For three decades, from early in the twentieth century until he died in 1937, John Drinkwater was a consummate man of the theater—a playwright, actor, producer, director, and critic. Foremost among his achievements was his role in the organization and development of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre , one of Great Britain’s most innovative and influential companies. In addition, the popular success of his verse dramas encouraged other playwrights to work in the same genre, and his prose play Abraham Lincoln was the most notable historical-biographical play of its time. Both it and the earlier verse drama X = O were important expressions of antiwar sentiment, to which audiences responded enthusiastically, and Abraham Lincoln enjoyed long runs in London and New York. Active as he was in the theater, Drinkwater was also a prolific man of letters. He wrote critical studies of Algernon Charles Swinburne, William Morris, and William Shakespeare; biographies of such famous men as Abraham Lincoln, King Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Samuel Pepys, and Lord Byron; a novel; essays; and film scripts. He also was a major poet in the Georgian movement. Although he was a popular poet, critics did not regard his poetry favorably, labeling it derivative, unimaginative, and sentimental.
Though public and critical interest in him had faded by the time of his death, and he and his work have been largely ignored in the decades that followed, Drinkwater merits at least a footnote in studies of modern English drama for his attempts to revitalize poetic drama in the twentieth century and to develop the chronicle play into a viable modern dramatic form. More than most playwrights, he brought to his craft (as Arnold Bennett put it) “a deep, practical knowledge of the stage.”