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

By | 1 May 2020

A reader’s comment below an article by Rob Mackenzie, titled ‘Do we need more verse drama,’ captures a key point about the interplay of poetry and drama within a work:

Theatre is physical, and verse often emulates physical passion and emotion, so there’s an element of physical expression and movement cancelling out the verse, and vice versa … Even in Shakespeare there are many periods in the dramas where the compelling effect of the verse provides a hiatus in the physical performance, or competes with it. At its best, the physical and the verse work together and the sum is greater than the parts, of course.

The suggestion here is that often poetic language within a drama will halt the action. When Hamlet delivers his existential soliloquy, we are curious, we are learning something about him and perhaps something about ourselves, but we are suspending our engagement with the action. A writer like Shange is creating a text not beholden to rules of stasis and action, which is not to say she is unaware of these rules. Her work seems to revel in bending, flexing and upending them.

Aristotle defined drama as poetry in action. Much ‘drama’ as we know it today – including the well-worn three act structure that permeates nearly all screenwriting pedagogy, and much playwriting instruction – works on a basis of situation, reversal and resolution. They aim to satisfy a narrative urge in audiences. They give us characters in situations, facing problems, and then either overcoming those problems or not. This promise and delivery of catharsis reached its high point in the traditions of 19th and 20th Century realism, with characters such as Hedda Gabler, Willy Loman and Olive Leech providing vehicles through which audiences could project their own frustrations and desires, and experience a kind of identification or release. As Diamond points out, this positioning of the audience as a ‘collective we’ seeking some kind of common experience is problematic: ‘It is this universalizing model of truth, the reinscription of a social status quo, the enforcing of cultural discipline that has brought classical mimesis under critical scrutiny’.

Post-dramatic, experimental and poetic texts in theatre may all be seen as various reactions against action-focussed dramatic texts, emphasising subjectivity, multiplicity, messiness and unresolvedness. Two recent Australian plays have pushed theatrical language into bold and fascinating directions.

Alison Croggon’s My Dearworthy Darling (2019 production by THE RABBLE) employs overtly poetic text which is very unusual in contemporary Australian writing for theatre. Summarised on the back blurb of the script thus: ‘A woman on the verge of a breakdown begins to hear voice of a mediaeval mystic,’ the play moves between domestic dialogue (between a woman and her husband and sister) and a kind of rolling apocalyptic vision uttered by the woman and a chorus of voices that shifts from contemporary language to Middle English, weaving parallels between past and present violence, particularly that enacted against women:


  • For summe sayd it was a wikkyd spiryt vexed hir
  • Sum seyd it was a sekenes
  • Sum seyd sche had dronkyn to mech wyn
  • Lithicarb 300 mg per day to be adjusted after two weeks
  • Active ingredient Lithium carbonate
  • Prescription only medicine, or prescription animal remedy
  • Side effects: tiredness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, hands shaking, increased thirst and consequent increased frequency of passing urine, memory problems
  • Sum bannyed hir(30)

The effect is dizzying. As an audience member your ear is constantly readjusting. Some sections are straightforward tracts of dialogue where domestic relationships are explored. Others lift into internal vision, memory, projections of disaster, blending reality with fantasy, the now with the then. The result is a play that brings into question what ‘reality’ is, offering an embodied and uttered possibility of how much each of us carries from our own histories and our shared histories.

Patricia Cornelius is Australia’s most oft-described ‘poetic playwright’. Rather than stories with cause and effect that unfold in a series of revelatory scenes, Cornelius delves into a sub-culture, or even a single moment, and investigates it through language. Her 2016 play SHIT opens with a remarkable monologue:

BILLY: And he goes, look at you, fuck look at you, what the fuck you done, you fucking done nothing, you never fucking going to do something, you fucked-up waste of space, what fucking contribution you made, nothing, nothing at all you fuck-up nothing, fucking nothing you are, a big fucking nothing, he goes, the biggest fucking nothing, the biggest fucking nothing I know, and I think, who’s this fucking, fucked-up fuck telling me I’m fucked up, who’s he, and I go, who are you to fucking tell me I’m fucking nothing, you fucking fuck, you’re the fucking nothing, never going to do nothing fuck, what contribution you and you’re fucking telling me I’m fucking nothing makes you fucking way more fucking way more, way way more fucking nothing.


As with Slave Play, these opening words act to disorient rather than orientate us. The language demands that we notice it. We may be appalled by it or offended. We may find it hilarious. We may wonder what world we are in where a woman speaks with such ferocity. Is it even ferocious? Or is it banal? This will depend on how the actor and director interpret the use of language.

Like Shange, Cornelius is playing with vernacular, with tone, and with the musicality of language. We probably haven’t met women who speak like this. Or maybe we have. But we certainly don’t usually meet them in theatres, on stages or in audiences. In her 2016 State of Play essay Face it – we’re shit Cornelius writes about wanting to explode the niceties of the middle-class stories and people that dwell in Australia’s funded theatre companies and the cultural gatekeepers of those companies:

They have no interest in gutsy, hard-hitting works that possibly could cause offence to a mostly well-heeled audience (unless it’s from abroad of course). I think a bit of offence always goes down a treat, myself. It’s the very heart of theatre – to disturb, to agitate, to make one feel uneasy about the shit of a world we live in. I truly believe audiences are hungry for it. (Par. 20)

Unlike Shange, Cornelius is not as obviously and overtly speaking from within a community. The world she builds is that of a keen observer. She is watching. She has noticed things that make her uncomfortable about class and power and voice. She wants to point at these things. She wants us, the audience, the reader, to also notice these things, to not let questions of class and power and voice go unnoticed or unchallenged.

Dialogue in Cornelius’s plays sits in an equally noticeable realm. All dramatic dialogue is constructed. It is, in general, much sharper, briefer and often more clever than how actual people talk in real life. But playwrights whose main focus is narrative, and meaning – revealed via plot and character development – tend to write dialogue that pretends to be ‘like real life’. See the contrast between what Cornelius is doing with her opening monologue and the kind of experience Joanna Murray-Smith is inviting with these opening lines (which come after a lengthy physical description of both characters, including what they are wearing) from her play Switzerland, about the author Patricia Highsmith:

PATRICIA: [without turning to look at him still typing] You’re late.
PATRICIA: I know that because this is Switzerland.
Beat. She turns around to take him in.
EDWARD: The train was um … late leaving Paris.
PATRICIA: Is that my business?
EDWARD: I tried to call from the Gare du Nord
PATRICIA: I don’t answer the phone.
EDWARD: I did email to say
PATRICIA: I don’t do email.(11)

Of course the language isn’t absolutely natural. It is action-driven. It is revealing character. Words are carefully chosen. But its purpose is for us to get to know these characters and immediately establish a relationship of status between them. The language does not disturb this process, it facilitates it. In contrast, playwrights who are using language to point at questions of power, class, race, voice and social structures will often deliberately write dialogue that is one step further away from ‘reality’. In the case of Cornelius and SHIT, the characters are still drawn as believable people. They have names (although even this seems pointed: they are three young women but they all have names we mostly associate with men). They each have their own back story and particular narrative path. But that path is not leading to revelation or satisfaction. They are stuck in their own world and the dialogue reflects this in its circular, stark, almost staccato rhythm.

The opening monologue segues into an extended conversation between the three characters about how appropriate or otherwise it is to swear, a neat meta-technique to get the jump on what the audience is also, no doubt, wondering:

BOBBY: You’re not …
BILLY: What, fuck you, what?
BOBBY: Using it well.
BILLY: Using it well?
SAM: That’s it, you’re not.
BILLY: Fuck me. I know how to use it. Go to hell.
BOBBY: You’re not making the best of it.
BILLY: I know how to make the best of it.
BOBBY: You wear it out.
BILLY: I’ll wear it any fucking way I want to.
SAM: You do, you wear it thin.(5-6)

Read this dialogue aloud. It starts to beat with rhythm. Like reading a certain kind of poem. The conversation goes on to analyse different swear words, the use of ‘cunt’ is described as a ‘like bullets’, ‘a razor blade’, ‘a machete’(7). Cornelius is writing about language as a weapon. In the mouths of these three characters it is over the top, maybe shocking. There is also something comedic. It’s inappropriate to swear that much. And it’s just plain wrong for people who swear to have such insight into how and why they do it. This play seems squarely aimed at the middle classes who cast judgements on people who were ‘born swearing’. It is saying: look at your prejudices. It is also saying: look how language is used as a weapon. This may be swearing and owning the violence of your language. And it may be more hypocritically – or rather uncritically – done by those with real social power, who speak ‘nicely’.

Playwrights who are archaeologists of language in this way, digging it up and examining it, contribute a vital social and cultural service. They make audible what may otherwise disappear into white noise: The words we use and don’t use; who is allowed to use certain words; and what those words tell us about class and race and gender and power. And because theatre is essentially a social art form – we sit together in rooms and witness it – there is an invitation in these plays to examine our complicity all together.

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