Be Careful What You Read, Or, Why This Play Has Rhymes

A Guest Post by
Jenny Lyn Bader

When I was six years old, my mom read me Molière’s Tartuffe in the English translation by Richard Wilbur.

Lest you get the wrong impression: my mother didn’t make a habit of reading me stuff intended for grown-ups. This was not some attempt on her part to exert pressure on me, or to try to get me to “read up” and skip a grade or two. She felt strongly that each school year ought to be savored. Mom didn’t read me Tartuffe because she hoped I would write a college application essay about it and get into Harvard, or direct a Shakespeare play sometime, or one day even write a full-length verse play in heroic couplets myself — though in the end, all of those things did happen.

She read it because it was fun.

And what fun! Spoken poetry in action. It didn’t matter that the play was set in the 17th century in a foreign country. Somehow the characters were marvelously recognizable: the deluded friend… the wisecracking observer… the unbearable phony.

And somehow the rhymes only made them more recognizable, even though real people generally don’t talk in rhyme. Poetry made the characters jump off of the page. Verse led them to a land of perfect wordings, where they were both themselves and an ideal version of themselves, saying the best things that they could possibly say. 

But authors don’t always write in all of the same genres we read, especially when we are six. It didn’t occur to me to write a full-length verse play or to want to write one. I just thought it of it as a hilarious item from olden times. In truth, it didn’t even occur to me to write a verse play when I started writing In Flight. It began its life as a prose play. But one day after setting my latest draft aside for a time, I took it out of a drawer and realized that this play wanted to be in verse. It was already written in a heightened style, with characters who were slightly larger than life. Even in the prose version, I had already noticed that performers with classical training were especially well-suited to this play. Some directors and actors intuitively understood that style was there, while others didn’t. In verse, no one could miss it.

And the verse clarified not only the style but the themes. Set in a corporate environment, the play looks at the place of poetry in the world today.  And the deck was heavily stacked against poetry. But with even the CEO character speaking in heroic couplets, suddenly the balance of power shifted, and the meaning of the story changed. Poetry mischievously takes its place at the end of each line. Its rhythms make manifest the heightened world of In Flight and the power of language within it.

Putting the play into poetry felt exhilarating. Editing became a pleasure as I located the urgent core of what was being said. Lines that didn’t feel important enough to be stated in verse ended up on the cutting room floor. I found myself thinking in iambic pentameter in everyday life and appreciating its natural rhythm. In the process I even discovered that many of the key lines of dialogue in the play already were in iambic pentameter — before I ever began converting it to verse. That’s how natural a rhythm it is.

When I finished drafting it, I had a new problem: I discovered there are a whole lot of people — including seasoned theatre professionals — who will refuse to read a verse play, or resist reading one. The hostility to the genre was so palpable, a few theatres even said “no verse plays” in their submission guidelines.  

I soon learned that even in the verse play world, In Flight was eccentric. Most contemporary verse dramas are dramas or tragedies, not comedic dramas or dramatic comedies. Most are written in blank verse, a more somber dramatic form. Heroic couplets tend to be frowned upon.

And most authors of verse plays written today set their plays in other centuries, while my play is set now.

I wondered where people would read a verse play, given their traditions, and decided on England. I sent the play to a festival there, where it won an award and received a festival reading at the Bridewell Theatre in London. 

But returning to our own shores, I puzzled: What in the world was I going to do with this deeply contemporary play written in couplets?

In addition to all of its other eccentricities, I should mention that it is surely the world’s first play to be set in the offices of an in-flight airline magazine.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered Turn to Flesh Productions, a new theatre company dedicated to classically stylized works with modern themes. We are living through a time when heightened style is used less and less, and is often misunderstood or unnoticed even when it is used, so I feel their mission is a deeply admirable one. —There has been such a reaction against traditional forms that I’ve even been told that In Flight now qualifies as “experimental.” 

The juxtaposition of classical stylization and contemporary themes may seem like a paradox at first, but once you’ve juxtaposed them it makes complete sense. After all, shouldn’t characters onstage be just a little more nimble, a little more adventurous, and a little more articulate than we are? And don’t we want the ideas in our stage works to come across as articulately as possible, even if they are contemporary ideas in a contemporary setting? Perhaps even more so, since modern ideas need all the help they can get. Anyway I am grateful to Turn to Flesh for making poetical theatricality mischievously take its place here in New York City in the 21st century, and for giving new plays in traditional style a home.

Jenny Lyn Bader workshopped her full-length play In Flight at Turn to Flesh Productions in July. 

Turn to Flesh Fundraiser Gala
November 12, 2014 from 7-10 PM in NYC!

Tickets through
Facebook event page

Come see.
Twitter: @JennyLynBader

IN FLIGHT: A Play in Rhyming Couplets
by Jenny Lyn Bader
directed by Rob Urbinati

When: Thursday, July 31, 2014 @ 7 PM
Where: Rusk Renovations Gallery, 6 West 37th Street, 3rd Floor, New York, NY 10018
Duration: Approximately 100 minutes, with intermission

Rajesh Bose*
Adrianna Dufay
Laura Hooper
Jon Krupp *
Caitlin Morris
Dan Tracy
* Member of Actors' Equity Association
 Turn to Flesh Company Member


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