Poetry and the Stage


READERS whose interest persists in the parlous question of the modern stage are likely to have read, not long ago, Mr. Gosse’s essay in the Atlantic Monthly on Poetic Drama, and Mr. Corbin’s article in The Forum dealing with the present dramatic situation in America. Both writers admit patiently, if not cheerfully, that most people may be expected to go to the theatre for trivial purposes, and that the stage offers little encouragement to those who wish to take the modern play seriously. “The drama,” says Mr. Corbin, “is in precisely the condition in which literature would be if the reading public were limited to the ten-cent magazines. ” Mr. Gosse concedes that there will always be eighty per cent of theatre-goers “who take their theatre as if it were morphia or at least as if it were a glass of champagne. But, ” he proceeds, “ we suggest that the residue, the twenty per cent, are now strong enough’ to be catered for also.” This seems a reasonable demand : not that the stage be instantly “ reformed ” or bodily “ elevated,” simply that it do the right thing by all of its patrons. What, from the point of view of that imaginable twenty per cent, the right thing would be, is a subject well worth considering.


By way of reply to the charge of current indifference to dramatic poetry, it is easy to allege the continued popularity of Shakespeare on the hoards. Granted our fidelity to the Shakespeare tradition, it is to be doubted whether the interest of a modern audience in the Shakespeare play as now presented on the stage is often quite sincere. Moreover, even when we are not seduced into beholding the Ophelia of the lady who has just come up from vaudeville, or the Shylock of the gentleman who has just come down from melodrama, — even when we fare piously to the best attainable modern presentation of Shakespeare, — we have done nothing toward keeping English poetic drama alive. In truth, we know that as a practical influence the Shakespeare tradition itself has dominated English dramatic poetry quite too long. Since that great day of Elizabeth, the position and the methods of the stage have inevitably changed, a new language has arisen, and a new racial temperament. Yet there are very few plays in English verse now written, upon which we may dare look without fear of being once more confronted with the pale features of the exhumed Elizabethan Muse.

Among the surprising number of recent attempts in this kind, hardly one has succeeded in putting off the trappings of Shakespearean diction. Now and then the imitation has been deliberate, or at least confessed. Mr. Wendell’s dramatic studies,1 for example, are frank experiments in the Elizabethan manner. This is the result: —

“ In substance all say this: Your royal James,
At peace with our King Philip, greeteth him,
Sending him message how you are gone forth
To seek rich mines still unpossessed by us.
He bids us guard our own, then; since aforetime ’T was whispered you were something careless of The laws of mine and thine. So, if perchance
We find you trespassing and let you go
Unprisoned, why, your own just English law
Shall bold you answerable, if for nothing else.
Then for the sentence passed in Cobham’s case
Upon your daring neck.”

This kind of verse creditably echoes the rhythm and diction of Shakespeare; a fact which limits the play as a whole to so much credit as is due a clever academic exercise. Taken even so, such a production by an accomplished student of the drama would seem to carry with it the discouraging implication that there is no use in trying to unite modern poetry and modern stage-craft. Of course the implication is an old one; it was made, in a way, by all those nineteenth-century cultivators of the “ closet-drama.” Why, they seem to have asked, should this abrogation of the footlights and the preoccupied audience matter much ? One gets more pleasure from reading a Shakespeare play than from seeing it performed; why should one care to have his own poetic play actually produced ? It would really be unsafe to appeal to Shakespeare in this connection, for his own plays probably meant little to him except as they were worth acting before an audience whose capacity he knew ; and we, at this remove, and in our chosen part as readers, cannot help sharing in that old direct contact between the poet, the players, and the pit. What a leap from this vigorous kind of play to our reluctant and sedentary drama of the closet! — a drama which substitutes declamation for rapid dialogue, and retains merely some of the outward symbols and impedimenta of action. It has its exits and its entrances, its acts and scenes upon which the curtain is never to rise or fall except in fancy. Much admirable poetry may imbed itself in such a drama; but it is, at best, an interesting hybrid, rather than a pure form of literary or dramatic art. This was the fatal defect in Tennyson’s dramatic essays, and, though in his case the diction was personally sincere, of Browning’s.

Apart from personal sincerity of diction, however, there is a racial and temporal sincerity which in any age belongs to poetry of extensive as well as of intensive power. We shrink from connecting the notion of popularity with the idea of poetry, as it is probably right for us to shrink with regard to the higher lyrical or epical forms. But the stage is essentially a popular institution, and poetry, to achieve any vital connection with it, must in the matters of structure and diction go quite halfway to meet it. No play, therefore, which contravenes the principles of modern stage-craft, or of the simple diction which has become normal in modern poetry, can hope for anything better than a succès d’estime; that is, a success based upon its having done well something apart from what it primarily should have done. There have been only a few glorious instances in which the literary value of a dramatic composition has seemed to be independent of its usefulness to the contemporary stage. Most closet-dramas are seen in perspective to have been neither here nor there; neither very good as poems nor very good as plays. Human nature is, we are told, always the same; but each age and race has its own social nature, its own mental habit, its own emotional propriety even, — qualities which the dramatist can least afford to ignore. A living drama, in short, must not only “ hold the mirror up to nature, ” but “ show the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”


This is what, in its own way, our prose drama is doubtless attempting to do. It is natural that the modern play should have come to be, in form, pretty much everything that the Shakespeare play was not. Apart from the substitution of prose for verse, the tendency has been everywhere for simplification of substance and amplification of accessory. Our elaborate method of presentation exacts a less elaborate scheme of composition. The stage-manager, the costumer, and the scene-shifter have to be considered as ministers to the pleasure, and champions of the convenience, of the public; the five acts dwindle to three or four, and the number of scenes is cut down by more than half. Yet writers of so-called poetic drama have ignored this change of usage till the other day, when Mr. Stephen Phillips, in his very first play, took pains to require no impossible feats of modern stage-craft. A practical merit of Mr. Percy Mackaye’s recently published comedy 2 consists in its possessing precisely four scenes. The play is cleverly constructed throughout, but it is in pretty bad taste, and contains little or no sincere poetry. One does not quite relish having the name of Chaucer taken in vain for the title of a romantic hero who reminds one now of the Villon of If I Were King and now of M. Rostand’s Cyrano; and the sentimental affair with the Prioress and her “ little pup,” as it is pleasantly called, is from any reasonable point of view absurd. Nor does one quite take to the playwright’s fancy of making Chaucer talk like an Elizabethan courtier: —

“ Sir, with your pardon,
To me, our England is still ‘ Merry England! ’
Which nature cirqued with its green wall of seas
To be her home and hearthstone ; where no slave,
Though e’er he crept in her lap and was nursed of her;
But the least peasant, bow’d in lonely fief,
Might claim his free share in her dower of grace ;
The hush, pied daisy for’s society,
The o’erbubbling birds for mirth, the silly sheep
For innocence. — Mirth, friendship, innocence :
Where nature grants these three, what’s left for envy ?
These three, sir, serve for my theology.”

Nothing could well be more clever than this is in itself, or more perfectly out of place from the point of view of either poetic or dramatic sincerity.

A similar exception must be taken to the manner of Mr. Cale Young Rice’s recent experiment in poetic drama.3 It is a careful study in the style which least needs to be cultivated by modern writers of dramatic verse. Partly in consequence, no doubt, of the artificial medium of expression employed, the reader is likely to find himself sadly unconcerned with either characters or action. The play is a product of undoubted talent and diligence, but it could not conceivably grip and hold an audience; and, of the two, it is better for a play to hail from the property-room than from the library. The Princess of Hanover 4 is also undeniably a closet-play; in plot and scenical requirement it is far too elaborate to be actually produced on the modern stage. Its style is oddly eclectic, — a striking illustration of the vagary into which talent, even great talent, is inclined to lapse. Here is a passage obviously in the Greek tragic manner: —

Duchess. Forgive —
Princess. Thou, mother, needest no forgiveness,
Who never sinned but of necessity.
Duchess. Compelled, I brought thee to an abhorred bridal,
Yielding thy cherished youth to a house of hate.
Princess. Accursed day!
Duchess. Enough of wasteful grief,
Which blasts thine own dear beauty but confounds not
One of our enemies. Nay, rejoice, my daughter,
Because thou hast conquered ancient enmity.”

And here, a few pages later, a bit of pseudo-Shakespeare : —

舠 Königsmarck. No matter what the offense Closed up my golden book. Let me be hasty
To seize the opportune moment, since your Highness
Deigns to review those dim and minor passages
In her rich memory, which firmly charactered
Stand in my obscure tablets, long perused Yet no wise worn. Most humbly I beseech her.
On the knees of my heart, what is the newer offense
That has estranged now, since I came to Hanover,
One who were else unaltered ? ”

Mrs. Woods, as her lyrics and her former dramatic experiment, Wild Justice, have shown, is an intellectually imaginative and technically skillful poet; but she lacks the creative imagination which instinctively grasps and clings to its own manner of expression. In the present play she has at least one manner which may be called her own. It springs from a theory emphatically stated in her preface, the not unfamiliar theory that the rhythm of the best English blank verse is determined by stress rather than by the number of syllables. In her own application of this excellent principle Mrs. Woods seems at times to go far : —

Aurora. Yet, my impetuous brother, Our shrewd Electress may have excellent reasons
For wishing you in the Morea, at Kamschatka,
Anywhere, in short. Your visits to the Princess
Pass unobserved of the world, you being accompanied
Always by a young Prince of known devotion
To her. But something by the mind’s finger and thumb
Not to be caught in a moment, something impalpable
As air and full as real, may be perceptible To this old, hard, well-judging woman.”

It is really too bad to cite the authority of Shakespeare and Milton for such writing as this, which, to the ordinary ear, is not verse at all.

Mrs. Woods has not quite succeeded in developing the materials of tragedy from the annals of the somewhat humdrum House of Hanover. Neither the Princess nor Königsmarck is endowed with sufficient dignity of character to serve as the central figure of a great dramatic action. When all is done, it is the uninspired George, with his consistent drunkenness and his interminable “what-whats,” who has most engaged one’s interest and sympathy.

In Maximilian,5 blank verse is made the vehicle of an action still more modern. Unluckily, blank verse is the poetic form least amenable to reason; it has a way of appearing, after all possible pains have been taken, to have constructed itself according to the essential genius, rather than to the talented intention, of the author. So, too often, the royal chariot turns out to be nothing but a one-horse shay. To build a tragedy upon the career of the most luckless of emperors was a not unpromising enterprise; but it is still to be proved that American politics is capable of producing materials for anything graver than opera-bouffe. Not even the utmost copiousness of stage-direction can rescue the present essay from futility. Its quality may be fairly suggested by a quotation of the last few lines, and their accompanying commentary: —

(Maximilian walks towards the door, stops and endeavors to master his feelings. Then with a look of inexpressible sorrow he lifts his hand solemnly and says)

Maximilian — Oh, man ! Oh, man !

(He goes out. The convent bells ring, and through the open door and the window appears the city, bathed in the morning sunlight. There is a general ringing of bells, and now very suddenly, but with a slinking movement, Lopez enters, pale and nervous : he walks about rapidly in a distracted manner, muttering to himself. Then he goes to the window and clutches at the window frames)
Lopez — I will not see it.
(He stabs himself and dies. The bells continue to ring. Enter Gen. Escobedo, who goes to the window, and not seeing Lopez’s body steps upon it)
Escobedo — Ha ! the renegade —
And dead!
(He looks out of the window. Enter Carlotta from the chamber and goes up to the table) Carlotta — The bells ! the bells !
(A sound of musketry) Escobedo —(Not seeing Carlotta) Thus are the roots of liberty refreshed !
(Carlotta kneels, folds her arms upon the table, and bows her head in her arms as if in prayer)



It has seemed worth while to lay so much stress upon the matters of structure and style as points of practical importance in considering a possible relation between modern poetry and the modern stage. If we have really no standards of poetic diction and of stagecraft which fit our time as the diction and stage-craft of Shakespeare and his contemporaries fitted the Elizabethan time, there is little hope of any such relation.

The question of theme is a pretty clear one. The poetic drama, if it continues to exist, will continue to concern itself with the ideal. We have, during the past half century, had much patter in prose, and not a little in verse, about the glorious opportunities for literature in the democracy, of commerce, of education and what not; but nobody is really deceived by it. The enslaving of electricity, the triumphs of barter, the iron tutelage of “imperialism,” have somehow failed to expand the poet’s chest or clear his voice. These things are business. The dramatic poet may therefore be expected still to treat the immemorial themes and, ordinarily, to reap advantage from a remote setting for his action. The merit of his work will depend mainly upon questions of form and method.

It is reasonable to suppose that both style and structure will be simple. To the modern theatre audience, even to the imaginable twenty per cent of it which is seeking a high and permanent satisfaction, the ideal will have to be presented in some concrete and decisive form. There will be no diffusion of interest, — we have more than enough of that in practical life, — and there will he no uncertainty of effect. The fact has been illustrated very recently by the surprisingly enthusiastic hearing given to the revival of Everyman. Many of its hearers will be glad to possess the reprint now published.6 A public taste which is approachable by that simple stern old morality need not be despaired of; it is really alive and ready to employ itself. It has been put off too long with imitations of Shakespeare, and with translations of foreign plays. Such pretty and melancholy hallucinations as Pelleas and Mélisande, such romantic extravagances as Cyrano de Bergerac, even such graceful parables as The Sunken Bell it will listen to with some forcing of the sympathy. In the end, it will demand something more easily appreciable by a solid, law-cherishing race, something simple, direct, and human.

Mr. Stephen Phillips, in his first play, actually achieved merit upon these terms. Paolo and Francesca, to be sure, bears marks of its origin in a sophisticated age, which, weary of its complications and subtleties, is inclined to react toward simple and stable forms of art. The simplicity of a twentieth-century Englishman cannot be quite a Greek or a mediæval simplicity. The story of Paolo and Francesca is not of the sort we are told the public expects. It is neither agreeable, nor sentimental, nor morbid; it is merely direct, sane, and intelligible. We can easily imagine, too, a style of less lyrical sweetness and of greater dramatic force. But the fact remains that most people who heard the drama, on both sides of the water, felt its beauty as poetry, and its effectiveness as a play. Whether Mr. Phillips will ever do anything else so good, whether he is to be the founder of a school, whether his genius is essentially dramatic, are questions of theory or of speculation. His first play, at least, we must value as one of the first plays in modern English verse.

It cannot be doubted that the practical success of Mr. Phillips’s plays has been responsible for the number of subsequent essays in poetic drama, and for the quality of some of them. More than one of the best passages in The Princess of Hanover, the composite character of whose diction has been noted, seems to possess something of the graceful clarity of Mr. Phillips’s style:—

Princess.... I never was alive till now,
and afterwards
I shall be dead, but in my sepulchre
Let me be hymning joy because I lived
Once, thus in thine arms.
Königsmarck. Live happily and longer than thou bodest.
Here will I charm away unhappy thoughts
With one touch of my magic on thy brow,
Thus with a little rain of tender charms,
Forbid these eyes to tears.”

Mr. Ewing’s Jonathan 7 is written in a style of similar purity. The idyllic passages are perhaps the most successful, but the serene dignity of tone which belongs to the drama as a whole, the steady swing of the verse, which is Miltonic rather than Shakespearean, entitle it to a very respectful reading. Here are a few lines from one of David’s speeches:—

“ I sleep upon a patch of tender grass,
Upon the borders of a rivulet,
Where sweet composure the vexed earth surrounds,
And all the air is filled with gentle noise
Of sheep at rest, and insects humming lightly,
And rhythmic lapping of the running water,
Which seems to flow along my veins and bathe
My body with a clean and cool refreshment.”

It cannot be asserted that the drama is fit to be acted; and it will be interesting to see by what difference of treatment Mr.Phillips’s promised David and Bathsheba, the work of a poet who is also a master of stage-craft, will excel it in this regard.

Poetic drama is not likely soon, or ever, to recover its old supremacy on the English stage. But a beginning has now been made toward its reëstablishment in a position of influence; and it is fair to suppose that in the hands of Mr. Phillips, or of somebody else, the movement will go on. And if it does not displace prose — which Heaven defend ! — work of this sort may, with its noble simplicity of theme, its noble purity of line, afford a priceless standard of current dramatic values, which will sensibly affect the quality of our prose drama. There are other good things in the world beside poetry, but few things which are not the better for being in the same world with it. Certainly if we could imagine a day when poetry should have been hopelessly exiled from the boards, we could imagine the drama to be doomed as a means of art, — that is, as a real influence in modern life.

H. W. Boynton.

  1. Ralegh in Guiana, etc. By BARRETT WENDELL. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1902.
  2. The Canterbury Pilgrims. By PERCY MACKAYE. New York : The Macmillan Co. 1903.
  3. Charles di Tocca. By GALE YOUNG RICE. New York: McClure, Phillips & Co. 1903.
  4. The Princess of Hanover. By MARGARET L. WOODS. New York: Henry Holt & Co. 1903.
  5. Maximilian : a Tragedy. By EDGAR LEE MASTERS. Boston : Richard G. Badger. 1902.
  6. Everyman: A Moral Play. New York : Fox, Duffield & Co. 1903.
  7. Jonathan : a Tragedy. By THOMAS EWING, Jr. New York : Funk & Wagnalls Co. 1902.