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Call No.gog Vf ^O-'PAcccssion No. 



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The Theodore Spencer Memorial Lecture 


November 21, 1950 


24 Russell Square 


First published in mcmli 

by Faber and Faber Limited 

24 Russell Square, London, W.C.i 

Printed and bound in Great Britain by 

William Clowes and Sons, Limited 

London and Beccles 

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It is a customary act of respect that the lecturer on a founda- 
tion should begin by saying something about the nwn in 
whose name the lectureship was founded. The fact that 
between Theodore Spencer and myself there had been a long 
friendship terminated only by death, was (I believe) the primary 
reason for my being asked to inaugurate this series: as it was 
Certainly my primary reason for accepting the honour. 

Except when there has been some accident to fix it in my 
memory, I find that I seldom remember the occasion of my first 
meeting with anyone who has subsequently become an associate 
or friend. I am not now sure whether I first met Theodore 
Spencer while he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, 
Cambridge, or on some later visit that he paid to Englandfor 
he loved Cambridge and liked to return there. I had certainly 
met him in England, and probably several times, before I came 
to Harvard as Norton Professor in 1932.- But it was during that 
year, when I saw him almost every day ) at Eliot House, or in 
his own home, or in the company of mutual friends, that we 
were closely associated; and it was through this constant 


frequentation that I came to love and appreciate the man. He 
put his time most generously at my disposal; helped me at every 
juncture with a course of lectures to a small class which he him- 
self had been instrumental in selecting; and there was no detail 
of daily life in which he was not ready to give aid, and no 
material need which he was not anxious to anticipate. And the 
day on which he did not drop in for a chat before lunch, was 
always a duller day than the others. 

After 1933 1 saw him) of course, only at intervals. He visited 
England several times I remember that he was present, in 
Cambridge, at the Encaenia at which I received a doctor's 
degree, and I remember his pleasure in the event. Between 
visits, we carried on a desultory correspondence. In 1938, or per- 
haps early in 1939, the rumour reached us in England that 
economies were being effected, which might be adverse to his 
promotion or security of tenure at Harvard, and I was a party 
to the manoeuvres of some of his friends in Cambridge, Eng- 
land, toward obtaining for him a Lectureship there. In 1939 he 
was appointed to a Lectureship at Cambridge University, but 
owing to the outbreak of war, the immediate reduction in the 
numbers of students in the English Tripos, and the consequent 
reduction in the number of tutors, it was deemed best that his 
appointment should be deferred. This was a great disappoint- 
ment to his friends in England; but on the other hand, we had 
the pleasure of hearing of his reappointment to Harvard as 
'visiting lecturer from Cambridge University. } It was not long 
before he received promotion. 

I should like to add a note which I hope is not indiscreet. 
When the august position ofBoylston Professor became vacant, 
Ted Spencer was not one to covet that post for himself. He wrote 
to me privately, to ask whether I would consider the position 


if my name were put forward. Well, there were several reasons, 
both private and public, why I could not regard myself as 
eligible : not the least of which was my lack of scholarship / 
think I told him that I should have had to spend all my spare 
time reading the books I ought to have read, and would have no 
leisure left for writing. My delight and satisfaction were great 
when I read that he himself had received that distinguished 

Though I do not remember our first meeting, I remember very 
clearly our last. It was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just 
before my return to London, and only a few weeks before his 
death. He was full of enthusiasm for the work he was to under- 
take that year; he appeared in better health, and more radiantly 
happy, than I had ever seen him; and I thought that he had 
many years of both scholarly and creative work and of useful 
influence before him. 

I do not need to remind those who knew him, or indeed those 
who were even slightly acquainted with him, of the charm of 
his personality, his interest in human beings, his gaiety, sense of 
humour and conviviality with a bearing such that he could 
put his pupils on terms of informal equality, without ever 
losing his dignity or their respect. He had several traits, in 
happy combination, which made him a good teacher. His stan- 
dards of scholarship were high, and his view of English studies 
was humane; he mixed with men of letters in New York and 
London, as well as in the universities; and was perfectly at ease 
in society, whether intellectual society or not, so that he knew 
his students as human beings, not merely as candidates for 
degrees. He had a sensitive appreciation of the best in contem- 
porary literature; and his own poetic gift was genuine. His 
poetry had developed, and would I believe have gone on to still 

P.D. 2 

greater strength after he had further assimilated and re-created 
the powerful influence of Yeats. But I have left to the last, men- 
tion of those characteristics which most endeared him as a 
friend: humility, charity, generosity, and what I can only call 
a fundamental goodness. 

In choosing a subject, I have had in mind that it should be a 
subject in some way related to Theodore Spencer's interests, 
and that it should be a subject on which he himself would have 
liked to hear me. 



I j eviewing my critical output for the last thirty- 
-^^ odd years, I am surprised to find how constantly 
-JL. ^^J have returned to the drama, whether by ex- 
amining the work of the contemporaries of Shakespeare, 
or by reflecting on the possibilities of the future. It may 
even be that people are weary of hearing me on this 
subject. But, while I find that I have been composing 
variations on this theme all my life, my views have 
been continually modified and renewed by increasing 
experience ; so that I am impelled to take stock of the 
situation afresh at every stage of my own experimentation. 
As I have gradually learned more about the problems 
of poetic drama, and the conditions which it must fulfil 
if it is to justify itself, I have made a little clearer to myself, 
not only my own reasons for wanting to write in this 
form, but the more general reasons for wanting to see it 
restored to its place. And I think that if I say something 
about these problems and conditions, it should make 
clearer to other people whether and if so why poetic 


drama has anything potentially to offer the playgoer, that 
prose drama cannot. For I start with the assumption that 
if poetry is merely a decoration, an added embellishment, 
if it merely gives people of literary tastes the pleasure of 
listening to poetry at the same time that they are witness- 
ing a play, then it is superfluous. It must justify itself 
dramatically, and not merely be fine poetry shaped into 
a dramatic form,,. From this it follows that no play should 
be written in ^ verse for which prose is dramatically 
adequate. And from this it follows, again, that the 
audience, its attention held by the dramatic action, its 
emotions stirred by the situation between the characters, 
should be too intent upon the play to be wholly conscious 
of the medium. 

Whether we use prose or verse on the stage, they are 
both but means to an end. The difference, from one point 
of view, is not so great as we might think. In those prose 
plays which survive, which are read and produced on the 
stage by later generations, the prose in which the charac- 
ters speak is as remote, for the best part, from the vocab- 
ulary, syntax and rhythm of our ordinary speech 
with its fumbling for words, its constant recourse to 
approximation, its disorder and its unfinished sentences 
as verse is. Like verse, it has been written, and re- 
written. Our two greatest prose stylists in the drama 
apart from Shakespeare and the other Elizabethans who 
mixed prose and verse in the same play are, I believe, 
Congreve and Bernard Shaw. A speech by a character of 
Congreve or of Shaw has however clearly the charac- 
ters may be differentiated that unmistakable personal 
rhythm' which is the mark of a prose style, and of which 


only the most accomplished conversationalists who 
are for that matter usually monolo.guists show any 
trace in their talk. We have all heard (too often!) of 
Moliere's character who expressed surprise when told 
that he spoke prose. But it was M. Jourdain who was 
right, and not his mentor or his creator : he did not speak 
prose he only talked. For I mean to draw a triple dis- 
tinction: between prose, and verse, and our ordinary 
speech which is mostly below die level of either verse or 
prose. So if you look at it in this way, it will appear that 
gro^,onthe stage L isjis artificial as verse : or alternatively, 

that yerse_can3jJLL^ 

But while the sensitive member of the audience will 
appreciate, when he hears fine prose spoken in a play, that 
this is something better than ordinary conversation, he 
does not regard it as a wholly different language from 
that which he himself speaks, for that would interpose a 
barrier between himself and the imaginary characters on 
the stage. Too many people, on the other hand, approach 
a play which they know to be in verse, with the con- 
sciousness of the difference. It is unfortunate when they 
are repelled by verse, but can also be deplorable when 
they are attracted by it if that means that they are pre- 
pared to enjoy the play and the language of the play as 
two separate things. The jchief effect of style and rhythm 

in dramatic speech, whether in prose or verse, should be 

*-_, .. * -.'-.-'--' 


From this it follows that a mixture of prose and verse 
in the same play is generally to be avoided: each transition 
makes the auditor aware, with a jolt, of the medium. It 
is, we may say, justifiable when the author wishes to 


produce this jolt : when, that is, he wishes to transport the 
audience violently from one plane of reality to another. 
I suspect that this kind of transition was easily acceptable 
to an Elizabethan audience, to whose ears bodhjgrose jind 
verse came naturally; who lite3TiigEfaIutin and low 

^"**** 1 **- Jn*^, J^^ tojk , i, H u. - - * *"^ 

comedy in the same play ; and to whom it seemed per- 
haps proper that the more humble and rustic characters 
should speak in a homely language, and that those of 
more exalted rank should rant in verse. But even in the 
plays of Shakespeare some of the prose passages seem to 
be designed for an effect of contrast which, when 
achieved, is something that can never become old- 
fashioned. The knocking at the gate in Macbeth is an 
example that comes to everyone's mind ; but it has long 
seemed to me that the alternation of scenes in prose with 
scenes in verse in Henry IV points an ironic contrast be- 
tween the world of high politics and the world of com- 
mon life. The audience probably thought they were 
getting their accustomed chronicle play garnished with 
amusing scenes of low life ; yet the prose scenes of both 
Part I and Part II provide a sardonic comment upon the 
bustling ambitions of the chiefs of the parties in the in- 
surrection of the Percys. 

Today, however, because of the handicap under which 
verse drama suffers, I believe that prose should be used 
very sparingly indeed ; that we should aim at a form of 
verse in which everything can be said that has to be said ; 
and that when we find some situation which is intractable 
in verse, it is merely that our form of verse is inelastic. 
And if there prove to be scenes which we cannot put in 
verse, we must either develop our verse, or avoid having 


to introduce such scenes. For we have. to accustom our, 
audiences to verse to the^oiat at which 

to be conscious of it ; and to introduce prose dialogue, 
would only be to distract their attention from the play 
itself to the medium of its expression. But if our verse is 
to have so wide a range that it can say anything that has to 
be said, it follows that it will not be 'poetry' all the time. 
It will only be 'poetry' when the dramatic situation has 
reached such a point of intensity that poetry becomes the 
natural utterance, because then it is the only language in 
which the emotions can be expressed at all. 

It is indeed necessary for any long poem, if it is to 
escape monotony, to be able to say homely things with- 
out bathos, as well as to take the highest flights without 
sounding exaggerated. And it is still more important in a 
play, especially if it is concerned with contemporary life. 
The reason for writing even the more pedestrian parts of 
i verse play in verse instead of prose is, however, not only 
:o avoid calling the audience's attention to the fact that it 
s at other moments listening to poetry. It is also that the 
verse rhythm should have its effect upon the hearers, 
without their being conscious of it. A brief analysis of one 
scene of Shakespeare's may illustrate this point. The open- 
ing scene of Hamlet as well constructed an opening 
scene as that of any play ever written has the advantage 
of being one that everybody knows. 

What we do not notice, when we witness this scene in 
the theatre, is the great variation of style. Nothing is 
superfluous, and there is no line of poetry which is not 
justified by its dramatic value. The first twenty-two lines 


are built of the simplest words in the most homely idiom. 
Shakespeare had worked for a long time in the theatre, 
and written a good many plays, before reaching the 
point at which he could write those twenty-two lines. 
There is nothing quite so simplified and sure in his pre- 
vious work. He first developed conversational, colloquial 
verse in the monologue of the character part Faulcon- 
bridge in King John, and later the Nurse in Romeo and 
Juliet. It was a much further step to carry it unobtrusively 
into the dialogue of brief replies. No poet has begun to 
master dramatic verse until he can write lines which, like 
these in Hamlet, are transparent. You are consciously at- 
tending, not to the poetry, but to the meaning of the 
poetry. If you were hearing Hamlet for the first time, 
without knowing anything about the play, I do not think 
that it would occur to you to ask whether the speakers 
were speaking in verse or prose. The verse is having a 
different effect upon us from prose ; but at the moment, 
what we are aware of is the frosty night, the officers keep- 
ing watch on the battlements, and the foreboding of an- 
ominous action. I do not say that there is no place for the 
situation in which part of one's pleasure will be the enjoy- 
ment of hearing beautiful poetry providing that the 
author gives it, in that place, dramatic inevitability. And 
of course, when we have both seen a play several times 
and read it between performances, we begin to analyse 
the means by which the author has produced his effects. 
But in the immediate impact of this scene we are uncon- 
scious of the medium of its expression. 

From the short, brusque ejaculations at the beginning, 
suitable to the situation and to the character of the guards 


but not expressing more character than is required for 
their function in the play the verse glides into a slower 
movement with the appearance of the courtiers Horatio 
and Marcellus. 

Horatio says 't is but our fantasy, . . . 

and the movement changes again on the appearance of 
Royalty, the ghost of the King, into the solemn and 

What art thou, that usurp' st this time of night, . . . 

(and note, by the way, this anticipation of the plot con- 
veyed by the use of the verb usurp) ; and majesty is sug- 
gested in a reference reminding us whose ghost this is : 

So frown' d he once, when, in an angry park, 
He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice. 

There is an abrupt change to staccato in Horatio's words 
to the Ghost on its second appearance; this rhythm 
changes again with the words 

We do it wrong, being so majestical, 
To offer it the show of violence; 
For it is, as the air, invulnerable, 
And our vain blows malicious mockery. 

The scene reaches a resolution with the words of 
Marcellus : 

It faded on the crowing of the cock. 

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes 

Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated, 

The bird of dawning singeth all night long; . . . 

P.D.-3 I? 

and Horatio's answer : 

So have I heard and do in part believe it. 
But } look, the morn, in russet mantle clad } 
Walks o } er the dew of yon high eastern hill. 
Break we our watch up; . . . 

This is great poetry, and it is dramatic; but besides 
being poetic and dramatic, it is something more. There 
emerges, when we analyse it, a kind of musical design 
also which reinforces and is one with the dramatic move- 
ment. It has checked and accelerated the pulse of our emo- 
tion without our knowing it. Note that in these last words 
of Marcellus there is a deliberate brief emergence of the 
poetic into consciousness. When we hear the lines 

But) look) the morH) in russet mantle clad) 
Walks o } er the dew of yon high eastern hill 

we are lifted for a moment beyond character, but with no 
sense of unfitness of the words coming, and at this mo- 
ment, from the lips of Horatio. The transitions in the 
scene obey laws of the music of dramatic poetry. Note 
that the two lines of Horatio which I have quoted twice 
are preceded by 'a line of the simplest speech which might 
be either verse or prose : 

So have I heard and do in part believe it 

and that he follows them abruptly with a half line which 
is hardly more than a stage direction : 

Break we our watch up. 

It would be interesting to pursue, by a similar analysis, 
this problem of the double pattern in great poetic drama 


the pattern which may be examined from the point of 
view of stagecraft or from that of the music. But I think 
that the examination of this one scene is enough to show 
us that verse is not merely a formalization, or an added 
decoration, but that it intensifies the drama. It should in- 
dicate also the importance of the unconscious effect of the 
verse upon us. And lastly, I do not think that this effect 
is felt only by those members of an audience who ' like 
poetry' but also by those who go for the play alone. By 
the people who do not like poetry, I mean those who can- 
not sit down with a book of poetry and enjoy reading it : 
these people also, when they go to a play in verse, should 
be affected by the poetry. And these are the audiences 
whom the writer of such a play ought to keep in mind. 
At this point I might say a word about those plays 
which we call poetiCj though they are written in prose. 
The plays of John Millington Synge form rather a special 
case, because they are~baseJ upon the idiom^of a rural 
people whose speech is naturally poetic, both in imagery 
and in rhythm. I believe that he even incorporated phrases 
which he had heard from these country people of Ireland. 
The language of Synge is not available except for plays 
set among that same people. We can draw more general 
conclusions from the plays in prose, so much admired in 
my youth, and now hardly even read, by Maeterlinck. 
These plays are in a different way restricted in their sub- 
ject matter; and to say that the characterization in them 
is dim is an understatement. I do not deny that they have 
some poetic quality. But in order to be poetic in prose, a 
dramatist has to be so consistently poetic that his scope 
is very limited. Synge wrote plays about characters whose 


originals in life talked poetically, so he could make them 
talk poetry and remain real people. The poetic prose 
dramatist who has not this advantage, has to be too 
poetic. The poetic drama in prose is more limited by 
poetic convention or by our conventions as to what sub- 
ject matter is poetic, than is the poetic drama in verse. A 
really dramatic verse can be employed, as Shakespeare 
employed it, to say the most matter-of-fact things. 

Yeats is a very different case, from Maeterlinck or 
Synge. A study of his development as a dramatist would 
show, I think, the great distance he went, and the triumph 
of his last plays. In his first period, he wrote plays in verse 
about subjects conventionally accepted as suitable for 
verse, in a metric which though even at that early stage 
having the personal Yeats rhythm is not really a form 
of speech quite suitable for anybody except mythical 
kings and queens. His middle-period Plays for Dancers are 
very beautiful, but they do not solve any problem for the 
dramatist in verse : they are poetic prose plays with im- 
portant interludes in verse. It was only in his last play 
Purgatory that he solved his problem of speech in verse, 
and laid all his successors under obligation to him. 



Now, I am going to venture to make some ob- 
servations based on my own experience, 
which will lead me to comment on my inten- 
tions, failures and partial successes, in my own plays. I do 
this in the belief that any explorer or experimenter in 
new territory may, by putting on record a kind of jour- 
nal of his explorations, say something of use to those who 
follow him into the same regions and who will perhaps 
go farther. 

The first thing of any importance that I discovered, 
was that a writer who has worked for years, and achieved 
some success, in writing other kinds of verse, has to ap- 
proach the writing of a verse play in a different frame of 
mind from that to which he has been accustomed in 
his previous work. In writing other verse, I think that 
one is writing, so to speak, in terms of one's own voice : 
the way it sounds when you read it to yourself is the test. 
For it is yourself speaking. The question of communi- 
cation, of what the reader will get from it, is not 


paramount : if your poem is right to you, you can only 
hope that the readers will eventually come to accept it. 
The poem can wait a little while ; the approval of a few 
sympathetic and judicious critics is enough to begin with ; 
and it is for future readers to meet the poet more than half 
way. Itotjjn jtjhe theatre, theproblem of communication 
presents jtself imm^ are deliberately writing 

verse for other voices, not for your own, and you do not 
know whose voices they will be. You are aiming to 
write lines which will have an immediate effect upon an 
unknown and unprepared audience, to be interpreted to 
:hat audience by unknown actors rehearsed by an un- 
known producer. And the unknown audience cannot be 
expected to show any indulgence towards the poet. The 
poet cannot afford to write his play merely for his ad- 
mirers, those who know his nondramatic work and are 
prepared to receive favourably anything he puts his 
name to. He must write with an audience in view which 
knows nothing and cares nothing, about any previous 
success he may have had before he ventured into the 
theatre. Hence one finds out that many of the things one 
likes to do, and knows how to do, are out of place; and 
that every line must be judged by a new law, that of 
dramatic relevance. 

When I wrote Murder in the Cathedral I had the advan- 
tage for a beginner, of an occasion which called for a sub- 
ject generally admitted to be suitable for verse. Verse 
plays, it has been generally held, should either take their 
subject matter from some mythology, or else should be 
about some remote historical period, far enough away 
from the present for the characters not to need to be 


recognizable as human beings, and therefore for them to 
be licensed to talk in verse. Picturesque period costume 
renders verse much more acceptable. Furthermore, my 
play was to be produced for a rather special kind of 
audience an audience of those serious people who go 
to 'festivals' and expect to have to put up with poetry 
though perhaps on this occasion some of them were not 
quite prepared for what they got. And finally it was a 
religious play, and people who go deliberately to a reli- 
gious play at a religious festival expect to be patiently 
bored and to satisfy themselves with the feeling that they 
have done something meritorious. So the path was made 

It was only when I put my mind to thinking what sort 
of play I wanted to do next, that I realized that in Murder 
in the Cathedral I had not solved any general problem ; but 
that from my point of view the play was a dead end. For 
one thing, the problem of language which that play had 
presented to me was a special problem. Fortunately, I did 
not have to write in the idiom of the twelfth century, 
because that idiom, even if I knew Norman French and 
Anglo-Saxon, would have been unintelligible. But the 
vocabulary and style could not be exactly those of 
modern conversation as in some modern French plays 
using the plot and personages of Greek drama because 
I had to take my audience back to an historical event; 
and they could not afford to be archaic, first because 
archaism would only have suggested the wrong period, 
and second because I wanted to bring home to the 
audience the contemporary relevance of the situation. 
The style therefore had to be neutral, committed neither 


to the present nor to the past. As for the versification, I 
was only aware at this stage that the essential was to avoid 
any echo of Shakespeare, for I was persuaded that the 
primary failure of nineteenth-century poets when they 
wrote for the theatre (and most of the greatest English 
poets had tried their hand at drama) was not in their 
theatrical technique, but in their dramatic language ; and 
that this was due largely to their limitation to a strict 
blank verse which, after extensive use for nondramatic 
poetry, had lost the flexibility which blank verse must 
have if it is to give the effect of conversation. The rhythm 
of regular blank verse had become too remote from the 
movement of modern speech. Therefore what I kept in 
mind was the versification of Everyman, hoping that any- 
thing unusual in the sound of it would be, on the whole, 
advantageous. An avoidance of too much iambic, some 
use of alliteration, and occasional unexpected rhyme, 
helped to distinguish the versification from that of the 
nineteenth century. 

The versification of the dialogue in Murder in the 
Cathedral has therefore, in my opinion, only a negative 
merit : it succeeded in avoiding what had to be avoided, 
but it arrived at no positive novelty : in short, in so far as 
it solved the problem of speech in verse for writing today, 
it solved it for this play only, and provided me with no 
clue to the verse I should use in another kind of play. 
Here, then, were two problems left unsolved : that of the 
idiom and that of the metric (it is really one and the same 
problem), for general use in any play I might want to 
write in future. I next became aware of my reasons for 
depending, in that play, so heavily upon the assistance of 


the chorus. There were two reasons for this, which in the 
circumstances justified it. The first was that the essential 
action of the play both the historical facts and the mat- 
ter which I invented was somewhat limited. A man 

he will be kiUed,jmd hejs 

killed... I did not want to increaseme number of charac- 
ters, I did not want to write a chronicle of twelfth-century 
politics, nor did I want to tamper unscrupulously with 
the meagre records as Tennyson did (in introducing Fair 
Rosamund, and in suggesting that Becket had been 
crossed in love in early youth). I wanted to concentrate 
on death and martyrdom. The introduction of a chorus 
of excited and sometimes hysterical women, reflecting in 
their emotion the significance of the action, helped won- 
derfully. The second reason was this : that a poet writing 
for the first time for the stage, is much more at home in 
choral verse than in dramatic dialogue. This, I felt sure, 
was something I could do, and perhaps the dramatic 
weaknesses would be somewhat covered up by the cries 
of the women. The use of a chorus strengthened the 
power, and concealed the defects of my theatrical 
technique. For this reason I decided that next time I 
would try to integrate the chorus more closely into the 

I wanted to find out also, whether I could learn to 
dispense altogether with the use of prose. The two prose 
passages in Murder in the Cathedral could not have been 
written in verse. Certainly, with the kind of dialogue 
verse which I used in that play, the audience would have 
been uncomfortably aware that it was verse they were 
hearing. A sermon cast in verse is too unusual an 

P.D. 4 25 

experience for even the most regular churchgoer : nobody 
could have responded to it as a sermon at all. And in the 
speeches of the knights, who are quite aware that they are 
addressing an audience of people living 800 years after 
they themselves are dead, the use of platform prose is in- 
tended of course to have a special effect : to shock the 
audience out of their complacency. But this is a kind of 
trick: that is, a device tolerable only in one play and of 
no use for any other. I may, for aught I know, have been 
slightly under the influence of St. Joan. 

I do not wish to give you the impression that I would 
rule out of dramatic poetry these three things : historical 
or mythological subject-matter, the chorus, and tradi- 
tional blank verse. I do not wish to lay down any law 
that the only suitable characters and situations are those of 
modern life, or that a verse play should consist of dialogue 
only, or that a wholly new versification is necessary. I 
am only tracing out the route of exploration of one 
writer, and that one, myself. If the poetic drama is to 
reconquer its place, it must, in my opinion, enter into 
overt competition with prose drama. As I have said, 
people are prepared to put up with verse from the lips of 
personages dressed in the fashion of some distant age ; 
they should be made to hear it frorr/people dressed like 
ourselves, living in houses and apartments like ours, and 
using telephones and motorcars and radio sets. Audiences 
are prepared to accept poetry recited by a chorus, for that 
is a kind of poetry recital, which it does them credit to 
enjoy. And audiences (those who go to a verse play be- 
cause it is in verse) expect poetry to be in rhythms which 


Jiave lost touch with colloquial speech. What we have 
to do is to bring poetry into the world in which the 
audience lives and to which it returns when it leaves the 
theatre ; not to transport the audience into some imagi- 
nary world totally unlike its own, an unreal world in 
which poetry is tolerated. What I should hope might 
be achieved, by a generation of dramatists having the 
benefit of our experience, is that the audience should find, 
at the moment of awareness that it is hearing poetry, 
that it is saying to itself: 'I could talk in poetry 
too ! ' Then we should not be transported into an arti- 
ficial world ; on the contrary, our own sordid, dreary 
daily world would be suddenly illuminated and trans- 

I was determined, therefore, in my next play to take a 
theme of contemporary life, with characters of our own 
time living in our own wo^ld. The Family Reunion was 
the result. Here my first concern was the problem of the 
versification, to find a rhythm close to contemporary 
speech, in which the stresses could be made to come 
wherever we should naturally put them, in uttering the 
particular phrase on the particular occasion. What I 
worked out is substantially what I have continued to em- 
ploy : a line of varying length and varying number of 
syllables, with a caesura and three stresses. The caesura 
md the stresses may come at different places, almost any- 
where in the line; the stresses may be close together or 
well separated by light syllables ; the only rule being that 
there must be one stress on one side of the caesura and two 
on the other. In retrospect, I soon saw that I had given my 
attention to versification, at the expense of plot and 


character. I had, indeed, made some progress in dispensing 
with the chorus ; but the device of using four of the 
minor personages, representing the Family, sometimes 
as individual character parts and sometimes collectively 
as chorus, does not seem to me very satisfactory. For one 
thing, the immediate transition from individual, charac- 
terized part to membership of a chorus is asking too 
much of the actors : it is a very difficult transition to ac- 
complish. For another thing, it seemed to me another 
trick, one which, even if successful, could not have been 
applicable in another play. Furthermore, I had in two 
passages used the device of a lyrical duet further isolated 
from the rest of the dialogue by being written in shorter 
lines with only two stresses. These passages are in a sense 
'beyond character,' the speakers have to be presented as 
falling into a kind of trance-like state in order to speak 
them. But they are so remote from the necessity of the 
action that they are hardly more than passages of poetry 
which might be spoken by anybody ; they are too much 
like operatic arias. The member of the audience, if he en- 
joys this sort of thing, is putting up with a suspension of 
the action in order to enjoy a poetic fantasia : these pas- 
sages are really less related to the action than are the 
choruses in Murder in the Cathedral. 

I observed that when Shakespeare, in one of his mature 
plays, introduces what might seem a purely poetic line 
or passage, it never interrupts the action, or is out of 
character, but on the contrary, in some mysterious way 
supports both action and character. When Macbeth 
speaks his so often quoted words beginning 

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow 


or when Othello, confronted at night with his angry 
father-in-law and friends, utters the beautiful line 

Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them 

we do not feel that Shakespeare has thought of lines 
which are beautiful poetry and wishes to fit them in 
somehow, or that he has for the moment come to the 
end of his dramatic inspiration and has turned to poetry 
to fill up with. The lines are surprising, and yet they fit in 
with the character ; or else we are compelled to adjust our 
conception of the character in such a way that the lines 
will be appropriate to it. The lines spoken by Macbeth re- 
veal the weariness of the weak man who had been forced 
by his wife to realize his own half-hearted desires and her 
ambitions, and who, with her death, is left without the 
motive to continue. The line of Othello expresses irony, 
dignity and fearlessness ; and incidentally reminds us of 
the time of night in which the scene takes place. Only\ 
poetry could do this ; but it is dramatic poetry : that is, it 
does not interrupt but intensifies the dramatic situation. 

It was not only because of the introduction of passages 
which called too much attention to themselves as poetry, 
and could not be dramatically justified, that I found The 
Family Reunion defective: there were two weaknesses 
which came to strike me as more serious still. The first 
was, that I had taken far too much of the strictly limited 
time allowed to a dramatist, in presenting a situation, and 
not left myself enough time, or provided myself with 
enough material, for developing it in action. I had written 
what was, on the whole, a good first act ; except that for 
a first act it was much too long. When the curtain rises 


again, the audience is expecting, as it has a right to expect, 
that something is going to happen. Instead, it finds itself 
treated to a further exploration of the background : in 
other words, to what ought to have been given much 
earlier if at all. The beginning of the second act presents 
much the most difficult problem to producer and cast: 
for the audience's attention is beginning to wander. And 
then, after what must seem to the audience an intermin- 
able time of preparation, the conclusion comes so abrupt- 
ly that we are, after all, unready for it. This was an 
elementary fault in mechanics. 

But the deepest flaw of all, was in a failure of adjust- 
ment between the Greek story and the modern situation. 
I should either have stuck closer to Aeschylus or else 
taken a great deal more liberty with his myth. One evi- 
dence of this is the appearance of those ill-fated figures, 
the Furies. They must, in future, be omitted from the 
cast, and be understood to be visible only to certain of my 
characters, and not to the audience. We tried every pos- 
sible manner of presenting them. We put them on the 
stage, and they looked like uninvited guests who had 
strayed in from a fancy dress ball. We concealed them 
behind gauze, and they suggested a still out of a Walt 
Disney film. We made them dimmer, and they looked 
like shrubbery just outside the window. I have seen other 
expedients tried : I have seen them signalling from across 
the garden, or swarming onto the stage like a football 
team, and they are never right. They never succeed in 
being either Greek goddesses or modern spooks. But their 
failure is merely a symptom of the failure to adjust the 
ancient with the modern. 


A more serious evidence is that we are left in a divided 
frame of mind, not knowing whether to consider the play 
the tragedy of the mother or the salvation of the son. The 
two situations are not reconciled. I find a confirmation 
of this in the fact that my sympathies now have come to 
be all with the mother, who seems to me, except perhaps 
for the chauffeur, the only complete human being in the 
play ; and my hero now strikes me as an insufferable prig. 

Well, I had made some progress in learning how to 
write the first act of a play, and I had the one thing of 
which I felt sure made a good deal of progress in find- 
ing a form of versification and an idiom which would 
serve all my purposes, without recourse to prose, and be 
capable of unbroken transition between the most intense 
speech and the most relaxed dialogue. You will under- 
stand, after my making these criticisms of The Family 
Reunion, some of the errors that I endeavoured to avoid 
in designing The Cocktail Party. To begin with, no chorus, 
and no ghosts. I was still inclined to go to a Greek drama- 
tist for my theme, but I was determined to do so 
merely as a point of departure, and to conceal the origins 
so well that nobody would identify them until I pointed 
them out myself. In this at least I have been successful; 
for no one of my acquaintance (and no dramatic critics) 
recognized the source of my story in the Alcestis of 
Euripides. In fact^ I have had to go into detailed explana- 
tion to convince them I mean, of course, those who 
were familiar with the plot of that play of the genuine- 
ness of the inspiration. But those who were at first dis- 
turbed by the eccentric behaviour of my un^o 

and his apparently intemperate habits and tendency to 
burst into song, have found some consolation after I have 
called their attention to the behaviour of Heracles in 
Euripides' play. 

In the second place, I laid down for myself the ascetic 
rule to avoid poetry which could not stand the test of 
strict dramatic utility : with such success, indeed, that it 
is perhaps an open question whether there is any poetry 
in the play at all. And finally, I tried to keep in mind that 
in a play, from time to time, something should happen ; 
that the audience should be kept in the constant expecta- 
tion that something is going to happen ; and that, when 
it does happen, it should be different, but not too differ- 
ent, from what the audience had been led to expect. 

I have not yet got to the end of my investigation of the 
weaknesses of this play, but I hope and expect to find 
more than those of which I am yet aware. I say ' hope ' 
because while one can never repeat a success, and there- 
fore must always try to find something different, even if 
less popular, to do, the desire to write something which 
will be free of the defects of one's last work is a very 
powerful and useful incentive. I am aware that the last act 
of my play only just escapes, if indeed it does escape, the 
accusation of being not a last act but an epilogue ; and I 
am determined to do something different, if I can, in this 
respect. I also believe that while the self-education of a 
poet trying to write for the theatre seems to require a long 
period of disciplining his poetry, and putting it, so to 
speak, on a very thin diet in order to adapt it to the needs 
of the stage, there may be a later stage, when (and if) the 
understanding of theatrical technique has become second 


nature, at which he can dare to make more liberal use of 
poetry and take greater liberties with ordinary colloquial 
speech. I base that belief on the evolution of Shakespeare, 
and on some study of the language in his late plays. 

In devoting so much time to an examination of my 
own plays, I have, I believe, been animated by a better 
motive than egotism. It seems to me that if we are to have 
a poetic drama, it is more likely to come from poets 
learning how to write plays, than from skilful prose 
dramatists learning to write poetry. That some poets can 
learn how to write plays, and write good ones, may be 
only a hope, but I believe a not unreasonable hope ; but 
that a man who has started by writing successful prose 
plays should then learn how to write good poetry, seems 
to me extremely unlikely. And, under present-day condi- 
tions, and until the verse play is recognized by the larger 
public as a possible source of entertainment, the poet is 
likely to get his first opportunity to work for the stage 
only after making some sort of reputation for himself as 
the author of other kinds of verse. I have therefore 
wished to put on record, for what it may be worth to 
others, some account of the difficulties I have encoun- 
tered, and the mistakes into which I have fallen, and the 
weaknesses I have had to try to overcome. 

I should not like to close without attempting to set 
before you, though only in dim outline, the ideal towards 
which poetic drama should strive. It is an unattainable 
ideal : and that is why it interests me, for it provides an 
incentive towards further experiment and exploration, 
beyond any goal which there is prospect of attaining. It is 
a function of all art to give us some perception of an 
P.D.-S 35 

order in life, by imposing an order upon it. The painter 

works by selection, combination and emphasis among 

the elements of the visible world ; the musician in the 

world of sound. It seems to me that beyond the namable, 

classifiable emotions and motives of our conscious life 

when directed towards action the part of life which 

prose drama is wholly adequate to express there is a 

fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only 

detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye and can 

never completely focus; of feeling of which we are only 

aware in a kind of temporary detachment from action. 

There are great prose dramatists such^ a^ JIbsen and 

Cheldhovj-- who have at times done things of which I 

would not otherwise have supposed prose to be capable, 

but who seem to me, in spite of their success, to have 

been hampered in expression by writing in prose. This 

peculiar range of sensibility can be expressed by dramatic 

poetry, at its moments of greatest intensity. At such 

moments, we touch the border of those feelings which 

only music can express. We can never emulate music, 

because to arrive at the condition of music would be the 

annihilation of poetry, and especially of dramatic poetry. 

Nevertheless, I have before my eyes a kind of mirage of 

the perfection of verse drama, which would be a design 

of human action and of words, such as to present at once 

the two aspects of dramatic and of musical order. It seems 

to me that Shakespeare achieved this at least in certain 

scenes even rather early, for there is the balcony scene 

of Romeo and Juliet and that this was what he was 

striving towards in his late plays. To go as far in this 

direction as it is possible to go, without losing that 


contact with the ordinary everyday world with which 
drama must come to terms, seems to me the proper aim 
of dramatic poetry. For it is ultimately the function of art, 
in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and 
thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, 
to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and recon- 
ciliation ; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to pro- 
ceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no