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Eliot’s Drama at the 41st ITSES Conference

Last weekend (October 2-3) I attended the 41st T. S. Eliot International Society Conference. Around the date of Eliot’s birth in late September, scholars meet in his home town (St Louis), or at some other location associated with the author’s life and work. This year’s reunion would have been celebrated at Harvard – Eliot’s alma mater – had it not be for the pandemic. Instead we met on line.

A number of participants presented on Eliot’s drama, or provided insights relevant to it:

  • In assessing Eliot’s critcism of the poems of Alan Seeger (his contemporary at Harvard), Kevin Rulo observed the former’s emphasis on the notion of theatricality in Seeger’s poetic representation of Paris.
  • In one of the round tables on Eliot’s recently revealed correspondence with Emily Hale, John Whittier-Ferguson emphasised the strikingly direct parallels between some of these letters and The Family Reunion. The awkwardness and tormented frustration into which Eliot’s relationship with Hale developed cast a shadow over the play, in contrast to their transmutation into poetry in “Burnt Norton.”
  • Sara Fitzgerald, the author of The Poet’s Girl (a biofiction on the Hale-Eliot relationship), touched on Hale’s involvement with amateur theatre, her role as teacher of speech and drama in several colleges, and as advisor to Eliot on aspects of performance.
  • The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture was delivered by Robert von Hallberg, who scrutinised the more discursive and prosaic passages of “East Coker,” especially those in which the poet reflects on the difficulties of poetic expression. I could not help connecting those lines with Eliot’s continued struggle to find the right language for his verse dramas.
  • In exploring the influence of detective fiction on Eliot, Deborah Leiter alluded to Sherlock Holmes’s “Musgrave Ritual” as echoed by one of the knights in Murder in the Cathedral; Alex Davis examined the factual origins of the crime mentioned in Sweeney Agonistes, where the protagonist’s friend kills a woman an keeps her body in a “lysol bath.”
  • Sørina Higgins discussed liturgical elements of Murder in the Cathedral, and their authenticity within the framework of a play that dramatises religious ceremony.
  • Parker T. Gordon focused on The Rock as a text for the stage and on the production details of its first performance, directing special attention to the choral sections and drawing on rarely seen archival material (photographs, costume designs and musical scores).

Eliot’s drama, approached from multiple perspectives (criticism, biography, intertextual links with poetry, elements of popular culture, performance), is possessed of great versatility as an object of research in itself, and as a conduit to researching other facets of Eliot’s oeuvre.

I will be looking forward to future conferences – and the reopening of theatres – in better times.


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