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The Perfect Line

On May 18, the Departamento de Filologías Extranjeras y sus Lingüísticas (UNED) held a one-day seminar to publicise its research projects, including “T. S. Eliot’s Drama from Spain: Translation, Critical Study Performance (TEATREL-SP).” One of its researchers, Natalia Carbajosa Palmero, gave the lecture “The Translation into Spanish of T. S. Eliot’s Verse Drama: Precedents and Present Proposals.” Finding the right form, both equivalent to the original and also connecting with contemporary verse drama in Spanish, requires tracing Eliot’s search for the “perfect line”.

The need to adopt suitable means of expression became more pressing when Eliot evolved into drama still poetic and set in the present, but essentially realistic in its presentation of characters and situations. From The Cocktail Party onwards, Eliot used verse lines with a caesura dividing three or four main stresses. Although the verse line need not have a specific number of syllables, rhythmical regularity tends to make length similar. As with a set of scales, the poet placed stresses on each side, to keep balance.

This basic unit proved equally versatile for scenes of dramatic intensity (Sir Claude discussing personal fulfilment through art in The Confidential Clerk) as for the triviality of comic relief (Mrs. Piggot chatting away with Lord Claverton in The Elder Statesman). It would also serve the purpose of advancing dramatic action, avoiding moments of poetic stagnation – a priority for Eliot when he wrote his comedies. Finally, Eliot’s line could make speech sound natural while subtly sustaining a constancy of rhythm, like a faint or distant beating.

Eliot’s choices at this stage of his career as a dramatist were based on the assumption that realistic drama was incompatible with language that sounded “too” poetic. In other words, poetry without a clear dramatic function was not desirable for the stage, since it defeats the object of realism and is not easily assimilated by the general audience, which Eliot was aspiring to reach. He achieved his goal of popularity, albeit ephemeral, with The Cocktail Party and, to a lesser extent with The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman.

Paradoxically, the more the playwright applied himself to the refinement of his dramatic poetry, the more prosaic it sounded. The functional plainness of the verse is one of the reasons why the lines of Eliot’s last two comedies sound somewhat unappealing. Conversely, the plays that have best stood the test of time are those written before Eliot’s generalised use of his basic “perfect line,” those containing markedly poetic passages in terms of prosody and imagery: Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion.

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Here by Thames’ Side

In one of his diary entries for the year 1662, Samuel Pepys describes how the city of London welcomed Catherine of Braganza, the new Queen, with pageants on the Thames: “all the show consisted chiefly in the number of boats and barges – and two Pageants, one of a King and another of a Queene, with her maydes of honour sitting at her feet very prettily” [*]. T. S. Eliot subtitled The Rock (1934) “a pageant play,” and Pepys is one of the historical characters appearing in it.

The building and rebuilding of the temple, a symptom of the unity and strength of the Church community, is the leit motif of The Rock. We can think of Eliot’s pageant play as a staged summary of London’s ecclesiastical history – from the Middle Ages to the interwar period – with an emphasis on Church architecture. Impressionistic historical scenes are separated by the better known lyrical “Choruses”.

In the scene preceding the final chorus and benediction, Pepys converses with the other great Restoration diarist, John Evelyn, and the architect Christopher Wren, “seated round a dining-table,” with “nuts and wine”. As he recalls in his diaries, Pepys often met “Dr. Wren” with other members of the Royal Society (at a concert, at an artist’s studio); with “the good Mr. Eveling,” he often shared his concern over the King’s ill-advised decisions and their consequences.

The chorus leaders introduce the scene with references to “plague-stricken London,” and the “great fire [that] has ravaged the City”. To Pepys we owe the most vivid accounts of these historical events – as well as a wealth of information on theatrical activity in Restoration London. In Eliot’s scene, Evelyn alludes to his plan to rebuild London, which competed with Wren’s: “I did make myself some proposals to His Majesty, but yours had prevented me”. Wren, congenial and confident, cherishes the ambitious dream “to build here by Thames’ side the most beautiful city of all Europe, excelling Vicenza or Rome itself”. Pepys, the curious London rambler, “walked to-day in the City, to witness how the demolition of old St. Paul’s progressed”. Wren prides himself on the security and convenience of this project, which he advanced.

The new St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Wren’s dome “which was formed in his mind,” will be “a symbol for London,” as well as an image of all churches erected, demolished and rebuilt. These churches would include those that the proceeds of Eliot’s The Rock would allow to build in the near future, by the playwright’s donation.

[*] The Diary of Samuel Pepys, edited by Kate Loveman, Everyman’s Library, 2018, p. 142.