Recommended Reading – Closet Plays


Many plays have been written with the author’s intention that they are read rather than performed for a variety of different reasons. These plays are known as “closet dramas.” Brander Matthews, known as a leading authority on drama, wrote in 1908, in “The Legitimacy of the Closet Drama”, a closet drama is a work “which has assumed the outer form of a play but is emphatically not to be performed in a theatre.” [Emphasis added.] Matthews cites as examples Byron, Landor, and Swinburne as playwrights who wrote closet dramas worthy of note, and he argued that “closet drama appears only when there is a divorce between literature and theatre.” Clearly, he did not take into account the commercial difficulty of having a play produced.

The earliest author of a closet play appears to be the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca in the first century AD. He wrote eight plays that reworked plays written by Greek authors, including Oedipus, adapted from Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus, Agamemnon adapted from the play by Aeschylus, and most of the rest that were adapted from plays written by Euripides. As closet plays, they consisted mostly of lengthy rhetorical speeches with dramatic moments being reported after the events. His plays had a strong influence on the drama in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare references him in Hamlet as “Seneca cannot be too heavy.” Hamlet, 2.2.400.

For eighteen years, between 1642 and 1660, the performance of plays was banned by the English government, and play reading became a substitute for playwriting. Even after the ban on the performance of plays was lifted, some playwrights continued to write plays intended to be read rather than performed. John Milton’s play Samson Agonistes, written in 1671, is an example of an early modern drama that was intended by Milton to be read rather than performed.

In the early modern period, when women were not free to write in public, many wrote plays to express their views. Examples include Margaret Lucas Cavendish, The Convent of Pleasure, and Elizabeth Cary, The Tragedy of Mariam.

In the 1800’s, as audience tastes shifted to comedy and melodrama, playwrights who wanted to write tragedies focused more of their attention on writing for readers rather than actors and audiences. Examples include Lord Byron, Manfred, and Percy Shelley, Prometheus Unbound.

Suzan Lori-Parks’s 365 Days/365 Plays (2006) is a modern-day example of a closet play since the plays were not originally intended to be produced, instead of beginning as a personal challenge. Erik Ehn’s The Saint Plays (2000) is another example. A third example is James Merrill’s The Immortal Husband.

Send us your examples of closet dramas, especially any modern ones, and we will add them to the list.