Partly to acknowledge my speaking today on poetry in a country I have never visited before, and partly to introduce some of the themes of my talk, let me open with a story, an example, which is not strictly about poetry, or theatre, or 'English' literature, but which did help me focus some of my thoughts about the possible functions of lines of verse in a theatrical context. The lines were not spoken, but were engraved on a commemorative wall around Ellis Island, under the gaze of the Statue of Liberty outside New York, which has recently been restored as a Museum of Immigration. They were not lines of verse, strictly speaking, but lines of names - names of people - listed alphabetically. Citizens of the USA pay so many dollars if they choose to have the name of an immigrant ancestor added to this monument which was due for completion some time before the millennium. I have no relatives in the States but I looked for names on the wall, (maybe I was looking for emigrants rather than immigrants) specifically my Irish family name, and found not just Kellehers in abundance but also the first names of my brother, each of my three sisters, my parents. There we all were it seemed, each of my family, in a place none of us had ever yet visited - although at the same time of course they were not our names, they were the names of strangers who had been there a long time before me. It was a bit like completing a journey and finding ghosts of myself, my own past, my own history, already there ahead of me. It was like encountering something very familiar and radically strange at the same time. It was a bit like being reminded of something I have never really known properly - and if we think of dramatic poetry as sounds, eloquence, articulation, well, these lines of text were like being reminded of silences; but also of narratives, lives, histories, but histories that I will never have known: memory taking place, so to speak, in scenes I have not visited yet and will never visit My familial memories translated, dispersed among a great many others in an enormous country which is still to be seen. These are some of the issues I want to talk about today: the poetry of migration, of translation; poetry as a form of cultural remembering; but a cultural remembering which at the same time is very difficult - so difficult perhaps that voices that belonged to the speeches, the faces that belonged to the names, the authors and characters that belonged to the stones, are somehow in the process of disappearing.
But to return to the beginning. Even 'excluding Shakespeare' our brief at this conference is a wide one - 'Drama in English Literature'. My proposed topic for today, 'Poetry and the Twentieth Century Stage', is perhaps hardly much of a narrowing down - but it may be worth opening with the observation that where poetry as such has been given to the twentieth century British stage, it has been taken up as something of a specialist concern, not altogether sufficiently 'modern' perhaps, something of a peculiar taste.
By the 1920s T.S.Eliot (for example in his essay 'The Possibility of a Poetic Drama' from The Sacred Wood) was framing up 'the questions - why there is no poetic drama today, how the stage has lost all hold on literary art, why so many poetic plays arc written which can only be read, and read, if at all, without pleasure (Eliot 1960: 60). Eliot, though, regarded the ways the questions were usually found in his day as 'insipid, almost academic' - and we may do well to remind ourselves of the terms in which he felt the issues should be stated. His concern was with 'literary art', with 'permanent literature', a 'universal' dramatic literature which would not be reducible to the particular ideas or 'philosophy' of its author, and which at the same time would answer to the 'temper of the age' in which it was produced.
The arguments by now, of course, in the. 1990s, have moved on - the terms literature, art, permanence, universalism, authors, or homogenising concepts such as 'the temper of the age' have long been under siege since (and no less due to) the high modernism of such as Eliot - and we find that verse dramas as such (excluding revivals of Shakespeare and his contemporaries, or translations of French, German, Spanish or Ancient Greek classics) are still a relative rarity on the English stage. However, the concern for poetic drama has not gone away. And more than that, when that concern expresses itself it does not do so simply as a specialist interest engaged merely with issues of technique, or abstracted issues of form or genre, but rather it tends to address profound questions about culture, and how we value the culture(s) by means of which we identify ourselves.
A now familiar (though still pertinent) marker for many of these latter questions was Theodor Adomo's essay 'Commitment' which questioned the responsibilities and presumptions of lyric poetry in the light of a historical disaster such as the genocidal programmes in Europe in the mid twentieth century (Adorno 1970). And recently, in the work of European playwrights such as Heiner MüIler or Tony Harrison, the verse drama has been employed explicitly to worry at these ethical-political questions. The approaches to the questions, of course, are various. The East German Müller tended to take a sardonic approach, so when his apocalyptic scene of late twentieth century violence in Landscape with Argonauts concludes with the line 'the rest is poetry' (ironically echoing Hamlet's dying words 'the rest is silence') the phrase draws attention to poetry's potential failure and inadequacy in the face of such violence (Müller 1984: 135). On the other side of the coin, though, the English poet-playwright Harrison will draw attention to poetry's humanising potential in spite of its complicity with political violence, reminding us for example of how the permanently open eyes and mouth of the classical Greek mask forces a witnessing and eloquent articulation of tenors that we might otherwise turn aside from (Harrison 1991: 239). In both cases poetry is aware of its complicity in political evils, but at the same time aware of its responsibility to articulate something (for the sake of humanity, if you like) in the face of those evils.
It is around these questions that I wish to speak today - not just about plays written in 'poetical style' but about twentieth century drama which considers the function of poetry on stage as itself a political issue The concern (as it was for Eliot) is still with Art certainly, but this is no longer an art that can pretend to a disinterested universalism (if it ever could) - rather it is art riddled with historical contingency, with complicity and compromise, and (as I shall try to argue) riddled with tenor: the terror of disappearance.
I suggest there are three intertwined
aspects to my approach to these issues, which today I'm afraid I can only
set out sketchily:
1. Cultural specificity
2. Verse form and function
3. The role of authors
1. Cultural specificity
In this lecture on English dramatic literature I have already cited an American and a German writer. The word 'English' in the phrase 'English literature' does not suffice, it seems, historically or geographically. When I was an undergraduate student, among the great names of twentieth century 'English' literature I was given to study were a Pole whose second language was French (Conrad), several Americans (James, Eliot, Pound), and an even larger number of Irish writers (Wilde, Yeats, Joyce, Beckett etc.). Our literature, due to various circumstances - certain forms, conditions and effects of imperialism for instance - has long been culturally heterogeneous.
Perhaps that point is obvious, but
I raise it today because I wish to argue that much of what is at stake
in the practice of poetic drama is involved in issues of translation. I
shall return to translation again in a moment, but it may be worth listing
here some of the ways that word 'translation' may be understood:
· first, simply, most strictly 'verse' plays that appear on English stages are translations of plays from other languages. For example, almost all of Harrison's plays are translations or adaptations of other texts. But one might also mention authors such as Ranjit Bolt, Kenneth McLeish, authors whose names stand behind the names of other 'dead' authors: Moliere, Schiller, Sophocles etc.
· we might also, though, say something about the history of the English language - noting that some of the most significant periods of poetic drama in England (including Shakespeare's, and our own) have coincided with moments when the vernacular language was undergoing profound change due to its incorporation of heterogeneous elements. At the moment of poetry (at least in English literary history - the French neo-classical theatre, for instance, might be a different case) the language is anything but stable
· we might also think of translation as a way of thinking how the theatre itself works, the encoding and decoding of signs and representations, the translation from stage to auditorium of meaning, the translation of the world into representations of the world
but we might also use the word translation to reference the more general
conditions that effect these other factors. I am thinking, for instance,
of migration: the translation of peoples from one place or culture to another;
of social, geographic, cultural and historical translation; of the changes
- and battles - that constitute the history of culture(s).
To explain further what I mean, though,
we need to think specifically about verse.
2. Verse form and function
As I speak about poetic drama today
I shall not restrict myself to works written in metered verse. But for
the moment let us still ask the question: What might we mean by 'poetry'?
What precisely is 'verse'? I suggest, for the sake of the present argument,
two terms: movement and (again) translation.
MOVEMENT - We might be speaking of
metre, which is to say feet and lines: a passage in time, marked by a rhythm,
a means of moving, a direction to move in. The earliest English theatrical
verse forms of the medieval Mystery plays, written under the shadow of
feudalism and an hierarchical Christian world view, was an alliterative
verse that tended to 'stand still'. But this was also a poetry that incorporated
the vernacular dialects of the ordinary people, and as such it wove into
its form rhyme and narrative verse structure which mutated in time into
the iambic pentameter that dominated the Renaissance stage. And this latter
was certainly a metre of movement, of magic invention and change. It was
a line that could as easily 'turn' into celebration or terror. It was a
line that went somewhere, crossing and transforming the times and spaces
of the stage.
TRANSLATION - We might also, though,
when we speak of verse, speak of time interrupted and made unfamiliar by
broken rhythms over difficult terrain, of passages difficult in themselves,
the difficulty of appropriating the 'proper' in the context of migration
for example, the difficulty of holding on to one's own, of tired feet,
of lines that lead on into the unknown or - just as unsettling - lines
that lead nowhere so much as towards a return to the same, but a same made
difficult by time, by translation.
To recap: I am thinking of passages
(not unlike the passages recorded on that commemorative wall on an island
outside of New York City): temporal and geographical shifts, migrations,
translations, resettlements, interruptions; and suggesting these might
be the deeper concerns of poetry on the modem stage
3. The Author
If we have tended to associate poetry
with literature, and literature with authors, there are a range of ways
of thinking about the relationship between literature and drama in the
twentieth century that regard authors as a problem - as a specific barrier,
if you like, to theatrical communication. The most obvious name to cite
here would be Antonin Artaud, for whom literary authors were precisely
a barrier to the proper functioning of the stage. But we could tell a larger
story too. To go back, for instance, to the beginnings of twentieth century
verse drama in English - work influenced in varying measure by the post-enlightenment
ideas of the German philosopher Nietzsche and the avant-garde literary
practices of the French and Belgian symbolists - we might suggest that
the attraction of the theatre for certain poets is the possibility of a
sort of overcoming of the figure of the individualised, time-and-place-bound
· In the early twentieth century this overcoming concerns itself as often as not with transcendence: a triumph of literature (though never less than a problematic triumph);
In the later twentieth century (to paint, perhaps, a simplistic picture)
overcoming can be expressed in terms of the disaster of writing, the political
failure of certain literary projects, the ironic self-destruction of authors;
To stay on this issue for a while,
I wish to offer an example the early twentieth century, from W.B.Yeats's
essay 1909 'The Tragic Theatre' where he writes of a performance of the
unfinished masterpiece by his friend J.M.Synge, Deirdre of the Sorrows:
In the late twentieth century poetry's overcoming of the particular bodies of performers and authors may still be the issue, but is less likely to be expressed in terms of an ecstatic transcendence. Rather, it is more likely that poetry will return us to scenes of repression - whether that be scenes of a personal or collective unconscious, or scenes of historical repression. We may think, that is to say, in these instances of the use of poetry on stage as a tool of cultural remembering. The lines of verse are lines back to the dead. And, it seems important, also, to suggest that we might not find the lines of verse where we expect to look for them; or when we do find them, we fail to make the connection.
Let me offer a theatrical example, which again is not 'English' strictly speaking, and which may not at first glance appear to be poetical, but which addresses the relation between poetry and cultural remembering; offers interesting ways (I believe) of thing about translation in something other than the most literal sense; speaks about the silence (or silencing) of literature(s) as a political issue; and (again) is an instance of my having been taken by surprise by poetry.
My example is the recent production (Spring 1996) at the Royal National Theatre London of New York writer Wallace Shawn's play The Designated Mourner. Three characters, Howard - who seems to be some sort of high-brow literary critic, his grown-up daughter Judy, and her husband Jack, sit behind a long table and talk to the audience. They speak in an amiable, unhurried conversational prose, an American vernacular, telling stories, recounting the history of their relationships with each other. Poetry (in the sense of a specific literary genre, finely-wrought lines of verse) does not appear in the text of the play except as a reference point for the stories that are told - told largely by Jack. Jack is a man who could not, and still can not, read poetry, he did not see the point, even though his in-laws treat it as the highest of cultural forms. He prefers for his entertainment, he tells us, pornographic magazines and television. Furthermore he resents - a resentment bordering on hatred, and leading to eventual marital estrangement - the symptoms of class privilege displayed by these in-laws of his, self-elected representatives of some sort of social elite, who seem to take this cultural capital (the high culture cachet that goes along with 'poetry') for granted. 'Class' differences, that is to say, are played out on the ground of cultural choices: the grand old man of letters Howard and his circle, which includes Judy, take their pleasure, for instance, in the poetry of John Donne (the reference is not explained, Jack does not have the resources to do so, it is given over to the audience to know or not know who John Donne was); whereas 'low-brow' Jack testifies with some apparent pride (again) to finding pleasure in pornography and soap operas on television. Jack also, however, in the present of this testifying, has a self-elected role: he is the 'designated mourner' the one whose job it is to mourn the passing of these poetry lovers.
Jack has become the designated mourner since Howard, Judy and their circle, the people who knew the poetry of John Donne, are now - we find out - dead. Jack, who still has no access to that particular cultural capital, feels himself nevertheless designated to testify to the disappearance of those who did. Because he has survived. And they are all gone. They have been deliberately erased - tortured, murdered - and their voices have been silenced (books have been burnt) in the terror of some sort of social revolution which, while it is never historically specified, cannot help but recall to us mid-century European histories: Stalinist purges, Nazi totalitarianism etc.
The recognition of this history, these 'European memories', is delayed in the play, it creeps up on us as an audience. Until the details of its horror are leaked into the body of the narrative we may not realise that this is the story that was to be told. For a start, the perpetually complaisant Jack hardly seems the man to tell such a story; but further to this, these people are Americans, 'in' America it seems. The presence of the English actress Miranda Richardson in the cast, sustaining an American accent through her speeches, only reinforces the effect. This is a contemporary American scene (I assumed for the first hour we were in the milieu of a certain New York patrician culture) that becomes a European Memory. The Hitchcockian McGuffin of the plot is poetry proper (specifically seventeenth century English 'metaphysical' poetry) but, in the context of this mourning, the poetry itself is precisely the thing that can not be accessed. The one remaining speaker, Jack - who is implicated in the state terrorism he eventually describes, and who is also the only character in the play who really speaks to our empathy - has always been excluded from the discourse (a discourse which, still, has never been less than the expression of a certain class privilege) whose passing he 'mourns', and the conversation of the several voices who articulated that discourse. The memory, that is to say - at least from my 'European' perspective in that London theatre audience - was not articulated on a body remembering itself (Europe), but was rather projected ahead, elsewhere (America). The lines do not return (to the metre, for instance) but are rather projected, extended (into the narrative), they are translated; and through this translation into another scene, another voice, the violence of the memory is both testified to and folded in upon silence.
To put it simply: in this story people have been killed for being poetry lovers. Now, the only person left to mourn their passing and remember that they ever existed is somebody who does not understand poetry, who cannot speak it. If poetry, if hope is to begin again it begins here - in mourning and confusion and terror - at the site of its most recent disappearance.
Let me pick up some threads at this point. We may want to think of the theatre as a special place of communication and representation - one of the places where we take account of the cultures we are making and living in - a place where we both count the costs of 'culture' and articulate our desires for what may be valued in culture.
Within this place 'the theatre' we may want to think of poetry, its lines and movement, as a humanising technology - an articulation of desire as against ignorance; an articulation of sensuality as against certain dehumanising technologies of abstraction; a means of weighing up the value, at any specific moment, of the argument between the particular and the general; a means of gazing into the face of certain terrors and still sustaining some sort of eloquence.
At the same time, the place and function of poetry in the twentieth century theatre has never been taken for granted. Poetry has announced itself as a problem, a ground to be fought over. The
problem has several aspects:
· poetry's complicity in some of the cultural evils it articulates itself against;
· poetry's inaccessibility to the common ear, its baggage of privilege (often misconstrued as difficulty);
· the danger that poetry's eloquence may masquerade as an achieved truth, as a closing of the argument, when the issues at stake are too complex, too contingent;
· poetry's feigning, its ability to play fast and loose with the facts
poetry's presumption: its apparent capability of expressing things, when
maybe the things
it addresses seem to want to tend towards silence;
and at the same time, in spite of all this, the possibility that poetry
might be one of the occasions for the renewal of hope.
Let me conclude with two examples from late twentieth century English plays, both of which commit themselves to an eloquent dramatic poetry, but which at the same time (as I promised earlier) stage arguments about the politics of dramatic literature, its function in cultural life. I choose these two examples because at the heart of each of them is the metaphor of poetry as some sort of journey - a journey which is like a translation - but a translation to places where poetry is brought up against its own silence, its inadequacy.
At the same time, in spite of the
terrors which these plays recognise, poetry remains in both of them as
the grain of hope, of proper remembering, of some new difficult beginning
at human communication.
1. Tony Harrison - The Trackers of Oxyrhyncus
The play is on one level a rewriting
of Sophocles' Ichneutae fragment of a satyr play, and includes a
staging of the finding of the fragment by twentieth century British scholar-detectives
on the middens of Oxyrhyncus. Great and rare literature is found on the
rubbish tip along with the petitions of the poor people who have always
been with us. The plot of Harrison's play as of Sophocles', is literally
a journey - a tracking - through scraps of text in search of Great Poetic
Art. To arrive at cultural value involves making a journey, but we may
not arrive at the place we thought we were setting out to. So, in Sophocles'
fragment, the satyrs are employed by Apollo to track down his stolen cattle,
but discover instead the instrument of the lyric art - the lyre - whose
strings are fashioned from the guts of the missing cattle, arid are then
immediately dispossessed of their discovery: the lyric art does not ~
to the many, the proletariat. The argument: the pursuit of poetry is
to do with the pursuit of power. Poetry belongs to the powerful. If the
powerless attempt to claim poetry for themselves they may be punished for
it. So, Apollo uses the trackers to find the lyre that enables him to claim
lyric art for his own. The satyr Marsyas is flayed alive for trying to
compete with Apollo within the terms of this art. Even so, at the end of
the play his brother Silenus attempts to claim poetry back for the powerless
again - at the risk of the same punishment:
the lyres will be playing the Marsyas theme.
You'll hear the lyres playing behind locked doors
where men flay their fellows for some abstract cause.
The kithera cadenza, the Muse's mezzo trill
cover the slinning and the screaming still.
Wherever in the world there is torture and pain
the powerful are playing the Marsyas refrain.
In every dark dungeon where blood has flowed
the lyre accompanies the Marsyas Ode.
Wherever the racked and the anguished cry
there's always a lyre-player standing by.
Some virtuoso of Apollo's ur-violin
plays for the skinners as they skin
(Harrison 1991: 126)
2. Harold Pinter - No Man's
Or, finally, we might remember Harold
Pinter's No Man's Land. The play, like this present
paper, is a return to authors, to the place of literature in the theatre,
but in a manner of speaking. The scene does not change, we are in Hirst's
house 'now and in England and in Hampstead and for all eternity.' Hirst,
like Howard in Shawn's play, is the grand old man of letters, but unlike
Howard Hirst has survived his own talent and productivity: he drinks, he
forgets, he produces no poetry. Spooner is the literary wannabe, the migrant,
the intruder who was only invited in to be excluded again, and he also
writes nothing down. At the end of the play, however, he fantasises inviting
Hirst to perform a poetry reading at the local pub, 'an evening to be remembered,
by all who take part in her.' Hirst instead evades the performance and
insists on changing the subject 'for the last time'. Already he can not
remember that he has said this, and when reminded he can not construe what
his suggestion 'means', but this is his house, he has the nominal power
here and therefore, as he is told, 'it means forever. It means that the
subject is changed once and for all and for the last time forever. If the
subject is winter, for instance, it'll be winter forever.' According to
the lines of command, essentially an organisation of power, the
lines have taken over the subject; attempts to restore a subject and break
the lines with projections of personal memory (birdsong, a corpse in a
lake) are mistaken. There is nothing there.' what poetry there is returns,
not to the subject, but to 'no man's land. which never moves, which never
changes, which never grows older, but which remains forever, icy and silent.'
This is where we have journeyed to, this is the dead star poetry has brought
us to. No man's land: I own nothing there, speech there is no longer self-possessed.
Memory's war zone, an elsewhere of identity. This is the land a certain
poetry would have colonised and finds itself lost in. Hirst the maybe home-owner,
the maybe poet, the maybe author, is a migrant here. 'I'll drink to that,'
Adorno Theodor, 'Commitment', in A. Arato and E.Gebhardt, eds. The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Oxford: Oxford UP, 1970.
Eliot T.S., The Sacred Wood, London: Methuen, 1960.
Harrison Tony, 'Facing Up to the Muses' in N.Astley, ed. Tony Harrison, Newcastle upon Tyne, Bloodaxe, 1991.
Harrison Tony, The Trackers of Oxyrhyncus, London: Faber, 1991. p.126.
Müller Heiner, Hamletmachine and Other texts for the Stage, ed. Carl Weber, New York: Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984. p.135.
Pinter Harold Plays: Four, London: Faber, 1993.
Yeats W.B., Essays and Introductions, London: Macmillan, 1961. p.239