Prose and the Playwright

The liveliest of London critics, KENNETH TYNAN, now in his twentyeighth year, worked for some time as the director of a weekly repertory theater before settling down to criticize the productions of others. He is the author of three books on the theater, and since 1951 has been the drama critic first of The Spectator, then of the Evening Standard, and presently of the Observer.



WHERE the modern poetic drama is concerned, I have always been for the man Bacon quotes who, when asked his opinion of poets, said he thought them the best writers, next to those that wrote prose. But lately, among my friends, I have been finding myself in a beleaguered minority; the post-war vogue of T. S. Eliot and Christopher Fry has brought back into play that ancient battering ram of criticism, the assumption that the upper reaches of dramatic experience are the exclusive province of the poet. This kind of talk is probably giving the prose playwrights a brutal inferiority complex, and I have a mind to contest it. For if Eliot is right in suggesting that there are certain subtle and rarefied states of being which can achieve theatrical expression only in verse, then a great battle has been lost, almost by default.

We tend to forget how long it took to make prose socially acceptable in the theater. Up to the last quarter of the nineteenth century it remained a slightly dingy poor relation; the Greeks sniffed at it, Shakespeare, reserved it mostly for persiflage, Molière shunned it whenever (as in Tartuffe or Le Misanthrope) he had anything ambitious in hand, and in the long eighteenth-century debates about the relative fitness of blank verse and heroic couplets for tragedy, prose seldom got more than a passing and perfunctory mention. The English romantics carried on the tradition of bardolatry: Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, and Coleridge all wrote unactable verse tragedies, thus delivering what might easily have been the deathblow to serious drama in English. Nobody seemed to have noticed that, ever since Shakespeare’s death, poetic tragedy had been languishing and prose comedy flourishing; and it occurred to no one that the latter’s prosperity might be due not so much to its being comic as to its being prose. In the Elizabethan era, before drama had been clearly distinguished from other literary forms, it naturally contained a good deal of the epic, much of the lyric, and a strong flavor of what A. B. Walkley called “that element of mixed philosophy and rhetoric which was soon afterwards to be diverted into other channels, in England by Sir Thomas Browne, in France by the great pulpit orators.” By the beginning of the last century the process of differentiation had taken place, and the drama stolidly ignored it.

The three gigantic musketeers of prose were, of course, Ibsen, Chekhov, and Shaw; they made it respectable, and Chekhov even went so far as to show that prose, by means of what it implied rather than what it stated, could reproduce the effect of poetry in purely theatrical terms. By 1900 it began to look as if prose had gained its point — and pretty tardily, too, since the novel had replaced the verse epic two centuries earlier. It would have surprised the critics of the period to be told that within fifty years the old medium would once more be asserting its claim to dramatic supremacy. Yet that is what has happened. Just as prose has started to test its wings, we are asked to believe that it can never fly. The powers of the line that stops short of the margin are again being hymned and its mysteries celebrated.

This seems to me grossly unhistorical and based on an alarming number of unproven assumptions. For an irrevocable change has been overtaking language in the last three hundred years. Poetry and colloquial prose, which are now (in spite of Wordsworth) linguistically divorced, shared in the sixteenth century rich champaigns of vocabulary and image. Elizabethan pamphlets are as generous with metaphor as Elizabethan plays; and a dramatist could inject a shot of colloquialism into a tragic aria without courting bathos. Nobody titters when Hamlet, in mid-soliloquy, exclaims, “Why, what an ass am I!”; but when Aaron, in Christopher Fry’s tragedy, The Firstborn, says of Moses that “he took me by the scruff of my heart,” it is comic in much the same way as Abe Burrows’ parody of the “sophisticated-type” love song: “You put a piece of carbon-paper under your heart, and gave me just a copy of your love.” Everyone agrees that formal poetic diction is dead; yet if you spike a dramatic verse-form with the vernacular, the experiment invariably fails — unless a comic or ironic effect was what you had in mind. Auden, Isherwood, Eliot, and Fry have all exploited this trick of bathos; and it may be that the wheel has come full circle, that poetry in the theater should be confined to comedy, where its potency still lingers.


THE customary plea for verse is summed up in this extract from one of Dryden’s essays: “All the arguments which are formed against it, can amount to no more than this, that it is not so near conversation as prose, and therefore not so natural. But it is clear to all who understand poetry, that serious plays ought not to imitate conversation too nearly.”And once you admit that “naturalness" is not enough, he continues, you are halfway to accepting poetry: “You have lost that which you call natural, and have not acquired the last perfection of Art.”But Dryden’s antithesis is a false one. The perfection of art in the theater depends neither on naturalism nor on poetry. Drama has in its time borrowed tricks from both, but what it has built is a new and separate structure, whose foundation stones — the last acts of The Master Builder and The Three Sisters — are architectural triumphs of prose over naturalism.

On naturalism I shrink from pronouncing, because I have never (has anyone?) seen a completely naturalistic play —I doubt if one exists. What bothers me is the way in which the higher criticism equates prose with poverty of dramatic expression. “What is the prose for God?" cries one pundit, quoting from Granville-Barker and forgetting that the answer to the question is on almost every page of the Bible. Nobody wants to banish luxury of language from the theater; what needs banishing is the notion that it is incompatible with prose, the most flexible weapon the stage has ever had, and still shining new. Those playwrights who have followed the Ibsen-Chekhov lead are in the main stream of modern drama. Giraudoux for prime example; La Folle de Chaillot and La Guerre de Troie represent prose exulting in its own versatility, embracing slang and stateliness, gutter and glitter, in one enormous grasp. Synge and O’Casey stand beside Giraudoux in the great line; and when, earlier this year, Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood was published, nobody could doubt that only death had robbed us of another to join them. Under Milk Wood was commissioned by BBC for sound broadcasting, but two Sunday-night stagings of it at the Old Vic proved it could enmesh the watcher as well as the listener. Here, unfolding in the talk and thoughts of its inhabitants, was a day in the life of a Welsh coastal town, a devout and mischievous celebration of the sea, soil, wind, and wantonness of Wales. Prose went into battle rejoicing. Take, for instance, this exchange between Mrs. Cherry Owen and her errant husband: —

MRS. CHERRY OWEN: Remember last night? In you reeled, my boy, as drunk as a deacon with a big wet bucket and a fish-frail full of stout and you looked at me and you said, “God has come home!" you said, and then over the bucket you went, sprawling and bawling, and the floor was all flagons and eels.

CHERRY OWEN: Was I wounded?

MRS. CHERRY OWEN: And then you took off your trousers and you said, “ Does anybody want to fight?” Oh, you old baboon.

Or the letter written by Mog Edwards, “a draper mad with love,” to his “Beloved Myfanwy Price, my Bride in Heaven”: —

I love you until Death do us part and then we shall be together for ever and ever. A new parcel of ribbons has come from Carmarthen today, all the colours in the rainbow. I wish I could tie a ribbon in your hair a white one but it cannot be. I dreamed last night you were all dripping wet and you sat on my lap as the Reverend Jenkins went down the street. I see you got a mermaid in your lap he said and he lifted his hat. He is a proper Christian. Not like Cherry Owen who said you should have thrown her back he said. Business is very poorly ... If this goes on I shall be in the workhouse. My heart is in your bosom and yours is in mine. God be with you always Myfanwy Price and keep you lovely for me in His Heavenly Mansion. I must stop now and remain, Your Eternal, Mog Edwards.

The whole play is a tumult of living, and its burden is compressed into the remark of Polly Garter, the town tart: “Isn’t life a terrible thing, thank God!” Philip Hope-Wallace, writing in the Manchester Guardian, sent his thoughts to the right place when he said: “Not since Juno and the Paycock have we heard in a theatre words coming up thus, not chosen but compelled: a fountain from the heart.”

Thomas side-stepped the snare which besets the prose playwright who, though he abjures verse, secretly aspires to the condition of poetry. This fatal urge is responsible for the solemn, booming cadences, the sentences lying in comatose state, which one sometimes finds in the plays of Charles Morgan. The Burning Glass is a forest of prose on stilts, opulently teetering. Morgan’s excuse, of course, is that Thomas had a head start on him, since (like O’Casey) he was putting words in the mouths of a people essentially imaginative. Morgan’s characters are drawn from the English upper class, whose vocabulary is crippled by the restraints of social usage (no tears, no ecstasies), and about whom it is today practically impossible to write a great play. The spirit is not in them; or if it is, their tight lips firmly repress it. I doubt if even Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, the prose masters of the contemporary English-speaking theater, could construct a tragedy around the country homes of Berks and Bucks. It is significant that the most successful passages of The Cocktail Party were those in which Eliot exposed the vacuity of haut bourgeois chatter: —

JULIA: . . . The only man I ever met who could hear the cry of bats.

PETER: Hear the cry of bats?

JULIA: He could hear the cry of bats.

CELIA: But how do you know he could hear the cry of bats?

JULIA: Because he said so. And I believed him.

Eliot is here using verse to show how resolutely, how comically unpoetical his characters are; and, wryly but appropriately, it works.

One of the handicaps of poetry is that penumbra of holiness, the legacy of the nineteenth century, which still surrounds it, coaxing us into tolerating sentimental excesses we would never forgive in prose: —

O God, O God, if I could return to yesterday, before I thought that I had made a decision. What devil left the door on the latch for these doubts to enter? And then you came back, you, the angel of destruction — just as I felt sure. In a moment, at your touch, there is nothing but ruin.

Exit, you might expect, into snowstorm; but you would be wrong. The lines come not from Victorian melodrama but from The Cocktail Party, printed as prose. Their lameness is particularly vexing because Eliot has shown himself capable of writing intensely muscular dramatic prose. So has Fry: one has only to read his lecture, “An Experience of Critics,”parts of which are as speakable as a Giraudoux tirade. Much of his latest play, The Dark Is Light Enough, is infinitely less dramatic. Its construction rules out of court the old argument that poetic plays are deficient only in plot; The Dark Is Light Enough abounds in plot and incident, yet remains as static as a candle-lit tableau or darkling waxwork. It happens in a château on the Austro-Hungarian border. The Hungarian rebellion of 1848 has just begun, and a crisis is precipitated by the Countess Rosmarin, who decides to give shelter to Gettner, a deserter from the revolutionary army. The play’s main action is the regeneration of Gettner, nihilist and traitor, by the Countess, who stands for divine charity, the justification of God’s circuitous ways to man.

The first great drawback is the fact that Rosmarin, being by definition perfect, is incapable of development; in spite of Dame Edith Evans’s vocal exertions, she can scarcely avoid resembling a benignly crinolined soup-kitchen. The second and greater drawback is, I am afraid, Fry’s style, which — though it is noticeably less sportive than it used to be — seems now to have taken on the texture of diatomite, a substance used in the manufacture of pipestems which contains thousands of fossils to the cubic inch. The characters studiously express different attitudes towards life, but they use interchangeable rhythms and identical tricks of speech in which to do so. They tell us, with ruthless fluency, what kind of people they are, instead of letting us find out for ourselves. I needn’t say that there are some fine set pieces of rhetoric; but the best of them — that in which Rosmarin likens Gettner to a blue plucked goose shivering on the water’s brink — embodies in itself the germ of poetry’s weakness: it describes in repose rather than illustrates in action. And one regrets the readiness with which Fry has succumbed to padding and jingle, in phrases like “for my sake, if my sake is worthy,” “a coward, if a coward is what you are,” “splendidly sleeping,” “precariously promising,” and “inconsolable inclination.”

It is good to learn that he is at present making prose adaptations of Anouilh’s L’Alouette and Giraudoux’s La Guerre de Troie; perhaps the experience will lure him across the frontier into the large Gothic landscapes of prose. The chance of converting Eliot is, I imagine, much slimmer; but it may not be impertinent to suggest that even in his best play, Murder in the Cathedral, the most impressive pages were those which contained the speeches of self-exculpation by the four knights, and the sermon delivered by Becket on Christmas Day. And these were all prose: —

I have spoken to you today, dear children of God, of the martyrs of the past . . . because it is fitting, on Christ’s birth day, to remember what is that Peace, which He brought; and because, dear children, I do not think I shall ever preach to you again; and because it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr, and that one perhaps not the last . . .

In poetry, Fry gilds where Eliot anoints; in neither procedure are there seeds of real dramatic vitality. If they, the foremost heretics, can be persuaded off their crosses, away from their martyrdom in a lost cause, the theater would immediately benefit. Mallarmé once said, in lapidary despair: “Pour moi le cas d’un poète, en cette société qui ne le permet de vivre, c’est le cas d’un homme qui s’isole pour sculpter son propre tombeau.” But he was slightly in error. It is not our society but our theater which rejects the poet; “nowadays,” as Walkley said, “we expect a drama to be purely dramatic.” If poetic playwrights did not exist, it might be an agreeable caprice to invent them; but it would no longer be a necessity. And in a theater starved by the cinema and besieged by television, necessities must come first.