The Poetics of Dramatics
Week of the Festival: Ledbury, UK
Before I embarked on my studies for a Masters in Text & Performance at Birkbeck College and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in autumn 2017, I had never given much consideration to the inner workings of a play script, despite being an avid theatre-goer. Maybe this was to be expected. After all, the script of a play isn’t the staged play itself. Unlike a poem on the page, which is a self-contained entity meant to be consumed in its completeness, the oral performance of which is a separate entity in itself, a play script’s only raison d’être is as a blueprint for a future play. In production, the script is just one of many moving parts, along with the scenography, actors, audiovisuals and direction, that constitute the finished thing that the audience will eventually experience as the staged play. This phenomenon is more readily apparent in filmmaking - it’s obvious that a film script is not the finished film.
As such, I didn’t know much about the process of analysing, writing, directing or acting in a play script which were all requirements for my course. As I continued my masters, studying at least one play script a week and sometimes as many as three, it gradually dawned on me that I was using the same part of my brain and indeed the same sensibilities that I use when I’m critiquing poetry. Being a poet and poetry critic while studying theatre gave me, I felt, a distinct advantage over my classmates - majority of who were 25 years younger than me and solely theatre practitioners - when it came to studying more esoteric plays such as German playwright Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine, whose short but densely allusive text is set out in blocks of words reminiscent of prose in a novel, or lineated like poetry. I’m reproducing a sample of it here, including Müller’s idiosyncratic stage directions:
THE EUROPE OF WOMEN
“Enormous room. * Ophelia. Her heart is a clock.
I am Ophelia. The one the river didn’t keep. The woman dangling
from the rope. The woman with her arteries cut open. The woman with the overdose. SNOW ON HER LIPS. The woman with her head in the gas stove.
Yesterday I stopped killing myself. I’m alone with my breasts my thighs my
womb. I smash the tools of my captivity, the chair the table the bed. I
destroy the battle field that was my home. I fling open the doors so the
wind gets in and the scream of the world. I smash the window. With my
bleeding hands I tear the photos of the men I loved and who used me on the bed on the table, on the chair on the ground. I set fire to my prison. I
throw my clothes into the fire. I wrench the clock that was my heart out
of my breast. I walk into the street clothed in my blood.”
That section of the play is referencing several women through the character of Ophelia - the title The Europe of Women is the first clue. Lineated a different way, those words could easily read as a lyric poem in the form of a poetic monologue. Whereas my classmates were bewildered and even repelled by Hamletmachine because of its density and arcane allusions, I intuitively tackled the play as if it was a poem, which in turn opened up its meaning. It was a moment of epiphany. I realised that I could bring this approach - reading a play as if it was a poetry collection - to reading all plays. Although a play script is intended to serve the piece of drama that a staged play will eventually become, it’s initially useful to read a play script as a literary rather than dramatic tract.
Why are my poetic instincts triggered more when I’m reading drama than when I’m reading any other kind of literature that isn’t formally classed as poetry? What is it about drama that engenders this effect? Are poetry and drama much more intimately connected than I had realised before starting my course? If so, which other aspects of a play script are reminiscent of poetry and how did these two forms cleave apart? In Toward Explaining Heteronymy, the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa offers an intriguing assertion:
“The genres do not separate out with such essential facility, and, if we closely analyze what they are made of, we shall find that from lyric poetry to dramatic there is one continuous gradation. In effect, and going right to the origins of dramatic poetry—Aeschylus, for instance—it will be nearer the truth to say that what we encounter is lyric poetry put into the mouths of different characters.” [emphasis mine]
Ophelia’s speech in Hamletmachine certainly seems to fit Pessoa’s bill. Further, he is suggesting that dramatic scripts arose out of lyric poetry. To establish the veracity of Pessoa’s assertion, it’s necessary to look at the origins of poetry and of drama. Poetry, is from the Greek poiētēs, itself from poiein which means ‘to make’. The etymology of the archaic English word ‘wright’ as in playwright, a term mockingly neologised by Ben Jonson, also cites the word ‘maker’ as a root of the word wright. Even the verbs and nouns denoting both forms align in some commonality by emphasising the idea of craftmanship.
Some scholars believe that the art of poetry predates literacy itself. Several poems that have survived from the ancient world are in the form of prayers, historical accounts and love songs. Poetry was also a means to tell and disseminate long stories like the Sumerian poem Epic of Gilgamesh which dates back to around 2000 B.C and is believed to be the earliest surviving great work of literature. The rhythmic stylings and repetition inherent in a lot of poetry developed to make epic poems, such as those attributed to Homer, easier to remember and retell before written texts were widely available. While I can situate the genesis of written poetry to the 20th century BCE, by contrast the earliest known Greek dramatist Thespis (whose name gave us the word thespian), was writing in the 6th Century BCE. So poetry predates drama by at least 1400 years. Aeschylus, who wrote the Oresteia in the 5th Century BCE, is considered to be the first of the great Greek playwrights and innovated what we think of as drama today. Before him, Greek drama was limited to a single actor in dialogue with a chorus in a largely static recitation. By including a second actor with whom the first could converse, Aeschylus expanded drama’s possibilities for dialogue, conflict and dramatic tension which then opened up the possibilities for plot construction. In Poetics, Aristotle was the first theorist to define poetry, calling it the mimetic or imitative use of language, rhythm and harmony, separately or in combination. It’s interesting to note that he didn't separate poetry and drama conceptually, but defined them together, sub-divided into the epic, comic and tragic. Later aestheticians describe poetry to have three major genres: epic, lyric and dramatic, with dramatic further sub-dividing into tragic and comic. It’s that sub-category of ‘tragic’ poetry that has informed all Western drama today.
All of this leads me to speculate that what I was intuitively picking up in the plays I studied are the last vestiges of poetry before it diverged paths from the presentational recited poem to the representational performance typical of a play presented on a proscenium stage. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that what I was experiencing is an inevitable blurring of the boundaries between the dramatic and the poetic because they originated from the same place. All roads in the quest to find the crucible of the two forms seem to lead back to ritual. Poetry, it seems, emerged from the same place as drama did, in the chant of singing voice and measure of the dance in religious pageants celebrating deities like Dionysus, the god of wine. Poetry then became drama when spectacle as defined by Aristotle, in the form masks worn actors, set design and stage machines to create illusions, were added to the mix.
I surmise then that the content of poetry arose out of its functionality - to educate or historicise, for prayer, propaganda or courtship - while the mode of poetry arose out the kind of stylised speech that recruited the rhythmic, metered aspects of song which in turn allowed language to remain itself even while it attained a spell-like quality. Nowhere was this immediately apparent to me than when I had to learn and perform the following abridged monologue in the role of Cominius in a production of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus last year:
“I shall lack voice: the deeds of Coriolanus
Should not be utter'd feebly. It is held
That valour is the chiefest virtue, and
Most dignifies the haver: if it be,
The man I speak of cannot in the world
Be singly counterpoised. At sixteen years,
He fought beyond the mark of others:
When he might act the woman in the scene,
He proved best man i' the field, and for his meed
Was brow-bound with the oak. In the seventeen
Battles since, he lurch'd all swords of the garland.
For this last, he stopp'd the fliers;
And by his rare example made the coward
Turn terror into sport: his sword, death's stamp,
Where it did mark, whose every motion
Was timed with dying cries: alone he enter'd
The mortal gate of the city, and with a sudden
Reinforcement struck Corioli like a planet.”
I can’t express how delicious that speech is to voice in performance. In my mouth, the rhythm of the words, rather than their content, was the driving force that powered the meaning of the narrative. As long as I stayed connected to the rhythm of what was I saying, I was able to clearly communicate the intricacy of meaning in Shakespeare’s lines. It informed me on how to modulate the dynamics of my voice in relation to silence in order to tell the story. In effect, the poetry in the speech brought me closer to the drama in the story. Performing the role taught me that I will always love reading Shakespeare aloud and that perhaps, I’m more in love with Shakespeares mode of poetry rather than the content of his poetry. Rhythm is the basis of Shakespeare’s text, so much so that it compelled Vladimir Nabokov to assert, in Strong Opinions:
“The verbal poetic texture of Shakespeare is the strongest the world has known, and is immensely superior to the structure of his plays as plays. With Shakespeare it is the metaphor that is the thing, not the play.”
Soliloquies and monologues in plays lend themselves particularly well to lyric poetry. Monologues are my favourite parts to write when I’m working on my own plays because I feel liberated when I’m writing them in comparison to when I’m writing straightforward dialogue. This is because I have many more years experience writing poetry than I do writing plays and a poetic mode allows me to compose speech in the comfort zone of something I know how to do well. Soliloquies and monologues tend to pop up in a play script during moments of high emotion (but not necessarily of high drama) excavating the inner workings of character. Just think of Hamlet’s introspection and indecision in his To Be or Not To Be soliloquy. I have channeled this way of wielding poetry in my own play Black Mozart, White Chevalier, whose opening prologue sees the protagonist, composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges alone on stage, decrying the racism that prevented him from getting the directorship of the Paris Opera. It’s a dream-like, establishing soliloquy that pronounces his isolation and defiance. Its function is to introduce the Chevalier and establish the status quo, reveal the 18th century world in which he lived and distinguish it in tone from the 21st century storyline that runs parallel to it within the narrative. Rendering the Chevalier’s speech in poetry allowed me to incorporate all those functions but to do so in the surreally evocative, image-led language that poetry affords.
Analysing Shakespeare’s words as I would a poem revealed a further commonality: both plays and poetry rely on the reader’s sensitivity to subtext. The way what is unsaid adds extra layers of complexity to a narrative, Ernest Hemingway called the Iceberg Theory: the deeper meanings of character and plot live below the surface of the text in the same way that the bulk of an iceberg floats beneath the surface of the water. Subtext is particularly important to actors because although they ‘play’ the text (ie. the lines of dialogue), they are thinking and feeling the subtext as they say the dialogue. Actors animate their lines of dialogue by investing them with the freight of their character’s history, present circumstances and intention as they utter them. Contrary to what many people who have no acting experience think, actors don’t ‘play’ emotions. They play intentions and they can’t know a character’s intentions until they understand the subtext of a line. Subtext is important for directors too because they can use it to frame the overarching themes of a play. By engaging with subtext, directors can put their own surprising stamp on a play, such as ones by Shakespeare or the Greek tragedians, which have been performed over and over again for hundreds of years and are tricky to make again in a truly fresh way. By the same token, as a reader of poetry, I am more engaged by poems that leave space between the words and lines for me to ruminate on the emotional intention and allusion contained in the poem. To put it more fancifully, when I’m reading a poem, I am effectively the ‘actor’ of the poem and will bring all my sensibilities and my understanding of the subject matter to the poem in order to animate and communicate its meaning to me.
Given my limited knowledge of play scripts before my studies I was surprised to discover how much agency playwrights have for typographical experimentation on the page in way that is more familiar to me through poetry on the page. This distinction is thrown into sharp relief when I compare play scripts to screenwriting. For pragmatic reasons, screenwriting scripts are strictly formatted in Courier 12 font whereas play scripts, within the confines of formatting dialogue, are typographically wilder. I’m thinking here of plays like the loosely rhyming couplets of Martin Crimp’s adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac or the terza rima of Inua’s Ellams’ The Half-God of Rainfall. The British playwright debbie tucker green is noted for her drama-poetics and a random excerpt from her play ear for eye is striking for its alliteration, repetition, suppression of punctuation. If I didn’t know these lines were from a play, I would assume they were from a poem:
“I yell - but am cut off by another
flashbanging spinning canister of
wickedness spilling its cloudy white
contents into the air before folks can heed.
The beautiful crowds of us scattering
vomiting crying panicking - scattering
vomiting crying panicking, placards
dropped chanting stopped, messaging
blocked, marching forgot protesting fucked
runnin runnin from the causal-white-cloud
into one another
then into another one
fired at…just so.
Black bodies staggering into each other
through that milky-white-cloud, red eyes
barely seein a watery half-nothin —"
I will conclude with the entirety of a play that represents the ultimate play-as-poem for me. Samuel Beckett’s Breathe is so intriguingly allusive. I may never fully understand Beckett’s intentions but the elusive power of the script of this one-minute play draws me back to it again and again and will probably continue to do so for a long time to come:
1. Faint light on stage littered with miscellaneous rubbish. Hold for about five seconds.
2. Faint brief cry and immediately inspiration and slow increase of light together reaching maximum together in about ten seconds. Silence and hold about five seconds.
3. Expiration and slow decrease of light together reaching minimum together (light as in I) in about ten seconds and immediately cry as before. Silence and hold for about five seconds.
Beckett adds some stage directions:
Rubbish. No verticals, all scattered and lying. Cry. Instant of recorded vagitus. Important that two cries be identical, switching on and off strictly synchronized light and breath. Breath. Amplified recording.
Maximum light. Not bright. If 0 = dark and 10 = bright, light should move from about 3 to 6 and back.”
I cite this play with a caveat. I enjoy reading it much more than seeing it performed in the same way that I enjoy Shakespeare’s poetic language more than the plot of his plays. In performance, the action is over before the viewer can properly decipher (if she can at all) what is going on. Even so, it embodies the chutzpah, courage and compression that I hope to bring to both my poems and plays.
Language, breaking silences and Irigarayan mysticism'
Language, breaking silences and Irigarayan mysticism'