The Furies are central to T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939). Initially, we are led to believe that the protagonist, Harry, has murdered his wife and is consequently being pursued by these avenging spirits. However, as the play draws to a close, the Furies show Harry a path of expiation and of spiritual progress. By implication, the Furies appear here as the Eumenides (“kindly ones”), the “sleepless hunters” transformed into “bright angels” to convey the play’s themes of purgation and transcendence.
The Family Reunion was the first play by Eliot to combine a classical source and Christian principle in a contemporary setting. In “Poetry and Drama” (1951), Eliot criticised his own play as an adaptation of Aeschylus’s The Furies; he found that the goddesses had not undergone and imaginative translation sufficient for the twentieth century audience. As an objective correlative of Harry’s remorse and sinful family past, the Furies are limited by their incoherence with the modern dramatic situation.
Carol H. Smith referred to the appearance of the Furies in Eliot’s The Family Reunion as “a shock tactic” [*]. The shock is produced by inconsistency: a classical irruption into a modern world, pagan divinities in a play with an uncompromising Christian world view. In an early review, the critic Horace Gregory referred to the presence of the Furies as “a violation of the play’s integrity,” comparing it to the knights’ interaction with the audience at the end of Murder in the Cathedral (1935) [**].
After the climax of Becket’s murder, the knights break the fourth wall and address the audience in order to justify their action. The drama of martyrdom suddenly transforms into a “Trial by Jury,” with each of the four knights pleading his case. They stress the Archbishop’s flaws and – in an instance of what we might nowadays call “post-truth” – conclude that he commited “Suicide while of Unsound Mind.” There is even an attempt to make any spectators complicit in the crime: “if you have now arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State, remember that it is we who took the first step”.
Like the Furies in the play that was to follow, the knights’ appeal to the audience disturbs the temporal setting. It also counteracts tragedy with the comedy of incongruity, and sets argumentative prose against the devotional verse with which the play ends. Eliot’s disruptive strategies both in Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion may be perceived as “shocks” or “violations,” but they are also signs of modern experimentation with the dramatic medium.
[*] Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice. From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 117.
[**] Gregory, Horace. “The Unities and Eliot,” in T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Jewel Spears Brooker (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), pp. 403-406 (p. 406).