Closet Drama: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Debbie Notari
The Closet Drama is a play that was meant to be read, but not performed. This art form is most associated with the Romantic period in literature, though Closet Dramas are still written today. In this lesson, we will look at the history of Closet Dramas and see a few examples.

Definition

Closet dramas are plays that have been written to be read, but not performed. Their value is in the play itself, not in the performance of the play. This art form was popularized in the Romantic era by such writers as Robert Browning and Goethe. Plays are written, generally, to be performed, and the playwright depends on the actors and actresses to bring his script to a higher level. With closet dramas, the playwright intends just the opposite. There will be no performance, and the play itself carries its own strength and value. In a nutshell, a closet drama is meant to be read but not performed.

History

During the early 1800s, most plays that were performed were 'melodramas' or 'burlesque.' Serious writers such as Browning and Byron sought to elevate the art form by removing it from the stage altogether by creating closet dramas. It was a natural reaction to the sensational performances of the day.

Because Romantics wrote the plays, we must remember that they were radical in thought. In some ways, the Romantic was a revolutionary writer, so it is no surprise that historical events such as the American and French Revolutions influenced these writers - including those previously mentioned, and others like John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and even women such as Joanna Baillie.

In fact, Coleridge and Southey worked together in 1794 to write a play about the French Revolution called The Fall of Robespierre, while Wordsworth's only play, The Borderers, was about the French Revolution as well. The Romantic playwrights used the plays to talk about their radical political and social views. Therefore, some theaters were reluctant to produce them.

Another motivating factor for creating closet dramas was the monopoly that the two most popular theaters in England, Drury Lane and Covent Garden, held over everyone else at that time. A 'Licensing Act' was passed from 1737 to 1843 stating that the only plays produced between September through June had to be performed at one of the two theaters. A person would not even have to be a Romantic to rebel against the law. But even more so, the closet drama gave the Romantic writer full control over his or her play; it was free, as Byron believed, from the 'judgment' of others.

Why Romantics Chose to Write Them

To the Romantic, imagination was almost holy. If a play could be read and then imagined on the stage of the mind, there could really be no greater stage. It was the reader's own inner interpretation and view of Romantic plays that held greater value than something interpreted by someone else on stage.

Examples of Closet Dramas

In this section, we will look more closely at three closet dramas: Robert Browning's Pippa Passes and My Last Duchess, and Shelley's Prometheus Unbound.

Browning's closet drama Pippa Passes provides settings where needed, and is a dramatic monologue, which is a major genre of Browning's. At the beginning of the story, Browning informs us that it is New Year's Day, and that Pippa, who works in the Silk Mills, is just getting up. A famous stanza from the play that shows Pippa's general attitude about life is:

' The year's at the spring

And day's at the morn;

Morning's at seven;

The hillside's dew-pearled;

The lark's on the wing;

The snail's on the thorn:

God's in His heaven--

All's right with the world!'

The play goes on to show some of the difficulties this good girl faces in a corrupt society.

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