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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.