closet drama

closet drama

closet drama, a play that is meant to be read rather than performed. Precursors of the form existed in classical times. Plato's Apology is often regarded as tragic drama rather than philosophic dialogue. The dialogues of Cicero, Strabo, and Seneca were probably declaimed rather than acted, since only the comic theater survived transplantation from Greece to Rome. Closet dramas were particularly popular in the early 19th cent. when melodrama and burlesque dominated the theater, and poets attempted to raise dramatic standards by reviving past traditions. Byron's Manfred (1817) and Shelley's The Cenci (1819) imitate Shakespeare, and Goethe's Faust (Part I, 1808; Part II, 1832) draws in part on the Elizabethan tradition. Milton's Samson Agonistes (1671) and Shelley's Prometheus Unbound (1819) are based on Greek tragedies. Notable among other closet dramas are Robert Browning's Strafford (1837) and Pippa Passes (1841).
A closet drama is a play that is not intended to be performed onstage, but read by a solitary reader or, sometimes, out loud in a small group, perhaps in a small room called a closet.


Any drama recorded in a written text, and which does not depend to any significant degree upon improvisation for its effect, can be read as literature without being performed. Closet dramas, however, are designed especially for reading and do not concern themselves with stage technique. Featuring little action but often rich in philosophical rhetoric, they are rarely produced for the stage, though this does happen on occasion.

The philosophical dialogues of ancient Greek and Roman writers such as Plato were written in the form of conversations between "characters" and are therefore similar to closet drama.


The tragedies of Seneca the Younger in the first century AD, though modelled on Roman tragedy, were probably never meant for performance. They were intended to be read or recited at small gatherings of the wealthy. The emperor Nero, a pupil of Seneca's, may have performed some of them, however. Some of the drama of the Middle Ages was also of this type, such as the drama of Hroswitha of Gandersheim, or dialectical works such as The Debate of Body and Soul or the Interludium de Clerico et Puella.

Closet drama has been practiced even in eras when stage drama was at its height. Fulke Greville, Sir William Alexander, and Mary Sidney wrote closet dramas in the age of Shakespeare and Jonson. Thomas Killigrew is an example of a stage playwright who turned to closet drama when his plays could no longer be produced; he was in exile from England during the English Civil War. The period of the Civil War and the Interregnum, when the public theatres were officially closed (1642–60), was perhaps the golden age of closet drama in English. John Milton's play Samson Agonistes, written in 1671, is another example of early modern drama never intended for the stage.

Closet drama written in verse form became very popular in Western Europe after 1800; these plays were by and large inspired by Classical models. Faust, Part 1 and Faust, Part 2 by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, among the most acclaimed pieces in the history of German literature, were written as closet dramas. Nonetheless, both plays are often performed onstage today in Germany and France. Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as a host of other figures, also devoted much time to the closet drama. The genre also influenced other forms of literature and theatre; the portions of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick that are in dialogue form are at least a casual allusion to closet drama. Some of the poems of William Butler Yeats are in dialogue form, suggesting a similar inspiration (though Yeats was not fond of closet drama). The austerity of many of the plays he wrote for the Abbey Theatre derives largely from his study of Japanese Noh drama; their closest analogue for contemporary Europeans, however, would have been the Romantic closet drama.

The popularity of closet drama at this time was both a sign of, and a reaction to, the decline of the verse tragedy, so popular during the Neoclassical period, on the European stage in the 1800s. Popular tastes in theatre were shifting toward melodrama and comedy, and there was little commercial appeal in staging verse tragedies (though Coleridge, Robert Browning, and others wrote verse dramas that were staged in commercial theaters). Playwrights who wanted to write verse tragedy had to resign themselves to writing for readers, not actors and audiences. Nineteenth-century closet drama became a longer poetic form, without the connection to practical theatre and performance.

Robertson Davies called closet drama "Dreariest of literature, most second hand and fusty of experience!" However, many closet dramas were written in Victorian times and afterwards. Closet drama continues to be written today, although it is no longer a very popular genre.

The Circe episode of James Joyce's Ulysses could be considered closet drama, since it is written in dramatic form but would be impossible to perform.

Some writers who have created closet drama

Closet screenplay

Brian Norman, an assistant professor at Idaho State University, called James Baldwin's One Day When I Was Lost a "closet screenplay. The screenplay One Day When I Was Lost was written for a project to produce a movie, but the project suffered a setback. After that, the script was published as a literary work.

Prose fiction written in screenplay form can be also called "closet screenplay" and this diction is more appropriate than Norman's.

In vocabulary of Japanese language, there is a word "Lesescenario (レーゼシナリオ)," which means "closet screenplay. This is a compound word of a German word "Lesedrama" and an English word "scenario."



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