By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Many famous poets have also been playwrights – consider, for starters, William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, T. S. Eliot, and Oscar Wilde – and many poets have written about the experience of treading the boards.
Below, we select and introduce some of the best-known and best-loved poems about the subject of acting and the theatre. But have we missed any classics off our list?
1. Edmund Spenser, Sonnet LIV from Amoretti.
Of this worlds Theatre in which we stay,
My love lyke the Spectator ydly sits
Beholding me that all the pageants play,
Disguysing diversly my troubled wits.
Sometimes I joy when glad occasion fits,
And mask in myrth lyke to a Comedy:
Soone after when my joy to sorrow flits,
I waile and make my woes a Tragedy …
This sonnet from Spenser’s mid-1590s sonnet sequence Amoretti, written for his wife, is the first of a pair of Elizabethan sonnets on this list addressing the theme of the theatre. It also introduces a common trope: ‘the world as theatre’ or ‘world as a stage’. Just like in the theatre, the poet’s life is interchangeably a comedy full of mirth and a tragedy full of ‘woes’ …
2. William Shakespeare, Sonnet 23.
As an unperfect actor on the stage,
Who with his fear is put beside his part,
Or some fierce thing replete with too much rage,
Whose strength’s abundance weakens his own heart;
So I, for fear of trust, forget to say
The perfect ceremony of love’s rite,
And in mine own love’s strength seem to decay,
O’ercharged with burthen of mine own love’s might …
This sonnet introduces one of Shakespeare’s favourite analogies – the theatrical metaphor – into the Sonnets. Although the rest of the poem uses a range of comparisons and images, the opening lines make it worthy of a place on this list.
In the first two lines, he’s like an actor who, suffering from stage fright, forgets his lines while on stage; in the next two lines, the opposite analogy is used, and he likens himself to a fearsome (rather than fearful) creature, like a wild beast whose anger prevents it from achieving anything.
3. William Shakespeare, ‘All the World’s a Stage’.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school …
These lines come from Act II Scene VII of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and the speech acts as a sort of microcosm of that play: arguing that life is one big performance, and that theatre and illusion are both noble arts and somehow transcend the literal stage. We play many ‘parts’ in our lives, just as actors play fictional roles on stage.
4. Thomas Hardy, ‘In the Old Theatre, Fiesole’.
I traced the Circus whose grey stones incline
Where Rome and dim Etruria interjoin,
Till came a child who showed an ancient coin
That bore the image of a Constantine.
She lightly passed; nor did she once opine
How, better than all books, she had raised for me
In swift perspective Europe’s history
Through the vast years of Caesar’s sceptred line …
Thomas Hardy’s own acting career consisted of a walk-on part in a pantomime at Covent Garden, but he wrote powerfully about the theatre in this poem – specifically, about the ancient Roman theatre in modern-day Italy, at Fiesole.
5. Ella Wheeler Wilcox, ‘The Actor’.
No discourse or sermon can reach us
Through feeling to reason like you;
No author can stir us and teach us
With lessons as subtle and true.
Your words and your gestures obeying,
We weep or rejoice with your part,
And the player, behind all his playing,
He ought to be great as his art …
Ella Wheeler Wilcox (1850-1919) is sometimes derided as one of the worst popular poets ever, but although her poetry may lack the polish or depth of many of her contemporaries, there’s something to be said for her simple, direct style – on display here in this poem which pays tribute to the power of the actor, who can outdo the priest with his sermon and the writer with his pen in terms of really connecting with people.
6. Oscar Wilde, ‘The Theatre at Argos’.
Nettles and poppy mar each rock-hewn seat:
No poet crowned with olive deathlessly
Chants his glad song, nor clamorous Tragedy
Startles the air; green corn is waving sweet
Where once the Chorus danced to measures fleet;
Far to the East a purple stretch of sea,
The cliffs of gold that prisoned Danae;
And desecrated Argos at my feet.
No season now to mourn the days of old,
A nation’s shipwreck on the rocks of Time,
Or the dread storms of all-devouring Fate,
For now the peoples clamour at our gate,
The world is full of plague and sin and crime,
And God Himself is half-dethroned for Gold!
Wilde (1854-1900) famously said that he liked acting because it was ‘so much more real than life’. And he would write numerous plays for the theatre.
In this poem, a sonnet which is reproduced in full above, Wilde contemplates the days of the ancient Greeks, who invented the theatre, and mourns the loss of Greek tragedy.
7. R. S. Thomas, ‘Acting’.
Here’s another poem which uses ‘acting’ as a trope for life itself – and specifically, in this instance, married life. A man has married a woman whose word he cannot trust, and fears that everything she says is a performance, a sham, and unreal. But in the sonnet’s sestet we turn to the woman’s final ‘performance’: her own funeral. A fine poem from the great twentieth-century Welsh poet.
8. Edward Hirsch, ‘The Skokie Theatre’.
This poem from 1985 is by the American poet Edward Hirsch (born 1950), and is about the local movie theatre in Skokie, Illinois and Hirsch’s childhood memories of visiting it. Specifically, though, the poem is about the adolescent’s sexual awakening and how this takes place, one day, while sitting in the cinema.
9. Michael Donaghy, ‘The Tragedies’.
This poem is by someone who is, for our money, one of the greatest poets of the last half-century. Donaghy (1954-2004) was born in the US but settled in London.
This poem isn’t online, and as it’s still in copyright we cannot post it here, but it’s available in Donaghy’s Collected Poems, which we recommend to any fans of contemporary poetry. This poem is about a performance of Hamlet, but it’s also about how all sorts of things are taking place on the periphery of our vision while we’re fixated on the ‘spotlit’ prince ‘upstage’ as he delivers his soliloquy.
10. Don Paterson, ‘Rain’.
We’ll conclude this pick of the best poems about acting with one that’s about film actors (and film shots) rather than the theatre. Paterson (b. 1963) tells us he loves ‘all films that start with rain’. From that direct opening, Paterson considers how the poetry of rainfall at the beginning of a film can persuade him to overlook a multitude of filmic weaknesses: the actor’s native accent slipping in, for instance, or the boom mic dropping into view.
Although acting is only a secondary theme here, it earns its place by being a wonderfully evocative poem that encourages us to think about ‘the actor’ of modern times, which is more often than not a film actor rather than a stage actor.
If you’ll forgive the quibble, I must offer a slight disagreement with the inclusion of “All the World’s a Stage”. It’s a brilliant piece, of course, but its theatrical reference is wholly metaphorical. The subject matter is life, not acting. Instead, Hamlet’s advice to the players (“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you…”) may be Shakespeare’s greatest examination of the art and science of acting.
Speaking of Hamlet, I would also recommend Mary O’Malley’s very funny poetic account of attending a performance at the same time as a young student group, “Communion at the Gate Theatre”.
As always, I thoroughly enjoy and appreciate your poetry lists!
Thanks for the excellent recommendation of Mary O’Malley’s poem! And I take your point about Jaques’ speech, absolutely: I was thinking about poems that use theatre motifs as much as acting/theatre in a literal sense, and thought I might receive quibbles if I left that one off the list!