Monday, October 29, 2012

The Dramatic Monologue: Part 1, Roots

A dramatic monologue is a short piece of writing, often a poem, spoken by a persona who is not the author. The speaker can be a fictional character, a real person now alive, or a historical personage.
The most famous examples of dramatic monologue come from the work of the English poet Robert Browning, including “Andrea del Sarto,” spoken in the voice of that great Renaisance painter as he looks back on his life. It was in this poem that Browning wrote some of his most widely quoted lines:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?

Browning’s other famous dramatic monologue is “My Last Duchess,” a murder mystery written in heroic couplets.
The dramatic monologue reached a peak in the work of Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote Spoon River Anthology, a collection of 244 pieces in the voices of various characters speaking from the grave. Together the poems create a surprisingly contemporary exposé of small-town life, broaching such taboo subjects as frustrated passions, abortion, and the effects of war on veterans. Masters originally serialized the monologues in a newspaper and published them in a best-selling book. He never lived to see their performance as a successful play—his book was not adapted for the stage until after his death. Here are a couple of YouTube videos of an actor reading some of the monologues from Spoon River Anthology:
 Many of my favorite dramatic monologues are by African American poets. Black American writers have kept the form vital for many decades. There are so many terrific dramatic monologues in this vein, spanning the last century: Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Party,” Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “The Pool Players,” June Jordan’s “From The Talking Back of Miss Valentine Jones” and “Unemployment Monologue,” Ntozake Shange’s play for colored girls… (written entirely in dramatic monologues), and Sekou Sundiata’s “Space” from his play The Circle Unbroken Is a Hard Bop. If you visit the website of Robert Pinsky's Favorite Poem Project, you can hear a wonderful reading of Dunbar's "The Party."
The Academy Award-winning actress Alfre Woodard recites a dramatic monologue from for colored girls… in this video from the original PBS version of Ntozake's Shange's play. This video has another fantastic monologue from Shange's now classic play, starting about the 6:00 mark.
The late, great Sekou Sundiata used to recite his amazing monologue "Space," which almost single-handedly created the spoken word movement. "But that's another bop," to quote Sekou. I once asked him how he got his name, and he told me, "Sekou Sundiata is my nom de guerre."

More on the dramatic monologue in my next blogs, including the advantages and disadvantages of the form, and suggestions for how to get started writing one of your own.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
The Dramatic Monologue, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe Tanka

Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer

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