T. S. Eliot’s years as a dramatist may be dismissed as the renowned poet’s retreat to a territory of comfortably lower creative standards. Nothing could be further from the truth, however: from the mid 1930s onwards, Eliot embarked on a painstaking learning process that was also a progress towards his ideal of poetic, popular, modern drama.
Eliot claimed that The Rock (1934) had been the result of collaborative effort, his main contribution being the lyrical choruses connecting various historical episodes of England’s – and specifically London’s – Christian history. Choruses were also a successful device in Murder in the Cathedral (1935); in a sense, this play may be approached as an elaboration of a scene that might have been included in the sequence of Eliot’s previous pageant play.
With The Family Reunion (1939), Eliot moved from a historical play that could easily accomodate verse to a play “of modern life”, where poetry was at risk of sounding unnatural. In an application of his own mythical method, he adapted Aeschylus’s The Furies to a contemporary setting; this method (finding inspiration in classical drama) would be repeated in all subsequent plays. An innovative use of the chorus was also introduced: its members spoke both collectively and also as characters with distinct personalities.
Eliot had set The Family Reunion in contemporary England, in an attempt to help audiences relate to his drama. Similarly, the choice of drawing-room comedy as a medium, and of bourgeois London as a social setting in The Cocktail Party (1949) showed that, as a dramatist, Eliot was appealing to modern sensibilities and aspiring to be popular – in the most dignified sense of the word. The heroine of this comedy, Celia Copplestone, completed the transcendent journey initiated by Harry Monchensey in The Family Reunion, her sacrifice harking back to Becket’s martyrdom in Murder in the Cathedral.
The Cocktail Party was Eliot’s first commercial success. It was also an achievement in making verse suitable for a variety of dramatic situations, from trivial chit-chat to the expression of profound sentiment. The two plays that followed, The Confidential Clerk (1954) and The Elder Statesman (1958) represent – despite their unenthusiastic reception – the culmination of Eliot’s pursuit of naturality in verse, a more confident sense of dramatic structure, and the fulfilment of spiritual quests in faith and love.