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Choral Voices

First edition of Virginia Woolf’s
The Waves (1931)

The character of Louis in Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931) is often assumed to have been inspired by T. S. Eliot. Louis is a foreigner in England, always self-consciously trying to fit in; he is characterised by his need for order, and by his sense of history and tradition; he has a clerical job, but shows a profound literary sensitivity. Eliot shared these traits – and was born in Saint Louis.

The Waves is essentially a choral novel in which six friends (Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny and Louis) express their thoughts and relive their memories, without directly interacting. They are, to use Henry James’s term, “centres of consciousness,” and the projections of their minds overlap. In the final section of the novel, the six voices become one as Bernard, the writer in the group, blurs perspectival distinctions.

When we first hear them, the characters speak short statements – like verse lines – conveying elemental visual and auditory images:

“I see a ring,” said Bernard, “hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.”
“I see a slab of pale yellow,” said Susan, “spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.”
“I hear a sound,” said Rhoda, “cheep, chirp; cheep, chirp; going up and down.”
“I see a globe,” said Neville, “hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.”
“I see a crimson tassel,” said Jinny, “twisted with gold threads.”
“I hear something stamping,” said Louis. “A great beast’s foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps.” [*]

Four characters integrate the chorus in Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939): Ivy, Violet, Gerald and Charles. A single choral voice alternates with four voices that, despite fulfilling a common purpose, are distinct. Although this alternation was an innovative dramatic device, the critic Desmond MacCarthy dismissed it as “a violation of auditory psychology” [**]. The members of Eliot’s chorus comment on the action collectively, but they also show concern on trivialities or attack one another, as if voicing their thoughts:

IVY. I do not trust Charles with his confident vulgarity, acquired from worldly associates.
GERDALD. Ivy is only concerned on herself, and her credit among her shabby genteel acquaintance.
VIOLET. Gerald is certain to make some blunder, he is useless out of the army.
CHARLES. Violet is afraid that her status as Amy’s sister will be diminished.

Eliot’s chorus is very different from Woolf’s dramatis personae. The former are secondary characters lacking any depth, they are relatives with strained relationships and not friends, and they are satirised by Eliot for their meaningless mundane priorities. Yet, the cadence and diction of their language, the way their voices are alternatively integrated and individualised, are reminiscent of the opening of The Waves, in which the six voices emerge, almost with an incantatory effect.

[*] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 2.
[**] Desmond MacCarthy, “Some Notes on Mr. Eliot’s New Play, New Statesman, 25-03-1939.” T. S. Eliot. The Contemporary Reviews, ed. by Jewel Spears Brooker (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), pp. 381-84 (p. 382).

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That Peculiar Man’s Plays

Photograph from the original production of Look Back in Anger

In a 2016 interview, Julie Walters declared that when she started her acting career in the early 70s, “you’d hear middle-class actors trying to sound working class because it was cool”. She lamented the decline of “working-class drama” that “comes out of people being unhappy and angry with the unfairness of life” [*]. The cycle, which included Walters’ training as an actress and now closed, began with the emergence of the “angry young men,” and also coincided with the appearance of T. S. Eliot’s The Elder Statesman (1958).

In John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), Jimmy and Cliff, “common as dirt” (26) [**], criticise J. B. Priestley, as part of the establishment they reject. Later, Jimmy alludes to “that peculiar man’s plays” (83) without giving a name. However, two joking references to Eliot follow: Jimmy suggests “T. S. Eliot and Pam” (83) as an artistic name for him and Cliff; he then puns on the title of the last of the Four Quartets, in the style of music-hall repartee: “she was called a little Gidding, but she was more like a gelding iron!” (84). Furthermore, Jimmy has written a poem that – he parodically claims – contains “a good slosh of Eliot” (50).

The social setting of The Elder Statesman is upper class and not obviously satirical, by contrast with the treatment of aristocratic dullness in certain characters of The Family Reunion (1939). In Eliot’s last play, when Michael confronts his father, he reveals that the father’s title, Lord Claverton, was the culmination of a political career, and that he married “up.” As a young man, Lord Claverton, then Dick Ferry, courted a chorus girl, Maisie – humble enough to be deserted without scruple. For Michael, his father’s status is more an encumbrance than a privilege, and he longs for an independent life away from his family.

Look Back in Anger concerns itself with the lives of young people of the working class; the protagonist of The Elder Statesman is an old man, and a lord. Eliot’s play is realistic, but it conforms to the conventions of drawing-room comedy and is written in verse, albeit transparent. Osborne’s realism, on the other hand, colours the characters’ speech. Colonel Redfern observes that Jimmy “speaks a different language from any of us,” and that he “has quite a turn of phrase” (65, 69). The rhythmic balance of Eliot’s measured lines is strikingly different from Jimmy’s verbal incontinence: “Mummy and Daddy turn pale, and face the east every time they remember she’s married to me. But if they saw all this going on, they’d collapse. Wonder what they would do, incidentally. Send for the police I expect” (28).

Look Back in Anger and The Elder Statesman are separated by just two years, but also by a generation. Osborne’s play depicts a new society, a society not in step with Eliot’s drama.

[*] Susie Mesure, “Julie Walters: ‘There will be another working-class acting revolution’,” The Independent, 28 February 2015.

[**] All quotes from this edition: John Osborne, Look Back in Anger, London: Faber and Faber, 1960 (1996).