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. The dichotomy between private 'closet' drama (designed for reading) and public 'stage' drama (designed for performance in a commercial theater setting) dates from the late eighteenth century. The practice of circulating plays in written form (printed or handwritten) for literary audiences predates this period, however.
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 (or closet plays) are traditionally defined in narrower terms as belonging to a genre of dramatic writing unconcerned with stage technique and seldom (if ever) produced for the stage. "Although the term sometimes carries a negative connotation, implying that such works either lack sufficient theatrical qualities to warrant staging or require theatrical effects beyond the capacity of most (if not all) theaters, closet dramas through the ages have had a variety of dramatic features and purposes not tied to successful stage performance." Stageability is only one aspect of closet drama: historically, playwrights might choose the genre of 'closet' dramatic writing to avoid censorship of their works, for example in the case of political tragedies. Closet drama has also been used as a mode of dramatic writing for those without access to the commercial playhouse, and in this context has become closely associated with early modern women's writing.
The philosophical dialogues of ancient Greek and Roman writers such as Plato (see Socratic dialogue) were written in the form of conversations between "characters" and are in this respect similar to closet drama, many of which feature little action but are often rich in philosophical rhetoric.
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 debate poems in quasi-dramatic form, such as The Debate of Body and Soul.
Elizabethan and Jacobean
The period of the Civil War and the Interregnum, when the public theaters were officially closed (1642–60), was perhaps the golden age of closet drama in English. Thomas Killigrew is an example of a stage playwright who turned to closet drama when his plays could no longer be produced during this period; he was in exile from England during the English Civil War.
Following the Restoration in 1660, some authors continued to favour closet drama. John Milton's play Samson Agonistes, written in 1671, is an example of early modern drama never intended for the stage.
Several closet dramas in verse were written in 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, though both plays have been frequently staged. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Alexander Pushkin devoted much time to the closet drama. The genre also influenced other forms of literature and theater; the portions of Herman Melville's novel Moby-Dick that are in dialogue form are at least a casual allusion to 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 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, rather than actors and audiences. Nineteenth-century closet drama became a longer poetic form, without the connection to practical theater and performance.
Robertson Davies called closet drama "Dreariest of literature, most second hand and fusty of experience!" Closet drama continues to be written today, although it is no longer a very popular genre.
- Straznicky, Marta. 'Closet Drama.' In Arthur F. Kinney (ed.), A Companion to Renaissance Drama, p. 416. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008.
- Burroughs, Catherine B. Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers, pp. 14-16. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
- Kennedy, Dennis. Theatre & Performance. Oxford University Press, 2003 p.282
- Aebischer, Pascale. Jacobean Drama, p. 97. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
- Straznicky, 'Closet Drama,' p. 416; Aebischer, Jacobean Drama, p. 97.
- Randall, Dale J. B. Winter Fruit: English Drama 1642–1660. Lexington, KY, University Press of Kentucky, 1995.