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Poet in the Playhouse

Ralph Fiennes in rehearsal of Four Quartets

In 2009, Faber and Faber published an audio recording of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1936-1942), read by Ralph Fiennes. The actor recently announced that he is to direct and act in a dramatic adaptation of this poetic sequence. There have been other attempts to bring Eliot’s poems to the stage: Deborah Warner’s The Waste Land with Fiona Shaw, for example, premiered in 1995 and was successfully performed for over a decade.

The opposition and integration of movement and stillness, as well as the image of “the dance,” are central to Four Quartets. Drawing mainly on these elements, and reproducing the rhythms and development of the original poetic texts, coreographer Pam Tanowitz created a Four Quartets ballet in 2018. Eliot chose a musical metaphor as a title for his poems, and Tanowitz’s dancers danced to the poet’s words.

It might be argued that the variety of characters and scenes in The Waste Land facilitates a dramatic transposition. Conversely, the poems that make up Four Quartets – densely meditative and conceptual, but also lyrical and rich in images of nature – do not seem, a priori, very theatrical. In contrast with the polyphony of The Waste Land, the four poems of the sequence are unified by a single poetic voice that could be identified with the poet’s. In fact, Four Quartets has been called Eliot’s “spiritual autobiography.” Its thematic complexity will have to be conveyed by the sole actor’s voice and gesture, by lighting and sound effects.

The text which presents Fiennes’s production, to open at Bath in late May, points out that the sequence of four poems was completed during the years of the Second World War. The entertainment site Ox in a Box connects their historical context with the present pandemic situation: “Four Quartets contain some of the most exquisite and unforgettable reflections upon surviving periods of national crisis […] So it is fitting that […] Fiennes’ world premiere […] is announced this week – a year since regional theatres were forced to close”. [*]

Press releases have also reminded readers that Eliot directed his creative efforts to Four Quartets because of the impossibility to produce plays in wartime London. These were the years when he was determined to pursue a career as a dramatist. While intrigued by the prospect of seeing Four Quartets on stage, I cannot suppress a sense of wistfulness, on behalf of Eliot the playwright, that is Eliot the poet who returns to the theatre on this occasion.

[*] “Breaking News: Ralph Fiennes to Star at Oxford Playhouse This Summer in Stage World Premiere of Eliot’s Four Quartets!” (March 17, 2021).

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If He Becomes a Famous Man

In 1952, John Peter published “A New Interpretation of The Waste Land,” reading the poem as a homoerotic elegy for “a young man” loved by the main speaker. As explained in a postcript from 1969, the essay was withdrawn at Eliot’s displeased request and effectually censored for seventeen years. Interestingly, Peter claimed that the disturbance caused by his interpretation informed The Elder Statesman, and even saw himself as the inspiration for one of its characters, Federico Gomez.

In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton (generally considered a trasnposition of Eliot himself) is unexpectedly reunited, after many years, with Federico Gomez and Mrs. Carghill. Both confront the ageing protagonist with past guilt, prompting something of a life review. Gomez, an old Oxford friend, reminds Lord Claverton that, after a night out on the town, he ran down a man and failed to provide assistance. On the other hand, Mrs. Carghill, whom Lord Claverton met as a chorus girl, has not forgotten his breach of promise, despite her subsequent successful and respectful marriage(s).

Lord Claverton wrote “very loving” letters to Mrs. Carghill, Maisie, and they “would have figured at the trial . . . If there had been a trial”. These letters, about which Lord Claverton is still uneasy, are in her “lawyer’s safe”. It was Maisie’s friend Effie who made her realise how valuable they could be: “They’ll be worth a fortune to you, Maisie”; “If he becomes a famous man / And you should be in want, you could have these letters auctioned.”

The Elder Statesman was first performed in 1958. In 1957, Eliot had married Valerie Fletcher, to whom the play is dedicated and who has been compared to Monica – Lord Claverton’s loving daughter. In 1956, Emily Hale, the actress and drama teacher who lived a frustrated and painful love story with Eliot and was his correspondent for three decades, donated his letters to Princeton Library, on condition that they be made public only in 2020. Even this caveat did not prevent Eliot – the man who banned a personal reading of his best known poem – from disapproving of Hale’s decision.

Peter’s identifying himself with Federico Gomez may seem self-conscious. The connection between Mrs. Carghill and Hale, however, seems more convincing. Not only are there potentially compromising letters, but also the music number said to have made Maisie famous – “It’s Not Too Late for You to Love Me”. While Lord Claverton feels guilt for the pain he caused Maisie, this song title might be interpreted as an unsympathetic allusion by Eliot to Hale’s sentimental dependence upon him.