Closet drama

When you think of a 'drama', what comes to mind? Elaborate set design? Extravagant costumes? Startling action scenes? You may think that drama is everything to do with the performance, but what if there was a genre that stripped all of that away? In the closet drama, you can forget the fancy stage production; in these plays, the focus is entirely on the text. To the closet dramatists, the theatre production comes with restrictions. When the limitations of performance are removed, the only limit is the imagination! Let's take a closer look at the origin and characteristics of this unconventional genre.

Closet drama Closet drama

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Table of contents

    Closet drama: definition

    How do we define closet drama? Here's a simple definition to get us started. The term 'closet drama' is a genre of play that is designed to be read 'in the closet' (an old term for a small private study or reading room) rather than being performed publicly. Unlike most dramas, which are written for the purpose of theatrical performance, closet dramas are typically more focused on complex dialogue, introspection, and philosophical issues. They offer a different kind of theatrical experience that is more personal and introspective.

    One sentence summary: A closet drama is a play designed to be read rather than acted.

    In a closet drama, the importance is placed on the play's content over how it is performed. It was typical to read the drama alone, or in a small group.

    The genre got its name because it was said to be suited for performance in a 'closet' (or private study).

    Closet dramas are published as manuscripts but also feature lists of characters, and complex stage directions, to help the reader picture the entire play in their mind.

    Origin of closet drama in literature

    The closet drama was first established as a genre during the Elizabethan era (1558–1603) and the Jacobean (1603 -1625) era but didn't experience widespread popularity until the nineteenth century. Despite this, the origins of closet dramas can be traced back to the work of early Greek and Roman writers.

    Many of Plato's (427-347 BC) philosophical plays simply involved debate between two characters. While the action would be minimal, the philosophical content of the discussion would determine the play's value.

    Theory and history of closet drama

    Closet drama is a genre of plays intended to be read, rather than performed on stage. These plays were typically circulated in manuscript or printed form during the 19th century when they were popular. The focus of a closet drama is primarily on the dialogue and the interior emotional states of the characters rather than on visual spectacle. Two key periods of the closet drama include the Renaissance and the Nineteenth-century.

    The Renaissance period (1400-1660)

    The closet drama began to establish itself as a genre throughout the Renaissance period (1400-1660), first seeing frequent usage in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. Playwrights like Mary Sidney (1561-1621), Sir William Alexander (1567-1640), and Fulke Greville (1554-1628), were creating closet dramas at this time.

    The closet drama was historically popular with female writers. Women were often denied a voice in early modern society (1450-1815) and rarely had the same outlets as male playwrights. Expressing views in a public play could lead to exile and rejection from the public.

    By keeping the play a closet drama, the female playwright could limit her readership, allowing her to discuss public issues normally off-limits to her.

    Female playwrights involved in the closet dramas at this time include Annie Finch (1661-1720), Margaret Lucas Cavendish (1623-1673) and Elizabeth Cary (1585-1639).

    The closet drama became a necessity when, In 1642, the English government chose to ban stage performances, deeming them too flippant, and lacking in purpose. Playwrights were forced to adapt, creating plays to be spoken rather than performed. As the plays could be performed in private, playwrights could depict topics that were usually prohibited, such as political satire.

    When the theatre ban was lifted in 1660, some writers continued to create closet dramas. John Milton (1608-1674), for example, created his closet drama, Samson Agonistes, in 1671.

    Previously, the closet drama was used for logistical reasons – to abide by the law or to allow women to express themselves – meaning it was seen as a matter of necessity. Milton's play is an early example of a closet drama that was never made to be performed. It was created not for logistical reasons, but for its merits as a separate genre from theatre drama.

    The nineteenth-century

    During the 1800s, the popularity of the tragedy play was in a slow decline. Public tastes had moved towards comedy, meaning those interested in staging tragedies could no longer find the commercial backing to do so.

    As staging to an audience was no longer viable, tragedy writers had to create plays for readers instead. German playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) created his legendary Faust I (1808) and Faust II (1832) plays as closet dramas.

    Closet drama, a portrait of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German playwright, famous for creating Faust I (1808) and Faust II (1832). But did you know that both plays were originally written as closet dramas?

    The closet drama also surged in popularity due to the era of Romanticism (1785-1832)

    Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement that began towards the end of the 18th century. It promoted emotion, spontaneity, individualism, freedom of expression and an idealisation of the natural world.

    Many Romantic playwrights began to make use of the closet drama. The Romantics were famous for taking emotion, imagination, and artistry to the extreme, and therefore believed that a physical stage would limit their capability to express their individuality.

    Exotic settings, being expensive, would not translate well to physical set design, and would seldom live up to the artist's expectations. Therefore, only the human mind, without any limitations, could be the stage for such vivid narratives.

    It's also important to remember that theatres could decide who and what they wanted to feature on their stage. Plays going too far against the grain, discussing political topics and portraying unusual ideas, were unlikely to be given a chance to perform in any popular English theatre. This made the closet drama a more viable option for Romantic playwrights.

    Some of the most famous romantic figures that created closet dramas are Lord Byron (1788-1824), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), and later, Robert Browning (1812-1889).

    Closet drama: characteristics

    Some defining characteristics of closet dramas are extended prose, philosophical discussion, and challenging topics.

    Extended prose

    Closet dramas often feature long, uninterrupted periods of dialogue. As the play is intended to be read, there is room for lengthy monologues and extensive discussions that wouldn't translate well to the stage, as these would require long periods of inaction from the actors.

    Philosophical discussion

    The topics depicted in closet dramas are frequently philosophical. Playwrights have more freedom to portray complex debates because the details of the discussion will not be lost. When performed on stage, the production's visual element could detract away from the messages the author is conveying.

    Challenging topics

    The subjects of closet dramas are typically challenging, taboo, or controversial. There is more freedom for expression, as the rules of the theatre house do not hold back the playwright. The topic of the play can often be unusual, expansive and progressive as there is no need to consider the limitations that could be imposed by set design, actors, or the maximum length of a theatre performance.

    Closet drama: examples

    An example of a closet drama is Prometheus Unbound by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Written in 1820, this lyrical drama was never intended for the stage, but rather to be read and pondered upon. It is a reimagining of the ancient myth of Prometheus, the Titan who defies the gods and gifts humanity with fire, for which he is subjected to eternal punishment. Other notable examples of closet dramas include Samson Agonistes by John Milton and Manfred by Lord Byron.

    Samson Agonistes (1671) by John Milton

    Samson Agonistes portrays Samson (based on the biblical story of Samson), a man of immense strength which comes from his long, flowing hair. Samson is imprisoned when his wife enlists a servant to cut his hair off while he sleeps. The play centres around Samson's final days in prison, where his captors blind him, and different characters visit him offering him support. The play shows the struggle yet necessity of maintaining faith in God unwaveringly despite extreme challenges.

    Samson Agonistes is a closet tragedy, written to mimic ancient Greek drama, which Milton acknowledged features no stage directions and was never designed to be performed. By positioning his play as a closet drama, Milton places philosophical and religious discussion at the centre of the narrative. The reader can focus entirely on the value of this discussion, rather than being distracted by stage production.

    What parallels can you draw between Milton's Samson Agonistes and the origins of the closet drama in Ancient Greek theatre?

    Closet drama, Portrait of the young John Milton, StudySmarterFig. 2 - John Milton (1608-1674) was an English poet and dramatist famed for his epic poem Paradise Lost (1667). He also created Samson Agonistes (1671), a tragic closet drama centred on philosophical and religious discussion.

    Manfred (1817) by Lord Byron

    Byron's Manfred is a study of the psychology of man. It centres on Manfred's flawed, tragic romance with a woman, Astarte. Byron follows the conventions of the Romantic period by dealing with nature and its superiority to man. Byron also offers a study into the tortured mind of his protagonist. The play eventually ends in Manfred's suicide. By creating his play as a closet drama, Byron can explore the recesses of Manfred's mind, and engage in the intense philosophical discussion that would be impossible on stage.

    The Cenci (1819) by Percy Bysshe Shelley

    Another example of the Romanticist closet drama is Shelley's The Cenci, which features the philosophical ambiguity and intensely emotive language expected of romantic plays. The story centres on a cruel, malicious Count, Francesco Cenci, who has killed his two sons and raped his daughter, Beatrice. In revenge, Beatrice enlists help from a nobleman, Orsino, who assists with plotting the murder of the count.

    However, when the conspirators are discovered, only Orsino escapes capture, while the rest are executed for their attempted murder. The closet play allows the full extent of Beatrice's internal suffering, and the dark undertones of the play, to be experienced by the reader.

    Closet drama - Key takeaways

    • Closet drama is a genre that is designed to be read 'in the closet' (an old term for a small private study or reading room) rather than being performed publicly.
    • The genre's roots can be traced back to Plato's philosophical plays in ancient Greece.
    • The closet drama saw a resurgence in the Renaissance era during the theatre ban of 1642, and then again in the Romantic period.
    • The genre is defined by extended dialogue, challenging, often taboo topics and philosophical discussion.
    • Some well-known closet dramatists are John Milton, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Sidney and Sir William Alexander.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Closet drama

    What is an example of closet drama? 

    An example of a closet drama is John Milton's Samson Agonistes (1671).

    What is a closet drama? 

    A closet drama is a play designed to be read rather than acted.

    How do you identify a closet drama? 

    A closet drama can be identified by its design; it is created to be read, not performed.

    What are the types of closet drama? 

    The closet drama was employed in many different forms. It was first used in Ancient Greece, then rose to prominence in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, and finally during the nineteenth century.

    What are the features of a closet drama? 

    Common features of a closet drama include extended prose, philosophical discussion and challenging, taboo topics.

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