Sunday, December 18, 2011

Where Have All the Iambic Pentameter Plays Gone?

Someone was once asked who the greatest American playwright was.

He answered: Shakespeare.

Now, that answer may seem flip, but it's also got a lot of truth to it.  The brio of the Elizabethan stage very much mimics the rip-roaring-ness of the American spirit.  Shakespeare festivals abound in every corner of our nation, to the point where modern playwrights have blogged about how we need to stop doing Shakespeare and take a chance on new plays.

The question I'd like to pose to my fellow playwrights is: If the masses want Shakespeare, why aren't we writing new Shakespearean plays?

VERSE: The question then becomes: Well, what is this so-called "Shakespearean play?"  Is it merely a matter of writing in verse?  Because T. S. Eliot did that and only got so far.  (Although I think his Murder in the Cathedral is one of the most beautiful plays ever written, and I'm itching for the day I get to direct it in full.)  Moreover, there are all these Greek and Roman verse plays lying around...heck, there are Elizabethan iambic pentameter plays for the taking...that are performed considerably less than Shakespeare.  So it can't be just the verse.

WORLDVIEW: Is it the content or the worldview?  I think we may be onto something closer here. Shakespeare's plays are lusty and moral; as Chesterton might say, the "centre is central."  Because Shakespeare believes in an ordered world, he's free to explore disorder.  His view is entirely Catholic - both upper and lower case - but that sort of robust Catholicism that revels in the body (and the bawdy) with respect to the soul.  It's a worldview of contrasts, or more accurately, of paradoxes.  It's a worldview wherein heroes are always on the brink of damnation, and villains in danger of salvation.  It's got something of the serious child in it: fancies are taken as importantly as realities - and sometimes realities are best laughed at.  It's beautiful, too.  It's important that we remember the grounded beauty: "The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces/The solemn temples, the great globe itself...." (Tempest 4.1).

A picture of Prospero surrounded by his sprites from
The Tempest (November 2011)

CONTENT DICTATES FORM: Of course, one of the other things that must be taken into consideration is, as Sondheim puts it: "Content dictates form."  (He's not the only one who says it, but I love his book, Finishing the Hat so much, I'll credit Sondheim for explaining why content dictates form!)  That is, you can write anything in verse...but not every story wants to be written in verse.  Shakespeare's "common comedies" are almost entirely in prose - Benedick and Beatrice, Orlando and Rosalind - because they, as characters, do not speak in flights of spontaneous verse.  In fact, Shakespeare himself allows their changes into verse to herald a higher feeling within those characters: only love or nobility spring them into verse.  (Shakespeare only really wielded prose as a tool in his middle to late plays; his earliest are almost entirely in verse, revealing a young playwright first experimenting with form.)

MODERN VERSE PLAYS - A HUNT: So, what sort of modern verse plays can we find?

David Hyde Pierce & Mark Rylance, La Bete
Moliere's Couplets: David Ives recently adapted Moliere's The Misanthrope in tripping, rhyming couplets, in The School for Lies.  Although he updated the jokes and fleshed out the plot, it's curious that the design team felt the need to put the actors in wigs and panniers - content dictates form.  Likewise, in David Hirson's La Bete - another Molieresque comedy - everyone lives somewhere in the time of the Louis XIV, hence the verse.  In fact, rhyming couplets seem to be the new darling among the stylists.

While these plays are not Elizabethan or Shakespearean blank verse, what they do have is both clever language, content that dictates the form, and most importantly, something both high and low, beautiful and base, jauntily paradoxical in its thought.  (Although it should be noted that the first production of La Bete failed miserably; perhaps due to a stodginess that the recent revival seems to have shed.)

Irregular Verse:  J.B. by Archibald MacLeish is a play in irregular verse; a modernization of the book of Job.  Gilgamesh has also been turned into an irregular verse play by the poet, Yusef Komunyakaa.  Andrew Chavez turned to a Neanderthal gravesite for his irregular verse play, Shanidar Cave, and again in Three Verse Plays: A New Romantic Use of an Old Romantic Format which appear to be modern stories with archetypical underpinnings. Philip Begho also used irregular verse in his award-winning, five-act play, Esther - based on one of my favourite Biblical heroines!

It's fairly easy to find irregular verse plays.  My own publisher, Playscripts.com has published quite a few, including Beowulf by Gabriel Dean (which is written in prose, but makes extensive use of verse), Cupid & Psyche by Joseph Fisher (all in irregular verse), and of course The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet by Peter Bloedel (which is in coupleted iambic quatrameter, combining the best of Seuss, Moliere, morality play meter, all with Shakespeare's best known play...no wonder this play is a hit!).

Irregular verse doesn't seem to play as well to the masses - possibly because it sounds like regular speech with more stilted language, possibly because English lends itself to iambs...who knows.  Once again, although all these plays require verse due to their content, and all three plays are based on epic stories which ought to combine the high and the low, and the silly and sublime, it looks like only Seussification and perhaps Cupid & Psyche has done well.

In fact, audiences seem to react better to silly in not-genius-level verse better than tragic in the same.   Perhaps that is our difficulty in finding the author of "new" Shakespeare plays.  Comedy will cover a multitude of metric sins; tragedy will reveal them.

Iambic Pentameter: But what about iambic pentameter?  I know there must be more, although I'm having trouble finding them.  A quick search of Amazon yields The Mother of God Visits Hell by Daniel Guyton, that bills itself as being in iambic pentameter; which as a morality play makes sense.  (Although I take issue with the fact that the author doesn't seem to get line endings, simply ending after ten syllables...nnngh...or Dostoyevsky's original vision worldview-wise.)  Stuart Spencer's play, Go to Ground, about fox hunting (nice to see a non-Biblical or epic subject!), appears to have the same difficulty as Guyton - that is, presuming ten syllables make five feet of verse.  Lucy Nordberg takes on King Arthur in iambic pentameter, using an old form to examine modern war (no sample found to sample the verse).  Crossword puzzle writer, Henry Rathvon, also went to Arthurian times for for his iambic pentameter farce, Trapezium, based on the myth of Tristan and Isolde.

From reviews (no sample available), Trapezium appears to be a comic farce ("Monty Python-esque") which may be why the reviews are generally favourable.  To me, King Arthur looks the most interesting, and promising (at least from production stills) in our quest to find someone who can "get" the tragic side of Shakespeare.  (Whether anything in King Arthur would make you laugh remains to be seen.  Macbeth is full of hilarious jokes...although Black Adder would disagree.)

You have to look back in time a bit to find better verse, such as Jane Alice Sargant's five-act Joan of Arc (1840) or Henry Copley Greene's Pontius Pilate (1871), or Attila, my Attila! (1896) by Michael Field (aka Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper).  In fact, the 1800's seems to have been rife with iambic plays...which I've never heard of, or which don't seem to be produced much if at all.  One has to wonder why they did not resonate with the theatrical world, when a quick scan of their verse seems to show everything in promising shape.

Insert your face here!
CURRENT VERDICT: Of all the plays mentioned, The School for Lies, and La Bete have performed well in New York City, helped immensely by excellent casts, directing, and all the fun that comes from rhyming couplets.  Likewise, The Seussification of Romeo and Juliet is performing gangbusters in the high-school arena...and is also in rhyming couplets.

As for modern iambic plays, "new" Shakespearean plays, I don't know that we've quite seen them yet.  Or seen them take off, at any rate!  And part of that may not be the content (as witnessed above, by and large those who've written the form have done so because of the content), but actually because...of the verse.

In my next post, I'll ruminate on what it means to write Shakespearean verse, which is more than just writing ten syllables at a time.  In the meantime, comment and let me know about an iambic pentameter or verse play that more people should know about!  I'd love to know.

SO...WHO IS THE NEXT SHAKESPEARE?  Well, maybe it could be you!

5 comments:

  1. I am about to publish a iambic pentameter play. You may read most of it at:

    http://www.authonomy.com/books/39196/kiss-me-farewell-a-play-of-poetry-/

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  2. Thank you for mentioning my play "The Mother of God Visits Hell." I would love to speak with you more about your concerns with the pentameter. Feel free to write me at dguyton21@gmail.com. I promise - I take criticism well, and I'm looking forward to a nice discussion. Thank you.
    Daniel Guyton

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