Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Dramatic Monologue: Part 2, Pros and Cons

The dramatic monologue has many advantages for a writer. The form allows for a distance between the author and the speaker because, in a dramatic monologue, the person using the "I" is by definition not the author. Why should that matter? With distance, the burden of self-disclosure is lifted. By its nature, the dramatic monologue tends to preclude self-pity or gut-wrenching confession, no matter how intimate the subject matter. Interestingly, the distance between the author and the speaker sometimes allows for a more personal revelation, since the writer does not have to claim the material as autobiographical. Sometimes we are most truly ourselves when we are wearing masks.
By standing in the shoes of a character different from ourselves, we are able to show the unique ability of writing to empathize with another person. Film and theater, for instance, can only show a person from outside. In a dramatic monologue, a writer has the ability to actually understand the thoughts of another human being.
The disadvantages of the dramatic monologue include the fact that the reader is sometimes not sure if the content is real or fictional, so the impact may be lessened. The authenticity of autobiography is also missing. A writer may use a persona as a mask, and hide or lose awareness of his or her real thoughts and/or emotions.
For these reasons, the dramatic monologue fell out of favor for many years. This change of aesthetics began with Anna Akhmatova and the Acmeist poets in Russia in the early 20th century, starting with Akhmatova’s first book, Evening, published in 1912.

                                 
                                          Frontispiece from Akhmatova's first book, Evening

Akhmatova wrote, “I’m somewhat anti-Browning. He always spoke in another character, for another character. I don’t let anybody else speak a word (in my poetry, it goes without saying). I speak myself and for myself everything that is possible and that is not.” Akhmatova says she is "anti-Browning," because Robert Browning was the acknowledged master of the dramatic monologue in poems such as "My Last Duchess" and "Andrea del Sarto."
Akhmatova's viewpoint was echoed by Nadezhda Mandelstam, wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam, and an important chronicler of this generation of Russian writers: “In poetry, every word is a confession, every finished work is part of the poet’s autobiography…”
The eclipse of the dramatic monologue continued during the decades of confessional poetry that began in the 1950s with the writing of U.S. poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Identity politics of the late 1980s and the decades that followed also made dramatic monologues somewhat suspect, especially when the author and the speaker of the monologue were not from the same background. If the speaker and the author were not of the same origin in some regard, many readers felt that the author was attempting to speak for or appropriate the material of another group.
In the last decade or two, the dramatic monologue has made something of a comeback. At a panel on the dramatic monologue at the 2011 conference of the Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) in Washington, DC, a group of poets including Cornelius Eady, Julie Sheehan, Robert Thomas, and Melissa Stein championed the form and discussed their own recent work using dramatic monologues. There was a similar panel at the 2012 AWP conference in Boston. Maybe the pendulum has swung back, now that identity politics has made many of its points, and confessional poetry has explored in depth a range of topics approached by an author testifying from a standpoint very close to her or his own.

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