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What’s in a Name

Sir Claude’s new family in Act Three of The Confidential Clerk

According to Pope Francis, “God calls each one of us by name, loving us individually in the concreteness of our history”; with baptism, a child, “in his or her name, will have an original identity, including the Christian life linked to God” (*). In Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk – a transcendent comedy about double, feigned and mistaken identities – naming and renaming is crucial.

Sir Claude Mulhammer believes Colby Simpkins to be his son. Colby, a sensitive and conscientious young man, will replace Eggerson, Sir Claude’s long-serving confidential clerk. Sir Claude hopes that his wife, Lady Elizabeth, will grow fond of Colby and will accept him as her son. In fact, Lady Elizabeth feels more at ease with the new clerk than Sir Claude does: significantly, the latter calls him “Mr. Simpkins,” whereas the former prefers “Colby”.

Lucasta Angel is also Sir Claude’s illegitimate daughter. She has a maladapted relationship with her father; the antipathy she feels for Lady Elizabeth is mutual and thinly disguised. She shocks Colby by calling them “Claude” and “Lizzie”: “it did make my head spin – all those first names”. Lucasta has embraced the role of black sheep, but Colby quickly identifies this image as a mask of self-assurance.

Similarly, Lucasta sees through Colby and understands that being Sir Claude’s confidential clerk and Lady Elizabeth’s adoptive son will not make him happy. Colby is the only character with whom Lucasta can be honest, and her honesty helps him realise that spiritual fulfillment must be sought elsewhere. In that sense, the name “Lucasta” (originally derived by the Renaissance poet Richard Lovelace from the Latin lux casta, “pure light”) and the surname “Angel” are highly symbolic.

In the play’s final act, Colby’s “aunt” – whose name, Mrs. Guzzard, resonates with “wizard” – resolves the mystery of his identity, and incidentally, that of Lucasta’s fiancé, Mr. Kaghan. Kaghan – another unusual surname – goes by the pragmatic name “B,” which, as Mrs. Guzzard reveals, stands for the unfashionable “Barnabas”. The ambitious young businessman who started life as a foundling jokingly argues that “Barney Kaghan […] wouldn’t make the right impression in the City”.

At the end of The Confidential Clerk, Sir Claude, Lady Elizabeth, Lucasta and Kaghan redefine their relationships, which implies calling themselves by other names and so adopting new familial identities. On the other hand, as Colby begins a promising new life under Mr. Eggerson’s mentorship, he surprises himself calling his new (symbolic) father “Eggers”.

(*) Junno Arocho Esteves, “Name given at baptism gives sense of identity, belonging, Pope says,” National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2018, <https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-chronicles/name-given-baptism-gives-sense-identity-belonging-pope-says>.

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Eliot’s Drama at the 41st ITSES Conference

Last weekend (October 2-3) I attended the 41st T. S. Eliot International Society Conference. Around the date of Eliot’s birth in late September, scholars meet in his home town (St Louis), or at some other location associated with the author’s life and work. This year’s reunion would have been celebrated at Harvard – Eliot’s alma mater – had it not be for the pandemic. Instead we met on line.

A number of participants presented on Eliot’s drama, or provided insights relevant to it:

  • In assessing Eliot’s critcism of the poems of Alan Seeger (his contemporary at Harvard), Kevin Rulo observed the former’s emphasis on the notion of theatricality in Seeger’s poetic representation of Paris.
  • In one of the round tables on Eliot’s recently revealed correspondence with Emily Hale, John Whittier-Ferguson emphasised the strikingly direct parallels between some of these letters and The Family Reunion. The awkwardness and tormented frustration into which Eliot’s relationship with Hale developed cast a shadow over the play, in contrast to their transmutation into poetry in “Burnt Norton.”
  • Sara Fitzgerald, the author of The Poet’s Girl (a biofiction on the Hale-Eliot relationship), touched on Hale’s involvement with amateur theatre, her role as teacher of speech and drama in several colleges, and as advisor to Eliot on aspects of performance.
  • The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture was delivered by Robert von Hallberg, who scrutinised the more discursive and prosaic passages of “East Coker,” especially those in which the poet reflects on the difficulties of poetic expression. I could not help connecting those lines with Eliot’s continued struggle to find the right language for his verse dramas.
  • In exploring the influence of detective fiction on Eliot, Deborah Leiter alluded to Sherlock Holmes’s “Musgrave Ritual” as echoed by one of the knights in Murder in the Cathedral; Alex Davis examined the factual origins of the crime mentioned in Sweeney Agonistes, where the protagonist’s friend kills a woman an keeps her body in a “lysol bath.”
  • Sørina Higgins discussed liturgical elements of Murder in the Cathedral, and their authenticity within the framework of a play that dramatises religious ceremony.
  • Parker T. Gordon focused on The Rock as a text for the stage and on the production details of its first performance, directing special attention to the choral sections and drawing on rarely seen archival material (photographs, costume designs and musical scores).

Eliot’s drama, approached from multiple perspectives (criticism, biography, intertextual links with poetry, elements of popular culture, performance), is possessed of great versatility as an object of research in itself, and as a conduit to researching other facets of Eliot’s oeuvre.

I will be looking forward to future conferences – and the reopening of theatres – in better times.