Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Use of Verse in Drama

This weekend, the third annual Southwell Institute Writers Conference will convene in Mahwah. The focus of this year's conference will be playwriting, so I would like to offer a few thoughts on the topic. Particularly, I would like to make a short case for the long-neglected genre of verse-drama. One of the principal aspects of the Mahwavian movement thus far has been the cultivation of formal verse, so my first argument in favor of verse-drama would be that it is in keeping with this endeavor. But I think there are other arguments, too.

The tradition of modern realist drama, inaugurated by Ibsen and Shaw, has largely eschewed the devises of artifice - including verse - formerly employed by playwrights, in order to present what its practitioners regard as a true-to-life depiction of nature. Thus, a Eugene O'Neill or an Arthur Miller can draw scenes for the stage in no material way differening from the scenes of common life. The emphasis is on this naturalism, which is everywhere opposed to artifice.

But we would do well to remind ourselves (here and always) of Burke's grand dictum: "art is man's nature." One enters into a strange building, one pays money for a ticket, one takes a seat in an auditorium designed for the presentation of plays, one sees strangers moving around in unfamiliar garb, and speaking in unfamiliar accents - in such a situation, one cannot possibly expect to witness ordinary life. In such a situation, the expectation is art - which is to say, something more beautiful and more significant than ordinary life. The stage is like a pedestal, an instrument designed explicitly for the presentation of the art work, and in effect signaling to the viewer the presence of that unique object which is the work of art. It would be no less ridiculous to see a man sitting on a pedestal in the Louvre, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the paper, than it is to see a troupe on stage at Carnegie Hall, acting no differently than they do at home in their own dining rooms.

The ancient playwrights understood this perfectly, and that is why all early drama - whether we look at the tragedy of the Greeks, the No dramas of Japan, or the Sanskrit plays of early India - is heavily stylized. And the drama of the Renaissance and Neoclassical periods - the drama of Shakespeare, Calderon, and Racine - while abandoning much of the rigidity in the formal structure of those early works, still displayed a wealth of artifice, largely drawn from the stores of rhetoric. To be sure, the aim of the playwright was always to imitate nature. But simply to say that X imitates Y, is to state that X is something different than Y. To say that art should imitate nature is to say that art is something different than nature, and what it is is that collection of principles and techniques, the employment of which allows the maker to fabricate objects excelling the commonplace world in truthfulness and beauty. First among the techniques available to the playwright to fashion a dramatic performance uniquely impressive and lovely is verse.

Whatever their thoughts on this question, I wish the new members of the Southwell family the best of luck over the next couple of weeks, as they get to work on their plays. I hope the Mahwah experience is as special and momentous for them as it was for me, and I hope we hear from some of them soon here at the Review.

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