John Drinkwater Drinkwater, John - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

John Drinkwater 1882-1937

English dramatist, poet, and critic.

Known primarily for his historical dramas based on the lives of such figures as Abraham Lincoln, Oliver Cromwell, and Mary Stuart, Drinkwater is credited with popularizing verse drama in the early twentieth century. Seeking an alternative to realism in the theater, Drinkwater turned to historical events to create protagonists who display extraordinary qualities during periods of crisis.

Biographical Information

Drinkwater was born in Leytonstone, Essex. He spent his early years touring with his father, a professional actor, and occasionally substituted for other actors onstage. At the age of nine, Drinkwater was sent to Cornmarket near Oxford to live with his grandfather. After graduating from high school, he took a job with the Northern Assurance Company in Nottingham. He began writing for the Ilkeston News, and in 1903 paid a local bookseller to print his first book of poems. He continued his career in journalism, working for various newspapers throughout England. During this time, Drinkwater also acted in and directed plays produced by the Pilgrim Players. In 1911 his first serious work as a dramatist, Cophetua, was produced by the Pilgrim Players. Drinkwater achieved only moderate success with his subsequent plays, until 1918 when his Abraham Lincoln was produced and his reputation as a historical dramatist was secured. Drinkwater continued writing plays, poetry, and criticism, as well as giving lectures on literature, until his death in London in 1937.

Major Works

Early in his career as a dramatist, Drinkwater's major interest was to reintroduce verse drama to the English stage. His first plays, written in blank verse, often reflect his antipathy for war, a theme Drinkwater would explore throughout his career. X=0: A Night of the Trojan War is Drinkwater's most enduring play from this period. A critical and popular success, X=0 is a one-act blank verse drama that centers on four soldiers in the Trojan War, two Greeks and two Trojans, shown in parallel scenes expressing regret, loss, and hope for the end of the war. Highlighting the similarities of the two sides, Drinkwater emphasized the futility and pain of war. Despite the success of X=0, Drinkwater abandoned verse in Abraham Lincoln, which is widely considered his best work. Abraham Lincoln uses the chronicle format to trace the development of its protagonist. Depicting Lincoln as a peace-loving man caught in the perils of war, the play was a popular success in both the United States and England. Drinkwater's next play, Oliver Cromwell, is an expansion of his earlier epic poem on the controversial English politician. Although it is similar in form and tone to Abraham Lincoln, Cromwell achieved less success with audiences. Mary Stuart is considered more sophisticated than either Lincoln or Cromwell, but was not favorably received by audiences or critics. Concentrating on Mary's well-known relationships with her lovers Darnley, Riccio, and Bothwell, the play attempts to forward the notion that certain women are able to love several men at once without internal conflict.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Poems (poetry) 1903

Cophetua (drama) 1911

The Pied Piper (drama) 1912

Rebellion (drama) 1914

The Storm (drama) 1915

The God of Quiet (drama) 1916

The Wounded (drama) 1916

X=0: A Night of the Trojan War (drama) 1917

Abraham Lincoln (drama) 1918

Mary Stuart (drama) 1921

Oliver Cromwell (drama) 1921

Robert E. Lee (drama) 1923

Robert Burns (biography) 1925

Bird in Hand (drama) 1927

Cromwell: A Character Study (biography) 1927

The Gentle Art of Theatre-going (nonfiction) 1927

Napoleon: The Hundred Days (drama) 1932

Shakespeare (criticism) 1933

A Man's House (drama) 1934

Charles Lewis Hind (essay date 1921)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Drinkwater," in Authors and I, John Lane Company, 1921, pp. 86-90.

[In the following excerpt, Hind praises Drinkwater's poetry and his play Abraham Lincoln.]

There must be many dramatic authors who, in face of the success of Abraham Lincoln: a Play, are saying to themselves, "Why did I not think of this as a subject, why did not I write a play on Abraham Lincoln, why should an Englishman do it?" These be mysteries. Yet are they? Did not an Englishman, Lord Bryce, write "The American Commonwealth," which eminent Americans have called "the best treatise on American government?" Is it not because distance and aloofness from a subject give clearness and simplicity of vision? The man on a hilltop looking down upon a wood can write a better account of it than the man who is plodding through the undergrowth. The walker sees the trees; the man on the hill sees the shape of the wood, and its bearing on the country. Some Americans who saw the play in London were angry because the local colour was sometimes wrong, because there were anachronisms, because the "hired girl" was called a servant-maid, because General Grant was made to say, "My word!" instead of "By gad, sir," and so on. As if such ephemera matter. The shape and bearing of the wood is not affected because two or three of the trees are misnamed. I am reminded of the British colonel who protested that he would never read another word of Kipling "because, By gad, sir, the fellow is all wrong about the number of buttons on the tunics of the Heavy Dragoons."

Why was John Drinkwater, an English poet, not very well known, able to do it, when there are so many able dramatists who should have been able to write a play around Lincoln? Is it because he is a poet and an idealist, who had a vision of Lincoln as God's man, and kept that vision clear and clean?

In part that answers the question, but it is not the whole answer. Let us look at John Drinkwater's past. He was born a poet, not by any means a great poet, but one whom the Muse had called, touched lightly, and to whom she had also given the philosophic, spiritual, humanist outlook, say of Matthew Arnold and William Watson. That, by itself, is not a very marketable equipment for life. Most poets of...

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Edmund Wilson, Jr. (essay date 1921)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "After the Play," in The New Republic. Vol. XXVI, No. 331, April 6, 1921, p. 162.

[A major twentieth century American literary and cultural critic, Wilson wrote several influential critical studies, including Axel's Castle (1931), which examined literary symbolism. In the following essay, he reviews Mary Stuart.]

The great thing about John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln was that, unlike most historical plays, it dramatized an idea. The Disraelis and Paganinis and Sophies and Madame Sands have been merely attempts to dramatize picturesque personalities; one shuddered when one heard that Mr. Arliss was thinking of producing a Voltaire, because one...

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Ashley Dukes (essay date 1923)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Poets and Historians: John Drinkwater," in The Youngest Drama: Studies of Fifty Dramatists, Ernest Benn, Limited, 1923, pp. 150-56.

[Dukes was an important English playwright and drama critic during the first half of the twentieth century. He is most noted for his works on modern European theater, particularly poetic drama, and introduced English audiences to the work of several French and German dramatists. In the following essay, he discusses Drinkwater's historical dramas.]

Abraham Lincoln owed as much to President Wilson as to its own titular hero. It was a play of the hour, and in every line an allusion to the momentous issues of the hour could be...

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Graham Sutton (essay date 1925)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Drinkwater," in Some Contemporary Dramatists, Kennikat Press, Inc., 1925, pp. 53-72.

[In the following essay, Sutton compares Drinkwater's historical plays to Greek drama.]

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Florence Mary Bennett (essay date 1925)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Contemporary Renaissance?" in Poet Lore, Vol. XXXVI, Spring, 1925, pp. 126-35.

[In the following essay Bennett discusses Drinkwater's plays in relation to Elizabethan drama.]

Fundamental to all discussion of literature is the idea that the appeal of any art to the public should be real. The validity of this statement is probably most concretely illustrated in the arts of painting and sculpture, whose flowering, in the history of our culture, has always belonged to a time when there was a demand for their ministrations. For example, in the days when Greek sculpture reached its pre-eminence, the artists worked simply and earnestly and enthusiastically to fill...

(The entire section is 3733 words.)

Arthur R. Ropes (essay date 1926)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "History and Drinkwater," in Contemporary Review, Vol. CXXIX, May, 1926, pp. 613-20.

[In the following essay, Ropes analyzes representations of historical figures and events in Drinkwater's plays.]

Not very long ago the remarkable success of Mr. John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln made us wonder if we were to see a revival of historical drama. There seems no reason why the great Elizabethan tradition should remain merely a tradition. Here was a play presenting great political issues, summed up in the character and career of a great statesman—and one who, by a happy chance, was fitted to call forth laughter and tears together, to move in a mingled halo of...

(The entire section is 3621 words.)

John W. Cunliffe (essay date 1927)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Mansfield and Other Poet-Dramatists," in Modern English Playwrights: A Short History of the English Drama from 1825, Harper & Brothers, 1927, pp. 180-207.

[In the following essay, Cunliffe offers an overview of Drinkwater's major plays.]

John Drinkwater is primarily a poet. He was associated with Rupert Brooke in the confident and successful effort to create a new poetic age which began in 1912 with the publication of Georgian Poetry and was almost brought to an end after the publication of New Numbers in 1914. In the latter enterprise, which would have been published quarterly if the outbreak of the War had not killed it after its first...

(The entire section is 2841 words.)

Martin Ellehauge (essay date 1931)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "John Drinkwater," in Striking Figures among Modern English Dramatists, Levin & Munksgaard, 1931, pp. 69-88.

[In the following essay, Ellehauge examines Drinkwater's aesthetic philosophy.]

John Drinkwater continues the conscious revolt against the problem-play. His strong aversion to this school leads him to substitute the themes of a remote time for the present day affairs. In his study of William Morris, 1912, he calls attention to the danger for a poet in a too close contact with contemporary problems because

broadly speaking the things of immediate importance are the unimportant things.


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John Drinkwater with Cyril Clemens (interview date 1932)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: An interview in The Sewanee Review, Vol. XL, No. 4, Autumn, 1932, pp. 442-45.

[In the following interview, Drinkwater discusses his life and literary career.]

In the Highlands, on the outskirts of London, but a few doors from a house once inhabited by Coleridge, lives John Drinkwater, who cordially welcomed me one autumn afternoon. The poet is a stalwart Englishman, some six feet tall and correspondingly broad, and the possessor of fine, penetrating, gray eyes, heavy black hair, and a complexion inclined to be ruddy.

The poet led the way into his study, a glorious room where a log fire was brightly burning at one end, and, opposite, was an...

(The entire section is 1428 words.)

Graham Greene (essay date 1934)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Man's House, in The Spectator, Vol. 153, No. 5535, July 27, 1934, p. 129.

[An English literary figure, Greene is generally considered the most important Catholic novelist of the twentieth century. In his major works he explored the problems of spiritually and socially alienated individuals living in corrupt and corrupting societies. In the following essay, he reviews Drinkwater's A Man's House.]

Every generation has The Sign of the Cross it deserves, but Mr. Drinkwater's version [A Man's House] has suffered a little from the time-lag. Although this story of a Jewish family in Jerusalem in A.D. 33 is written in, roughly...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


Berven, Peter. "John Drinkwater: An Annotated Bibliography of Writings about Him." English Literature in Transition 21, No. 1 (1978): 9-66.

Comprehensive secondary bibliography.

Pearce, Michael. John Drinkwater: An Annotated Bibliography of His Works. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1977, 157 p.

Bibliography of Drinkwater's writings, including contributions to periodicals and anthologies and film scripts.


Abercrombie, Lascelles. "The Drama of John Drinkwater." Four Decades of Poetry, 1890-1930 1, No. 4 (July 1977): 271-81.


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