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Who Saw the Ghosts?

Still from Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961)

The Family Reunion had a successful London revival in 2008. Part of a “T. S. Eliot Festival,” it was directed by Jeremy Herrin, staged at the Donmar Warehouse and performed by an attractive cast – among them, Samuel West as Harry, Penelope Wilton as Agatha and Gemma Jones as Amy. Harry, tormented by his wife’s mysterious death, returns to the family home, the country house of Wishwood, only to find that the Furies, representing his sense of guilt, have followed him.

In “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot showed his concern on the difficulty of presenting the Furies on stage, giving multiple examples of “expedients tried” and concluding that “they are never right.” In a review of the 2008 production of The Family Reunion for Variety, David Benedict described how the Furies had been “reimagined as ghastly, creepily perfect, silent children holding butterfly nets, who loom into the room in eerily calm formation after gasp-inducing sudden appearances as if from nowhere”. Benedict compares this effect, and the production’s general atmosphere with the film The Innocents (1961), Jack Clayton’s celebrated adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

The connection is felicitous, at least for two reasons, the first being the attribution of disturbing associations to childhood. Harry deludes himself by thinking of Wishwood as a refuge, a lost paradise of carefree summers spent in play with his brothers and with cousin Mary – the image of the hollow tree, where the children used to hide, is particularly evocative. But these years were obscured by Harry’s frustrated attempts to please Amy, his standoffish domineering mother, and by his parents’ loveless relationship. There is a continuity between their mysterious separation and Harry’s present derangement, which Wishwood will not soothe, as the presence of the Furies confirms.

Secondly, and more importantly, the key question of seeing is central to both James’s novella and Eliot’s play. While reading The Turn of the Screw, we cannot be sure if anyone, except the governess who tells the story, has seen the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel; Mrs Grose, the housekeeper and the governess’ loyal confidante, has not had to confront them and is therefore not in a position to reinforce the reliability of the narration. In The Family Reunion, Harry denies that the Furies live only in his mind. Three other characters claim to have seen “them”: aunt Agatha and cousin Mary, whose spiritual awareness causes them to sympathise with Harry and support him in his quest, and Downing, an unexpectedly perceptive valet-chauffeur who has also seen “them ghosts.”

These are not, however, the ghosts of moral corruption or dead innocence, as in James’s story or Clayton’s film: Downing has seen the Furies in their benevolent aspect as Eumenides (a different name for these divine mythological creatures, meaning “the gracious ones”). So has Harry, after the Eumenides appear at Wishwood for a second time, when he refers to them as the “bright angels” that he must follow, submitting to a journey of purgation of his own sins and those of his family.


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