The poetic drama is a great achievement of the modern age. It is a mixture of high seriousness and colloquial element. It is the combination of the tradition and the experiment and of the ancient and the new. It is symbolic and difficult. Its verse form is blank verse or free verse. In short, its vehicle is verse, its mechanism is imagery, its substance is myth and its binding force is musical pattern.
English poetic drama in the present century arose as a reaction to the naturalistic prose drama of Ibsen, Shaw and Galsworthy. By the second decade of the century, this prose drama had reached a dead end. On the whole, this prose drama, in a decadent stage after the best work of Shaw, had failed to grasp the depth, tension and complexity of contemporary life. It was a mere entertainment and did not maintain any high levels. It concerned itself entirely with social and economic problems to the entire exclusion of deeper and more fundamental issues. It aimed at photographic realism, avoided the romantic and the poetic, and had grown too intellectual and sophisticated. It appealed to the mind rather than to the heart. The result was that a number of writers, who had made their first reputation as poets, and not as dramatists, tried to revive the tradition of verse play for the “Little Theatre”, i.e. theatre for specialized audiences.
Herod, the first poetic-play of Stephen Phillips, appeared in 1901, and this marks the beginning of the revival of poetic drama in the 20th century. Irish dramatists, like W.B. Yeats, J.M. Synge, Sean O’Casey, also played a significant part in the moment for the revival of verse play. Other great names in the revival movement are John Masefield, Cristopher Isherwood, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and Cristopher Fry. However, it is T.S. Eliot who, both through his theory and practice of poetic drama, has achieved considerable success in establishing tradition of poetic plays in the 20thcentury.
The 18th and the 19th century contributed little to the development of poetic drama due to the unfavourable conditions. There were signs of rebirth of this drama by 1920. But it could not gain much ground. The reason was that most of the dramatists of this period were interested in realistic drama. A change was noticed with the passage of time. The disciples of Ibsen began to be overshadowed. At the Abbey Theatre Yeats tried to revive poetic drama. But he could not succeed. It was T.S. Eliot who firmly established it. He prepared the concrete ground for it by saying that the craving for poetic drama is permanent in human nature. He added that poetry was the complete medium for drama.
Before T.S. Eliot some dramatists tried to create a taste for poetic drama. This attempt helped Eliot in making his valuable experiments in poetic drama. Among these dramatists Stephen Phillis, Jon Masefield, Gordon Bottomley, Flecker and John Drinkwater are important. They all experimented in Poetic Drama and prepared ground for Eliot. Their plays vitalised the course of poetic drama.