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Drama at the 42nd ITSES Annual Meeting

The 42nd International T. S. Eliot Society Annual Meeting took place last weekend, online for a second year. One of the peer seminars, coordinated by Fabio L. Vericat and myself, was dedicated to “Eliot’s Plays, the Stage and the Dramatic Arts”. The participants’ interests were wide-ranging, and included continuities/connections with the poetry, popular influences (crime plays, or the music-hall), Emily Hale’s role in familiarising Eliot with the practice of drama, hybridity and intermediality, ritual and dance, spiritual and emotional resolution, and more.

We started by considering whether Eliot’s drama could be regarded as a form of entertainment. The question is most relevant in connection with Eliot’s comedies (The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman), less so in the experimental Sweeney Agonistes (published as an “unfinished poem”), the devotional and historical Murder in the Cathedral or the sombre, existentialist The Family Reunion.

The Cocktail Party was Eliot’s first comedy, and the most commercially successful of his plays. It had long runs in New York and London, with casts led by stars of both stage and screen (Alec Guiness, Rex Harrison); it was awarded a Tony for best play in 1950, and its author was even approached with a proposal for a film adaptation. It was undoubtedly successful, but could we say that it entertained audiences?

The social role of theatre was essential for Eliot; he emphasised it from his earliest essays on drama and, as a playwright, he always longed to reach a wide, popular audience. In fact, this aspiration explains Eliot’s choice of drawing-room comedy as a medium to convey his worldview. In the late 1940s, he had become a social critic as well as a dramatist, and he advocated the benefits of Christian life against growing materialism and secularisation. This was his end (to proselytise, we could say, rather than entertain), and comedy was his means.

It is not impossible for contemporary audiences to identify with the characters in The Cocktail Party and their crises, although it may be harder to relate to the purgative and negative paths that Eliot offers to them. His comedies are rarely produced today, and this was another point discussed in the seminar. Is the validity of a play, generation after generation, the basic measure of its worth?

The Cocktail Party was last staged in 2015 at The Print Room of The Coronet Theatre (London). As one would expect, it was not a production for large audiences. However, in a review, Tim Hochstrasser argued that “this neglect [of Eliot’s drama] is clearly undeserved,” that “the philosophical issues under review [in The Cocktail Party] are very accessible,” and that this particular production was “a very well thought-through case for revisiting Eliot’s plays as a whole” [*].

[*] Tim Hochstrasser, “Review: The Cocktail Party, Print Room At The Coronet,” 23 Sept 2015, https://britishtheatre.com/review-the-cocktail-party-print-room-at-the-coronet-4stars/, accessed 3 Oct 2021.

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The Perfect Line

On May 18, the Departamento de Filologías Extranjeras y sus Lingüísticas (UNED) held a one-day seminar to publicise its research projects, including “T. S. Eliot’s Drama from Spain: Translation, Critical Study Performance (TEATREL-SP).” One of its researchers, Natalia Carbajosa Palmero, gave the lecture “The Translation into Spanish of T. S. Eliot’s Verse Drama: Precedents and Present Proposals.” Finding the right form, both equivalent to the original and also connecting with contemporary verse drama in Spanish, requires tracing Eliot’s search for the “perfect line”.

The need to adopt suitable means of expression became more pressing when Eliot evolved into drama still poetic and set in the present, but essentially realistic in its presentation of characters and situations. From The Cocktail Party onwards, Eliot used verse lines with a caesura dividing three or four main stresses. Although the verse line need not have a specific number of syllables, rhythmical regularity tends to make length similar. As with a set of scales, the poet placed stresses on each side, to keep balance.

This basic unit proved equally versatile for scenes of dramatic intensity (Sir Claude discussing personal fulfilment through art in The Confidential Clerk) as for the triviality of comic relief (Mrs. Piggot chatting away with Lord Claverton in The Elder Statesman). It would also serve the purpose of advancing dramatic action, avoiding moments of poetic stagnation – a priority for Eliot when he wrote his comedies. Finally, Eliot’s line could make speech sound natural while subtly sustaining a constancy of rhythm, like a faint or distant beating.

Eliot’s choices at this stage of his career as a dramatist were based on the assumption that realistic drama was incompatible with language that sounded “too” poetic. In other words, poetry without a clear dramatic function was not desirable for the stage, since it defeats the object of realism and is not easily assimilated by the general audience, which Eliot was aspiring to reach. He achieved his goal of popularity, albeit ephemeral, with The Cocktail Party and, to a lesser extent with The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman.

Paradoxically, the more the playwright applied himself to the refinement of his dramatic poetry, the more prosaic it sounded. The functional plainness of the verse is one of the reasons why the lines of Eliot’s last two comedies sound somewhat unappealing. Conversely, the plays that have best stood the test of time are those written before Eliot’s generalised use of his basic “perfect line,” those containing markedly poetic passages in terms of prosody and imagery: Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion.

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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.