Categories
Categorías

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!”

Categories
Categorías

On Drama and Melodrama

Colby Simpkins is the protagonist of The Confidential Clerk (1953). The story of the orphan child who as a young man discovers the unexpected truth about his parents has something about it of melodramatic implausibility. We would not readily associate this with Eliot, which may explain why this play puzzles many of his readers, and his audiences.

As a critic, Eliot reflected on melodrama in his essay “Wilkie Collins and Dickens” (1927), where he focused on Collins’s novels, drawing attention to their dramatic features. Eliot praises Collins for his mastery of “plot and situation,” which he considers the most dramatic aspects of fiction. The author of The Woman in White, however, lacks Dickens’s powers of characterisation, in which Eliot sees a depth and precision that strike him as poetic in nature.

The relationship between character and plot is crucial to Eliot’s discussion of melodrama. In what he calls “great drama,” there exists a purposeful conjunction between character and plot, so that one determines the other; if this interdependence becomes unbalanced, the effect may be melodramatic – in the form of excessive emotion or of delayed, improbable action. As Eliot points out, the difference between drama and melodrama is “largely a matter of emphasis”; it could be argued, therefore, that melodrama is the result of misdirected emphasis.

Apropos of Collins’s melodrama, Eliot makes another interesting distinction between theatrical and dramatic plots, solely the latter being justified in terms of structure and evolution. It follows that melodrama often indulges in theatricality, sacrificing the economy of purpose that should characterise drama. The binary opposition theatrical-dramatic prefigures the prominence Eliot gave to the principle of dramatic justification, which would guide his evolution as a playwright.

Despite its limited success, The Confidential Clerk may be the play where dramatic justification (of character, plot and verse) is closest to Eliot’s ideal. Melodrama is apparent, if at all, in the comedic elements of the play, which have a Victorian flavour. The final succession of revelations in the plot is instrumental, with no melodramatic misalignment, in Colby’s fulfilment as a character.