The objective of this curriculum unit is to develop and exploit a complementary relationship between poems and theatre. I intend specifically to consider monologue poems of late nineteenth and early twentieth century poets. The relationship in question will be realized by applying acting techniques and disciplines to interpret character, as presented in selected monologues. Both the actor and his or her audience will in turn enjoy enriched understanding and appreciation of the poems, their imagery, and their language. Acting skills will be strengthened as they are exercised in a new context — literature that is not written specifically for theatre.
Development of character is the key concept here. We shall seek to bring life and breath, depth and credibility to unique individuals, real or fictional, rather than limiting ourselves to acting out narratives or events as told in poems. We shall realize the individuality of monologue speakers or characters in poems written in the poet’s voice (e.g., Eliot’s “Portrait of a Lady”) through dramatic presentation. This curriculum unit is intended for juniors and seniors enrolled in advanced acting classes at The Cooperative High School of the Arts and Humanities. Two prerequisites are: (1) possession of basic acting skills and experience, and (2) strong commitment both to the individual study of acting and to the concept of theatre as a collaborative art form. Prior formal classwork will have included Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Albee. Although each student may act alone, they will not act in isolation. Successful class work will require non judgmental, objective mutual criticism and support of each actor by his or her peers.
The resulting benefit of this unit of study will be twofold. First, the actor will, through study, exercise, and practice, become a better actor, more competent and more confident. Second, the actor will become better informed, acquainted with new writers, literary forms, and ideas, and - we hope - imbued with an appetite to learn yet more. The actor will emerge with a better sense of his or her own potential, together with an ability to analyze and portray character in whatever context it is introduced.
The poets I have chosen for this study are Alfred Tennyson, Robert Browning, and T.S. Eliot. They were prolific writers, widely appreciated in their own times. Their names remain familiar today, although their works are seldom seen in today’s high school classrooms. Their study can be supported by an extensive body of critical and biographical writing.
The specific poems I have selected are these:
Tennyson: “Ulysses,” “Tithonus”
Browning : “My Last Duchess,” “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at Saint Praxed’s Church”
Eliot: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
The poems chosen are monologues through which individual characters express and reveal themselves, and provide a firm foundation upon which the actor may build his or her own interpretation of that character. Many other poets, poems, and characters might have been selected, including other poems by the same authors, such as Tennyson’s “St. Simeon Stylites,” “Will Waterproof’s Lyrical Monologue,” “Locksley Hall,” and “Locksley Hall Sixty Years After,” and Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto,” “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came,” “Caliban upon Setebos,” and “Bishop Blougram’s Apology.” These monologues are imbedded in a tradition extending one hundred years earlier of poems spoken by an unreliable speaker who is clearly not the poet. Examples of these poems could be Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard,” and William Wordsworth’s “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman,” and “The Thorn.”
My criteria were:  the character must be adequately fleshed out, such that the actor’s task is to interpret an existing character, not invent one to fill a vacuum;  the character is not a stereotype or a well known historical or fictional figure for whom traditional interpretations exist ready to hand; and  the character is implied through his or her own words, not explicitly stated. Overall, of course, I wanted to introduce my students to new literature that I myself have enjoyed. Any well written character is psychologically and emotionally complex — otherwise the character would be dull, lifeless, and uninteresting to us, as would an equally one-dimensional human being. It is the goal of the actor to discover the complexities that make a character real and interesting, to discover sympathetic and unsympathetic qualities through study of the text and the subtext, and finally to present these qualities and complexities in performance. The words of the monologue will then become not words being read or recited, but words spoken from the depths of a whole being who is implicitly capable of speaking other words in other times or places.
These student-actors are not so much being taught as they are being offered the opportunity to learn for themselves. The selection process must be imposed upon the student, yet the student must explore and discover what the character contains in his or her own very personal and individual interpretation. Different actors will create different, yet equally valid interpretations of the same character. There is no “correct” interpretation, only more or less believable ones. There is no objective “truth” that can be imposed from the outside, only the inner truth of the actor’s conviction that the “real” character has been met and understood. This freedom from prejudgment is a property of acting technique and study, not a property that literature advertises about itself. The difference between developing Polonius’ character and J. Alfred Prufrock’s character is that Polonius is widely recognized as a character to be portrayed, with many precedents for interpretations of his character, while Prufrock is seldom if ever perceived in this way. A wealth of such characters exist, outside dramatic literature, yet ready to enrich our dramatic experience.
Classroom work will take two parallel paths: to study monologues and soliloquies, our chosen literary source of characters and,  to study acting techniques. Technique is the craftsmanship, discipline, and method that the actor brings to any role. Technique is the kit of tools the actor uses to build character from the raw materials supplied by the author, in keeping with concepts imposed more or less explicitly by the author, the director, and interaction with other actors. In this class, the student-actor will develop his or her character with complete freedom to make mistakes and learn from them without embarrassment or penalty. The characters we have selected for study are seen here not in interaction or active contention with other characters, but principally in presenting or revealing themselves or exhorting others. The student thus liberated from developing his character as part of a larger production will enjoy a special autonomy: his character is entirely his own creature, beholden to no one save the author and internal consistency. The student need compromise with no one, and his character need measure up to no standard other than credibility. His test will be to convince his fellow students that he is real, and both he and they will learn from his achievements.
In preparation for their individual studies of monologue poems, the student-actors will read and study together selected monologues and soliloquies in dramatic literature. We shall select several classics from Shakespeare, such as Hamlet’s instructions to the actors, Polonius’ advice to Laertes, and Henry V’s Saint Crispian speech to his soldiers. These may be studied in the larger context of the whole play, and also in the light of a great body of criticism and commentary. A number of important female monologues will be studied; these include Andreyevna in Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard” and Nina in “The Seagull,” Nora in Ibsen’s “A Doll House,” Grandma’s monologues in Albee’s “The Sandbox,” and the stepdaughter in Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”