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. A related form, the "closet screenplay," developed during the 20th century.
Any drama in a written form that 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 seldom produced for the stage.
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 (for example "Myth about Erotes").
Beginning with Friedrich von Schlegel, many have argued that the tragedies of Seneca the Younger in the first century AD were written to be recited at small parties rather than performed. Although that theory has become widely pervasive in the history of theater, there is no evidence to support the contention that his plays were intended to be read or recited at small gatherings of the wealthy. The emperor Nero, a pupil of Seneca, may have performed in some of them. Some of the drama of the Middle Ages was of the closet-drama type, such as the drama of Hroswitha of Gandersheim and dialectical works such as The Debate of Body and Soul or the Interludium de Clerico et Puella.
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, 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 Theater 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 theater 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 afterward. Closet drama continues to be written today, although it is no longer a very popular genre.
- Randall, Dale J. B. Winter Fruit: English Drama 1642–1660. Lexington, KY, University Press of Kentucky, 1995.