Wrestling with Mode and Meaning: the Play of Poetry in Theatre

By | 1 May 2020

For most contemporary playwrights working within or in conversation with the Western canon tradition, Shakespeare remains the primary poet/playwright, wearing both monikers with ease and employing iambic pentameter, in ‘blank’ or un-rhyming verse, in a way that is still the ‘gold standard’ of poetry in theatre by some measures. I think this is an inadequate and reductive conflation (that poetic language in theatre is simply writing theatre in verse) that shuts down much rich discussion about poetry and poetics and their relationship with dramatic, post-dramatic and theatrical writing.

In his essay The Three Voices of Poetry T S Eliot posits the notion that there are three ways in which a poet writes: as if talking to themselves without an audience; as if talking as themselves to an audience; or using an imaginary character to address other characters and/or an audience. In relation to the third voice, Eliot lamented in 1921 the dearth and demise of poetic drama, claiming that ‘the stage has lost all hold on literary art,’ [and that] ‘so many poetic plays are written which can only be read, and read, if at all, without pleasure – have become insipid, almost academic’ (‘The Possibility’ par. 1). Eliot suggests that Shakespeare ruined the playing field for everyone by mastering the form of poetic drama so completely. He attributes this largely to the spirit of the Elizabethan age where not only did the framework of the five act play, the use of blank verse and the model of the playhouse spawn a whole generation of rock-solid playwrights, but that it was also a time when there was ‘a preparedness, a habit on the part of the public, to respond to particular stimuli’ (par. 5). Or put another way: ‘The Elizabethan drama was aimed at a public which wanted entertainment of a crude sort, but would stand a good deal of poetry’ (par. 14).

He speaks of other moments in history that could be described as great dramatic periods, including Dante’s Italy, concluding that: ‘When there is this economy of effort it is possible to have several, even many, good poets at once. The great ages did not perhaps produce much more talent than ours; but less talent was wasted’ (par. 5). Eliot goes on to speak of his own time (the early 20th Century) as one of formlessness, where some writers may attempt ‘poetic pastiches of Euripides and Shakespeare’ (par. 14); these efforts have no chance of producing dramatic works of major significance.

This question of verse in dramatic writing is revisited whenever a playwright employs this mode in a new work. In 2016 I happened to be in New York when Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III – set in an imagined future where Charles has ascended to the throne in England – was playing on Broadway. The script is notable for being written in blank verse. I saw the production at the Music Box Theater and my memory is of a witty, well-written, ambitious play that seemed to be an homage to Shakespearian drama as well as a satire about contemporary royalty. Reading the script more recently I am struck by how much care Bartlett has taken to employ iambic pentameter. It is largely to comic effect but this doesn’t diminish the skill in any way:


At last. I needed room for thought to breathe
In every second since my mother passed
I’m trapped by meetings, all these people ask
Me questions, talking, fussing, what to do,
Expect I’ll have opinion there, all good
To go, like Findus ready meals for one,
Pre-wrapped and frozen, ‘This is what I think.’
As if I know! My better thoughts – they start
From scratch, slow cooked, and brewed with time.(13)

Despite the linguistic skill evident, ‘poetic’ is still not a word I’d use to describe the script. I’ve had to dig into my reaction to understand why. At first, I wondered if this had to do with the play being a commercial success with broad appeal, and an assumption on my part that this is a milieu that excludes poetic ambition. While this may often seem to be the case, many works and writers operate poetically in the commercial realm, as I tease out a little more in further examples. My response to Bartlett’s play is more about the function of language. He is using it to make things familiar rather than unfamiliar; there is pleasure to be had in the recognition of iambic pentameter (e.g. Shakespearean language can be fun when it uses modern references!). He is asking the audience to nod and laugh at things they already understand (e.g. the royal family is a target for public projection) rather than feel strange or queasy about what they might not. For me, this shifts the play away from the poetic.

In contrast to this is the powerful and much-lauded play Terminus by Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe. This is a three-hander in which the characters tell their own stories via interweaving monologues. The characters are unnamed: A woman in her twenties who is saved from death by a demon made of worms; a male serial killer who has sold his soul to the devil; and the young woman’s mother, seeking redemption. The Abbey Theatre production I saw at Melbourne Festival in 2009 had each of the three actors rooted to one spot for the whole play. Terminus is less of a ‘mass entertainment’ piece than King Charles III. O’Rowe is a writer who wants to put characters on stage that would normally slip through the cracks of life. His writing does not satirise the privileged. Rather, as Creedon and Keating observe: ‘His characters are outsiders, alienated from family, friends, and often society at large. On a political level, the monologue is their opportunity to have their voices heard,’ (Par 5) and in Terminus: ‘heightened poetry and complex rhyming patterns sculpt high art from some of the most sordid impulses of human behaviour’ (par. 2).


Then I’m nude, no prudishness, just bliss as we kiss and caress and he presses me down … his love-making also entailing trailing his tail about my body, between my thighs, eliciting cries, over my belly, and, fuck, I’m jelly beneath his administrations, his tail’s manipulations, his hunger. I don’t think I can hold out any longer. He’s killing me, causing me to convulse and spasm…

Light up on C


I spot a guy…


…as we peak then tip into the chasm…


…beside a ditch…


…so to speak, of mutual orgasm.

Light down on B. (24-25)

There is such joy to this language. O’ Rowe captures a tenor somewhere between colloquialism and a kind of ‘olde world’ story-telling musicality. The characters are tough, rough, desperate and lonely but they are also capable of ecstasy, insight and great humour. He uses the rhythms of this poetic, rhyming language to exalt the ordinary and sweep the audience into an aural reverie.

This kind of poetic language in theatre is also used by a range of playwrights who either perform their own work as semi-autobiographical performance pieces or write monologues for actors that are in a particular idiom, often with a kind of spoken word rhythm to them. As with O’Rowe, the intention of these playwrights is often to put their own or other marginalised voices front and centre in the rarefied and privileged space of the theatre and to deliberately put language in these spaces that is other than plain or naturalistic speech. Such plays often switch between the poet’s own voice and the introduction of characters to relate a narrative and bring it to life; in this sense they are akin to Homer and his story-telling techniques. This direct address, peppered with anecdotes, acts to evoke immediacy. It places the audience squarely in the space with the performer, as active interlocutor, as witness, as confessor, sometimes as jury, sometimes as accused. The audience is present and complicit, the aim being that they feel the excitement and discomfort at being spoken to, rather than spoken in front of.

In 2019 I saw Black T-Shirt Collection at Arts Centre Melbourne, a solo show written and performed by Inua Ellams. He is telling a story that is not autobiographical. It is a made up of a narrative about two Nigerian boys (one Muslim, one Christian) who build a global T-shirt brand. Ellams, based in the UK, was born in Nigeria. While the story is not his, it speaks to and from his lived experiences, his background and culture. The impact of the single body on stage and the knowledge that Ellams authored the piece and is also performing it frames the work in a more charged and political way than if the actor was simply a ‘gun for hire’.

A revolutionary play for me as a developing playwright was Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. We studied this text in my first year playwriting class at RMIT and it blew open what was possible in a performance text. It’s important to acknowledge that a text like this was not written to be consumed and analysed within a white ontology. As Shange notes in her introduction: ‘coloured girls was and is for colored girls’ (11). But as a student of writing and a lover of words, as a writer fascinated by the intersections of poetry and performance, the play was a model of poetic experimentation.

Described on its title page as a ‘choreopoem’, it is structured as a series of poems, scenes and vignettes. These are assigned to the seven characters whose only names are colour: lady in brown, blue, yellow, green, purple, red and orange. The text slides effortlessly from monologue to conversation, storytelling to poetic musing, woven through with stage directions that also act as a kind of choreographic score. Reading about how Shange conceived of and wrote the work speaks to its poetry and its politics:

for colored girls began in the middle of itself. One early San Francisco evening when I could walk in circles through fog, I felt I was skipping through the mists, rinsing myself in damp clouds, licking the salty sweat at night. I started Cypress’ diary: I am outside St. Louis and this is for colored girls who have moved to the ends of their own rainbows … From solo voice to theatre, from poetry to play, from random order to the rainbow, for colored girls has always encompassed them all.(1)

The play evolved over years, as Shange wrote in response to her surroundings, her travels, her history, and collected stories she had heard and people she had met. It evolved thus as a distillation, a reflection. Reading about how Shange wrote the text and then diving into the text itself were both, for me in my mid-twenties as a burgeoning playwright, clarion calls. That form could be so fluid and yet also so sharp. That characters could be drawn so clearly but not be bedded down in psychological trajectories. That language could be used to capture a different kind of truth, something internal and inherited, something between a cry, a shout and a song. And that all of this could absolutely leap off the page as performance text, not as a play written in blank verse or attempting to echo poetic structures of the past.

                    lady in yellow
we gotta dance to keep from cryin

                    lady in brown
we gotta dance to keep from dyin

                    lady in red
so come on

                    lady in brown
come on

                    lady in purple
come on

                    lady in orange
hold yr head like it was ruby sapphire
i’m a poet
who writes in english
come to share the worlds witchu

come to share our worlds witchu
we come here to be dancin
                                        to be dancin
                                   to be dancin
There is a sudden light change, all of the ladies react as if they had been struck in the face. The lady in green and the lady in yellow run out up left, the lady in orange runs out the left volm [or wing], the lady in brown runs out up right. (29-30)

See how the language does not aim to be invisible. It is not just characters revealing themselves, or words that advance narrative. The spelling, the choice of words, the layout on the page invites consciousness. The repetition and the slight placement shifting of the word ‘dancin’ acts as a provocation to the director and the performers: ‘How might you deal with this notion of dancing in performance?’ and, importantly, the notion that: ‘you’re dancing to stay alive’.

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