, a dead present and no future.’

So how about new terminology? You could talk about Initiatory Theatre, Non-Realistic Theatre, DysCheckovian, but all these would fail to include the main point, which is incantation. Why chant, you may ask, in this modern day?

The reason is that it lifts the spirits. I don’t wish to implicate my client in black arts. Actually I do. She can’t exist without incantation. It’s her culture, that’s how she was raised.

It’s a balancing act.The unrhyming iambic pentameter (is that better than ‘blank verse?’ ah me, no) is the verse form nearest to normal English speech. That’s a gift and a danger. A living verse playwright has written of his defiant urge to use ‘the ghost of the iambic pentameter.’ But the ghost of the iambic pentameter is normal speech. Got to put breath back in it.

There is another name associated with all this, which is Eliot. I feel obliged to defend my client from misrepresentation. Godfather Pound said, ‘The first step was to break the pentameter.’ I agree but, still I say, ‘The next step was to put it back together.’ Eliot wanted to pick up the thread but he cut it.

I have got a wandering answer to the Guardian critic, tracing a lineage that the Puritans did not finish, (nor, I hope, the Anglicans.) Your Honour, my client is not dead. She fled over the channel to France, found happiness in rhyme, then travelled to Swabia and Weimar for a difficult rebirth, then to Norway. Ibsen started out as a verse playwright, then perfected ‘realism’, but – as he told his English translator – he always intended to return to the verse form for his last play. However, not wanting to draft his own death warrant, he never actually dared. The result is that some of his later plays – definitely his last play, ‘When We Dead Awaken,’ are crying out to be in verse.

I know this feeling. I started out writing plays in prose, not daring to presume. But why deny yourself? A verse play is not just a verse play, there can be flashes of prose ‘realism’, high comedy, a bit of incantation. That’s what the mind is like.

Of course it requires the co-operation of theatres. My own enterprise was saved – for a time – when the Globe popped up by the Thames. No one else would commission new verse plays. But reader, spare a thought for the young playwright writing plays for ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’.

Something happened to Ibsen. His plays are strong, but over and over again there’s this old man tortured by a young woman. Could that young woman be my client? Verse drama killed Schiller at 46, the good historian straining to turn research into poetry. Shakespeare’s histories are really mysteries, ceremonies of initiation. Don’t try it at home. Actually do.

Playwright and poet Peter Oswald was recently featured at Eyewear.

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