More Liberty with Myth

Michael Redgrave as Orin in Dudley Nichols’s film adaptation of Mourning Becomes Electra

Michael Redgrave played Harry, Lord Monchensey in the first production of T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939). Curiously, a few years later, he would be cast as Orin Mannon in the film adaptation (1947) of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). Both roles are transpositions of Aeschylus’ Orestes: Eliot’s drama is set in the north of England in the 1930s, O’Neill’s in New England as the Civil War comes to an end. Like Harry, Orin and his sister Lavinia (Electra) carry the weight of a family curse on their shoulders.

In criticising The Family Reunion (an adaptation of The Furies, the third play of the Oresteia trilogy) in “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot admitted to a “failure of adjustment between the Greek story and the modern situation”; he also regretted not having “taken a great deal more liberty with his [Aeschylus’] myth”. The two most unsatisfactory elements of the play, according to its author, were the incongruity of the chorus and the interference of the Furies.

Eliot’s chorus is made up of Harry’s uncles and aunts. Their speech as individual characters is rife with platitudes and clichés, but when they speak together as a chorus, their tone becomes enigmatic, even oracular. The members of the chorus in Mourning Becomes Electra, on the other hand, are “types of townsfolk […] representing the town,” “a human background for the drama of the Mannons” [*]. They are more distant from the action than Harry’s relatives, but their demeanour and conversation are always realistic.

Like the chorus in The Family Reunion, who may speak poetically “beyond character,” the appearance of the Furies also compromises the play’s realism. O’Neill found a subtle yet effective equivalence for the Furies in his setting: Orin and Lavinia’s guilt for their mother’s suicide and her lover’s murder is symbolised by the staring ghostly portraits of their ancestors in the sitting-room, including “one of a grim-visaged minister of the witch-burning era” (131). The two Mannon children react to the threatening presence of these ghosts, even confront them. Like the portraits, the windows on the façade of the symbolic family house “reflect the sun in a smouldering stare, as of brooding, revengeful eyes” (273). Interestingly, the Furies are first seen in Eliot’s play through a drawing-room window.

Aspects of The Family Reunion that Eliot considered to be errors (poetic language without a clear dramatic purpose, mythological figures at odds with a modern setting) are ironically among the most attractive features of the play. And it is interesting to compare Eliot’s “flaws” with the dramatic solutions reached by O’Neill, the more confident playwright.

[*] Eugene O’Neill, Mourning Becomes Electra (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013), pp. 17, 113. All quotes from this edition.


Pottery, Music and a Garden

In its opening, “Burnt Norton” (1935) leads us from abstract relativisation of sequential time “into the rose-garden”. The experience is imbued with factual uncertainty: “what might have been,” “the passage which we did not take,” “the door we never opened,” “shall we follow?,” “then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty”. Garden seclusion and the oxymoronic “unheard music hidden in the shrubbery” are part of the scene, a moment out of time.

The poet associates these moments with the simultaneity of opposites such as sound and silence, or movement and stillness. Speech and music need silences, figures on surfaces give the impression of movement, and a sustained musical note one of stillness:

[…] Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the coexistence, […]
(“Burn Norton” V)

In The Confidential Clerk (1953), similar images become central. For Sir Claude, pottery balances the demands of his life as a financier; Colby – his new confidential clerk – is equally transported when he plays the piano. These escapes through art allow them to experience time in a subjective way, to – in Sir Claude’s words – “go through the private door / Into the real world”. It is coherent with the transcendent vision of Four Quartets that this dimension should be more real than the predictable aspects of everyday life.

Lucasta refers to Colby’s music as his secret garden. Yet, he wishes “God would walk in my garden,” so as “not to be alone there”. Similarly, the pleasure that Sir Claude derives from pottery “takes the place of religion”. As a result, their “real world” of artistic fulfilment feels as unreal as the surface of life. If Sir Claude has pottery and Colby music, Eggerson – former confidential clerk – has gardening. His actual garden at Joshua Park is Colby’s ideal: it is not lonely and unreal, but “a part of one single world”.

Early in the play, Eggerson invites Colby to see his garden in the spring. He also predicts that “some day,” his replacement will “want a garden of his own”. Colby finally decides to move in with the Eggersons at Joshua Park and make a living as an organist, unifying both his worlds as real. Furthermore, Colby’s new life also materialises the ethereal rose-garden of “Burnt Norton”.