Closet Drama Meaning
Closet drama is a play that is written for the sole purpose of reading alone or sometimes aloud in group and not to be performed on stage. It must not be confused with ‘reader’s theater’ where actors read and recite without much decor before the audience.
Closet Drama Definition
The Oxford dictionary of Literary Terms defines closet drama as a literary composition written in the form of a play (usually as a dramatic poem), but intended or suited only for reading in a closet (i.e. a private study) rather than for stage performance’. It is a form of drama based on dialogue that is read like a play but cannot be performed as play on stage.
The precursor of this form existed during classical times. Closet drama was popular in the early 19th century when melodrama and burlesque dominated the theater and poets attempted to raise dramatic standards by reviving past traditions. Plato’s famous work Apology is known as tragic drama and not as philosophic dialogue.
Likewise, the sayings of Cicero, Strabo, and Seneca were also worth reading rather than acting and since then only the comic theater survived transplantation from Greece to Rome. During the Romantic Age and the Victorian Era many poets used closet drama as a form for their poetic epics.
Origin of Closet Drama
Closet drama began in 1900s when Friedrich von Schlegel and many other argued that the tragedies of Seneca the Younger were written to recite only and not to perform on stage, although, it could not be proved in later parts that his plays were written to read in small gatherings of the rich.
In the middle age, some plays like Hroswitha of Gandersheim or dialectical works such as The Debate of Body and Soul or the Interludium de Clerico et Paulla were written in closet drama form.
Then, in the age of Shakespeare and Jonson, Fulke Greville, Sir William Alexander and Thomas Killingrew is a playwright who turned to closet play when his plays could not be produced on stage because due to Civil War, he was exiled from England. 1642-60 can be called the golden age of closet drama when the public theatres were officially closed.
Samson Agonistes of John Milton is another one which was not written for the purpose of staging. Popularity of closet drama enhanced because of the decline of verse tragedy which was popular during Neo-classical period on European stage in 1800s.
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Then Coleridge and Robert Browning staging verse drama were feeling the scarcity of audience in commercial theaters. Unfortunately, they had to succumb to write for readers and not for actors and audiences.
Form of Closet Drama
Closet drama is a drama in written form that does not rely upon improving stage direction as it simply intended to read and not to be performed on stage. They feature high thinking, philosophic and rhetoric ideas, less dramatic techniques and less action. The dialogues were wrapped in philosophy that Greek and Roman writers such as Plato used. It gave more thoughtful provocation to readers without visual representation
Dramatic Techniques of Closet Drama
After1800, closet drama written in verse form became very popular in Western Europe. Most of them were inspired by classical works. P. B. Shelley and Lord Byron and several other authors devoted their time to closet drama. Herman Melville’s drama Moby Dick is written in dialogue form and is the casual allusion to closet drama. W. B. Yeats wrote many of the plays for Abbey Theater which are largely driven from his study of Japanese Noh drama. H. A. Beers opines that
“[The closet-dramatist) need not sacrifice truth of character and probability of plot to the need of highly accentuated situations. He does not have to consider whether a speech is too long, too ornate in diction, too deeply thoughtful for recitation by an actor. If the action lacks at certain points, let it lack. In short, as the aim of the closet-dramatist is other than the playwright’s, so his methods may be independent.”
But it seems a false notion. Modern drama discards the claim that closet-plays are closet-plays merely because they aim to be literature. Effective stage pieces, as a rule, have not been pleasing to read, but that is the fault of the literary sense of the author who has aimed appreciation through out-wards theatrical effect.
Style of Closet Drama
In respect of the style, closet drama has failed from the point of view of stage direction that leaves lasting impression on minds. Literature of this kind cares less about practical limitation of stage requirements. Although, it is not a drama of ideas but it is a drama of imagination and it is more discursive than concentrated and it becomes poetic rather than dramatic. Further, closet dramatist suffered much because he placed his faith in more contemplation and ornamentation of language so as to give full dramatic effects.
Best Closet Drama Examples
Byron’s Manfred (1817) and Shelley’s The Cenci (1819) imitate Shakespeare, and Goethe’s Fast (Part I, 1808; Part II, 1832) draws in part on the Elizabethan tradition. Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671) and Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1819) are based on Greek tragedies. Prometheus Unbound would not only take more than five hours to perform properly, it would be extremely difficult to bring it to life on stage with all its Olympian gods, Titans and mythic creatures.
Notable among other closet dramas are Robert Browning’s Strafford (1837) and Pippa Passes (1841) and Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts. The Dynasts is Hardy’s most ambitious plays and in early 1900s, an attempt was made to perform it on stage by Brave Theater, although it is obviously meant to be performed in the minds of the readers. This play is based on Napoleonic war and celestial entities are chief narrator who consider human as insignificant as ants. The Dynasts is a long play consisting of not five acts but nineteen acts so arranging all characters as to maintain the originality of the play which make it difficult to perform on stage.
Thus, anti-theatrical impulse led them to withdrawal from theater but modernist theater is much gratuitous to Yeats, Brecht and Becket who enriched it with poetic and novelistic techniques. In spite of being not very popular genre, many closet dramas were written in Victorian times, afterwards and are being written today even.