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So Inquisitive

Paul Pry, the comic character created by John Poole and John Liston

In Act Three of The Cocktail Party, we learn that Celia Copplestone, whose existential ennui causes her to refuse “the human condition,” became a missionary and was crucified by heathen insurgents. Her body, or rather “the traces of it,” was found “very near an ant-hill”. The gruesome details of a young woman’s death – even more so, as E. Martin Browne explained, in T. S. Eliot’s drafts of the play – seem incongruous with the tone of a West End comedy like The Cocktail Party.

Early in the play, Celia casually remarks that Julia Shuttlethwaite might be “her Guardian”. Julia, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly and Alex MacColgie Gibbs are the Guardians who protect and guide fellow characters in distress. Apart from this, with their concerted pulling of strings, their comings and goings, they inject comic energy into The Cocktail Party. In Act One, soon after leaving the party at the Chamberlaynes’ flat, Julia returns in search of a lost umbrella while Edward is confiding in the Unidentified Guest (Reilly):

Edward! How lucky that is raining!
It made me remember my umbrella,
And there it is! Now what are you two plotting?
How very lucky it was my umbrella
And not Alexander’s – he‘s so inquisitive!
But I never poke into other people’s business.

Julia will return yet another time, making a fuss of recovering her glasses, with “one lens missing,” but soon realising that they were in her bag all along. These appearances, which lighten up a relatively long and dense scene in Eliot’s first act, recall a famous nineteenth-century play.

Paul Pry (1825) is a comedy by John Poole whose eponymous anti-hero is “an idle, meddlesome and mischievous fellow consumed with curiosity […] an interfering busybody who conveniently leaves behind an umbrella everywhere he goes in order to have an excuse to return and eavesdrop” [*]. The character was first performed by the actor John Liston (1776-1846), who also played ageing, country or Cockney types. Liston’s creation became so popular that porcelain factories started to produce Paul Pry figurines.

Nevill Coghill considered “Julia’s maddening intrusions” just one among several “music-hall tricks” used by Eliot in The Cocktail Party [**] but they go further back, to 1830s farce. Be that as it may, Paul Pry, music-hall and “Guardian” Julia are all part of a continuum of comic tradition. Uniquely, Eliot added to it in order to connect with popular audiences and convey his transcendent preoccupations. It was these that did not allow him to soften Celia’s sacrifice, cruel but salvific.

[*] “Paul Pry (play),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Pry_(play), accessed Sept 11, 2021.
[**] Nevill Coghill, “An Essay on the Structure and Meaning of the Play,” The Cocktail Party, by T. S. Eliot, London: Faber and Faber, 1974, pp. 253-291 (p. 260).

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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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Offstage Purgatories

Spatial settings in T. S. Eliot’s plays are mostly determined by those plays’ main situations. We may think of the dismal London flat of Sweeney Agonistes, of Canterbury Cathedral in Murder in the Cathedral, or Wishwood manor in The Family Reunion. Occasionally, Eliot introduces imaginary locations of a dramatic relevance: examples are San Marco in The Elder Statesman, or Kinkanja in The Cocktail Party.

Frederick Culverwell was an Oxford friend of Lord Claverton’s. After serving a jail sentence in England for forgery, he settles in San Marco. This is a fictional republic in Central America where Culverwell becomes a respectable citizen as Federico Gomez. However, as he points out to Lord Claverton, “out there they respect you for rather different reasons” – the republic’s name seems evocative of Venetian moral decadence. According to Gomez, San Marco is “a good place / to make money in, though not to keep it in,” and the people there “have Indian thoughts”. Lord Claverton dismisses his former friend’s activity as “systematic corruption,” but his sense of moral superiority will soon waver. Gomez has returned from his own purgatorial San Marco to teach Claverton a lesson in humility.

Kinkanja is an island in the East to which Celia Copplestone travels as a missionary, and where she undergoes her via purgativa. Alex MacColgie Gibbs, returning from “a tour of inspection of local conditions,” characterises the conflict in Kinkanja: the heathen population venerates monkeys, Christian converts eat monkeys, and the heathen eat Christians in revenge. Alex also brings news of Celia’s death in this context: she has been crucified by heathen insurgents (her final via unitiva). The population of Kinkanja is portrayed, from a prejudiced orientalist perspective, as cruel and irrational (“The native is not, I fear, very rational”), but their land, present through Alex’s narration, is important as the setting where Celia fulfils her destiny of sacrifice and sainthood.

San Marco and Kinkanja contribute to characterisation, plot evolution and thematic definition. Neither is staged, but both represent foils to the plays’ actual or alternative settings: San Marco is a contrast to Lord Claverton’s England, where law, order and morality seem to prevail; Kinkanja is diametrically opposed to the glamour of Hollywood, of which Celia may have dreamt as an aspiring actress. Crucially, they are comparable as offstage, symbolic purgatories.

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The Fourth Tempter

In Murder in the Cathedral (1936), four tempters visit Thomas Becket as he retires to his rooms. The first three tempt the Archbishop and former Chancellor of England with royal favour, carefree joy, political power, and the support of English lords. An unexpected, mysterious Fourth Tempter (“you know me, but have never seen my face”) offers a vision of heavenly glory such as only martyrs and saints enjoy. Becket admits to “have thought of these things,” but also spurns the last tempter. Whereas the first three aspects of temptation were easy to dismiss, the fourth is especially powerful in picturing the archbishop´s secret ambitions.

A film adaptation of Eliot’s play was directed by George Hoellering in 1951. The director persuaded the author to join with him in writing the screenplay, adding an opening trial scene with Henry II at Northampton Castle. Eliot was also asked to record the text of his play, so that actors became familiar with its intrinsic music and rhythm. He agreed to take an active role in Hoellering’s project – curious to learn how cinema worked, and keen to explore the possibilities of poetry in that medium.

In reflecting on verse in film [*], Eliot argued that image and word should have equal standing and be in perfect conjunction. He also laid emphasis on audibility, comparing cinemas with theatres: in a cinema, it was possible for all audience members to listen in much the same way. Sound technology, therefore, opened favourable prospects for the reception of poetry in film. Eliot would have a further opportunity to contribute to this development when Hoellering asked him to lend his voice to the Fourth Tempter.

In this scene of the film, we hear Eliot’s voice, his characteristic reading tone and inflections with background music, which builds up the tension. We see a variety of images, outdoor and indoor, still and moving – clouds covering the sun, the knights riding towards Canterbury, a crucifix, a column capital, a wall relief, decorated tiles. But more importantly, we see Becket. First we see him from a distance, in the seclusion of a small chapel; then the camera follows him. Finally we are close up, rather as a ghostly presence that may be identified with the Fourth Tempter. His speech is, as a means of psychological characterisation and foreshadowing, a climax in both the play and the film.

[*] See, for example, Eliot’s “Dossier on Murder in the Cathedral: Playwright Presents Both an Evaluation and Appreciation of the Film Version,” New York Times (March 23, 1952) in Complete Prose 7, eds. Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, pp. 673-76.

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More Liberty with Myth

Michael Redgrave as Orin in Dudley Nichols’s film adaptation of Mourning Becomes Electra

Michael Redgrave played Harry, Lord Monchensey in the first production of T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939). Curiously, a few years later, he would be cast as Orin Mannon in the film adaptation (1947) of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). Both roles are transpositions of Aeschylus’ Orestes: Eliot’s drama is set in the north of England in the 1930s, O’Neill’s in New England as the Civil War comes to an end. Like Harry, Orin and his sister Lavinia (Electra) carry the weight of a family curse on their shoulders.

In criticising The Family Reunion (an adaptation of The Furies, the third play of the Oresteia trilogy) in “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot admitted to a “failure of adjustment between the Greek story and the modern situation”; he also regretted not having “taken a great deal more liberty with his [Aeschylus’] myth”. The two most unsatisfactory elements of the play, according to its author, were the incongruity of the chorus and the interference of the Furies.

Eliot’s chorus is made up of Harry’s uncles and aunts. Their speech as individual characters is rife with platitudes and clichés, but when they speak together as a chorus, their tone becomes enigmatic, even oracular. The members of the chorus in Mourning Becomes Electra, on the other hand, are “types of townsfolk […] representing the town,” “a human background for the drama of the Mannons” [*]. They are more distant from the action than Harry’s relatives, but their demeanour and conversation are always realistic.

Like the chorus in The Family Reunion, who may speak poetically “beyond character,” the appearance of the Furies also compromises the play’s realism. O’Neill found a subtle yet effective equivalence for the Furies in his setting: Orin and Lavinia’s guilt for their mother’s suicide and her lover’s murder is symbolised by the staring ghostly portraits of their ancestors in the sitting-room, including “one of a grim-visaged minister of the witch-burning era” (131). The two Mannon children react to the threatening presence of these ghosts, even confront them. Like the portraits, the windows on the façade of the symbolic family house “reflect the sun in a smouldering stare, as of brooding, revengeful eyes” (273). Interestingly, the Furies are first seen in Eliot’s play through a drawing-room window.

Aspects of The Family Reunion that Eliot considered to be errors (poetic language without a clear dramatic purpose, mythological figures at odds with a modern setting) are ironically among the most attractive features of the play. And it is interesting to compare Eliot’s “flaws” with the dramatic solutions reached by O’Neill, the more confident playwright.

[*] Eugene O’Neill, Mourning Becomes Electra (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013), pp. 17, 113. All quotes from this edition.

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Pottery, Music and a Garden

In its opening, “Burnt Norton” (1935) leads us from abstract relativisation of sequential time “into the rose-garden”. The experience is imbued with factual uncertainty: “what might have been,” “the passage which we did not take,” “the door we never opened,” “shall we follow?,” “then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty”. Garden seclusion and the oxymoronic “unheard music hidden in the shrubbery” are part of the scene, a moment out of time.

The poet associates these moments with the simultaneity of opposites such as sound and silence, or movement and stillness. Speech and music need silences, figures on surfaces give the impression of movement, and a sustained musical note one of stillness:

[…] Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the coexistence, […]
(“Burn Norton” V)

In The Confidential Clerk (1953), similar images become central. For Sir Claude, pottery balances the demands of his life as a financier; Colby – his new confidential clerk – is equally transported when he plays the piano. These escapes through art allow them to experience time in a subjective way, to – in Sir Claude’s words – “go through the private door / Into the real world”. It is coherent with the transcendent vision of Four Quartets that this dimension should be more real than the predictable aspects of everyday life.

Lucasta refers to Colby’s music as his secret garden. Yet, he wishes “God would walk in my garden,” so as “not to be alone there”. Similarly, the pleasure that Sir Claude derives from pottery “takes the place of religion”. As a result, their “real world” of artistic fulfilment feels as unreal as the surface of life. If Sir Claude has pottery and Colby music, Eggerson – former confidential clerk – has gardening. His actual garden at Joshua Park is Colby’s ideal: it is not lonely and unreal, but “a part of one single world”.

Early in the play, Eggerson invites Colby to see his garden in the spring. He also predicts that “some day,” his replacement will “want a garden of his own”. Colby finally decides to move in with the Eggersons at Joshua Park and make a living as an organist, unifying both his worlds as real. Furthermore, Colby’s new life also materialises the ethereal rose-garden of “Burnt Norton”.

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Choral Voices

First edition of Virginia Woolf’s
The Waves (1931)

The character of Louis in Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931) is often assumed to have been inspired by T. S. Eliot. Louis is a foreigner in England, always self-consciously trying to fit in; he is characterised by his need for order, and by his sense of history and tradition; he has a clerical job, but shows a profound literary sensitivity. Eliot shared these traits – and was born in Saint Louis.

The Waves is essentially a choral novel in which six friends (Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny and Louis) express their thoughts and relive their memories, without directly interacting. They are, to use Henry James’s term, “centres of consciousness,” and the projections of their minds overlap. In the final section of the novel, the six voices become one as Bernard, the writer in the group, blurs perspectival distinctions.

When we first hear them, the characters speak short statements – like verse lines – conveying elemental visual and auditory images:

“I see a ring,” said Bernard, “hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.”
“I see a slab of pale yellow,” said Susan, “spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.”
“I hear a sound,” said Rhoda, “cheep, chirp; cheep, chirp; going up and down.”
“I see a globe,” said Neville, “hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.”
“I see a crimson tassel,” said Jinny, “twisted with gold threads.”
“I hear something stamping,” said Louis. “A great beast’s foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps.” [*]

Four characters integrate the chorus in Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939): Ivy, Violet, Gerald and Charles. A single choral voice alternates with four voices that, despite fulfilling a common purpose, are distinct. Although this alternation was an innovative dramatic device, the critic Desmond MacCarthy dismissed it as “a violation of auditory psychology” [**]. The members of Eliot’s chorus comment on the action collectively, but they also show concern on trivialities or attack one another, as if voicing their thoughts:

IVY. I do not trust Charles with his confident vulgarity, acquired from worldly associates.
GERDALD. Ivy is only concerned on herself, and her credit among her shabby genteel acquaintance.
VIOLET. Gerald is certain to make some blunder, he is useless out of the army.
CHARLES. Violet is afraid that her status as Amy’s sister will be diminished.

Eliot’s chorus is very different from Woolf’s dramatis personae. The former are secondary characters lacking any depth, they are relatives with strained relationships and not friends, and they are satirised by Eliot for their meaningless mundane priorities. Yet, the cadence and diction of their language, the way their voices are alternatively integrated and individualised, are reminiscent of the opening of The Waves, in which the six voices emerge, almost with an incantatory effect.

[*] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 2.
[**] Desmond MacCarthy, “Some Notes on Mr. Eliot’s New Play, New Statesman, 25-03-1939.” T. S. Eliot. The Contemporary Reviews, ed. by Jewel Spears Brooker (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), pp. 381-84 (p. 382).

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That Peculiar Man’s Plays

Photograph from the original production of Look Back in Anger

In a 2016 interview, Julie Walters declared that when she started her acting career in the early 70s, “you’d hear middle-class actors trying to sound working class because it was cool”. She lamented the decline of “working-class drama” that “comes out of people being unhappy and angry with the unfairness of life” [*]. The cycle, which included Walters’ training as an actress and now closed, began with the emergence of the “angry young men,” and also coincided with the appearance of T. S. Eliot’s The Elder Statesman (1958).

In John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), Jimmy and Cliff, “common as dirt” (26) [**], criticise J. B. Priestley, as part of the establishment they reject. Later, Jimmy alludes to “that peculiar man’s plays” (83) without giving a name. However, two joking references to Eliot follow: Jimmy suggests “T. S. Eliot and Pam” (83) as an artistic name for him and Cliff; he then puns on the title of the last of the Four Quartets, in the style of music-hall repartee: “she was called a little Gidding, but she was more like a gelding iron!” (84). Furthermore, Jimmy has written a poem that – he parodically claims – contains “a good slosh of Eliot” (50).

The social setting of The Elder Statesman is upper class and not obviously satirical, by contrast with the treatment of aristocratic dullness in certain characters of The Family Reunion (1939). In Eliot’s last play, when Michael confronts his father, he reveals that the father’s title, Lord Claverton, was the culmination of a political career, and that he married “up.” As a young man, Lord Claverton, then Dick Ferry, courted a chorus girl, Maisie – humble enough to be deserted without scruple. For Michael, his father’s status is more an encumbrance than a privilege, and he longs for an independent life away from his family.

Look Back in Anger concerns itself with the lives of young people of the working class; the protagonist of The Elder Statesman is an old man, and a lord. Eliot’s play is realistic, but it conforms to the conventions of drawing-room comedy and is written in verse, albeit transparent. Osborne’s realism, on the other hand, colours the characters’ speech. Colonel Redfern observes that Jimmy “speaks a different language from any of us,” and that he “has quite a turn of phrase” (65, 69). The rhythmic balance of Eliot’s measured lines is strikingly different from Jimmy’s verbal incontinence: “Mummy and Daddy turn pale, and face the east every time they remember she’s married to me. But if they saw all this going on, they’d collapse. Wonder what they would do, incidentally. Send for the police I expect” (28).

Look Back in Anger and The Elder Statesman are separated by just two years, but also by a generation. Osborne’s play depicts a new society, a society not in step with Eliot’s drama.

[*] Susie Mesure, “Julie Walters: ‘There will be another working-class acting revolution’,” The Independent, 28 February 2015.

[**] All quotes from this edition: John Osborne, Look Back in Anger, London: Faber and Faber, 1960 (1996).

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The Perfect Line

On May 18, the Departamento de Filologías Extranjeras y sus Lingüísticas (UNED) held a one-day seminar to publicise its research projects, including “T. S. Eliot’s Drama from Spain: Translation, Critical Study Performance (TEATREL-SP).” One of its researchers, Natalia Carbajosa Palmero, gave the lecture “The Translation into Spanish of T. S. Eliot’s Verse Drama: Precedents and Present Proposals.” Finding the right form, both equivalent to the original and also connecting with contemporary verse drama in Spanish, requires tracing Eliot’s search for the “perfect line”.

The need to adopt suitable means of expression became more pressing when Eliot evolved into drama still poetic and set in the present, but essentially realistic in its presentation of characters and situations. From The Cocktail Party onwards, Eliot used verse lines with a caesura dividing three or four main stresses. Although the verse line need not have a specific number of syllables, rhythmical regularity tends to make length similar. As with a set of scales, the poet placed stresses on each side, to keep balance.

This basic unit proved equally versatile for scenes of dramatic intensity (Sir Claude discussing personal fulfilment through art in The Confidential Clerk) as for the triviality of comic relief (Mrs. Piggot chatting away with Lord Claverton in The Elder Statesman). It would also serve the purpose of advancing dramatic action, avoiding moments of poetic stagnation – a priority for Eliot when he wrote his comedies. Finally, Eliot’s line could make speech sound natural while subtly sustaining a constancy of rhythm, like a faint or distant beating.

Eliot’s choices at this stage of his career as a dramatist were based on the assumption that realistic drama was incompatible with language that sounded “too” poetic. In other words, poetry without a clear dramatic function was not desirable for the stage, since it defeats the object of realism and is not easily assimilated by the general audience, which Eliot was aspiring to reach. He achieved his goal of popularity, albeit ephemeral, with The Cocktail Party and, to a lesser extent with The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman.

Paradoxically, the more the playwright applied himself to the refinement of his dramatic poetry, the more prosaic it sounded. The functional plainness of the verse is one of the reasons why the lines of Eliot’s last two comedies sound somewhat unappealing. Conversely, the plays that have best stood the test of time are those written before Eliot’s generalised use of his basic “perfect line,” those containing markedly poetic passages in terms of prosody and imagery: Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion.

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Here by Thames’ Side

In one of his diary entries for the year 1662, Samuel Pepys describes how the city of London welcomed Catherine of Braganza, the new Queen, with pageants on the Thames: “all the show consisted chiefly in the number of boats and barges – and two Pageants, one of a King and another of a Queene, with her maydes of honour sitting at her feet very prettily” [*]. T. S. Eliot subtitled The Rock (1934) “a pageant play,” and Pepys is one of the historical characters appearing in it.

The building and rebuilding of the temple, a symptom of the unity and strength of the Church community, is the leit motif of The Rock. We can think of Eliot’s pageant play as a staged summary of London’s ecclesiastical history – from the Middle Ages to the interwar period – with an emphasis on Church architecture. Impressionistic historical scenes are separated by the better known lyrical “Choruses”.

In the scene preceding the final chorus and benediction, Pepys converses with the other great Restoration diarist, John Evelyn, and the architect Christopher Wren, “seated round a dining-table,” with “nuts and wine”. As he recalls in his diaries, Pepys often met “Dr. Wren” with other members of the Royal Society (at a concert, at an artist’s studio); with “the good Mr. Eveling,” he often shared his concern over the King’s ill-advised decisions and their consequences.

The chorus leaders introduce the scene with references to “plague-stricken London,” and the “great fire [that] has ravaged the City”. To Pepys we owe the most vivid accounts of these historical events – as well as a wealth of information on theatrical activity in Restoration London. In Eliot’s scene, Evelyn alludes to his plan to rebuild London, which competed with Wren’s: “I did make myself some proposals to His Majesty, but yours had prevented me”. Wren, congenial and confident, cherishes the ambitious dream “to build here by Thames’ side the most beautiful city of all Europe, excelling Vicenza or Rome itself”. Pepys, the curious London rambler, “walked to-day in the City, to witness how the demolition of old St. Paul’s progressed”. Wren prides himself on the security and convenience of this project, which he advanced.

The new St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Wren’s dome “which was formed in his mind,” will be “a symbol for London,” as well as an image of all churches erected, demolished and rebuilt. These churches would include those that the proceeds of Eliot’s The Rock would allow to build in the near future, by the playwright’s donation.

[*] The Diary of Samuel Pepys, edited by Kate Loveman, Everyman’s Library, 2018, p. 142.