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New Year, New Beginnings

The first scene of The Family Reunion (1939) is set on a cold winter´s evening, symbolic of Amy’s life which is about to be extinguished. As she awaits the arrival of her son, Harry, she also longs for the return of spring: “Will the spring never come?” Her rhetorical question seems to invert the reassuring last line of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” The play´s second scene opens on a similar note with Mary complaining that “the spring is very late in this northern country,” and Agatha agreeing.

Later, when Agatha leaves Mary alone with Harry, he evokes the negativity of a “cold” spring and wanders whether it is not “an evil time, that excites us with evil voices”. Echoing Harry’s lyrical tone, Mary refers to “the ache in the moving root” or “the aconite in the snow”. The connection with The Waste Land and with the natural imagery of Four Quartets seems inexorable, although The Family Reunion was to be the last of Eliot´s plays where intertextuality with his poetry is patent.

Harry goes on to identify the spring, the birth of the natural year, as “a season of sacrifice”. Carol H. Smith convincingly interpreted The Family Reunion within the framework of fertility rites, and therefore in continuity with The Waste Land (*); after the sacrifice of the fertility god, his return to life is mirrored in nature as springtime regeneration. Mary shares Harry’s vision of spring, her words suggest the interconnectedness of Christ’s birth (in winter) and his death and resurrection (in spring): “I believe the season of birth / Is the season of sacrifice”.

Amy’s birthday, the occasion of her family reunion, is also to be the day of her death; she was born, and will die in winter. According to Smith, the Dowager is the old year that must die, while her son stands for the new year (*). Harry will embrace the prospect of rebirth, leaving family and Wishwoood manor behind. One of his younger brothers, John, will therefore experience a different new beginning by becoming the Lord of Wishwood. As we learn from the news item reporting the road accident that prevented his arrival at Wishwood, the events of the play take place on or around January 1st.

Eliot’s “Little Gidding” (1942) contains the two famous lines, sometimes quoted at this time of year: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / and next year’s words await another voice”. They readily apply to The Family Reunion as a turning point in Eliot’s dramatic production: a play written in “last year’s language” (a language lacking in dramatic purpose and plausibility), but prefiguring “another voice” (that of a more confident playwright).

(*) Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice. From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963) 134-5.


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