Is it important for there to be a continuing verse drama tradition? This means –
plays written in a regular metre, though maybe alternating with prose.
Firstly, it’s important to say that there’s a close affinity between poetry and
drama. The kind of tension, intensity and economy required for a line of poetry
to work, is very similar to the kind of suspense and simultaneousness required
for a line of drama or a scene to hold an audience. But all poetry is not verse –
that is, regular metre. So just as all kinds of poetry can work, so can all kinds of
However, ever since modernism began in the early twentieth century, there’s
been an assumption that formal verse has been more or less superseded by free
verse in the realm of poetry. And before that, prose had already established
itself as the medium for drama, always with some exceptions. This is not the
same as saying that modernism dispensed with tradition. Quite the opposite. In
order to break with traditional forms whilst keeping their art alive, the
modernists had to focus very consciously on tradition – Eliot on Dante and the
ancient Greek tragedy, Joyce on Homer, Pound on everything ever. There is no
way to write well while dispensing with tradition – ask Dylan. But the
connection can be more conscious or less conscious, depending on the form you
choose to work in. If you work in a non-traditional form, the connection has to
be conscious. If you work in a traditional form, it can be left to itself, it can be
more unconscious.
So this is the reason for writing verse drama today, as I see it. To let the
connection with tradition be free and easy, taken for granted as it were, in the
work. Though of course you’ll have to explain yourself in critical terms. (With
COLUMBINA THEATRE COMPANY, the company I co-founded and work
with, we discuss these questions alot, and are presently working on a play called
The stream of verse drama in the west began no doubt in the caves and then
evolved through the mysteries of Eleusis and Ephesus into the ancient Greek
drama. In modern times it moved from England to France to Germany over the
course of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Then it hit a kind
of buffer, as I see it, with the early death of Friedrich Von Schiller at the age of
46, whilst writing his tragedy DEMETRIUS. Schiller and Goethe worked
brilliantly together – Schiller the highly disciplined historian and playwright-
poet, Goethe above all the great poet. While Schiller was alive, he helped
Goethe’s dramaturgy. And Goethe helped to deepen Schiller’s poetry. A kind of

Lennon-Mcartney. I love the story of Goethe trying to explain to Schiller his
theory of the metamorphosis of plants, based on close botanical observation
since childhood. Goethe said that he could see, with his physical eye, the ur-
pflanze – the perfect type or form of each plant, that it was striving towards.
Schiller said no, that is an idea. To which Goethe replied, ‘well then I can see an
idea.’ So Goethe was actually helping Schiller to see simultaneously with
physical eye and mind’s eye – a vital skill for poets. When Goethe got excited
about the story of William Tell, but couldn’t quite find time to write the play (he
wrote that ‘too much work takes away from the joy of life’) he passed the
project over to Schiller. But Schiller had never visited Switzerland, where
William Tell lived, whereas Goethe had. So Goethe sat Schiller down and
described the Swiss Alps to him, so that Schiller could write them into his play
in all their Goethean glory. Goethe was devastated by Schiller’s death, and his
later dramatic work, I think, struggles to keep within the bounds of what is
playable. Poetry beckons it off the stage, as it will tend to try to do in the
modern world. This is why I feel that verse drama hit a difficult moment when
Schiller died in 1804, from which it’s still struggling to recover. Ibsen
abandoned verse drama and developed the extraordinary tight poetic structures
of his prose plays. There was Cyrano, a strange and brilliant eruption, a verse
play with poetry as its main character. But – passing swiftly over Eliot and Fry
and so on – through Beckett and Pinter to Caryl Churchill and Howard Barker
the focus has been an intense kind of poetry, yes, but not verse, never verse.
Now to my personal experience of Schiller. Sometime in the eighties, thanks
largely to the Citz, Schiller established himself in the English-speaking
repertoire. (Or anyway Mary Stuart established herself.) I remember a review
by Michael Billington expressing astonishment at this public acceptance of
Schiller. So it was that my first paid job as a writer, was to write a new version
of DON CARLOS, which has been brilliantly read during this festival. Passing
swiftly on, writing my own plays for the Globe and the National Theatre and so
on, I was commissioned to write a version of MARY STUART. Then I
discovered Schiller’s unfinished play DEMETRIUS, and his extensive notes,
and wrote a finished version. As I’ve said, Schiller’s premature death in 1804
brought verse drama to a screeching halt in the west and so, to pick up the
thread at the exact point he dropped it, was very exciting to me. In terms of the
art of verse drama, to my mind in DEMETRIUS Schiller was resolving some of
the great contradictions in his work. As I’ve said he was both playwright and
historian – and Professor Rudiger Gorner has spoken very clearly about this at
this festival – but to write a successful verse history play, the dramatist must, to
a certain extent, turn the historical material into folklore, if it’s not pretty much
folklore already, as with Shakespeare’s source material. Schiller struggled with
this in DON CARLOS – the folktale wouldn’t quite come through clearly and
simply. In MARY STUART he tried it by throwing the two Queens together

unhistorically, and this works fine but at the expense of making Elizabeth,
supposedly so cold and canny, look darkly impulsive to the point of stupidity. In
DEMETRIUS however, the story of the pretender to the Russian throne enters
right into the Russian psyche which is 90% folklore to begin with. There is no
friction between historical truth and folklore depth and simplicity, they flow
easily together, and so in my belief DEMETRIUS would have been Schiller’s
first great resolution of the contraries of poetry and history. Anyway if anyone
wants to produce the completed version, and maybe get the stream of western
verse drama going again...call me.....
I’m working at the moment on a play about Roderigo Lopez, Elizabeth I’s
secretly Jewish doctor. And in this my motivation has been partly to redeem
Elizabeth from her representation in MARY STUART, inspired by Harriet
Walter’s fury backstage at the audience’s simpering over Mary. She said
unrepeatable unprintable things, I’m told, not in verse....
Without Schiller and his breakthrough into the English-speaking theatre in the
eighties, I would not be having a career as a verse playwright in the twenty-first
century. It would be totally impossible. He continues to encourage me, he
shows it can and must be done in modern times. And who knows, maybe there
will come a day when Goethe makes it with us in the same way. Put the two of
them together and we’ll really see something.