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A Question of Form

Coreographer Gillian Lynne during rehearsal of Cats

Drama, and poetic drama specifically, features prominently in T. S. Eliot’s criticism, from the 1920s onwards. Two essays, one from the beginning of the decade, “The Possibility of Poetic Drama” (1920), and the other from the late twenties, “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry” (1928), both include interesting comments on acting.

In “The Possibility of Poetic Drama,” Eliot points out that performers preclude fixity for any performed work (a play, a concert, a ballet). In other words, uniqueness is intrinsic to performance. Implicitly, he establishes an intriguing opposition: form versus personality. Eliot disapproves of performance as a means to channel the performer’s personality (tellingly, he places the word in quotation marks). In this respect, the essay is consistent with the emphasis on creative impersonality conveyed by “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” published one year before.

Eliot also refers to acting approaches that cause actors to prioritise the object of performance, rather than their own subjectivity as performers. He mentions the use of masks (W. B. Yeats’ The Dreaming of the Bones, which experimented with the conventions of Japanese Noh, had appeared in 1919), and the application of specific methodologies (he probably had Stanislavsky in mind). Finally, he presents music-hall comedians as models, since they admirably adapt their means to required ends.

In “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,” Speaker E proposes a different model for a new drama: Russian ballet, an art of form (tending to fixity and permanence), but obviously lacking any linguistic component. By suggesting that poetic drama should resemble ballet, the speaker equates dance with poetry, implying another opposition: form versus (dramatic) prose. Actors, in turn, should emulate dancers, who undergo strict physical training (tantamount to “moral training, ” according to Speaker B) in order to master a liturgy of movement.

These ideas are reflected in the plays of Eliot before he opted for the realism of drawing-room comedy. The Group Theatre used masks in their 1934 production of Sweeney Agonistes. Dance and movement were important components in The Rock, choreographed by the charismatic Rev. Vincent Howson. Choreography also contributes to a more effective staging of Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion, where choruses – and their positions on stage – have crucial dramatic functions. And we should not forget the musical Cats, with Gillian Lynne’s evocation of feline form in a complex, ground-breaking, and demanding choreography.


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