More Liberty with Myth

Michael Redgrave as Orin in Dudley Nichols’s film adaptation of Mourning Becomes Electra

Michael Redgrave played Harry, Lord Monchensey in the first production of T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939). Curiously, a few years later, he would be cast as Orin Mannon in the film adaptation (1947) of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). Both roles are transpositions of Aeschylus’ Orestes: Eliot’s drama is set in the north of England in the 1930s, O’Neill’s in New England as the Civil War comes to an end. Like Harry, Orin and his sister Lavinia (Electra) carry the weight of a family curse on their shoulders.

In criticising The Family Reunion (an adaptation of The Furies, the third play of the Oresteia trilogy) in “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot admitted to a “failure of adjustment between the Greek story and the modern situation”; he also regretted not having “taken a great deal more liberty with his [Aeschylus’] myth”. The two most unsatisfactory elements of the play, according to its author, were the incongruity of the chorus and the interference of the Furies.

Eliot’s chorus is made up of Harry’s uncles and aunts. Their speech as individual characters is rife with platitudes and clichés, but when they speak together as a chorus, their tone becomes enigmatic, even oracular. The members of the chorus in Mourning Becomes Electra, on the other hand, are “types of townsfolk […] representing the town,” “a human background for the drama of the Mannons” [*]. They are more distant from the action than Harry’s relatives, but their demeanour and conversation are always realistic.

Like the chorus in The Family Reunion, who may speak poetically “beyond character,” the appearance of the Furies also compromises the play’s realism. O’Neill found a subtle yet effective equivalence for the Furies in his setting: Orin and Lavinia’s guilt for their mother’s suicide and her lover’s murder is symbolised by the staring ghostly portraits of their ancestors in the sitting-room, including “one of a grim-visaged minister of the witch-burning era” (131). The two Mannon children react to the threatening presence of these ghosts, even confront them. Like the portraits, the windows on the façade of the symbolic family house “reflect the sun in a smouldering stare, as of brooding, revengeful eyes” (273). Interestingly, the Furies are first seen in Eliot’s play through a drawing-room window.

Aspects of The Family Reunion that Eliot considered to be errors (poetic language without a clear dramatic purpose, mythological figures at odds with a modern setting) are ironically among the most attractive features of the play. And it is interesting to compare Eliot’s “flaws” with the dramatic solutions reached by O’Neill, the more confident playwright.

[*] Eugene O’Neill, Mourning Becomes Electra (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013), pp. 17, 113. All quotes from this edition.


Choral Voices

First edition of Virginia Woolf’s
The Waves (1931)

The character of Louis in Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931) is often assumed to have been inspired by T. S. Eliot. Louis is a foreigner in England, always self-consciously trying to fit in; he is characterised by his need for order, and by his sense of history and tradition; he has a clerical job, but shows a profound literary sensitivity. Eliot shared these traits – and was born in Saint Louis.

The Waves is essentially a choral novel in which six friends (Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny and Louis) express their thoughts and relive their memories, without directly interacting. They are, to use Henry James’s term, “centres of consciousness,” and the projections of their minds overlap. In the final section of the novel, the six voices become one as Bernard, the writer in the group, blurs perspectival distinctions.

When we first hear them, the characters speak short statements – like verse lines – conveying elemental visual and auditory images:

“I see a ring,” said Bernard, “hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.”
“I see a slab of pale yellow,” said Susan, “spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.”
“I hear a sound,” said Rhoda, “cheep, chirp; cheep, chirp; going up and down.”
“I see a globe,” said Neville, “hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.”
“I see a crimson tassel,” said Jinny, “twisted with gold threads.”
“I hear something stamping,” said Louis. “A great beast’s foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps.” [*]

Four characters integrate the chorus in Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939): Ivy, Violet, Gerald and Charles. A single choral voice alternates with four voices that, despite fulfilling a common purpose, are distinct. Although this alternation was an innovative dramatic device, the critic Desmond MacCarthy dismissed it as “a violation of auditory psychology” [**]. The members of Eliot’s chorus comment on the action collectively, but they also show concern on trivialities or attack one another, as if voicing their thoughts:

IVY. I do not trust Charles with his confident vulgarity, acquired from worldly associates.
GERDALD. Ivy is only concerned on herself, and her credit among her shabby genteel acquaintance.
VIOLET. Gerald is certain to make some blunder, he is useless out of the army.
CHARLES. Violet is afraid that her status as Amy’s sister will be diminished.

Eliot’s chorus is very different from Woolf’s dramatis personae. The former are secondary characters lacking any depth, they are relatives with strained relationships and not friends, and they are satirised by Eliot for their meaningless mundane priorities. Yet, the cadence and diction of their language, the way their voices are alternatively integrated and individualised, are reminiscent of the opening of The Waves, in which the six voices emerge, almost with an incantatory effect.

[*] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 2.
[**] Desmond MacCarthy, “Some Notes on Mr. Eliot’s New Play, New Statesman, 25-03-1939.” T. S. Eliot. The Contemporary Reviews, ed. by Jewel Spears Brooker (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), pp. 381-84 (p. 382).


A Dramatist’s Progress

T. S. Eliot’s years as a dramatist may be dismissed as the renowned poet’s retreat to a territory of comfortably lower creative standards. Nothing could be further from the truth, however: from the mid 1930s onwards, Eliot embarked on a painstaking learning process that was also a progress towards his ideal of poetic, popular, modern drama.

Eliot claimed that The Rock (1934) had been the result of collaborative effort, his main contribution being the lyrical choruses connecting various historical episodes of England’s – and specifically London’s – Christian history. Choruses were also a successful device in Murder in the Cathedral (1935); in a sense, this play may be approached as an elaboration of a scene that might have been included in the sequence of Eliot’s previous pageant play.

With The Family Reunion (1939), Eliot moved from a historical play that could easily accomodate verse to a play “of modern life”, where poetry was at risk of sounding unnatural. In an application of his own mythical method, he adapted Aeschylus’s The Furies to a contemporary setting; this method (finding inspiration in classical drama) would be repeated in all subsequent plays. An innovative use of the chorus was also introduced: its members spoke both collectively and also as characters with distinct personalities.

Eliot had set The Family Reunion in contemporary England, in an attempt to help audiences relate to his drama. Similarly, the choice of drawing-room comedy as a medium, and of bourgeois London as a social setting in The Cocktail Party (1949) showed that, as a dramatist, Eliot was appealing to modern sensibilities and aspiring to be popular – in the most dignified sense of the word. The heroine of this comedy, Celia Copplestone, completed the transcendent journey initiated by Harry Monchensey in The Family Reunion, her sacrifice harking back to Becket’s martyrdom in Murder in the Cathedral.

The Cocktail Party was Eliot’s first commercial success. It was also an achievement in making verse suitable for a variety of dramatic situations, from trivial chit-chat to the expression of profound sentiment. The two plays that followed, The Confidential Clerk (1954) and The Elder Statesman (1958) represent – despite their unenthusiastic reception – the culmination of Eliot’s pursuit of naturality in verse, a more confident sense of dramatic structure, and the fulfilment of spiritual quests in faith and love.