Drama and Poetry often intermix. Let’s reflect on 1) where the line between the two blurs, 2) where one medium recruits the elements of the other, as well as 3) the advantages and limitations inherent to each.
Let’s take a play, a dramatic composition. I’ll henceforth use play and drama interchangeably.
Even someone who doesn’t read plays or attend theatre, probably understands that a play involves a cast list and an exchange of dialogue. Stage and/or setting directions usually accompany.
The stage directions might also provide significant narrative, playwright dependent. George Bernard Shaw leveraged inter-dialogue narrative extensively, making his plays easily adaptable to a short story format, novel, film, or even a comic (I wonder if this had been done?). Being an extreme case, he paints settings and characteristic subtleties to impeccable degree.
Shakespeare, on the other hand, revealed narrative almost exclusively through character, be it framed by explicit or self-directed dialogue (ie, a soliloquy). Now we’ve clearly asserted that Shakespearean motifs lend to other visual and written formats, but not without much liberty concerning certain moods, impressions, tones, and detail not explicitly unveiled.
Whatever the case, a play might also incorporate poetry to drastically varying extent. On the one extreme, a character might simply recite or sing a couplet.
On the other, a play might be written in large part, if not entirely in verse. While often blank (unrhymed), the occasional appearance of rhyme tends to create powerful emphasis.
With British drama, the practice was particularly widespread during the Renaissance. Shakespeare composed plays in considerable amount of verse, ranging (in my estimate) anywhere from 50 to 100 percent.
While I can’t speak as confidently of other Elizabethan playwrights, Shakespeare, as a rule, and increasingly as his plays grew in maturity, transitioned between prose and verse, and from unrhymed to rhymed, strategically, to signal shift in social class, formality, or other mood. It sometimes resulted in the most profound of impact.
Thus a play written in substantial amount of verse one might almost consider a poem.
On the really extreme end, I’d recently read (not without some difficulty) a Middle-Age play titled The Second Shepherd’s Play of the so-called ‘Wakefield’ cycle. The composition employs nine-line stanzas of very peculiar rhyming scheme and metrical unity among the lines (and even the half-lines), which the play adhered to without exception, even as roles shifted mid-course.
Not only does such structure seem difficult to sustain, but the play manages to entirely confine the dramatic element within this wicked framework. Mind blowing!
And I’d nearly forgotten Goethe’s Faust. Formally a drama, but beyond the stage directions and explicit casting, Goethe expresses all dialogue in beautiful, rhymed verse of varied meter throughout. I tend to consider the work a ‘dramatic poem’.
And while I haven’t yet read Milton’s Samson Agonistes, it appears as yet another case of a dramatic poem/poetic drama, line severely blurred, although considered a dramatic composition.
Could one not consider some of these cases nearly poems? What officially makes something a play?
Is it the cast list, the labelled dialogue, and the staging directions wherein all narrative must unwind, be it not explicitly communicated via (real or allegoric) character dialogue?
In essence, yes. A play respects this structure of stage adaptability; one that makes the underlying composition feasible and fairly straightforward (if not seamless) to adapt to the stage without notable invention, irrespective of the amount of poetry contained within.
Okay, let’s now take a composition formally classified as a poem. Specifically, let this be a narrative or even an epic poem.
While not strictly necessary, the longer such a work, the greater the likelihood of it containing dialogue exchange.
Shorter narrative poems might limit themselves to strict narration or inner dialogue or soliloquy. Some examples include Edgar Poe’s The Raven, Tennyson’s Ulysses, Longfellow’s Paul Revere’s Ride or Pushkin’s Медный Всадник (Bronze Horseman).
Longer narratives tend to feature increasing dialogue and assume a dramatic form. Often this occurs seamlessly as it would in prose, the speaker indicated inline via constructs such as ‘he said’ or ‘X replied’. I’d list examples, but in fairness, an overwhelming majority of narrative and epic poems I’ve encountered fall in this category.
Then there’s the extreme case of poems that nearly resemble plays in their form, speakers explicitly denoted. A handful of Pushkin poems surge to mind: Полтава (Poltava), Цыганы (Gypsies) and Анджело (Angelo).
What makes these compositions officially poems, rather than dramas?
First off, and provided that significant dialogue exchange does occur (for we’re only concerned with poems that are nearly dramas), I find it doesn’t too much matter how speakers are designated, whether prefixed:
'<dialogue>', quoth Hamlet '<more dialogue>'
I can’t imagine a terrible challenge in transforming one format into another, without the work losing its footing as a drama or a poem.
In personal experience, what I’ve sensed stronger characterizes a poem are the elements of
- All narrative and non-dialogue contained within the verse
- No staging directions: all part of narrative, per #1
- Lyrical interludes (that don’t concern the narrative in sensu stricto)
- Characterization and background often minimal, if not entirely abstracted from the driving narrative.
- Dialogue exchange more seamless, although may still employ a cast structure, as Pushkin demonstrates in several poems.
- Surprise and mystery not otherwise possible (or difficult) in a play (for the visual aspect of the performance on stage)
- Generally more lyrical. A poem is more likely to employ more exotic forms of verse not plausible for the stage.
Case study: same story, two renditions
I couldn’t imagine a case more fitting for our comparative analysis:
Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure that Pushkin later adapted into a poem Angelo. Having read both in their respective languages, I found each solidly entertaining. Yet how do they compare structurally?
- Main story arch
- Explicit speaker labels
- Both written in fixed-meter verse: parts of MFM in prose with verse mostly blank (unrhymed), while Angelo entirely in rhymed hexameter.
- Angelo focuses only on the main arch of the story
- MFM, a much longer composition, involves comedic diversions (a side plot). Shakespearean plays often showcase this extra dimensionality.
- Angelo unveils all narrative in verse, internally
- MFM unveils narrative exclusively through dialogue
Most remarkable difference:
The story features a ‘changed identity’ device that Shakespeare abundantly employs throughout his plays. That is, a character transforms into another by way of grooming/costume/altered diction.
Angelo (a poem) manages to retain this aspect in total mystery from the reader, enabling great suspenseful impact.
MFM, however, being a play, keeps the transformation apparent, and not only because it would seem fairly obvious to the viewer. (Such showcases of masquerade, as many as I’ve encountered in fiction, are rarely to be too seriously construed by the audience.)
But beyond, the play cast list must simply be very explicit with such detail for the actors' welfare.
However, what MFM sacrifices in terms of visual suspense, it compensates by other dramatic and comedic means.
The differences between a poetic drama and a dramatic poem are often few.
Primarily, the former reveals all narrative through dialogue or staging directions, supplying sufficient detail to be readily acted on stage.
The latter enables inline narration (in verse), lyrical interludes, sparser characterization and certain narrative abstraction in exchange for increased lyricism.
Questions, comments? Connect.