Drama vs. Poetry

I came home from an especially tough week at work, poured myself a glass of Moscato, and watched “Eat, Pray, Love” in the dark before my husband came home. It was exactly the remedy I needed. Comforting, inspiring, relaxing–precisely what a Friday evening should be.

But because I had already read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” over the summer, I am still left unsatisfied. I felt rushed through the story as if I were watching the book in fast forward. It’s not the movie’s fault. It did what it could in 133 minutes. But watching it highlighted again for me the fact that script writing (for stage or screen) is much like poetry.

The first person to introduce this concept to me was Dr. James Ragan, the internationally acclaimed poet and playwright who makes his rounds through Oklahoma every now and again. After one of his guest lectures, we were discussing his broad range of work in what seemed to me to be very different genres. I was impressed that he could succeed at both. He said something to the effect of “Poetry and drama are much alike. Both communicate just the essence of an experience.” And he’s absolutely right.

In a novel, the writer has complete control to portray whatever emotions, details, or expressions he chooses in as many words and scenes as he chooses. But in a poem, the author is constrained to a single image, or small series of images, to communicated the same emotions, details, and expressions with as few words as possible. There is a heavy filter through which a poet must pour all his emotion about a subject and emerge with only a remnant of words to represent that full experience. It is the brevity and pointedness of poetry that gives it power. It cuts through all the speech around a story that makes us feel comfortable and gets right to the heart of the truth being conveyed.

Dramatists are much the same, only their filter is lighter. From the outside looking in, a play looks very much like a novel played out, but it’s not at all. The plot could be very familiar and the speech sound everyday, but they’re not. Dramatic dialogue isn’t real speech but is written to sound like it. The details included in action blocks are specific and condensed, only highlighting the visual impact of a moment on stage or screen. The end result is the essence of an experience with only the details that move the story forward allowed to be involved.

This was my experience with “Eat, Pray, Love” tonight. Only the plot points that contributed to the story’s momentum were allowed to stay. Of course, after reading the book there’s an inevitable sense of loss when the beauty of Elizabeth Gilbert’s cry fests and talks with God and long inner discourses in ancient ruins have to be cut. But that’s the nature of constraint. The movie is in fact the essence of her journey. Like a modern-day Iliad or Gilgamesh, it’s the epic poem of her adventures.


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