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Ghosts of Christmas Past

The working title of The Waste Land was He Do the Police in Different Voices, a quotation from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865). The sentence points to key elements of Eliot’s poem that we could consider “dramatic”: effective characterisation, dialectal features, ventriloquism or dialogic scenes. We know that Eliot was particularly fond of Dickens’s characters and their language. In two of his plays, we may also find echoes of the structure and symbolism of A Christmas Carol (1843).

In The Cocktail Party, at the end of Act One, Edward Chamberlayne, alone in his flat in the evening, receives the unexpected visit of an “unidentified guest”. Lavinia (Edward’s wife) has left him, and the guest promises to “bring her back from the dead,” explaining that “we die to each other daily,” and must meet again as strangers. As an example, he refers to the “affectionate ghosts” of childhood, such as “the lively bachelor uncle at the Christmas party,” whom we see rarely or after many years. Before leaving, the unidentified guest – like Marley in Dickens’s tale – warns Edward to “await your visitors,” to welcome them as strangers, and even become a stranger to himself. The first visitor is Celia (Edward’s lover), the second visitor is Peter (Lavinia’s lover but in love with Celia), and the third is Lavinia. Their meeting, set against a past and present of misdirected love, will be decisive for their future.

In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton’s prospect of peace after his retirement from politics is disturbed by the return of two characters whose lives he negatively conditioned in their youth. He accustomed Fred Culverwell, his contemporary at Oxford, to a life of extravagance fatally resulting in financial crime. Mrs Carghill, on the other hand, was ruthlessly forsaken after a promise of marriage. Both Culverwell and Carghill confront Eliot’s protagonist with his blameworthy behaviour, which casts a shadow on his irreproachable reputation: they cause him to make amends. Lord Claverton refers to them as “the ghosts who haunted me,” “spectres from my past”. His past and present life, about to change as a result of these encounters, seems equally unreal. As he tells his daughter Monica and her fiancé, “I see myself emerging / From my spectral existence into something like reality”.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come teach Scrooge to honour the spirit of Christmas, founded on charity and compassion. His story exemplifies the archetype of rebirth or transformation, made possible by spiritual guidance. This is also crucial in most of Eliot’s plays: Edward Chamberlayne will choose the positive way of marital harmony (those around him will also find their way), and Lord Claverton will face death having learnt to love selflessly. “God bless us, everyone!”

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Eliot’s Verse Drama and “a Novel in Verse”

In “The Three Voices of Poetry” (1953), T. S. Eliot referred to the love poems that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote for each other and then published, in order to prove his point that “the voice of the poet talking to one person only” was “an illusion” (*). The essay focuses on the three poetic voices as used in Eliot’s plays, which we may connect with EBB’s most ambitious poem, Aurora Leigh (1856).

Eliot looked back on the glorious past of verse drama, but his choice of medium was unconventional in the context of twentieth-century theatre. Aurora Leigh was defined by its author as a “a novel in verse”. We may think of this definition as an oxymoron, but Aurora Leigh is in the tradition of the long narrative poem, while partaking of the Victorian novel’s realism. It deals with “the woman question” and social injustice, but also with a variety of minor issues, such as the state of drama in the mid nineteenth-century.

In Book V, Aurora ridicules the conventions of the stage and dramaturgy of her time: “‘exit’ here / And ‘enter’ there,” “the points of clapping, fixed,” “to prick the galleries to the heart / Precisely at the fourth act,” “culminate / Our four pyramidal acts with one act more” (**). With fascination, she also refers to the ritualistic practices of ancient drama, such as “the sacrificial goat,” “the whirling white / Of choral vestures,” or “the waxen mask” (p. 156). If these are forever lost, dull present-day drama

[…] also peradventure may outgrow
The simulation of the painted scene,
Boards, actors, prompters, gaslight, and costume
And take for a worthier stage the soul itself,
[…] (p. 156)

In the meantime, playwrights will conform to formalities, constrained as they are both by the demands of audiences, and the fear of critics. By contrast, poetry is still guided by the sublime, and poets, unencumbered by external or commercial pressures, need only be true to their art. This is why Aurora is committed to poetry, and will not lower herself to writing for the stage:

I will write no plays;
Because the drama, less sublime in this,
Makes lower appeals, submits more menially,
Adopts the standard of the public taste
To chalk its height on, […] (p. 154)

As we know, Eliot tried to adapt to “the public taste” without making his drama superficial: precisely in “The Three Voices of Poetry,” he alludes to “unfriendly critics” who disparagingly associate him with “Shaftesbury Avenue and Broadway” (p. 818). As indicated above, the golden age of verse drama was Eliot’s referent, but he may have recognised in Aurora Leigh a historically closer and successful attempt to use verse for the portrayal of contemporary life.

(*) “The Three Voices of Poetry,” in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot. A European Society 1943-1957, vol. 7, eds. Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, 2018, pp. 817-33 (p. 818). All quotes from this edition.

(**) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 153, 154. All quotes from this edition.

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Striving Toward the Condition of Drama

In 1959, the year after its first production in Britain, The Elder Statesman, was programmed in a new theatre in Germany, the Staatstheater at Kassel. For the occasion, Eliot wrote a note of greeting (*) in which, very much the “elder statesman” of international letters, he stressed how drama had shaped his work, and also looked back on his career as a dramatist.

As a critic, Eliot had reflected on the golden age of verse drama, and the possibility of its revival for modern audiences. He dedicated some of his most insightful essays to key Renaissance dramatists. In his note for the Kassel Staatstheater, however, he does not refer to his critical work: “among the English influences upon my development as a poet, the verse dramatists of the age of Shakespeare took first place” (emphasis added). Dramatic elements (effective characterisation, presentation of scenes, vivid dialogue) can be found in Eliot’s poetry, culminating in The Waste Land. In 1959, echoing Walter Pater’s famous dictum on art and music, Eliot makes a revealing statement: “many of my early poems appear, in retrospect, to have been striving, so to speak, toward the condition of drama”.

In defining his aim as a playwright, Eliot correlates poetry with characters, situations and speech of his own day: “to bring back poetry to the stage, to accustom the public to plays written in verse but concerned with contemporary society and with characters talking in contemporary idiom”. With The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman, he perfected his ideal of naturalistic verse. This was his main innovation – valuable but subtle in comparison with the daring theatrical experimentation of the times. Eliot had been in a position of leadership as a poet and critic, but not – he was well aware – when he ventured into drama: “there were living dramatists with greater native talent for the theatre, writers of unerring instinct for theatrical effect, and of technical accomplishment which I could not hope to emulate”.

Eliot’s confidence was in the poetry, in his conviction that, traditionally, the transition from poetry to drama was not – to quote Frost’s best known poem – “the road less traveled by,” a journey easier than that departing from prose: “I maintain that it is only in poetry that the deepest emotion and the finest states of feeling can be expressed; and that it is more possible for a poet, by enthusiasm and hard work, to become a playwright, than for a prose playwright to become a poet”.

(*) “Greetings to the Staatstheater Kassel,” in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot. Still and Still Moving, vol. 8, eds. Jewel Spears Brooker and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, 2019, pp. 367-69.

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Investigations Into the Life of the Spirit

Light comedy in The Confidential Clerk (1953) is provided mostly by a character, Lady Elizabeth Mulhammer. She is presented to Colby by Eggerson as whimsical, absent-minded, and often needing rescue:

It’s been a very unusual privilege
To see as much of Europe as I have,
Getting Lady Elizabeth out of her difficulties.

But more importantly, “she has a good heart”. Her inner restlessness finds an outlet in alternative medicine: she has undergone treatment in Zürich or Lausanne (where Eliot himself recovered from stress and chronic fatigue in the early 1920s). An earl’s daughter, she is socially superior to her husband, and snobbishly looks down on Sir Claude’s illegitimate daughter and her fiance, the “rather vulgar” Lucasta and Kaghan.

Yet, Lady Elizabeth was an alienated child in an aristocratic family, to the point of believing herself a “changeling”. Her estrangement resulted in extravagance and esotericism: she approves of Colby’s aura; she believes in reincarnation, the “art of health,” “the importance of colour for our spiritual life,” and “the Wisdom of the East”; she stresses the benefits of “health cures,” of a “quiet hour” for meditation, and teaches “recollection” to the maid; she is interested in “modern art,” “dervish dancing” and “herbal restaurants”.

In conversation with Colby, Sir Claude makes a crucial statement:

my wife’s investigations
into what she calls the life of the spirit
are a kind of substitute for religion.

Lady Elizabeth’s investigations recall the “usual pastimes and drugs” to which Eliot referred in section V of “The Dry Salvages”: ufology, spiritualism, astrology, chiromancy, or the interpretation of dreams. These are all rife “when there is distress of nations,” and opposed to “the intersection of the timeless with time,” which “is an occupation for the saint”. Lady Elizabeth’s mock religion contrasts with Colby’s music, which will lead him to a saintly life as the organist of a parish church.

Early in the play, Eggerson refers to Lady Elizabeth’s confidence in her intuition or “guidance,” and Sir Claude jokingly suggests that this takes the place of “judgement”. But Eliot chooses Lady Elizabeth to voice key verse lines at the end of the play, expressing a central theme:

Between not knowing what other people want of one,
And not knowing what one should ask of other people,
One does make mistakes!

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We Call Him Just Gus

In a famous photograph, T. S. Eliot stands outside the back door of the Cambridge Theatre in London (where the first production of The Elder Statesman was running in 1958), fondly looking down at a passing cat. It would seem to illustrate one of the most memorable poems of his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939): “Gus: The Theatre Cat,” which opens with the line “Gus is the cat at the theatre door”.

Gus (Asparagus) is an ageing cat. Old Deuteronomy, the feline Methuselah, “was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme / A long while before Queen Victoria’s accession”. Gus, however, is a creature of the Victorian era, and his acting career sums up the theatrical variety of that period. A narratorial voice introduces Gus in his present old age but also refers to the past, when he was “a Star of the highest degree,” alongside Victorian acting legends Henry Irving and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

The poem’s second stanza conveys Gus’s own voice. His talent as an actor evokes the great days of music hall: “I’d extemporize back-chat, I knew how to gag”. In his “London Letter” on Marie Lloyd (1922), Eliot lamented the death of the music-hall star, which in his view was also the demise of a genre of performance enhanced by audience involvement. In this and other early essays (“The Possibility of Poetic Drama” or “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry”), Eliot pointed to this factor as something that contemporary drama should aspire to emulate.

Gus’s broad acting experience includes most of the minor or so-called “illegitimate” forms of popular mid-Victorian drama, such as adaptations of melodramatic and sensational novels (“he once played a part in East Lynne“; “I have sat by the bedside of poor Little Nell”) or the pantomine (“I once understudied Dick Whittington’s cat,” a legendary story also featured in The Rock). The part that Gus remembers more proudly also seems to reflect the Victorian taste for the Gothic: “But my grandest creation, as history will tell, / Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell”.

Eliot’s poetic work is often characterised – rather simplistically, perhaps – as a reaction against the Victorian. Conversely, the use of music-hall or drawing-room conventions in his plays represents continuity with nineteenth-century theatre. When it comes to drama, Gus’s nostalgia for “the days when Victoria reigned” might, after all, be also Eliot’s.

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Not a Very Jolly Corner

Etching by Peter Milton for Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”

In a review (unsigned) of the first production of The Family Reunion (1939), published in Listener, the anonymous reviewer argues that it “compares with the most sensitive of the short novels by Henry James” [*]. Eliot wrote this play at a time of crisis provoked by ambivalent feelings for his family, for his wife Vivienne, and for his intimate friend Emily Hale. The letters addressed to Hale, often compared to Aspern’s papers in James’s novella of that name, confirm that The Family Reunion is Eliot’s most autobiographical play.

In the play’s scene of his reunion with Mary, she represents romantic renewal for the widowed Harry. However, this promise is not fulfilled, and although Mary helps Harry to find his way, her guiding role is less decisive than that of Aunt Agatha’s. The similarity between Mary and Hale is evident, but we may also establish connections with two characters created by James: May Bartram in “The Beast in the Jungle,” and Alice Staverton in “The Jolly Corner”.

In “The Beast in the Jungle,” James’s protagonist, John Marcher, is reunited with May Bartram at an English country house, Weatherend. Bartram is presented as a dependent relative, very much like Mary at Wishwood. Even her great-aunt, the lady of Weatherend, is reminiscent of Amy, Harry’s mother in The Family Reunion. Bartram supports Marcher through the existential crisis expressed as the metaphor after which the story is titled. Marcher refers to Bartram as “a sybil” whose innate wisdom is a “mystical, irresistible light” [**] – in this aspect, she is both Mary and Agatha.

Like Harry, Spencer Brydon returns home in “The Jolly Corner”. After many years in Europe, he goes back to New York, his family home (now empty), and Alice Staverton. If Harry and Mary reminisce on their free and happy childhood, Spencer recalls how he and Alice became friends in an idealised pre-modern New York. In an empty house, the “jolly corner” where he grew up, Spencer will confront his ghostly double, the man that he might have been. Similarly, Agatha explains that her nephew “will find another Harry” at Wishwood; on any given spot of the manor, “he will have to face him – / And it will not be a very jolly corner”.

Through sleepless nights at the “jolly corner,” Spencer is alert to every sound and shadow. At Wishwood, “the noxious smell untraceable in the drains” and “the unspoken voice of sorrow in the ancient bedroom” disturb Harry’s sleep. The distinctive word embrasure occurs in James’s story, and then in Eliot’s play: this is where Spencer hides as he waits for his double to appear, and where the Furies make themselves visible to a horrified Harry.

The Furies reappear in their benevolent aspect as Eumenides, showing Harry the way of purgation as The Family Reunion resolves. At the end of James’s story, Spencer experiences a symbolic rebirth, following an agon with his other self. He passes out, is rescued by Alice (a female intercessor, like May, Mary and Agatha), to be born again: “I can only have died. You brought me literally to life” (p. 366).

[*] Listener, 06-04-1939 (unsigned), T. S. Eliot. The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, Cambridge UP, 2004, p. 384.
[**] Henry James, Tales, eds. Christof Wegelin and Henry B. Wonham, Norton, 2003 (1984), pp. 330, 321. (Page number given for subsequent quotes from this source.)

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Drama at the 42nd ITSES Annual Meeting

The 42nd International T. S. Eliot Society Annual Meeting took place last weekend, online for a second year. One of the peer seminars, coordinated by Fabio L. Vericat and myself, was dedicated to “Eliot’s Plays, the Stage and the Dramatic Arts”. The participants’ interests were wide-ranging, and included continuities/connections with the poetry, popular influences (crime plays, or the music-hall), Emily Hale’s role in familiarising Eliot with the practice of drama, hybridity and intermediality, ritual and dance, spiritual and emotional resolution, and more.

We started by considering whether Eliot’s drama could be regarded as a form of entertainment. The question is most relevant in connection with Eliot’s comedies (The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman), less so in the experimental Sweeney Agonistes (published as an “unfinished poem”), the devotional and historical Murder in the Cathedral or the sombre, existentialist The Family Reunion.

The Cocktail Party was Eliot’s first comedy, and the most commercially successful of his plays. It had long runs in New York and London, with casts led by stars of both stage and screen (Alec Guiness, Rex Harrison); it was awarded a Tony for best play in 1950, and its author was even approached with a proposal for a film adaptation. It was undoubtedly successful, but could we say that it entertained audiences?

The social role of theatre was essential for Eliot; he emphasised it from his earliest essays on drama and, as a playwright, he always longed to reach a wide, popular audience. In fact, this aspiration explains Eliot’s choice of drawing-room comedy as a medium to convey his worldview. In the late 1940s, he had become a social critic as well as a dramatist, and he advocated the benefits of Christian life against growing materialism and secularisation. This was his end (to proselytise, we could say, rather than entertain), and comedy was his means.

It is not impossible for contemporary audiences to identify with the characters in The Cocktail Party and their crises, although it may be harder to relate to the purgative and negative paths that Eliot offers to them. His comedies are rarely produced today, and this was another point discussed in the seminar. Is the validity of a play, generation after generation, the basic measure of its worth?

The Cocktail Party was last staged in 2015 at The Print Room of The Coronet Theatre (London). As one would expect, it was not a production for large audiences. However, in a review, Tim Hochstrasser argued that “this neglect [of Eliot’s drama] is clearly undeserved,” that “the philosophical issues under review [in The Cocktail Party] are very accessible,” and that this particular production was “a very well thought-through case for revisiting Eliot’s plays as a whole” [*].

[*] Tim Hochstrasser, “Review: The Cocktail Party, Print Room At The Coronet,” 23 Sept 2015, https://britishtheatre.com/review-the-cocktail-party-print-room-at-the-coronet-4stars/, accessed 3 Oct 2021.

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So Inquisitive

Paul Pry, the comic character created by John Poole and John Liston

In Act Three of The Cocktail Party, we learn that Celia Copplestone, whose existential ennui causes her to refuse “the human condition,” became a missionary and was crucified by heathen insurgents. Her body, or rather “the traces of it,” was found “very near an ant-hill”. The gruesome details of a young woman’s death – even more so, as E. Martin Browne explained, in T. S. Eliot’s drafts of the play – seem incongruous with the tone of a West End comedy like The Cocktail Party.

Early in the play, Celia casually remarks that Julia Shuttlethwaite might be “her Guardian”. Julia, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly and Alex MacColgie Gibbs are the Guardians who protect and guide fellow characters in distress. Apart from this, with their concerted pulling of strings, their comings and goings, they inject comic energy into The Cocktail Party. In Act One, soon after leaving the party at the Chamberlaynes’ flat, Julia returns in search of a lost umbrella while Edward is confiding in the Unidentified Guest (Reilly):

Edward! How lucky that is raining!
It made me remember my umbrella,
And there it is! Now what are you two plotting?
How very lucky it was my umbrella
And not Alexander’s – he‘s so inquisitive!
But I never poke into other people’s business.

Julia will return yet another time, making a fuss of recovering her glasses, with “one lens missing,” but soon realising that they were in her bag all along. These appearances, which lighten up a relatively long and dense scene in Eliot’s first act, recall a famous nineteenth-century play.

Paul Pry (1825) is a comedy by John Poole whose eponymous anti-hero is “an idle, meddlesome and mischievous fellow consumed with curiosity […] an interfering busybody who conveniently leaves behind an umbrella everywhere he goes in order to have an excuse to return and eavesdrop” [*]. The character was first performed by the actor John Liston (1776-1846), who also played ageing, country or Cockney types. Liston’s creation became so popular that porcelain factories started to produce Paul Pry figurines.

Nevill Coghill considered “Julia’s maddening intrusions” just one among several “music-hall tricks” used by Eliot in The Cocktail Party [**] but they go further back, to 1830s farce. Be that as it may, Paul Pry, music-hall and “Guardian” Julia are all part of a continuum of comic tradition. Uniquely, Eliot added to it in order to connect with popular audiences and convey his transcendent preoccupations. It was these that did not allow him to soften Celia’s sacrifice, cruel but salvific.

[*] “Paul Pry (play),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Pry_(play), accessed Sept 11, 2021.
[**] Nevill Coghill, “An Essay on the Structure and Meaning of the Play,” The Cocktail Party, by T. S. Eliot, London: Faber and Faber, 1974, pp. 253-291 (p. 260).

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A Question of Form

Coreographer Gillian Lynne during rehearsal of Cats

Drama, and poetic drama specifically, features prominently in T. S. Eliot’s criticism, from the 1920s onwards. Two essays, one from the beginning of the decade, “The Possibility of Poetic Drama” (1920), and the other from the late twenties, “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry” (1928), both include interesting comments on acting.

In “The Possibility of Poetic Drama,” Eliot points out that performers preclude fixity for any performed work (a play, a concert, a ballet). In other words, uniqueness is intrinsic to performance. Implicitly, he establishes an intriguing opposition: form versus personality. Eliot disapproves of performance as a means to channel the performer’s personality (tellingly, he places the word in quotation marks). In this respect, the essay is consistent with the emphasis on creative impersonality conveyed by “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” published one year before.

Eliot also refers to acting approaches that cause actors to prioritise the object of performance, rather than their own subjectivity as performers. He mentions the use of masks (W. B. Yeats’ The Dreaming of the Bones, which experimented with the conventions of Japanese Noh, had appeared in 1919), and the application of specific methodologies (he probably had Stanislavsky in mind). Finally, he presents music-hall comedians as models, since they admirably adapt their means to required ends.

In “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,” Speaker E proposes a different model for a new drama: Russian ballet, an art of form (tending to fixity and permanence), but obviously lacking any linguistic component. By suggesting that poetic drama should resemble ballet, the speaker equates dance with poetry, implying another opposition: form versus (dramatic) prose. Actors, in turn, should emulate dancers, who undergo strict physical training (tantamount to “moral training, ” according to Speaker B) in order to master a liturgy of movement.

These ideas are reflected in the plays of Eliot before he opted for the realism of drawing-room comedy. The Group Theatre used masks in their 1934 production of Sweeney Agonistes. Dance and movement were important components in The Rock, choreographed by the charismatic Rev. Vincent Howson. Choreography also contributes to a more effective staging of Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion, where choruses – and their positions on stage – have crucial dramatic functions. And we should not forget the musical Cats, with Gillian Lynne’s evocation of feline form in a complex, ground-breaking, and demanding choreography.

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Offstage Purgatories

Spatial settings in T. S. Eliot’s plays are mostly determined by those plays’ main situations. We may think of the dismal London flat of Sweeney Agonistes, of Canterbury Cathedral in Murder in the Cathedral, or Wishwood manor in The Family Reunion. Occasionally, Eliot introduces imaginary locations of a dramatic relevance: examples are San Marco in The Elder Statesman, or Kinkanja in The Cocktail Party.

Frederick Culverwell was an Oxford friend of Lord Claverton’s. After serving a jail sentence in England for forgery, he settles in San Marco. This is a fictional republic in Central America where Culverwell becomes a respectable citizen as Federico Gomez. However, as he points out to Lord Claverton, “out there they respect you for rather different reasons” – the republic’s name seems evocative of Venetian moral decadence. According to Gomez, San Marco is “a good place / to make money in, though not to keep it in,” and the people there “have Indian thoughts”. Lord Claverton dismisses his former friend’s activity as “systematic corruption,” but his sense of moral superiority will soon waver. Gomez has returned from his own purgatorial San Marco to teach Claverton a lesson in humility.

Kinkanja is an island in the East to which Celia Copplestone travels as a missionary, and where she undergoes her via purgativa. Alex MacColgie Gibbs, returning from “a tour of inspection of local conditions,” characterises the conflict in Kinkanja: the heathen population venerates monkeys, Christian converts eat monkeys, and the heathen eat Christians in revenge. Alex also brings news of Celia’s death in this context: she has been crucified by heathen insurgents (her final via unitiva). The population of Kinkanja is portrayed, from a prejudiced orientalist perspective, as cruel and irrational (“The native is not, I fear, very rational”), but their land, present through Alex’s narration, is important as the setting where Celia fulfils her destiny of sacrifice and sainthood.

San Marco and Kinkanja contribute to characterisation, plot evolution and thematic definition. Neither is staged, but both represent foils to the plays’ actual or alternative settings: San Marco is a contrast to Lord Claverton’s England, where law, order and morality seem to prevail; Kinkanja is diametrically opposed to the glamour of Hollywood, of which Celia may have dreamt as an aspiring actress. Crucially, they are comparable as offstage, symbolic purgatories.