When Purple Prosedy Attacks! (And How to Tame It...)

In 2009, I attended a theatre conference in NYC where, naturally, I was drawn to any workshop that breathed the words "Shakespeare"or "verse drama" or "iambic pentameter" in the title.  The workshops were all individually excellent, but I did notice one hilarious similarity between them:

Every bloody workshop, independent of each other (!), used the following speech from ROMEO AND JULIET in their presentations:
ROMEO.
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
In one workshop, we looked at this from a movement standpoint, from other we really delved into the words and expressing the antitheses, and in the last we explored the punctuation.

You'll notice, though, we didn't delve into the entire speech or its surrounding lines, which actually reads like this:
BENVOLIO.
Alas, that love, so gentle in his view,
Should be so tyrannous and rough in proof!
ROMEO.
Alas, that love, whose view is muffled still,
Should, without eyes, see pathways to his will!
Where shall we dine? O me! What fray was here?
Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all.
Here's much to do with hate, but more with love.
Why, then, O brawling love! O loving hate!
O any thing, of nothing first create!
O heavy lightness! serious vanity!
Mis-shapen chaos of well-seeming forms!
Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health!
Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is!
This love feel I, that feel no love in this.
Dost thou not laugh?
BENVOLIO.
                                     No, coz, I rather weep.
Why, you may ask, did each workshop cut off the parts surrounding those six lines?  The answer is simple: every other line is motivated.  And the parts in italics were the result of:


Writing in Verse: Pretty Pitfalls

As a director, I sometimes wondered why Shakespeare would occasionally "just go off" into rhapsodies  of verse that stop the action cold.  I'm not talking about "To be or not to be," I'm talking precisely about what we see above.  But I'll give you a few other examples:

From HAMLET:
HORATIO.



A mote it is to trouble the mind's eye.
In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets:
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse:
And even the like precurse of fierce events,
As harbingers preceding still the fates
And prologue to the omen coming on,
Have heaven and earth together demonstrated
Unto our climatures and countrymen.--

But soft, behold! lo, where it comes again!
From A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM:
Titania's ready for ALL THE TALKING!
TITANIA.


These are the forgeries of jealousy:
And never, since the middle summer's spring,
Met we on hill, in dale, forest or mead,
By paved fountain or by rushy brook,
Or in the beached margent of the sea,
To dance our ringlets to the whistling wind,
But with thy brawls thou hast disturb'd our sport.
Therefore the winds, piping to us in vain,
As in revenge, have suck'd up from the sea
Contagious fogs; which falling in the land
Have every pelting river made so proud
That they have overborne their continents:
The ox hath therefore stretch'd his yoke in vain,
The ploughman lost his sweat, and the green corn
Hath rotted ere his youth attain'd a beard;
The fold stands empty in the drowned field,
And crows are fatted with the murrion flock;
The nine men's morris is fill'd up with mud,
And the quaint mazes in the wanton green
For lack of tread are undistinguishable:
The human mortals want their winter here;
No night is now with hymn or carol blest:
Therefore the moon, the governess of floods,
Pale in her anger, washes all the air,
That rheumatic diseases do abound:
And thorough this distemperature we see
The seasons alter: hoary-headed frosts
Far in the fresh lap of the crimson rose,
And on old Hiems' thin and icy crown
An odorous chaplet of sweet summer buds
Is, as in mockery, set: the spring, the summer,
The childing autumn, angry winter, change
Their wonted liveries, and the mazed world,
By their increase, now knows not which is which:

And this same progeny of evils comes
From our debate, from our dissension;
We are their parents and original.
Prospero's got STUFF TO SAY!
From THE TEMPEST:

PROSPERO.



Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves,
And ye that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites, and you whose pastime

Is to make midnight mushrooms, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though ye be, I have bedimm'd
The noontide sun, call'd forth the mutinous winds,
And 'twixt the green sea and the azured vault
Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder
Have I given fire and rifted Jove's stout oak
With his own bolt; the strong-based promontory
Have I made shake and by the spurs pluck'd up

The pine and cedar: graves at my command
Have waked their sleepers, oped, and let 'em forth
By my so potent art. But this rough magic
I here abjure, and, when I have required
Some heavenly music, which even now I do,
To work mine end upon their senses that
This airy charm is for, I'll break my staff,
Bury it certain fathoms in the earth,
And deeper than did ever plummet sound
I'll drown my book.
Now, as a director, I have to make a choice as to whether to cut out parts (typically, yes) or to leave them in.  The bits that I highlighted, while beautiful poetry, tend also to be repetitive poetry for an audience, that is, for those listening.  It can also be a little wearying for the actor to justify why s/he keeps speaking.  Although there may be better examples, let's keep with the four above.

1) Romeo and Juliet: Granted, the "O this, O that" are good poetry, granted too that Romeo is of a poetical disposition, and granted this part isn't easily cut because it's become so well known, regardless it stops the action cold.  Romeo was in the middle of finding out why Benvolio's got a cut or a weapon or there's a body lying on the ground or something.  The important philosophical idea is: "O brawling love!  O loving hate!"  The rest of it are just variations of a theme.  Variations that the actor has to work hard to convey as varied, interesting, and crucial to be said aloud, but which for the sake of clarity could have been cut.

2) Hamlet: Horatio's lines begin with a cause: he's reminding us that during times of national upheaval, even nature seems to reverse itself.  But then he goes on.  And on.  Poetically.  In this case, a director/actor may justify that Horatio is just spinning time out so that the Ghost's reappearance is a sudden shock...but we really don't need "extra bits" in a play that's already four hours long.

3) Midsummer: Many scholars have tried to draw correlations between this speech and the natural goings-on in Shakespeare's day.  They may not be wrong.  But again, by continuing on and on and on and on, with variations and repetitions and florid example after florid example, the audience gets tired.  The actress may be brilliant...the audience is tired.  Midsummer doesn't suffer from being overlong, and the speech is fairly well known so that about half the actresses keep the whole intact, but in point of fact, we only need one or two examples of how the world's gone mad, and then cut right to the heart of why she's speaking which is, "This same progeny of evils comes from our debate, from our dissention, we are their parents and original."

4) Tempest: This show is actually chock full of loads of poetry with minimal (seeming) motivation.  This comes at the end of the show, and it's gorgeous poetry...but again, repetitious.  Especially at the end of a show, the action should be faster, quicker - we want to see all the resolutions fall into place.  So while directors may keep some of the list of spirits under Prospero's command, they may not need all of them listed.


Now, there are those folks who are going to bristle that I even criticized Shakespeare's poetry at all, but hear me out. 

The Play (Not Your Poetry's) The Thing

So, what can we learn from five hundred years of folks struggling with Shakespeare?  Quite a lot, actually.  When writing verse drama, we need to keep in mind that while we're going to have a tendency to fly off into dizzying ecstasies of the English language, in fact, the audience just wants to know What Happens Next.

That's not to say that you couldn't or shouldn't go off with the Purple Prosedy Monster every once in a while - after all, what's the point of writing verse drama if you don't get to write verse drama?  But that poet-playwrights need to keep first and foremost in mind whether the poetry assists or impedes the forward momentum of the play.

To think of it another way, consider what the Rowan Atkinson character above would cut from your play...and consider cutting it now.

Some Tips to Keep in Mind

Before you cut, consider asking yourself these questions:

1) Does the poetry reveal something about the character?
2) Does it move the plot along?
3) Does it cover up some action (a length of time, etc.)?
4) Does it set a mood?
5) Can the actor and director easily motivate it?

If the answer is "yes," then keep the poetry as is (at least for the space of a reading!).  If, however, you find that:

1) The poetry doesn't sound like the character;
2) The forward motion is completely and unnecessarily stopped;
3) The poetry is repetitious and can be summed up in one or two examples;
4) The poetry is at odds with the mood you need to sustain;
5) The actor and/or director are asking you what the hell this means;

Then consider cutting or rewriting your verse.  It'll be painful to lose your good lines, but the best lines you can probably fit in somewhere else, or showcase them independent of an entire sonnet.

REMEMBER!

The audience is listening to your play for the first time!  They're getting the exciting experience of hearing words as if they've never heard language before.

No one's done thesis upon thesis on your poetry - it's raw, it's new - it needs to keep the drama going.

No one in the audience is reading your play, either.  It's one thing to read a line or two of verse, put it down, and consider it before picking up where you left off.  The audience doesn't get that leisure.  They're listening to fast rich language.

So keep it elegant, but simple!  And make friends with the Purple Prosedy Monster...or better yet, tame it.

See also: Writing in Iambic Pentameter and Where Have All The Iambic Pentameter Plays Gone?

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