Dramatic poetry, also known as dramatic verse or verse drama, is a written work that both tells a story and connects the reader to an audience through emotions or behavior. A form of narrative closely related to acting, it usually is performed physically and can be either spoken or sung. Normally, it uses a set rhyming or meter pattern, setting it apart from prose. It has evolved since its start in ancient Greece, but it still survives today, especially in opera librettos. A lack of strict guidelines makes it somewhat debatable what exactly counts as a dramatic poem, but in general, the four main accepted forms include soliloquy, dramatic monologue, character sketch and dialogue.
In ancient Greece, people went to the theater to see live plays for entertainment, much as individuals do today. Those who performed in the plays often needed to memorize their parts very quickly, so playwrights tried to help them out by putting the text into a meter or rhyme pattern that was easier to remember. Over time, writers, actors and the general public started to prefer a more free verse style, so by the Renaissance, plays often were made up of a combination of prose and rhyming or metered sections. Eventually, unrestricted speech became the standard, but dramatic poetry survived, mainly through opera librettos, as rhymes and a particular number of syllables per line paired well with musical phrases.
This type of poetry uses the speech and actions of at least one person to depict a scene or plot. It is different than plain narrative because the focus is usually on how that individual emotionally or physically controls or responds to what is going on — that is, it is more than a simple explanation of fact. Often, it is from the character’s point of view, giving the audience an idea of his personality, morals, history and dreams.
In general, making a fictional person come alive is much easier when someone physically can show what that character is supposed to feel or do. This is the main way that dramatic poetry separates itself from other forms — unlike closet poetry that someone simply reads off a page, it requires action, such as making facial expressions, gesturing or interacting with other people or things in the room. Acting and this type of literature have a strong link for this reason, with some actors and actresses using it to practice.
Another key feature is that the text usually follows verse form or rhymes. As a result, it typically ends up feeling very rhythmic. Writers often think about this as they’re making up a new dramatic poem, because they want a person to be able to deliver the lines well, and because they want the audience to understand what’s happening. Getting this naturalness can be hard, however, simply because everyday speech typically is more like prose, so some writers hesitate to use this style.
Dramatic poetry can take one of several forms: soliloquy, dramatic monologue, character sketch and dialogue. Any of these forms can stand by itself, but when a person is writing a play, he might use more than one style, depending on how he wants to show development. The best actors and actresses are able to move seamlessly from one form to another, although some end up specializing.
In a soliloquy, a character speaks mainly to himself, not interacting with anyone else. It typically is a good way to quickly show what he thinks, wants or is going to do, because it gives insights into his mind. Perhaps the best example comes from William Shakespeare’s tragic play, Hamlet, in which Hamlet questions whether it is better to live or die.
A dramatic monologue is very similar to a soliloquy in that it reveals something about the speaking character. The main difference is that, here, the actor is talking to someone else in the play, not just himself. This second person doesn’t say anything, but their presence often makes the speech a little bit more believable. This type of dramatic poetry usually shows up during critical moments in the plot.
With a character sketch, a writer’s main goal is to make the audience feel something for the character, rather than to move the plot along. The feeling can be sympathy, hatred or anything in between, but the result is usually that a person watching the play becomes emotionally connected to what is going on, creating a more memorable theater experience. The individual delivering the lines serves the main role of observer.
Dialogue takes at least two people, who exchange lines to direct action, give information or tell something about themselves. The benefit of this form is that actors can play off each other, responding naturally to what the other person does so that the play doesn’t seem overly rehearsed. The challenge in using it in dramatic poetry, however, is that a writer has to maintain some similarity between the rhythm and meter of the text for both speakers, even as he tries to make each one seem to have a separate personality. Changing the meter or rhyme scheme dramatically as each person talks can make the overall flow of the scene seem too choppy or disconnected. An example in this group is The Shadowy Waters by William Butler Yeats.
There are no established guidelines for what exactly makes text poetic, and sometimes, the line between straight prose and structured writing is very thin. What technically can be called a dramatic poem, therefore, is somewhat up to interpretation. To make things even more complex, often, people adapt “regular” poems to the stage, so when trying to categorize different works, what a person does with the text is as important as what is in the writing itself.