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We Call Him Just Gus

In a famous photograph, T. S. Eliot stands outside the back door of the Cambridge Theatre in London (where the first production of The Elder Statesman was running in 1958), fondly looking down at a passing cat. It would seem to illustrate one of the most memorable poems of his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939): “Gus: The Theatre Cat,” which opens with the line “Gus is the cat at the theatre door”.

Gus (Asparagus) is an ageing cat. Old Deuteronomy, the feline Methuselah, “was famous in proverb and famous in rhyme / A long while before Queen Victoria’s accession”. Gus, however, is a creature of the Victorian era, and his acting career sums up the theatrical variety of that period. A narratorial voice introduces Gus in his present old age but also refers to the past, when he was “a Star of the highest degree,” alongside Victorian acting legends Henry Irving and Herbert Beerbohm Tree.

The poem’s second stanza conveys Gus’s own voice. His talent as an actor evokes the great days of music hall: “I’d extemporize back-chat, I knew how to gag”. In his “London Letter” on Marie Lloyd (1922), Eliot lamented the death of the music-hall star, which in his view was also the demise of a genre of performance enhanced by audience involvement. In this and other early essays (“The Possibility of Poetic Drama” or “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry”), Eliot pointed to this factor as something that contemporary drama should aspire to emulate.

Gus’s broad acting experience includes most of the minor or so-called “illegitimate” forms of popular mid-Victorian drama, such as adaptations of melodramatic and sensational novels (“he once played a part in East Lynne“; “I have sat by the bedside of poor Little Nell”) or the pantomine (“I once understudied Dick Whittington’s cat,” a legendary story also featured in The Rock). The part that Gus remembers more proudly also seems to reflect the Victorian taste for the Gothic: “But my grandest creation, as history will tell, / Was Firefrorefiddle, the Fiend of the Fell”.

Eliot’s poetic work is often characterised – rather simplistically, perhaps – as a reaction against the Victorian. Conversely, the use of music-hall or drawing-room conventions in his plays represents continuity with nineteenth-century theatre. When it comes to drama, Gus’s nostalgia for “the days when Victoria reigned” might, after all, be also Eliot’s.

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Not a Very Jolly Corner

Etching by Peter Milton for Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner”

In a review (unsigned) of the first production of The Family Reunion (1939), published in Listener, the anonymous reviewer argues that it “compares with the most sensitive of the short novels by Henry James” [*]. Eliot wrote this play at a time of crisis provoked by ambivalent feelings for his family, for his wife Vivienne, and for his intimate friend Emily Hale. The letters addressed to Hale, often compared to Aspern’s papers in James’s novella of that name, confirm that The Family Reunion is Eliot’s most autobiographical play.

In the play’s scene of his reunion with Mary, she represents romantic renewal for the widowed Harry. However, this promise is not fulfilled, and although Mary helps Harry to find his way, her guiding role is less decisive than that of Aunt Agatha’s. The similarity between Mary and Hale is evident, but we may also establish connections with two characters created by James: May Bartram in “The Beast in the Jungle,” and Alice Staverton in “The Jolly Corner”.

In “The Beast in the Jungle,” James’s protagonist, John Marcher, is reunited with May Bartram at an English country house, Weatherend. Bartram is presented as a dependent relative, very much like Mary at Wishwood. Even her great-aunt, the lady of Weatherend, is reminiscent of Amy, Harry’s mother in The Family Reunion. Bartram supports Marcher through the existential crisis expressed as the metaphor after which the story is titled. Marcher refers to Bartram as “a sybil” whose innate wisdom is a “mystical, irresistible light” [**] – in this aspect, she is both Mary and Agatha.

Like Harry, Spencer Brydon returns home in “The Jolly Corner”. After many years in Europe, he goes back to New York, his family home (now empty), and Alice Staverton. If Harry and Mary reminisce on their free and happy childhood, Spencer recalls how he and Alice became friends in an idealised pre-modern New York. In an empty house, the “jolly corner” where he grew up, Spencer will confront his ghostly double, the man that he might have been. Similarly, Agatha explains that her nephew “will find another Harry” at Wishwood; on any given spot of the manor, “he will have to face him – / And it will not be a very jolly corner”.

Through sleepless nights at the “jolly corner,” Spencer is alert to every sound and shadow. At Wishwood, “the noxious smell untraceable in the drains” and “the unspoken voice of sorrow in the ancient bedroom” disturb Harry’s sleep. The distinctive word embrasure occurs in James’s story, and then in Eliot’s play: this is where Spencer hides as he waits for his double to appear, and where the Furies make themselves visible to a horrified Harry.

The Furies reappear in their benevolent aspect as Eumenides, showing Harry the way of purgation as The Family Reunion resolves. At the end of James’s story, Spencer experiences a symbolic rebirth, following an agon with his other self. He passes out, is rescued by Alice (a female intercessor, like May, Mary and Agatha), to be born again: “I can only have died. You brought me literally to life” (p. 366).

[*] Listener, 06-04-1939 (unsigned), T. S. Eliot. The Contemporary Reviews, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, Cambridge UP, 2004, p. 384.
[**] Henry James, Tales, eds. Christof Wegelin and Henry B. Wonham, Norton, 2003 (1984), pp. 330, 321. (Page number given for subsequent quotes from this source.)

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Drama at the 42nd ITSES Annual Meeting

The 42nd International T. S. Eliot Society Annual Meeting took place last weekend, online for a second year. One of the peer seminars, coordinated by Fabio L. Vericat and myself, was dedicated to “Eliot’s Plays, the Stage and the Dramatic Arts”. The participants’ interests were wide-ranging, and included continuities/connections with the poetry, popular influences (crime plays, or the music-hall), Emily Hale’s role in familiarising Eliot with the practice of drama, hybridity and intermediality, ritual and dance, spiritual and emotional resolution, and more.

We started by considering whether Eliot’s drama could be regarded as a form of entertainment. The question is most relevant in connection with Eliot’s comedies (The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman), less so in the experimental Sweeney Agonistes (published as an “unfinished poem”), the devotional and historical Murder in the Cathedral or the sombre, existentialist The Family Reunion.

The Cocktail Party was Eliot’s first comedy, and the most commercially successful of his plays. It had long runs in New York and London, with casts led by stars of both stage and screen (Alec Guiness, Rex Harrison); it was awarded a Tony for best play in 1950, and its author was even approached with a proposal for a film adaptation. It was undoubtedly successful, but could we say that it entertained audiences?

The social role of theatre was essential for Eliot; he emphasised it from his earliest essays on drama and, as a playwright, he always longed to reach a wide, popular audience. In fact, this aspiration explains Eliot’s choice of drawing-room comedy as a medium to convey his worldview. In the late 1940s, he had become a social critic as well as a dramatist, and he advocated the benefits of Christian life against growing materialism and secularisation. This was his end (to proselytise, we could say, rather than entertain), and comedy was his means.

It is not impossible for contemporary audiences to identify with the characters in The Cocktail Party and their crises, although it may be harder to relate to the purgative and negative paths that Eliot offers to them. His comedies are rarely produced today, and this was another point discussed in the seminar. Is the validity of a play, generation after generation, the basic measure of its worth?

The Cocktail Party was last staged in 2015 at The Print Room of The Coronet Theatre (London). As one would expect, it was not a production for large audiences. However, in a review, Tim Hochstrasser argued that “this neglect [of Eliot’s drama] is clearly undeserved,” that “the philosophical issues under review [in The Cocktail Party] are very accessible,” and that this particular production was “a very well thought-through case for revisiting Eliot’s plays as a whole” [*].

[*] Tim Hochstrasser, “Review: The Cocktail Party, Print Room At The Coronet,” 23 Sept 2015, https://britishtheatre.com/review-the-cocktail-party-print-room-at-the-coronet-4stars/, accessed 3 Oct 2021.