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A Dramatist’s Progress

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.

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On Drama and Melodrama

Colby Simpkins is the protagonist of The Confidential Clerk (1953). The story of the orphan child who as a young man discovers the unexpected truth about his parents has something about it of melodramatic implausibility. We would not readily associate this with Eliot, which may explain why this play puzzles many of his readers, and his audiences.

As a critic, Eliot reflected on melodrama in his essay “Wilkie Collins and Dickens” (1927), where he focused on Collins’s novels, drawing attention to their dramatic features. Eliot praises Collins for his mastery of “plot and situation,” which he considers the most dramatic aspects of fiction. The author of The Woman in White, however, lacks Dickens’s powers of characterisation, in which Eliot sees a depth and precision that strike him as poetic in nature.

The relationship between character and plot is crucial to Eliot’s discussion of melodrama. In what he calls “great drama,” there exists a purposeful conjunction between character and plot, so that one determines the other; if this interdependence becomes unbalanced, the effect may be melodramatic – in the form of excessive emotion or of delayed, improbable action. As Eliot points out, the difference between drama and melodrama is “largely a matter of emphasis”; it could be argued, therefore, that melodrama is the result of misdirected emphasis.

Apropos of Collins’s melodrama, Eliot makes another interesting distinction between theatrical and dramatic plots, solely the latter being justified in terms of structure and evolution. It follows that melodrama often indulges in theatricality, sacrificing the economy of purpose that should characterise drama. The binary opposition theatrical-dramatic prefigures the prominence Eliot gave to the principle of dramatic justification, which would guide his evolution as a playwright.

Despite its limited success, The Confidential Clerk may be the play where dramatic justification (of character, plot and verse) is closest to Eliot’s ideal. Melodrama is apparent, if at all, in the comedic elements of the play, which have a Victorian flavour. The final succession of revelations in the plot is instrumental, with no melodramatic misalignment, in Colby’s fulfilment as a character.