Poetry News

Can Andrew Motion cure verse-drama's identity issues?

By Harriet Staff

And does he need to? With the news that Andrew Motion has turned playwright, The Guardian's Andrew Haydon questions his own knee-jerk response that poetry and theater can't mix. In fact, there's not even a phrase that accurately describes the combination (although to be fair to Motion, no one will know whether the "poetry" or the "theater" should come first in the hyphenate until his play debuts at the High Tide Festival later this year).

Let's be honest, neither "verse-drama" nor "poetic theatre" has an alluring ring, does it? I have to remind myself that actually I quite like that sort of thing. I don't know whether it's simply cultural – whether we subconsciously hear the word "poetic" as a synonym for "painfully slow" – or whether it's specific to when the word is attached to "theatre", another word with a rich tapestry of negative connotations (most commonly as a synonym for show-offy, or something dishonest). But I refuse to believe it's just me who hears the words "poetic drama" and first imagines something slowly woven from pastel shades of twee. It has an identity problem.

Despite the historical appearance that changing tastes "swept the genre off the British stage" in 1958 (and without even having to introduce the obvious Elizabethan elephant in the room, Shakespeare), there's plenty of instances where verse and theater have come together not just successfully, but have resulted "in some of the most arresting work ever created for the stage."

Consider, for example, Ranjit Bolt or Martin Crimp's translations of Molière. Seamus Heaney's work on the Greeks or Ted Hughes's Racine, or current poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy's collaborations on adaptations of the Grimm's fairy tales with Tim Supple.

There are also those dramatists who have published books of poetry, ranging from Howard Barker to Chris Goode .

And finally, there's the work of such theatrical poets as Samuel Beckett and Sarah Kane; possibly two of the most influential dramatists of the last half-century.