John Drinkwater Essay - Critical Essays


In an early essay, “The Nature of Drama,” John Drinkwater says that a person chooses to write drama “quite definitely with the response of a theatre audience in his mind, and it is for this, and not because of any inherent virtue which he finds in this form and in no other, that his choice is made.” The public reaction to at least three of his plays—X = O, Abraham Lincoln, and Bird in Hand—suggests that he chose well.


In the preface to his collected plays, Drinkwater says that his “affections have never been divided between poetry and drama,” and he recalls that he hoped “to help as far as one could towards the restoration of the two upon the stage in union.” Despite John Galsworthy’s admonition to him that “the shadow of the man Shakespeare is across the path of all who should attempt verse drama in these days,” Drinkwater was not deterred, and his first solo venture as a playwright (he previously had put a Barry Jackson sentimental comedy, Ser Taldo’s Bride, into rhymed verse) was Cophetua, a one-act play in verse about a stubborn king who resists the demands of his mother and counselors that he wed but then decides to marry a beggar-maid, whose beauty and purity win over the aghast mother and counselors. Though the play has neither literary nor dramatic merit, it is of some interest, for the independent-minded Cophetua is a character type that reemerges in later Drinkwater plays. Drinkwater wrote the play as a conscious experiment: “I used a variety of measures for the purpose of seeing whether a rapid and changing movement of rhyme might not to some extent produce the same effect on the stage as physical action.” The effort failed, but Drinkwater concluded: “The experiment, I think, showed that there were exciting possibilities in the method, and if I had been born into a theatre that took kindly to verse as a medium I believe that interesting things might have been done in its development.”


Drinkwater’s only full-length poetic drama, Rebellion, also was a failure, in large part because of its overly rhetorical blank verse (which Drinkwater “stripped . . . of a little of its rhetoric” in the printed version). Nevertheless, it remains interesting because it recalls William Butler Yeats’s The King’s Threshold (pr. 1904), also about a struggle between a king and a poet, and foreshadows later Drinkwater plays that focus on war and the conflict between liberty and tyranny.

The Storm

Little more than a curtain raiser, The Storm also has an Irish connection, for it is a contemporary rural tragedy that echoes John Millington Synge’s Riders to the Sea (pb. 1903). The only one of Drinkwater’s poetic dramas with a contemporary setting, The Storm is about women vainly awaiting the return of the man of the house, who is lost in a storm. The conflict centers on the boundless optimism of the young wife and the insistent pessimism of an old neighbor. Though blank verse is too stately a measure for the occasion, the play does possess tragic intensity, primarily because of the fully developed character of the wife, Alice, who is Drinkwater’s most memorable creation.

The God of Quiet

The death in 1915 of poet Rupert Brooke, who was serving in the Royal Naval Division, heightened Drinkwater’s antipathy toward war. He had met Brooke through Sir Edward Marsh, editor of Georgian Poetry (1912-1922), in which both were represented, and the two had become close friends. Drinkwater’s last verse plays, The God of Quiet and X = O, are complementary works that reflect both sorrow over Brooke’s death and disdain for war. The earlier of these one-act plays is the lesser of the two.

In The God of Quiet, war-weary people (young and old beggars, a citizen, and a soldier) meet at a life-size statue of their god, a Buddha-like figure, where they are joined by their king, who also has tired of the lengthy conflict and now preaches humility and love. The enemy king comes in prepared to resume the battle, denounces the God of Quiet for having “slacked the heat” and turned the people against war, and drives his dagger into the god’s heart. The effigy comes to life, cries out “Not one of you in all the world to know me,” and collapses. The first king is angered (“Why did you do it? He was a friendly god,/ Smiling upon our faults, a great forgiver . . ./ He gave us quietness—”), curses his enemy, draws his sword, and vows “to requite the honour of this god.” The din of war is heard as the curtain falls. Although the message is clear, the play lacks impact because the generalized characters are merely two-dimensional (not at all universal types), the dialogue is stilted, and the setting lacks precision.

X = O

On the other hand, X = O, the theme of which is the same, is a play of enduring sensitivity and impact. Briefer even than The God of Quiet, X = O was a critical and popular success when first presented, and the passage of time has not dimmed its luster. Its structure is simple: Set during the ninth year of the Trojan War, the parallel scenes of the play show a pair of Greek soldiers and then two...

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