Categories
Categorías

Striving Toward the Condition of Drama

In 1959, the year after its first production in Britain, The Elder Statesman, was programmed in a new theatre in Germany, the Staatstheater at Kassel. For the occasion, Eliot wrote a note of greeting (*) in which, very much the “elder statesman” of international letters, he stressed how drama had shaped his work, and also looked back on his career as a dramatist.

As a critic, Eliot had reflected on the golden age of verse drama, and the possibility of its revival for modern audiences. He dedicated some of his most insightful essays to key Renaissance dramatists. In his note for the Kassel Staatstheater, however, he does not refer to his critical work: “among the English influences upon my development as a poet, the verse dramatists of the age of Shakespeare took first place” (emphasis added). Dramatic elements (effective characterisation, presentation of scenes, vivid dialogue) can be found in Eliot’s poetry, culminating in The Waste Land. In 1959, echoing Walter Pater’s famous dictum on art and music, Eliot makes a revealing statement: “many of my early poems appear, in retrospect, to have been striving, so to speak, toward the condition of drama”.

In defining his aim as a playwright, Eliot correlates poetry with characters, situations and speech of his own day: “to bring back poetry to the stage, to accustom the public to plays written in verse but concerned with contemporary society and with characters talking in contemporary idiom”. With The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman, he perfected his ideal of naturalistic verse. This was his main innovation – valuable but subtle in comparison with the daring theatrical experimentation of the times. Eliot had been in a position of leadership as a poet and critic, but not – he was well aware – when he ventured into drama: “there were living dramatists with greater native talent for the theatre, writers of unerring instinct for theatrical effect, and of technical accomplishment which I could not hope to emulate”.

Eliot’s confidence was in the poetry, in his conviction that, traditionally, the transition from poetry to drama was not – to quote Frost’s best known poem – “the road less traveled by,” a journey easier than that departing from prose: “I maintain that it is only in poetry that the deepest emotion and the finest states of feeling can be expressed; and that it is more possible for a poet, by enthusiasm and hard work, to become a playwright, than for a prose playwright to become a poet”.

(*) “Greetings to the Staatstheater Kassel,” in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot. Still and Still Moving, vol. 8, eds. Jewel Spears Brooker and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, 2019, pp. 367-69.

Categories
Categorías

Investigations Into the Life of the Spirit

Light comedy in The Confidential Clerk (1953) is provided mostly by a character, Lady Elizabeth Mulhammer. She is presented to Colby by Eggerson as whimsical, absent-minded, and often needing rescue:

It’s been a very unusual privilege
To see as much of Europe as I have,
Getting Lady Elizabeth out of her difficulties.

But more importantly, “she has a good heart”. Her inner restlessness finds an outlet in alternative medicine: she has undergone treatment in Zürich or Lausanne (where Eliot himself recovered from stress and chronic fatigue in the early 1920s). An earl’s daughter, she is socially superior to her husband, and snobbishly looks down on Sir Claude’s illegitimate daughter and her fiance, the “rather vulgar” Lucasta and Kaghan.

Yet, Lady Elizabeth was an alienated child in an aristocratic family, to the point of believing herself a “changeling”. Her estrangement resulted in extravagance and esotericism: she approves of Colby’s aura; she believes in reincarnation, the “art of health,” “the importance of colour for our spiritual life,” and “the Wisdom of the East”; she stresses the benefits of “health cures,” of a “quiet hour” for meditation, and teaches “recollection” to the maid; she is interested in “modern art,” “dervish dancing” and “herbal restaurants”.

In conversation with Colby, Sir Claude makes a crucial statement:

my wife’s investigations
into what she calls the life of the spirit
are a kind of substitute for religion.

Lady Elizabeth’s investigations recall the “usual pastimes and drugs” to which Eliot referred in section V of “The Dry Salvages”: ufology, spiritualism, astrology, chiromancy, or the interpretation of dreams. These are all rife “when there is distress of nations,” and opposed to “the intersection of the timeless with time,” which “is an occupation for the saint”. Lady Elizabeth’s mock religion contrasts with Colby’s music, which will lead him to a saintly life as the organist of a parish church.

Early in the play, Eggerson refers to Lady Elizabeth’s confidence in her intuition or “guidance,” and Sir Claude jokingly suggests that this takes the place of “judgement”. But Eliot chooses Lady Elizabeth to voice key verse lines at the end of the play, expressing a central theme:

Between not knowing what other people want of one,
And not knowing what one should ask of other people,
One does make mistakes!