Other literary forms

(Poets and Poetry in America)

In addition to poetry, Kenneth Koch published one novel, The Red Robins (1975), and books of dramatic pieces, including Bertha, and Other Plays (1966) and A Change of Hearts: Plays, Films, and Other Dramatic Works, 1951-1971 (1973). Both Koch’s novel and his works for the stage are imaginative and improvisatory in their consistent portrayal of the comic drama of life.

The plays achieve their comic repercussions primarily through the juxtaposition of incongruous situations, and by means of rapid, often unpredictable changes of language, character, and scene. The plays echo and imitate older dramatic forms such as the Elizabethan chronicle and the court masque, frequently appropriating the earlier dramatic conventions for comic purposes. E. Kology (pb. 1973), for example, a five-act play in rhymed verse, is as much masque as play. In it, the main character, E. Kology, persuades various polluters of air and water to abandon their destructive habits. An additional masque element is provided by a troupe of young men and women who assist E. Kology, performing a series of celebratory dances as part of the play’s action. An even more masquelike play is The Moon Balloon, performed in New York’s Central Park on New Year’s Eve, 1969. The Moon Balloon is an entertainment in rhymed verse that makes use of spectacle, celebration, and metamorphosis.

History forms the basis for humor and metamorphosis in Koch’s two historical plays, Bertha (pr. 1959), a historical pageant, and George Washington Crossing the Delaware (pr. 1962), a chronicle play. Bertha is a Norwegian queen who saves her people from the barbarian menace. She performs this feat regularly, whenever she becomes bored with routine rule. The humor of the play resides in the use of formal Elizabethan language to describe Bertha’s idiosyncratic behavior, and in strangely concatenated literary allusions such as the linked references to William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (pr. 1606-1607) and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Bertha being related to both the tragic queen of Egypt and the mad queen of Wonderland.

George Washington Crossing the Delaware, perhaps Koch’s best play, is part myth, part chronicle, and part comedy. Its comic incongruities, its colloquial deflation of a more stately heroic language, and its juxtaposition of low comedy and high seriousness serve to make it a surprising and inventive theatrical entertainment.