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Would Eliot have enjoyed the recent ‘Cats’ film?

Hot Gossip may have inspired the original Cats costumes

The musical Cats (1981), by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn, recast Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a narrative musical comedy targetting an audience of all ages. The 2019 film adaptation, directed by Tom Hopper, aspired to continue the enormous international success of its theatrical antecedent, but it flopped and met caustic criticism. Claire Reihill, administrator of the T. S. Eliot Estate, declared that the poet “might have enjoyed the strangeness” of the trailer’s aesthetic. The press echoed this suggestion, raising expectations, but would Eliot really have liked the film?

Both Eliot’s Practical Cats and Webber and Nunn’s Cats draw on the music hall tradition – its taste for anecdote and incident, remarkable characters and teasing humour. In an early review, “The Beating of a Drum” (1923), Eliot praised Charlie Chaplin – who had begun his career in the music-hall – as a “great actor”. Chaplin’s slapstick gestural acting, which would become a characteristic feature of his pioneering films, was proposed by Eliot as a model for modern drama, where – he felt – the lack of rhythm was a major shortcoming.

One year before “The Beating of a Drum”, Eliot wrote “Marie Lloyd” (1922), an obituary tribute to the immensely popular music hall actress and a vindication of the genre that she came to personify. Eliot admires Lloyd’s unique rapport with her audience and the latter’s active role during performances. With Lloyd’s death, the music hall seemed moribund, but there was another threat to the continuity of its lively communal shows: the increasing popularity of cinema. Eliot resolutely rejects films as a stultifying form of entertainment, profit-based and mass-produced, a cheap alternative to the performing arts.

This dismissal was expressed at a critical juncture in the development of popular culture; we know that Eliot could be ambivalent, and his views evolved over a long career. As David Trotter (*) points out, Eliot’s early poems evidence a fascination with the technical and automatic (associated by the modernists with cinema), and he found Jean Epstein’s theoretical writings on poetry and cinema intellectually stimulating. At the same time, the author of “The Beating of the Drum” and “Marie Lloyd” enjoyed westerns and the comedies by the Marx Brothers.

And yet, Hopper’s Cats seems to exemplify what Eliot despised about cinema in “Marie Lloyd”: a film primarily intended to become a box office hit over the Christmas season, with a cast chosen on the principle of attracting large numbers of viewers and a lavish use of special effects technology. The latter aspect in particular (interestingly, one that is not essentially dramatic) has been the main butt of negative criticism, since the computer-generated cat fur on the actors’ bodies seemed disturbingly grotesque.

Webber has explained that, while discussing his project for the musical Cats with Valerie Eliot, he suggested that the costumes would reproduce the slinky style of the dance music group Hot Gossip. Eliot’s widow replied: “Yes, yes. I think Tom would’ve liked that”. Together with the coreography, John Napier’s costume design was one of the most innovative and memorable aspects of the West End production. As a genuine aspect of performance, I have little doubt that Eliot would have preferred it over CGI cat fur.

(*) David Trotter, “T. S. Eliot and Cinema.” Modernism / Modernity, vol. 13, no. 2, 2006, pp. 237-65.

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Pizzetti’s “Assassinio nella Cattedrale”

Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as Beckett in Assassinio nella Cattedrale

The Italian opera Assassinio nella Cattedrale, by Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), premiered at the Teatro alla Scala (Milan) in 1958. It was also produced, a few months later, at the Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona). According to a note on the programme of this production, Pizzetti’s son had read Eliot’s play in English and recommended it to his father. In 1948, Pizzetti and his wife attended a performance of Eliot’s play, and she remarked that Murder in the Cathedral seemed perfect for him to adapt to opera.

In the early twentieth century, the young Pizzetti worked in close collaboration with the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Some of his operas were inspired by Greek drama and myth; spirituality and symbolism were characteristic elements of his lyrical dramas. As his son and wife felt, Pizzetti seemed destined to compose Assassinio nella Cattedrale. He also wrote the libretto, drawing on the Italian translation of Eliot’s play by Alberto Castelli. The structure of the original text is mirrored by the opera: two acts and an intermezzo in which Beckett’s Christmas sermon, somewhere between operatic and liturgical singing, is accompanied by an orchestral arrangement both lyrical and full of foreboding.

Before this intermezzo, the conclusion of Act I illustrates what Pizzetti’s opera offers: Beckett’s soul-searching and his final surrender to God’s will can be heard as a dramatic aria, sung in a powerful bass voice; the choir of Canterbury women warn the Archbishop, singing at the top of their voices, or in whispers and glissandos (two of them, prima and secunda corifea, soprano and mezzosoprano, singularize the choral lament); the polyphony of the tempters (two basses, a baritone and a tenor who also play the knights in Act II) contribute to the growing tension; finally, a full orchestra brings the first half of the opera to a climactic close, echoing the protagonist’s leitmotif.

A review of the Liceu production of Assassinio nella Cattedrale cautioned those accustomed to nineteenth-century bel canto: they would find Pizzetti’s opera challenging. He was, after all, a Modernist, a contemporary of Stravinsky or Bartók; curiously, he became Olga Rudge’s mentor and friend in Rome. Despite its high reputation, the opera adaptation of Murder in the Cathedral has seldom been programmed (Pizzetti’s fascist sympathies have not helped). A recent production, filmed at the Basilica di San Nicola di Bari and with Ruggero Raimondi as the Arcivescovo Tommaso di Canterbury, can be viewed here.

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Eliot and Comedy

In reviewing Eliot’s first comedy, The Cocktail Party, the critic John Peter remarked that “only the incidentals” were comical. The character with the highest comic potential is Julia Shuttlethwaite, a talkative and nosy old lady with a talent for creating confusion:

JULIA
Edward! How lucky that it’s raining!
It made me remember my umbrella,
And there it is! Now what are you two plotting?
How very luck it was my umbrella,
And not Alexander’s – he‘s so inquisitive!
But I never poke into other people’s business.
Well, good-bye again. I’m off at last.

The situation and language is typical of drawing-room comedy, which Eliot chose as the element for his last three plays and is by definition light. He evolved from pageant (The Rock), to historical biographical drama (Murder in the Cathedral), tragedy with a ray of hope (The Family Reunion) and finally naturalistic and sophisticated comedy (The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman).

With The Cocktail Party, Eliot adopted a different genre because he was not fully satisfied with the tragic elements of The Family Reunion (the choruses, the Furies), because this second play had been coldly received, because he realised comedy could make the depth of his transcendent vision more palatable and, last but not least, because he was aware that it attracted audiences. And Eliot wanted his drama to be profound, yet popular, successful, commercial. Tragedy became comedy, but the aristocratic / bourgeois drawing-room remained as spatial and social setting.

Peter accurately suggests that Eliot’s comedy is Dantean in quality. Its heroes and heroines succeed in finding their ways to commune with the divine. Precisely in The Cocktail Party, Celia Copplestone achieves this union through martyrdom and sacrifice – so gruesome and inimical to comedy in its details, that it shocked early audiences and still baffles contemporary readers. Paradoxically, and in the context of the dramatist’s vision of the temporal and the timeless, Celia’s tragical death is comical.

In Eliot’s next comedy, The Confidential Clerk, Colby Simpkins’ existence intersects with the eternal in a more placid way. Comic relief tends to be provided by Lady Elizabeth’s absent-mindedness, whims and esoteric practices, in which she has been instructing one of the maids:

LUCASTA
I thought I heard someone singing in the pantry.
LADY ELIZABETH
Oh, I forgot. It’s Gertrude’s quiet hour.
I’ve been giving her lessons in recollection.
But she shouldn’t be singing.

The Confidential Clerk, because of its misunderstandings and mistaken identities, is reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest, although it lacks Wilde’s pungent satirical wit. Lady Elizabeth is no Lady Bracknell, Eliot’s humour is gentle, perhaps incidental – his priority is to lead Colby to his rose garden.

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Luis Escobar’s ‘Cocktail Party’

T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party was first staged in Spain in 1952, at the Teatro María Guerrero in Madrid. Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion had been produced in earlier years by amateur or “chamber” companies, but this particular production of The Cocktail Party was programmed by a national theatre, and its target was therefore a wide and general audience, not attracted a priori to what Eliot’s drama represented. Its directors were Huberto Pérez de la Osssa and Luis Escobar Kirkpatrick.

Luis Escobar belonged to an aristocratic and cultivated family. His father wished all his children to have a profession, and young Escobar found his vocation in the theatre: he wrote, directed, produced and acted. After the Spanish Civil War, as the manager of the Teatro María Guerrero, he decisively contributed to revitalising theatrical activity in the capital city of a devastated country, isolated by a totalitarian regime.

Together with Pérez de la Ossa, Escobar programmed Spanish drama (contemporary and classical) and introduced international playwrights to Spanish audiences. His productions of J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways or Thornton Wilder’s Our Town were landmarks. The María Guerrero was innovative in its comprehensive and ambitious season programmes, its artistic set designs (including one by Salvador Dalí) and its training of new generations of actors. In short, it established itself as a model of what a publicly funded teatro nacional should be.

Escobar referred to Eliot as a friend with whom he excahnged letters and whom he saw on his visits to London. Eliot, in turn, visited Madrid in 1951, and we may assume that he met the Spanish director, at that time busy with the rehearsals of Cocktail Party and concerned about their slow progress – its premiere would be put off to the following season. In retrospect, Escobar referred to Eliot’s play as the most challenging of his productions.

The unpublished playscript of Cocktail Party was by the reputed translator José Méndez Herrera (he preserved the English title, dropping the article); Escobar himself would produce a new translation, published in 1959 as part of the anthology Teatro inglés contemporáneo. The María Guerrero production was ambivalently received: a feat of verse drama but too dense, morally admirable except in its neutral treatment of the delicate question of adultery. The cast included young actors (Adolfo Marsillach, Berta Riaza, José María Rodero) who would afterwards develop successful careers.

Cocktail Party was one of Escobar’s last productions at the María Guerrero. His commitment to the best drama would continue. Evading a strict and erratic censorship, he was the first impresario to stage a play by García-Lorca (Yerma) after the Civil War; he produced Jean Paul Sartre’s Hui clos (to which The Coctail Party alludes) or Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. To Escobar we also owe the most professional and polished production of Eliot’s verse drama in Spain.

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Endless Humility

Two of the most memorable verse lines in “East Coker” are: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” They belong to the second section, which opens with images of seasonal turmoil and astronomical warfare, criticised in the following stanza: “That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory.” The poet cannot evade “the intolerable wrestle / with words and meanings” – we find comparable passages at other points of Four Quartets.

When Eliot published the second of his Quartets (1940), he was also “wrestling” with dramatic verse, plot and structure. As David Chinitz puts it, he was “retraining himself as a playwright” [*]. Despite Eliot’s unquestioned reputation as a poet and critic, he learned to become a dramatist in a spirit of humility. His attitude is reflected in the notes of acknowledgement included in the first editions of his plays, and in his essay “Poetry and Drama” (1951).

In a “Prefatory Note,” Eliot presents The Rock (1934) as follows: “I cannot consider myself the author of the ‘play,’ but only of the words printed here.” He also explains that the Rev. Vincent Howson, who took part in the performance, “has so completely rewritten, amplified and condensed the dialogue [of his part] . . . that he deserves the title of joint author.” These observations evidence that Eliot thought of his task as contributing to a collaborative project.

In each of his notes, Eliot expresses his gratitude to E. Martin Browne – the director of all the original productions – whose suggestions were incorporated to the definitive text of the plays. Eliot admits that he “rewrote” The Rock for publication, being “submissive” to Browne’s “expert criticism.” John Hayward, one of Eliot’s closest friends, is also thanked for his critical reading of drafts. When he published The Cocktail Party (1949), Eliot acknowledged his “debt to both these censors,” Hayward and Browne.

The Cocktail Party was a commercial success in the West End and Broadway. It received a Tony Award for Best Play, and there was even a project for a film adaptation. Yet, in referring to his first comedy in “Poetry and Drama,” three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Eliot declares: “I have not yet got to the end of my investigation of the weaknesses of this play.” In the same essay, when he traces the process of composition of Murder in the Cathedral (1935), he refers to himself as “a beginner,” and when he considers The Family Reunion (1939), he finds it “defective” in different aspects.

In writing, presenting and assessing his plays, Eliot did show “the wisdom of humility,” which, needless to say, not all successful writers acquire.

[*] David E. Chinitz, “A Vast Wasteland? Eliot and Popular Culture.” A Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by David E. Chinitz, Blackwell, 2014, p. 68 (pp. 66-78).

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Bacon, Sweeney and the Furies

T. S. Eliot is popularly known as the poet of The Waste Land (1922), the voice of disillusion. Understandably, the association mortified him after his poetry veered to hope and his drama confirmed this tendency. Even though the artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) found inspiration in Eliot’s dramatic texts, his style seemed incompatible with Eliot’s poetics of illumination.

Bacon’s Triptych 1967, inspired by Sweeney Agonistes, exemplifies his typical representation of bodies: lifeless, amorphous, objects of physical violence or engaged in sexual activity. We are reminded of Sweeney’s brutal fantasies: he will be “the cannibal” who “will gobble up” Doris “the missionary,” and he declares that “any man might do a girl in.”

Two decades earlier, Eliot’s drama had already influenced Bacon. His Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), also a triptych, came to be associated – by critics and the artist himself – with the Eumenides. Conventionally, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and John the Evangelist are represented at the foot of the Cross, but Bacon depicts three grotesque and threatening forms.

The artist admitted that the presence of the Furies in Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1936), which he saw staged, had stirred his imagination while working on Three Studies. Ironically, the text of the play gives almost no clue as to the appearance of the Furies; the emphasis is on Harry’s terror when he confronts the avenging creatures that other characters seem not to see. In “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot expressed his concern that the representation of the Furies was a daunting production challenge.

Yet, Sweeney has mystical inclinations and the Furies become “bright angels” who show Harry the way of purgation. In Sweeney Agonistes and The Family Reunion, however, Bacon saw (primarily) the sordid and disturbing, the terrifying primitivism of myth.

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Rhythmic Dialogues

T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (1949) opens with lively repartee. Characters discuss anecdotes that are not coherently told and reply to one another with direct, self-contained verse lines. The recording by the original West End cast is remarkably rhythmical. The following quote illustrates how Eliot relies on repetition to mark the scene’s rhythm:

CELIA: She’s such a good mimic.
JULIA: Am I a good mimic?
PETER: You are a good mimic.

In reviewing the play in 1965 (“A Theatrical Compromise”), Raymond Williams laid emphasis on its rhythmic repetition and connected it with Sweeney Agonistes (1926). These are the first lines of Eliot’s unfinished play:

DUSTY: How about Pereira?
DORIS: What about Pereira?
DUSTY: I don’t care.
DORIS: You don’t care!

The jazz inspiration for Sweeney Agonistes has been studied (by Kevin McNeilly or Christine Buttram) and is known. We can compare its dialogues to jazz instruments trading / repeating short musical phrases, suddenly introducing a slight variation. Eliot would have had his play staged to the rhythm of drums and bones, enhancing its syncopation.

Sweeney Agonistes was subtitled Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama, and The Cocktail Party was remotely based on Euripides’s Alcestis, where Heracles brings the dead Alcestis back to her husband, King Admetus (in Eliot’s play, Reilley persuades Lavinia, who has left her husband Edward, to return home). The opening scene in Alcestis, where Death confronts Apollo (an agon) is an example of stichomythia, consisting in the brisk exchange of single epigrammatic lines.

Whether Eliot had stichomythic dialogue in mind while writing Sweeney Agonistes or The Cocktail Party, few dramatists could have combined the beating of jazz drums with the rhythms of classical drama.

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Drama in “The Waste Land”

In 1988, a group of students from the Madrid School of Performing Arts (RESAD) produced Una partida de ajedrez, based on the second part of The Waste Land, “A Game of Chess”. Its director, Chema Castelló, who later developed into a visual artist, divided the production into four scenes:

  1. In an initial soliloquy, and framed as in a portrait, an actor described the rich spatial setting (as the poetic speaker does in the poem).
  2. An actress and an actor performed the scene of the “neurotic woman” and her lover as a dialogue, with a blank stare. The general aesthetics were inspired by Alain Resnais’s film Last Year at Marienbad (1961).
  3. The “neurotic woman” listened to another actress impersonating Lil’s friend. The tone was tragicomical and the actress’ voice, as she told Lil’s story, grotesquely high-pitched.
  4. A song by Olivier Messiaen was played and the actor in the picture frame put an end to the performance: “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.”

Apart from its well-known Shakespearean allusions, “A Game of Chess” has an obvious dramatic potential. So has The Waste Land as a whole: a poem of voices – provisionally titled “He do the police in different voices” – and therefore of characters. The rarefied situations in which these characters find themselves and their failed communication seem easy to adapt to expressionist performance.

According to Deborah Warner, who successfully directed a dramatised version of The Waste Land with Fiona Shaw, Eliot’s poem foreshadowed drama that would be staged later in the century. Paradoxically, Eliot’s work as a playwright has generally been perceived as discontinuous with the modernity and innovation of his early poetry.

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Welcome to the Blog

The blog “T. S. Eliot and Drama” is associated with the research project “T. S. Eliot’s Drama from Spain: Translation, Critical Study, Performance (TEATREL-SP)”. The project is funded by the Spanish Ministerio de Ciencia, Innovación y Universidades and the Agencia Estatal de la Investigación (PGC2018-097143-A-I00) and will develop over a period of three years (2019-2021).

The project of researching Eliot’s drama from a Spanish perspective pursues three main objectives: (i) studying Eliot’s original dramatic texts in depth, (ii) analysing their reception and performance in a Spanish context (including possible effects of Francoist censorship) and (iii) producing updated, research-based translations into Spanish, incorporating the findings of current bibliography and reproducing or adapting the original metrical patterns of Eliot’s verse drama.

The blog is intended as a discussion forum in parallel with the project’s activity, covering the various facets of the topic: Eliot’s criticism on drama, his plays, their performance, translation and international reception.