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Ghosts of Christmas Past

The working title of The Waste Land was He Do the Police in Different Voices, a quotation from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend (1865). The sentence points to key elements of Eliot’s poem that we could consider “dramatic”: effective characterisation, dialectal features, ventriloquism or dialogic scenes. We know that Eliot was particularly fond of Dickens’s characters and their language. In two of his plays, we may also find echoes of the structure and symbolism of A Christmas Carol (1843).

In The Cocktail Party, at the end of Act One, Edward Chamberlayne, alone in his flat in the evening, receives the unexpected visit of an “unidentified guest”. Lavinia (Edward’s wife) has left him, and the guest promises to “bring her back from the dead,” explaining that “we die to each other daily,” and must meet again as strangers. As an example, he refers to the “affectionate ghosts” of childhood, such as “the lively bachelor uncle at the Christmas party,” whom we see rarely or after many years. Before leaving, the unidentified guest – like Marley in Dickens’s tale – warns Edward to “await your visitors,” to welcome them as strangers, and even become a stranger to himself. The first visitor is Celia (Edward’s lover), the second visitor is Peter (Lavinia’s lover but in love with Celia), and the third is Lavinia. Their meeting, set against a past and present of misdirected love, will be decisive for their future.

In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton’s prospect of peace after his retirement from politics is disturbed by the return of two characters whose lives he negatively conditioned in their youth. He accustomed Fred Culverwell, his contemporary at Oxford, to a life of extravagance fatally resulting in financial crime. Mrs Carghill, on the other hand, was ruthlessly forsaken after a promise of marriage. Both Culverwell and Carghill confront Eliot’s protagonist with his blameworthy behaviour, which casts a shadow on his irreproachable reputation: they cause him to make amends. Lord Claverton refers to them as “the ghosts who haunted me,” “spectres from my past”. His past and present life, about to change as a result of these encounters, seems equally unreal. As he tells his daughter Monica and her fiancé, “I see myself emerging / From my spectral existence into something like reality”.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come teach Scrooge to honour the spirit of Christmas, founded on charity and compassion. His story exemplifies the archetype of rebirth or transformation, made possible by spiritual guidance. This is also crucial in most of Eliot’s plays: Edward Chamberlayne will choose the positive way of marital harmony (those around him will also find their way), and Lord Claverton will face death having learnt to love selflessly. “God bless us, everyone!”

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Eliot’s Verse Drama and “a Novel in Verse”

In “The Three Voices of Poetry” (1953), T. S. Eliot referred to the love poems that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote for each other and then published, in order to prove his point that “the voice of the poet talking to one person only” was “an illusion” (*). The essay focuses on the three poetic voices as used in Eliot’s plays, which we may connect with EBB’s most ambitious poem, Aurora Leigh (1856).

Eliot looked back on the glorious past of verse drama, but his choice of medium was unconventional in the context of twentieth-century theatre. Aurora Leigh was defined by its author as a “a novel in verse”. We may think of this definition as an oxymoron, but Aurora Leigh is in the tradition of the long narrative poem, while partaking of the Victorian novel’s realism. It deals with “the woman question” and social injustice, but also with a variety of minor issues, such as the state of drama in the mid nineteenth-century.

In Book V, Aurora ridicules the conventions of the stage and dramaturgy of her time: “‘exit’ here / And ‘enter’ there,” “the points of clapping, fixed,” “to prick the galleries to the heart / Precisely at the fourth act,” “culminate / Our four pyramidal acts with one act more” (**). With fascination, she also refers to the ritualistic practices of ancient drama, such as “the sacrificial goat,” “the whirling white / Of choral vestures,” or “the waxen mask” (p. 156). If these are forever lost, dull present-day drama

[…] also peradventure may outgrow
The simulation of the painted scene,
Boards, actors, prompters, gaslight, and costume
And take for a worthier stage the soul itself,
[…] (p. 156)

In the meantime, playwrights will conform to formalities, constrained as they are both by the demands of audiences, and the fear of critics. By contrast, poetry is still guided by the sublime, and poets, unencumbered by external or commercial pressures, need only be true to their art. This is why Aurora is committed to poetry, and will not lower herself to writing for the stage:

I will write no plays;
Because the drama, less sublime in this,
Makes lower appeals, submits more menially,
Adopts the standard of the public taste
To chalk its height on, […] (p. 154)

As we know, Eliot tried to adapt to “the public taste” without making his drama superficial: precisely in “The Three Voices of Poetry,” he alludes to “unfriendly critics” who disparagingly associate him with “Shaftesbury Avenue and Broadway” (p. 818). As indicated above, the golden age of verse drama was Eliot’s referent, but he may have recognised in Aurora Leigh a historically closer and successful attempt to use verse for the portrayal of contemporary life.

(*) “The Three Voices of Poetry,” in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot. A European Society 1943-1957, vol. 7, eds. Iman Javadi and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, 2018, pp. 817-33 (p. 818). All quotes from this edition.

(**) Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Oxford UP, 2008, pp. 153, 154. All quotes from this edition.