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Clues on a Treasure Hunt

Sweeney Agonistes (1926) was T. S. Eliot’s first attempt to write verse drama. Unlike the plays of his maturity, it projects the novelty of experimentation and has been accorded the prestige of modernity. It is chronologically and stylistically closer to Eliot’s early work, which established him as a renewer of poetry. Among its themes and devices, we may identify a disenchanted worldview, an absence of spiritual commitment, as well as urban sordidness, dry humour, fragmentation and allusiveness.

Allusions and quotes lead us into the poem/play. Intertextuality begins at the very title, a variation on Samson Agonistes (1671), the verse tragedy by John Milton. Like Eliot’s Sweeney, Samson is both violent and sensitive. Milton’s dramatic poem was conceived as a closet drama, unsuitable for performance; Sweeney Agonistes has seldom been produced, and it is often read as a poem (one of Eliot’s Collected Poems). When he came to be a devoted dramatist, Eliot was persuaded that theatre was meant to be performed, to communicate with the audience.

The subtitle “Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama” is certainly intriguing. The sketchiness of Sweeney Agonistes is one of its defining, perhaps appealing, traits. Its two scenes, “Fragment of a Prologue” and “Fragment of an Agon”, were first published separately in the journal Criterion, and there is no obvious narrative continuity between them. Eliot’s poem/play has something of Aristophanes’ satirical comedy, but why melodrama? In “Fragment of an Agon,” Sweeney and the other characters discuss the sensational news of two women’s murder, reminding us of that popular example of nineteenth-century melodrama, Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street (1842).

The text of Sweeney Agonistes is preceded by two epigraphs indicative of Eliot’s sense of tradition, his literary affinities and the characteristic cohesion of his work. The first is from the end of Choephoroi (The Libation Bearers, the second play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy), where the Furies’ implacable pursuit of Orestes begins. The second is from St. John of the Cross’ prose writings on the mystic process; it emphasises the necessity of dispossession and detachment on the via purgativa. At the end of Eliot’s play, Sweeney voices a mystic paradox (“Death is life and life is death”), and the chorus conjures up a nightmare of persecution (“you’ve got the hoo-ha’s coming to you”).

The references explored above are like clues on a treasure hunt, helping us to make the most of Sweeney Agonistes as an “unfinished poem” and as the seed for future plays. Years later, The Family Reunion (1939) would continue or develop from Sweeney Agonistes, each work on either side of a crucial dividing line: Eliot’s conversion of 1927 and his determination to convey his religious beliefs through drama.

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Shocks and Violations

The Furies are central to T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939). Initially, we are led to believe that the protagonist, Harry, has murdered his wife and is consequently being pursued by these avenging spirits. However, as the play draws to a close, the Furies show Harry a path of expiation and of spiritual progress. By implication, the Furies appear here as the Eumenides (“kindly ones”), the “sleepless hunters” transformed into “bright angels” to convey the play’s themes of purgation and transcendence.

The Family Reunion was the first play by Eliot to combine a classical source and Christian principle in a contemporary setting. In “Poetry and Drama” (1951), Eliot criticised his own play as an adaptation of Aeschylus’s The Furies; he found that the goddesses had not undergone and imaginative translation sufficient for the twentieth century audience. As an objective correlative of Harry’s remorse and sinful family past, the Furies are limited by their incoherence with the modern dramatic situation.

Carol H. Smith referred to the appearance of the Furies in Eliot’s The Family Reunion as “a shock tactic” [*]. The shock is produced by inconsistency: a classical irruption into a modern world, pagan divinities in a play with an uncompromising Christian world view. In an early review, the critic Horace Gregory referred to the presence of the Furies as “a violation of the play’s integrity,” comparing it to the knights’ interaction with the audience at the end of Murder in the Cathedral (1935) [**].

After the climax of Becket’s murder, the knights break the fourth wall and address the audience in order to justify their action. The drama of martyrdom suddenly transforms into a “Trial by Jury,” with each of the four knights pleading his case. They stress the Archbishop’s flaws and – in an instance of what we might nowadays call “post-truth” – conclude that he commited “Suicide while of Unsound Mind.” There is even an attempt to make any spectators complicit in the crime: “if you have now arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State, remember that it is we who took the first step”.

Like the Furies in the play that was to follow, the knights’ appeal to the audience disturbs the temporal setting. It also counteracts tragedy with the comedy of incongruity, and sets argumentative prose against the devotional verse with which the play ends. Eliot’s disruptive strategies both in Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion may be perceived as “shocks” or “violations,” but they are also signs of modern experimentation with the dramatic medium.

[*] Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice. From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 117.

[**] Gregory, Horace. “The Unities and Eliot,” in T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Jewel Spears Brooker (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), pp. 403-406 (p. 406).