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Bull’s Hide, Tough Land

Txe Arana in La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau)

Producing a play by Eliot for a general audience has become a rare and risky venture. Dramatising his best-known poem has proved more feasible in recent years: Deborah Warner’s production of The Waste Land with Fiona Shaw was successfully staged, from the late 1990s, for over a decade. In 2013, Francesc Cerro-Ferran created and directed La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau), a stage production based on Eliot’s poem (translated into Catalan by Agustí Bartra as La terra eixorca) and on La pell de brau ([The Bull’s Hide], 1960), by Salvador Espriu (1913-1985).

We may distinguish two main facets in Espriu’s poetic work: meditation on death / transcendence influenced by negative theology and mysticism, and vindication of Catalan culture (or Spanish cultural diversity) in a context of postwar political repression. The first of these concerns connects with Eliot’s poetic vision; in a less obvious way, so too does the second. Espriu’s most popular poem (or poetic sequence) is precisely La pell de brau, the finest example of his “civil” poetry. As with Eliot’s The Waste Land, critics and readers felt that it expressed “the disillusion of a generation.”

Although La pell de brau envisages national reconciliation, the trauma of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) is at the heart of the poem. Espriu calls Spain “Sepharad,” imaging the hard times of the war and the dictatorship as a wandering in the desert (a symbolic wasteland). The poem’s title translates as “the bull’s hide,” the ancient geographer Strabo’s metaphor for a delineation of the Iberian peninsula’s coastline. La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau) combines Espriu’s and Eliot’s titles, as well as drawing on their common sense of hopelessness and prophetic tone.

Cerro-Ferran causes both poets to engage in dialogue, as extracts from their works are dramatised by the actress Txe Arana – who impersonates various voices and characters, including Eliot’s Tiresias – and the actor Jaume Comas, whose recorded voice is identified with the bull’s head seen onstage, symbolising Espriu’s concerns as expressed in La pell de brau. The stage is flanked by gnarled trees, with video projections reinforcing the wasteland atmosphere. Among these, Picasso’s Guernica and Goyas’s Disasters of War evoke tragic episodes of Spanish history.

La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau) commemorated the centenary of Espriu’s death, associating him with Eliot, the poet who – despite himself – gave poetic expression to the zeitgeist of the interwar years. Cerro-Ferran’s production also confirms that The Waste Land, characteristically fragmentary and polyphonic, can still inspire a contemporary dramatist.

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All Things Great and Small

At the end of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Mariner famously exhorts the Wedding-Guest: “He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast.” In the final chorus of Murder of the Cathedral, the women of Canterbury sing of “all things great and small,” as physical proof of God’s omnipresence:

They affirm Thee in living; all things affirm Thee in living; the
bird in the air, both the hawk and the finch; the beast on the
earth, both the wolf and the lamb; the worm in the soil and the
worm in the belly.

Characteristically, the Chorus uses very specific images – here indicating size, ferociousness and habitat – for an effect of comprehensiveness. The same is true of botanical, domestic, agricultural or farming imagery in other choruses. Various images suggest the richness of human experience, its sensory immediacy (“I have tasted the living lobster”) or its emotional background (“the child without milk in summer”).

The role of the Chorus being premonitory, the images it evokes before the climax of Becket’s murder tend to be unsettling. If, in the final choral prayer, all animals are granted their place in the order of Creation, earlier in the play they are presented as threatening creatures, detached from any human activity or interest:

Laughter in the noises of beasts that make strange noises: jackal,
jackass, jackdaw; the scurrying noise of mouse and jerboa; the
laugh of the loon, the lunatic bird.

These beasts could inhabit the demonic Biblical settings described by Northrop Frye in The Great Code – typically, a desert or wilderness where the divine has no presence or influence. In Eliot’s play, the imagery of demonic fauna also serves the purpose of characterising the Four Knights, when the Priests try to persude the Archbishop to bar the doors of the Cathedral against the return of the murderous emissaries of the King:

My Lord! These are not men, these come not as men come, but
Like maddened beasts. […]
You would bar the door against the lion, the leopard, the wolf or the boar, […]

The Priests seem to echo the women of Canterbury in these lines, although their voice is more closely related to the details of the dramatic action. Concrete images constitute the basic material for the choruses, just as abstract and sententious reflection – in verse dialogues as in the prose sermon – tends to be voiced by Becket. Murder in the Cathedral (1935) was written simultaneously with “Burnt Norton” (1936), the first of the Four Quartets, where the combination of these two modes (imaginal versus meditative) becomes a defining element.

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Who Saw the Ghosts?

Still from Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961)

The Family Reunion had a successful London revival in 2008. Part of a “T. S. Eliot Festival,” it was directed by Jeremy Herrin, staged at the Donmar Warehouse and performed by an attractive cast – among them, Samuel West as Harry, Penelope Wilton as Agatha and Gemma Jones as Amy. Harry, tormented by his wife’s mysterious death, returns to the family home, the country house of Wishwood, only to find that the Furies, representing his sense of guilt, have followed him.

In “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot showed his concern on the difficulty of presenting the Furies on stage, giving multiple examples of “expedients tried” and concluding that “they are never right.” In a review of the 2008 production of The Family Reunion for Variety, David Benedict described how the Furies had been “reimagined as ghastly, creepily perfect, silent children holding butterfly nets, who loom into the room in eerily calm formation after gasp-inducing sudden appearances as if from nowhere”. Benedict compares this effect, and the production’s general atmosphere with the film The Innocents (1961), Jack Clayton’s celebrated adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

The connection is felicitous, at least for two reasons, the first being the attribution of disturbing associations to childhood. Harry deludes himself by thinking of Wishwood as a refuge, a lost paradise of carefree summers spent in play with his brothers and with cousin Mary – the image of the hollow tree, where the children used to hide, is particularly evocative. But these years were obscured by Harry’s frustrated attempts to please Amy, his standoffish domineering mother, and by his parents’ loveless relationship. There is a continuity between their mysterious separation and Harry’s present derangement, which Wishwood will not soothe, as the presence of the Furies confirms.

Secondly, and more importantly, the key question of seeing is central to both James’s novella and Eliot’s play. While reading The Turn of the Screw, we cannot be sure if anyone, except the governess who tells the story, has seen the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel; Mrs Grose, the housekeeper and the governess’ loyal confidante, has not had to confront them and is therefore not in a position to reinforce the reliability of the narration. In The Family Reunion, Harry denies that the Furies live only in his mind. Three other characters claim to have seen “them”: aunt Agatha and cousin Mary, whose spiritual awareness causes them to sympathise with Harry and support him in his quest, and Downing, an unexpectedly perceptive valet-chauffeur who has also seen “them ghosts.”

These are not, however, the ghosts of moral corruption or dead innocence, as in James’s story or Clayton’s film: Downing has seen the Furies in their benevolent aspect as Eumenides (a different name for these divine mythological creatures, meaning “the gracious ones”). So has Harry, after the Eumenides appear at Wishwood for a second time, when he refers to them as the “bright angels” that he must follow, submitting to a journey of purgation of his own sins and those of his family.