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The Poetic Drama Movement

Twentieth-century verse drama has come to be regarded as a literary project commanded by, indeed limited to T. S. Eliot; because of his aims toward commercial comedy, it may also be perceived as an anachronistic extravagance. Yet, in Eliot’s “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry” (1928), one of the speakers places verse drama in an innovative middle ground, somewhere between exhausted realism and mere entertainment.

The realisation of this creative possibility, in any case, was far from being a one-man venture. E. Martin Browne (1900-1980) was hailed as “the high priest of the then [the mid 1930s] renascent ‘poetic drama’ movement” (*). He had been appointed director of religious drama of the diocese of Chichester, and it was its Bishop (Rt Rev George Bell) who introduced Browne to Eliot. Browne shared a devotional vision of drama with the poet, and they initiated a collaboration that spanned Eliot’s whole career as a dramatist, from The Rock (1934) through to The Elder Statesman (1958). In 1969, Browne published The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays, an invaluable resource for the study of their origins, composition and original productions.

After the Second World War, Browne took over the artistic direction of the London Mercury Theatre, where Murder in the Cathedral had been successfully performed in 1935, after being transferred from Canterbury. This small venue in Notting Hill was founded in 1933 by Ashley Dukes (1885-1959), himself a cosmopolitan drama scholar and critic, familiar with new theatrical trends and keen on finding alternatives to the stale dramatic naturalism of the early twentieth century.

The Mercury Theatre would become the home of poetic drama: a production of W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s verse play The Ascent of F6 (1936) followed Murder in the Cathedral, and other verse dramatists ( James Bridie, Christopher Fry, Ronald Duncan, Donagh MacDonagh, Norman Nicholson, Anne Ridler, or Gilbert Horobin) would be programmed during the 1940s and 1950s.

Unfortunately, most of the plays first seen at the Mercury Theatre are now largely forgotten, having met approbation that was little more than mercurial. May we yet hope that the general concept of “poetic drama” – a genuine and democratic attempt to renovate the British stage, involving Eliot and other interesting theatre professionals – has better mettle?

(*) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 8, OUP, 2004, p. 184.