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What Is a Closet Drama?

By Tara Barnett
Updated May 23, 2024
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A closet drama is a play that was not written with the intention of achieving a stage production. Most of the time, this form of literature is written for private silent reading or reading aloud among small groups of friends. The topics covered in closet dramas can be quite diverse, but given that many of these plays were written around the same time period, they can have similar themes and styles. Commonly, the closet drama form was used as a way of writing commercially unviable forms of theater.

Very simply, a closet drama is any play for which the playwright's intention was not to stage a production for a large audience. In small group readings, the listeners were just as often the actors, and in private readings, the text requires the reader to use his or her imagination to fill in the gaps left by dialogue. This is different from a radio drama, which is not designed to be physically acted, but which has an intended public audience.

Closet dramas were popular as a way of escaping the constraints of work that needed to be commercially successful. When released as a bound book, a closet drama could be sent out to its audience rather than requiring the audience to congregate. In this manner, these plays allowed for works that were not appealing in their time to be released. This is one reason that many of these plays are tragedies, as these works were unlikely to succeed on the stage during periods when comedies ruled.

Some authors wrote closet dramas because they wished to write plays in ways that would not have worked well on the stage when they were writing. Others used this form as a way to continue writing plays while in exile. Even so, it was not uncommon for people to simply enjoy the form of the closet drama without external pressure.

Even though these works were not intended for staged readings, they are occasionally performed today on stage. One popular example is Goethe's Faust. Some classic plays, such as those written by Seneca, may also have been closet dramas.

Among the many writers of closet drama, those who are best known are authors who had other writing credits to their names. John Milton, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley all wrote in this form, although each is better known for other types of writing. This type of drama is still written but has decreased in popularity significantly.

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