How to Construct a Verse Drama
There are two basic models for verse drama in English: the Shakespearean play (familiar to most of you from your school days) and the Greek. It’s the second one I want to talk to you about.
Why? Mainly because Greek drama offers you a powerful, tried-and-true way of incorporating mythology, lyric poetry, and psychological conflict into one piece of writing. As well as the hundreds of translations of Greek plays into English and other languages, there are many contemporary versions of them which update the issues they examine for today’s audiences.
Jean Anouilh, a French playwright, was allowed to put on his play Antigone in a theatre in Paris in 1942 even though the city was then under Nazi occupation. The Nazis thought he was simply reviving a 2,000-year-old play for culture lovers (like themselves). The French people who attended the performance understood that the play was aimed at them, was in fact about the ethics of collaboration with or resistance to the tyranny they were then living under.
Subsequent performances of Anouilh’s play have been aimed at the Vietnam war, racial oppression in South Africa, and a range of other current events.
How is this possible? How can a play written by Sophocles around 441 BC have anything to say to people in the modern world? The play hinges around Antigone’s decision to bury her brother’s body, even though that brother has been declared a rebel to the state, and a regulation has been passed (by her uncle, Creon, the King of Thebes) condemning to death anyone who gives funeral rites to rebels.
Should she obey the law, or should she bury Polynices (her brother)? Rebel, or give in? Collaborate, or resist?
Antigone is just one of the classic Greek dramas which have been adapted for the modern stage. Writers such as James K, Baxter, Tony Harrison, even Woody Allen, have taken inspiration from it for their own plays, films and television dramas. You can too.
Dr Jack Ross works as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at Massey University’s AucklandCampus. His publications include four full-length poetry collections, three novels, and three volumes of short fiction. He has also edited a number of books and literary magazines, including (with Jan Kemp) the trilogy of audio / text anthologies Classic, Contemporary and New NZ Poets in Performance.
Thursday 29 May 7-9pm
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