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[ 401 The Need for Poetic Drama1 The Listener, 16 (25 Nov 1936) 994-95 I am very glad to have the opportunity of talking to you about verse drama, because it is a subject that very few people ever stop to think about; and I suspect that most people regard plays in verse as a necessary evil, like examinations . People think of them as something of a strain on the mind even when not actually boring, and they had rather be excused from going to see them. I believe, on the other hand, that poetry is the natural and complete medium for drama; that the prose play is a kind of abstraction capable of giving you only a part of what the theatre can give; and that the verse play is capable of something much more intense and exciting. One symptom of the permanent need for poetic drama is that it has never quite died out. Ever since the time of Shakespeare people have been trying, off and on, to write plays in verse which could be acted. Some of these have had even a temporary success on the stage, simply because when people want a thing very much they will for a time take what they can get. But it usually turned out that what people were trying to do was to imitate Shakespeare, and Shakespeare had done it so very much better that we prefer the original. But there is a satisfaction to be got from original contemporary work which cannot be had from a performance of any old dramatist, even as great as Shakespeare, and so we go on trying to do something for ourselves. It is to Mr. William Butler Yeats, more than to anyone else, that we owe the revival of poetic drama in our time. I am thinking of the work of Mr. Yeats as a whole: his own plays; his encouragement of other writers, such as J. M. Synge; and his work for the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which kept poetic drama alive when it was almost extinct elsewhere. But we owe a debt also to men whose relation to contemporary literature is not so direct; to Shakespeare scholars, such as the late William Poel whose studies and whose practical work with the Elizabethan stage have done so much to change our conceptions of how Shakespeare ought to be produced.2 We have begun to see that the actor is more important than the scenery, that verse should be spoken as verse and not as prose, and that the actor should be in an intimacy of relation to the audience which had for a long time been the secret of the music-hall comedian. Essays, Reviews, Commentaries, and Public Letters: 1936 402 ] Now it is interesting that this work on Shakespeare production, which has its lesson for the production of all plays in verse, largely antedated the development of the film; but its value has been confirmed as the film has been perfected to such a point that we can begin to see what it can do better than the stage, and what it cannot do as well. There are, of course, all sorts of beautiful effects that the film can get and that are impossible to the stage: such as the negroes paddling their war canoes in Sanders of the River.3 But I am concerned with something more fundamental. The cinema gives an illusion not of the stage but of life itself. When we see a great music-hall comedian on the stage, such as George Robey or Ernie Lotinga, we feel that he is conscious of his audience, that a great deal of the effect depends upon a sympathy set up between actor and audience, and we like to feel that some of his gags are spontaneous and were not thought of the night before.4 But when we see Laurel and Hardy, it is not Laurel and Hardy acting for us, it is Laurel and Hardy in another mess.5 The film is the vehicle of illusion, and it makes all the illusion of the stage seem crude. Then, again, while it is likely that voice reproduction will be further improved by science, I think that the spoken word will always be secondary in the film: in the best films today the voice is used sparingly, and interspersed with significant noises and even music. And, finally, there is no illusion of scenery on the stage that the worst-equipped...


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