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New TEATREL-SP Website

The research group TEATREL-SP has been active since 2019. Its project “T. S. Eliot’s Drama from Spain: Translation, Critical Study, Performance” is funded by the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades. The second half of the project’s title defines the objectives: to analyse Eliot’s plays in-depth, to catalogue their productions in Spain, to study their translations into Spanish (and their reception), and to produce new updated translations (the most recent being from the 1960s).

The project’s website is now active, integrated with the portal of the Laboratorio de Innovación en Humanidades Digitales (LINHD) of the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (UNED). It may be considered a significant addition to web-based resources on Eliot’s drama, which had largely been limited to Kate Pfeffer’s well-documented sections on Eliot’s plays on the webpage of the T. S. Eliot Foundation, various entries or articles in encyclopedias and literary websites (such as Literariness.org), and this blog.

As well as presenting the research project from which it derives, TEATREL-SP’s website sets Eliot’s drama in context, considering antecedents and comparative creative endeavours (in a text by Antonio Ballesteros González). It also examines the plays from the Spanish perspective, offering a detailed timeline of performances, from 1949 to 2016, as well as a complete list of Latin-American and Spanish translations (in some cases unpublished).

Each of Eliot’s five plays has its own reference entry, exploring its origins, dramatic technique, themes, sources, intertextual connections, language and reception. Extensive bibliographies (including DOI links) are provided, and each text contains cross-references that link to other sections of the website. The five entries of “The Plays” have been produced by Natalia Carbajosa, Isabel Castelao-Gómez, Teresa Gibert and Dídac Llorens-Cubedo. Sweeney Agonistes and The Rock have a specific section, as antecedents of Eliot’s main body of dramatic work (“Drama Before Drama”), but the approach to them – by Fabio L. Vericat and Viorica Patea – is similar.

Visitors may link to this blog and to various other webpages and resources, among which are an audio recording of The Cocktail Party and a filmed version of Ildebrando Pizzetti’s opera version of Murder in the Cathedral. The website, including its original illustrations, was designed by Iván Mezcua.

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Stories of Detection

Apart from being a regular reader of crime fiction, T. S. Eliot also reflected on it as a critic, mainly in two essays from 1927. In “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” he celebrated The Moonstone as the first detective novel in English. Further, he concluded “Homage to Wilkie Collins: An Omnibus Review of Nine Mystery Novels” with a set of five rules to which any successful specimen of the genre should conform. Eliot also admired Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie as well as other less known authors, and most of his plays have elements of mystery.

In Murder in the Cathedral, the dialogue between Becket and the Second Tempter unequivocally echoes the Musgrave Ritual, an incantatory exchange of questions and answers from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”:

THOMAS: Who shall have it?
TEMPTER: He who will come.
THOMAS: What shall be the month?
TEMPTER: The last from the first.

Later in the play, after Becket’s murder, the Four Knights break the fourth wall and try to justify their action as if they were witnesses in a trial or crime suspects questioned by the police. Similarly, in Part I of The Family Reunion, Gerald questions Downing in order to find out about Harry’s wife’s death; in Part II, Dr. Warburton, who may remind us of J. B. Priestley’s Inspector Goole, sagaciously interrogates Harry, hoping to reach a diagnosis as an investigator hopes to solve a case.

In The Confidential Clerk, Mrs. Guzzard resolves the conundrum of Colby’s identity, applying wider knowledge and logical thinking. In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton stands accused of past crimes by two mysterious characters, Federico Gomez and Mrs. Carghill. Sir Henry, first appearing in The Cocktail Party as an “unidentified guest” and then as a combination of therapist and confessor, also has something of the detective, prying for motives and seeing through his patients’ deceptions.

One of these patients is Lavinia Chamberlayne. Early in the play, we learn that she has left her husband and no one knows her whereabouts. In 1926, Agatha Christie went missing for eleven days, her long absence attributed to a marital crisis or, less plausibly, an episode of amnesia. When, in Eliot’s play, Lavinia returns home, she is puzzled to find her husband surrounded by friends who claim that she has invited them by telegram. Lavinia cannot account for these telegrams, and one of her friends, Julia – a nosy old lady as fond of mystery as Miss Marple – exclaims: “Lavinia! Don’t say you’ve had a lapse of memory!”

The character who, in The Family Reunion, helps Harry to unravel the mystery of his family’s curse, curiously, is named Agatha. She speaks two crucial lines: “What we have written is not a story of detection, / Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation”. Although Agatha’s statement is undeniable, and true of all Eliot’s plays, we may also identify features of “a story of detection” in each of his dramatic plots.

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New Year, New Beginnings

The first scene of The Family Reunion (1939) is set on a cold winter´s evening, symbolic of Amy’s life which is about to be extinguished. As she awaits the arrival of her son, Harry, she also longs for the return of spring: “Will the spring never come?” Her rhetorical question seems to invert the reassuring last line of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” The play´s second scene opens on a similar note with Mary complaining that “the spring is very late in this northern country,” and Agatha agreeing.

Later, when Agatha leaves Mary alone with Harry, he evokes the negativity of a “cold” spring and wanders whether it is not “an evil time, that excites us with evil voices”. Echoing Harry’s lyrical tone, Mary refers to “the ache in the moving root” or “the aconite in the snow”. The connection with The Waste Land and with the natural imagery of Four Quartets seems inexorable, although The Family Reunion was to be the last of Eliot´s plays where intertextuality with his poetry is patent.

Harry goes on to identify the spring, the birth of the natural year, as “a season of sacrifice”. Carol H. Smith convincingly interpreted The Family Reunion within the framework of fertility rites, and therefore in continuity with The Waste Land (*); after the sacrifice of the fertility god, his return to life is mirrored in nature as springtime regeneration. Mary shares Harry’s vision of spring, her words suggest the interconnectedness of Christ’s birth (in winter) and his death and resurrection (in spring): “I believe the season of birth / Is the season of sacrifice”.

Amy’s birthday, the occasion of her family reunion, is also to be the day of her death; she was born, and will die in winter. According to Smith, the Dowager is the old year that must die, while her son stands for the new year (*). Harry will embrace the prospect of rebirth, leaving family and Wishwoood manor behind. One of his younger brothers, John, will therefore experience a different new beginning by becoming the Lord of Wishwood. As we learn from the news item reporting the road accident that prevented his arrival at Wishwood, the events of the play take place on or around January 1st.

Eliot’s “Little Gidding” (1942) contains the two famous lines, sometimes quoted at this time of year: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / and next year’s words await another voice”. They readily apply to The Family Reunion as a turning point in Eliot’s dramatic production: a play written in “last year’s language” (a language lacking in dramatic purpose and plausibility), but prefiguring “another voice” (that of a more confident playwright).

(*) Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice. From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963) 134-5.