Revival of Poetic Drama: T.S Eliot Contribution

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      In the Elizabethan age, drama meant poetic drama. Prose drama established itself with the comedy of manners. In the nineteenth century, English drama reached a period of decline, even though the Romantic poets tried their hand at tragedy. But the close of the 19th century saw two dramatists of great ability in George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. But they both wrote in prose.

In the Elizabethan age, drama meant poetic drama. Prose drama established itself with the comedy of manners. In the nineteenth century, English drama reached a period of decline, even though the Romantic poets tried their hand at tragedy.
Revival of Poetic drama

State of English Drama before Eliot:-

      No drama of any significance had been produced in the genre of poetic drama. This was partly due to the fact that plays were written by poets who did not know the stage or by playwrights who were no poets. Attempts at reviving poetic drama failed also because the idiom employed had been a "pale imitation of Elizabethan blank verse". Furthermore, there was a tendency to emphasize on parts of the play rather than consider it as a dramatic whole and, as a result, there was a hotchpotch of farce, rhetoric, and melodrama.

Revival of Poetic Drama:-

      The revival of poetic drama had its origin in Stephen Phillip's Herod. The great Irish dramatists like W.B. Yeats and J.M. Synge contributed to a great extent for the survival of this literary species. It was T.S. Eliot, however, who rehabilitated poetic drama and placed it on a sound footing.

Eliot's Contribution:-

      T. S. Eliot had well defined views on the need for poetic drama, even before he wrote plays. He understood perfectly the nature of poetic drama, how it differed from prose drama, and the problems faced by a writer of verse drama in the Modern Age. In his critical writings, he tried to break down many of the misconceptions about verse drama and stressed its superiority over prose drama and created an atmosphere favorable to the revival of poetic drama. His own plays go to show the possibility of verse drama in the Modern Age.

Themes of Poetic Drama:-

      Eliot opposed superficial or photographic realism in choosing a theme for a play. It should also be realized that a theme which can be adequately treated by prose drama should not be taken up by poetic drama. Socio-economic issues are fit for prose dramas while poetic drama demands something more elemental-something fundamental and universal, the poignant, emotional and spiritual realities of life. Contemporary material may be used, but in a careful manner, after sifting and ordering it. His own verse plays are not concerned with the surface realities but with a deeper, inner emotional reality. He deals with the psychic struggle of the protagonist with the temptations assailing him in Murder in the Cathedral. In all his plays, he portrays the relevance of religion to all human activity. They are "Christian plays". As D.E. Jones remarks: "Eliot has contributed to the creation of the kind of wholeness of outlook without which poetic drama cannot be accepted as the normal mode of drama".

Suitable Verse Form:-

      Eliot considers the use of verse no more artificial than the kind of prose employed in prose drama. Both, he says, are removed from ordinary daily speech. But, he says, for a poetic drama to be successful a verse form, the rhythms of which are closer to the spoken language should be developed. It should be elastic enough to be adapted to the various scenes and dialogues. Blank verse was suitable to the Elizabethans but in the present age, it was a handicap. The versification in Murder in the Cathedral marks the initial success of his experimentation. He managed to develop a suitable style for each kind of scene. But Eliot has not here created "a plausible dramatic verse for general use," though it is good for the particular play. It was with The Family Reunion, that he succeeded in evolving a rhythm pattern close to the contemporary spoken language.

Poetry as Medium and not Decoration:-

      Eliot stressed the functional value of poetry. Poetry is not to be enjoyed as an embellishment but to be used as a medium. Rhetoric has a definite place in poetic drama but care should be taken to employ true rhetoric and not false, i.e. rhetorical utterances which are incompatible with the concept of poetry as a medium. False rhetoric emphasizes its remoteness from the spoken language, exploits the listener's sentiments and thus destroys the dramatic detachment of the audience. Poetic images are the "objective correlatively of the states of mind and should help reveal the "personality pattern" of the characters. The implications of theme should be worked out through poetic symbolism.

Greater Range and Effectiveness:-

      Verse drama does not limit the emotional range. In fact, the use of verse widens the appeal of the drama. The very nature of poetic expression, he says, results in the achievement of a greater depth, concentration and unity in the drama. Verse enriches drama by giving it several levels of significance which can appeal to a varied audience:

"For the simple, auditors there is the plot, for the more literary the words and phrasing, for the more musically sensitive the rhythm, and form auditors of greater sensitiveness and understanding a meaning which reveals itself gradually."

      His own plays on the surface incorporate characteristics of contemporary farces, comedies of manner and melodrama. On another level, however, there is an under pattern. There is a "doubleness of action" and this sense of another pattern is communicated through the phrase and imagery. Prose would be inadequate for this.

Audience Response:-

      The question of communication is of absolute importance in poetic drama for there has to be both effective and immediate communication.

      The successful revival of poetic drama demanded a re-orientation of the attitude of people. The present-day audiences, unlike their Elizabethan counterpart, did not possess a frame of mind suitable for sudden transitions from poetry to prose; they are conscious of the difference between poetry and prose. Thus the two should not be mixed together in a play. He decided that the audience's attitude could change only if they were subjected to verse from characters like themselves and living in situations and conditions, similar to theirs... "we have to bring poetry into the world in which the audience lives..., not to transport the audience into some imaginary world totally unlike its own, an unreal world in which poetry is tolerated".

      This condition does not apply to Murder in the Cathedral as the personages in it are historical and the verse form was traditionally valid in such a case. Moreover, the play was to be produced for a festival audience which would come "prepared to put up with poetry". In his other plays, however, Eliot undertook the experiment of writing poetic drama within a contemporary setting.


      He demonstrated that a tradition of poetic drama could be established in the 20th century and that contemporary settings and themes can be dealt within this literary species. He succeeded in developing a flexible verse form from the contemporary idiom, which suggests the contemporary environment. He demolished certain misconceptions about poetic drama such as the idea that a nation can enjoy only one great age of poetic drama. He emphasized that verse is the natural language of men at moments of intense, emotional excitement and expresses the deeper passions of men, and as such it has a quality of universality and permanence. Nor is the use of verse artificial if used flexibly and to suit all situations and all characters. Eliot's work is a long step forward and it has to be carried on by others, for poetic drama has to evolve by the small contributions of a number of people, each contributing a little, as it progresses towards the "unattainable ideal".

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