Poetic Drama of 20th Century - Origin and Development

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      Side by side with the realistic plays of G. B. Shaw, Galsworthy, Granvile Barker, there arose the type of drama that is called the Poetic Drama by 1920. Many of the major Victorian poets, like Tennyson and Browning had attempted the poetic or romantic drama but there were more poetry than 'drama'. Thus there was practically no tradition of the poetic drama at the beginning of the twentieth century. Poetic drama of the first decade of the twentieth century was therefore a rebirth, a new creation with the poetic drama of T. S. Eliot. The playwrights of this school sought to revive the true essence of poetry, imagination, passion, on the stage. Though verse was the natural medium of expression of many of the dramatists who were poets, there were others who wrote in poetic prose. Some of the more important exponents of the poetic drama in England were Stephen Phillips, Masefield, Gordon Bottomley, John Drinkwater and Lord Dunsany. All of them were major poets of the time, who turned to the stage.

      Stephen Philips (1864-1915) wrote a number of blank verse plays notably Paolo and Francessca, Ulysses and Nero. Though they proved to be popular, they can be better dismissed as colourful spectacles in blank verse, having little dramatic quality. Masefield, the poet-Laureate, the writer of famous poems like The Everlasting Mercy, Reynard the Fox, Dauber, etc., attempted many dramas, the most notable of them being The Tragedy of Nan and The Tragedy of Pompey the Great. He was the friend of the famous Irish dramatist, Synge, and in the former play he took English peasant life as his theme, using prose with a poet's vision but he had not sure touch of his friend.

      Gordon Bottomley (1874-1948) did not seek to bring the common life back to the poetic drama like Masefield but to examine moral questions of good and evil through stories far removed from the current scene. The prose of his dramas is enriched by poetic imagery and use of symbolism. John Drinkwater's famous play Abraham Lincoln came out in 1918 at the end of the war and deservedly became very popular. It is a powerful picture ot the famous President, the man of courage, integrity and moral vision who piloted the ship of the state through the storm of the Civil War and met with a tragic end. The story is rich enough for dramatic treatment and the play is a masterpiece.

      Lord Dunsany (1878-1957) began as a dramatist with a play The Glittering Gate (1909) and later on wrote successful one-act plays, Although he writes in prose, his plays are poetic dramas by virtue of the romance on which they are build and his ability to conjure up the atmosphere of the East. His A Night at an Inn is a popular one-act play.

      The true home of the poetic drama is Ireland, which saw a brilliant revival of the dramatic literature. The establishment of the Abbey Theatre, Dublin in 1904, through the generosity of Miss Horniman attracted the famous Yeats, Synge, Lady Gregory who became its Directors. The idea of a national drama, the Irish drama was born in the minds of these famous writers and they wrote plays for this stage. Later on it attracted more playwrights but these three remain the most outstanding figures in the scene. "They looked upon the drama as a thing of the emotions and reacting against the current realism, sought their themes among the legends, folk-lore and peasantry of Ireland. In their drama we have poetry in the truest sense." Yeats (1865-1939) wrote some twenty plays for this theatre, leaving aside his lyric poetry for the time being, in order to put the Irish drama on a firm footing. Among this poetic dramas, mention may be made of The Shadowy Waters (1900), The Golden Hemet (1910), Deirdre etc. He gave inspiration to the Irish national theatre.

      In spite of his great genius as a poet, Yeats lacked the essential qualities of a dramatist. The value of his plays lies chiefly in their poetry and the way it sets the imagination of the audience to wander in Ireland's mythological and historical past. His plays are little removed from his lyrics. His plays have little of action; there is no attempt at character study; his figures make fine poetical speeches, which are but reproductions of Yeats's own ideas. His plays are more satisfying to read than to see. But Yeats's chief contribution to the drama was that he discovered Synge (1871-1909) a struggling journalist in Paris, whom he persuaded to return to Ireland and live in Aran Islands off Western Island. Here Synge was inspired by the beauty of the simple fisher-folk, who were little touched by the modern civilization.

      These set the poetic genius of Synge aflame and in plays after plays he gave pictures of these simple folk which in their emotional and imaginative qualities and enchanting beauty of style are almost unique in English literature. His genius is seen in both comedy and tragedy, though in the latter he is more in his elements. His insight into human nature, skilful delineation of character, philosophical treatment of nature, sometimes as a malignant force, sometimes as a kind mother but always a chief protagonist in his plays are Riders to the Sea, The Shadow of the Glen and The Playboy of the Western World which is his masterpiece. Riders to the Sea is a poetic play although it is written in prose. It is rich in imaginative qualities and metaphysical conception of the heroine. Lady Gregory had a talent for comedy but her contribution was not much. Spreading the News is probably her best play. Her one-act play, The Rising of the Moon with its intermingling of high patriotic seriousness and Quixotic comedy will always live as literature and drama.

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