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A Question of Form

Coreographer Gillian Lynne during rehearsal of Cats

Drama, and poetic drama specifically, features prominently in T. S. Eliot’s criticism, from the 1920s onwards. Two essays, one from the beginning of the decade, “The Possibility of Poetic Drama” (1920), and the other from the late twenties, “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry” (1928), both include interesting comments on acting.

In “The Possibility of Poetic Drama,” Eliot points out that performers preclude fixity for any performed work (a play, a concert, a ballet). In other words, uniqueness is intrinsic to performance. Implicitly, he establishes an intriguing opposition: form versus personality. Eliot disapproves of performance as a means to channel the performer’s personality (tellingly, he places the word in quotation marks). In this respect, the essay is consistent with the emphasis on creative impersonality conveyed by “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” published one year before.

Eliot also refers to acting approaches that cause actors to prioritise the object of performance, rather than their own subjectivity as performers. He mentions the use of masks (W. B. Yeats’ The Dreaming of the Bones, which experimented with the conventions of Japanese Noh, had appeared in 1919), and the application of specific methodologies (he probably had Stanislavsky in mind). Finally, he presents music-hall comedians as models, since they admirably adapt their means to required ends.

In “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,” Speaker E proposes a different model for a new drama: Russian ballet, an art of form (tending to fixity and permanence), but obviously lacking any linguistic component. By suggesting that poetic drama should resemble ballet, the speaker equates dance with poetry, implying another opposition: form versus (dramatic) prose. Actors, in turn, should emulate dancers, who undergo strict physical training (tantamount to “moral training, ” according to Speaker B) in order to master a liturgy of movement.

These ideas are reflected in the plays of Eliot before he opted for the realism of drawing-room comedy. The Group Theatre used masks in their 1934 production of Sweeney Agonistes. Dance and movement were important components in The Rock, choreographed by the charismatic Rev. Vincent Howson. Choreography also contributes to a more effective staging of Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion, where choruses – and their positions on stage – have crucial dramatic functions. And we should not forget the musical Cats, with Gillian Lynne’s evocation of feline form in a complex, ground-breaking, and demanding choreography.

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Offstage Purgatories

Spatial settings in T. S. Eliot’s plays are mostly determined by those plays’ main situations. We may think of the dismal London flat of Sweeney Agonistes, of Canterbury Cathedral in Murder in the Cathedral, or Wishwood manor in The Family Reunion. Occasionally, Eliot introduces imaginary locations of a dramatic relevance: examples are San Marco in The Elder Statesman, or Kinkanja in The Cocktail Party.

Frederick Culverwell was an Oxford friend of Lord Claverton’s. After serving a jail sentence in England for forgery, he settles in San Marco. This is a fictional republic in Central America where Culverwell becomes a respectable citizen as Federico Gomez. However, as he points out to Lord Claverton, “out there they respect you for rather different reasons” – the republic’s name seems evocative of Venetian moral decadence. According to Gomez, San Marco is “a good place / to make money in, though not to keep it in,” and the people there “have Indian thoughts”. Lord Claverton dismisses his former friend’s activity as “systematic corruption,” but his sense of moral superiority will soon waver. Gomez has returned from his own purgatorial San Marco to teach Claverton a lesson in humility.

Kinkanja is an island in the East to which Celia Copplestone travels as a missionary, and where she undergoes her via purgativa. Alex MacColgie Gibbs, returning from “a tour of inspection of local conditions,” characterises the conflict in Kinkanja: the heathen population venerates monkeys, Christian converts eat monkeys, and the heathen eat Christians in revenge. Alex also brings news of Celia’s death in this context: she has been crucified by heathen insurgents (her final via unitiva). The population of Kinkanja is portrayed, from a prejudiced orientalist perspective, as cruel and irrational (“The native is not, I fear, very rational”), but their land, present through Alex’s narration, is important as the setting where Celia fulfils her destiny of sacrifice and sainthood.

San Marco and Kinkanja contribute to characterisation, plot evolution and thematic definition. Neither is staged, but both represent foils to the plays’ actual or alternative settings: San Marco is a contrast to Lord Claverton’s England, where law, order and morality seem to prevail; Kinkanja is diametrically opposed to the glamour of Hollywood, of which Celia may have dreamt as an aspiring actress. Crucially, they are comparable as offstage, symbolic purgatories.

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The Fourth Tempter

In Murder in the Cathedral (1936), four tempters visit Thomas Becket as he retires to his rooms. The first three tempt the Archbishop and former Chancellor of England with royal favour, carefree joy, political power, and the support of English lords. An unexpected, mysterious Fourth Tempter (“you know me, but have never seen my face”) offers a vision of heavenly glory such as only martyrs and saints enjoy. Becket admits to “have thought of these things,” but also spurns the last tempter. Whereas the first three aspects of temptation were easy to dismiss, the fourth is especially powerful in picturing the archbishop´s secret ambitions.

A film adaptation of Eliot’s play was directed by George Hoellering in 1951. The director persuaded the author to join with him in writing the screenplay, adding an opening trial scene with Henry II at Northampton Castle. Eliot was also asked to record the text of his play, so that actors became familiar with its intrinsic music and rhythm. He agreed to take an active role in Hoellering’s project – curious to learn how cinema worked, and keen to explore the possibilities of poetry in that medium.

In reflecting on verse in film [*], Eliot argued that image and word should have equal standing and be in perfect conjunction. He also laid emphasis on audibility, comparing cinemas with theatres: in a cinema, it was possible for all audience members to listen in much the same way. Sound technology, therefore, opened favourable prospects for the reception of poetry in film. Eliot would have a further opportunity to contribute to this development when Hoellering asked him to lend his voice to the Fourth Tempter.

In this scene of the film, we hear Eliot’s voice, his characteristic reading tone and inflections with background music, which builds up the tension. We see a variety of images, outdoor and indoor, still and moving – clouds covering the sun, the knights riding towards Canterbury, a crucifix, a column capital, a wall relief, decorated tiles. But more importantly, we see Becket. First we see him from a distance, in the seclusion of a small chapel; then the camera follows him. Finally we are close up, rather as a ghostly presence that may be identified with the Fourth Tempter. His speech is, as a means of psychological characterisation and foreshadowing, a climax in both the play and the film.

[*] See, for example, Eliot’s “Dossier on Murder in the Cathedral: Playwright Presents Both an Evaluation and Appreciation of the Film Version,” New York Times (March 23, 1952) in Complete Prose 7, eds. Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, pp. 673-76.