- Modernist Martyrdoms:Spender's Trial of a Judge and Anglo-German Verse Drama between the Wars
So sparse is the critical literature on Stephen Spender that scholarly traditions in the interpretation of his work are scarcely to be found, but there is a venerable tradition in the disparagement of his talents, which descends to the level of a blood sport in the pens of poetry's most notoriously pugnacious reviewers.1 If the simultaneous publication, in 2005, of John Sutherland's authorized biography and Faber's Collected Poems had been intended to spark a Spender revival, or at least to inspire greater appreciation for his work, it conspicuously failed to do so. As Paul Dean remarked, reviewing both volumes for the New Criterion, while "Sutherland's 'official' status … obliges him to maintain, and perhaps even to believe, that Spender is a significant poet," this belief "cannot survive a reading of the Collected Poems in Michael Brett's new edition."2 "[P]arasitic upon other men's creativity," Spender manages at best "a clumsy authenticity"; at worst, he is "barely readable," oscillating between "gawky plainness [and] a wildly undisciplined use of metaphor, often toppling over into the grotesque, the risible, or the meaningless" (Dean, "Being a Poet," 62).
Dean's disparagement is not atypical of reactions to Spender's verse and unalloyed praise is rare; but a high proportion of the extant examples originate in readings of his 1938 verse play, Trial of a Judge. Thus, Vivian de Sola Pinto attributes to the play a "unity as well as a subtlety of thought and feeling which Auden and Isherwood with all their brilliance never achieved."3 Michael O'Neill and Gareth Reeves commend Spender for "making intensely dramatic poetry out of deeply felt inner quarrels."4 And [End Page 535] according to Sanford Sternlicht, "the tortured and complex imagery of the verse play brilliantly parallels the mental and physical suffering" of its protagonist.5 And yet, in spite of its merits, Trial of a Judge has rarely been subject to sustained critical attention. This can be explained partly by the fact that the majority of those who write on Spender are critics of English poetry, inclined to address his work in this context, rather than critics of British and European drama, from which perspective—as this essay maintains, and will demonstrate—Trial of a Judge might most profitably be viewed.
Virtually untouched by criticism since a spate of studies in the 1970s, modern Anglophone verse drama is undergoing a resurgence of critical attention, both in its own right and in relation to the theater of the continental avant-garde. Irene Morra's 2016 survey, Verse Drama in England 1900–2015, the first full-length study of its genre in more than forty years, explores the proposition that "verse drama [had] the potential to re-awaken an innately human sensibility to essential realities"—a sensibility blunted by "the dull Ibsenite age"—and examines the verse dramatists' attempts to reassert theater's "traditional spiritual role" against "an inauthentic redefinition of theatre as social propaganda and mundane, realist portraiture."6 But Morra is careful to balance this conservative view of verse drama's intentions with more radical implications. "Prose accepts," writes Laurence Binyon; "poetry rebels. In the prose view of the world, all is fixed … in the poetic view, all is energy, relation, change" (quoted in Morra, Verse Drama in England, 53). Binyon's axiom, in decidedly Brechtian fashion, thus positions poetic drama as a potential medium of radical politics. And throughout, Morra contributes to a growing critical literature that insists on reading English poetic drama alongside, rather than in opposition to, the innovations of the European avant-garde.
In Modernism and Performance (2007), Olga Taxidou challenges the critical tradition that links English verse drama, typically regarded as "inherently anti-theatrical, somatophobic and conservative" exclusively to forms of literary experimentation, thereby opposing its products to the "pure theatricality … punctuated by … radical politics" of the European dramatists.7 Articulating "a new, modernist relationship between the 'word'—with all its philosophical efficacy, the body of the actor and the theatrical event in general," Taxidou argues that the "poetic imperative" allows us to read...