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Poet in the Playhouse

Ralph Fiennes in rehearsal of Four Quartets

In 2009, Faber and Faber published an audio recording of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1936-1942), read by Ralph Fiennes. The actor recently announced that he is to direct and act in a dramatic adaptation of this poetic sequence. There have been other attempts to bring Eliot’s poems to the stage: Deborah Warner’s The Waste Land with Fiona Shaw, for example, premiered in 1995 and was successfully performed for over a decade.

The opposition and integration of movement and stillness, as well as the image of “the dance,” are central to Four Quartets. Drawing mainly on these elements, and reproducing the rhythms and development of the original poetic texts, coreographer Pam Tanowitz created a Four Quartets ballet in 2018. Eliot chose a musical metaphor as a title for his poems, and Tanowitz’s dancers danced to the poet’s words.

It might be argued that the variety of characters and scenes in The Waste Land facilitates a dramatic transposition. Conversely, the poems that make up Four Quartets – densely meditative and conceptual, but also lyrical and rich in images of nature – do not seem, a priori, very theatrical. In contrast with the polyphony of The Waste Land, the four poems of the sequence are unified by a single poetic voice that could be identified with the poet’s. In fact, Four Quartets has been called Eliot’s “spiritual autobiography.” Its thematic complexity will have to be conveyed by the sole actor’s voice and gesture, by lighting and sound effects.

The text which presents Fiennes’s production, to open at Bath in late May, points out that the sequence of four poems was completed during the years of the Second World War. The entertainment site Ox in a Box connects their historical context with the present pandemic situation: “Four Quartets contain some of the most exquisite and unforgettable reflections upon surviving periods of national crisis […] So it is fitting that […] Fiennes’ world premiere […] is announced this week – a year since regional theatres were forced to close”. [*]

Press releases have also reminded readers that Eliot directed his creative efforts to Four Quartets because of the impossibility to produce plays in wartime London. These were the years when he was determined to pursue a career as a dramatist. While intrigued by the prospect of seeing Four Quartets on stage, I cannot suppress a sense of wistfulness, on behalf of Eliot the playwright, that is Eliot the poet who returns to the theatre on this occasion.

[*] “Breaking News: Ralph Fiennes to Star at Oxford Playhouse This Summer in Stage World Premiere of Eliot’s Four Quartets!” (March 17, 2021).


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