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Striving Toward the Condition of Drama

In 1959, the year after its first production in Britain, The Elder Statesman, was programmed in a new theatre in Germany, the Staatstheater at Kassel. For the occasion, Eliot wrote a note of greeting (*) in which, very much the “elder statesman” of international letters, he stressed how drama had shaped his work, and also looked back on his career as a dramatist.

As a critic, Eliot had reflected on the golden age of verse drama, and the possibility of its revival for modern audiences. He dedicated some of his most insightful essays to key Renaissance dramatists. In his note for the Kassel Staatstheater, however, he does not refer to his critical work: “among the English influences upon my development as a poet, the verse dramatists of the age of Shakespeare took first place” (emphasis added). Dramatic elements (effective characterisation, presentation of scenes, vivid dialogue) can be found in Eliot’s poetry, culminating in The Waste Land. In 1959, echoing Walter Pater’s famous dictum on art and music, Eliot makes a revealing statement: “many of my early poems appear, in retrospect, to have been striving, so to speak, toward the condition of drama”.

In defining his aim as a playwright, Eliot correlates poetry with characters, situations and speech of his own day: “to bring back poetry to the stage, to accustom the public to plays written in verse but concerned with contemporary society and with characters talking in contemporary idiom”. With The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman, he perfected his ideal of naturalistic verse. This was his main innovation – valuable but subtle in comparison with the daring theatrical experimentation of the times. Eliot had been in a position of leadership as a poet and critic, but not – he was well aware – when he ventured into drama: “there were living dramatists with greater native talent for the theatre, writers of unerring instinct for theatrical effect, and of technical accomplishment which I could not hope to emulate”.

Eliot’s confidence was in the poetry, in his conviction that, traditionally, the transition from poetry to drama was not – to quote Frost’s best known poem – “the road less traveled by,” a journey easier than that departing from prose: “I maintain that it is only in poetry that the deepest emotion and the finest states of feeling can be expressed; and that it is more possible for a poet, by enthusiasm and hard work, to become a playwright, than for a prose playwright to become a poet”.

(*) “Greetings to the Staatstheater Kassel,” in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot. Still and Still Moving, vol. 8, eds. Jewel Spears Brooker and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, 2019, pp. 367-69.

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A Question of Form

Coreographer Gillian Lynne during rehearsal of Cats

Drama, and poetic drama specifically, features prominently in T. S. Eliot’s criticism, from the 1920s onwards. Two essays, one from the beginning of the decade, “The Possibility of Poetic Drama” (1920), and the other from the late twenties, “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry” (1928), both include interesting comments on acting.

In “The Possibility of Poetic Drama,” Eliot points out that performers preclude fixity for any performed work (a play, a concert, a ballet). In other words, uniqueness is intrinsic to performance. Implicitly, he establishes an intriguing opposition: form versus personality. Eliot disapproves of performance as a means to channel the performer’s personality (tellingly, he places the word in quotation marks). In this respect, the essay is consistent with the emphasis on creative impersonality conveyed by “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” published one year before.

Eliot also refers to acting approaches that cause actors to prioritise the object of performance, rather than their own subjectivity as performers. He mentions the use of masks (W. B. Yeats’ The Dreaming of the Bones, which experimented with the conventions of Japanese Noh, had appeared in 1919), and the application of specific methodologies (he probably had Stanislavsky in mind). Finally, he presents music-hall comedians as models, since they admirably adapt their means to required ends.

In “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,” Speaker E proposes a different model for a new drama: Russian ballet, an art of form (tending to fixity and permanence), but obviously lacking any linguistic component. By suggesting that poetic drama should resemble ballet, the speaker equates dance with poetry, implying another opposition: form versus (dramatic) prose. Actors, in turn, should emulate dancers, who undergo strict physical training (tantamount to “moral training, ” according to Speaker B) in order to master a liturgy of movement.

These ideas are reflected in the plays of Eliot before he opted for the realism of drawing-room comedy. The Group Theatre used masks in their 1934 production of Sweeney Agonistes. Dance and movement were important components in The Rock, choreographed by the charismatic Rev. Vincent Howson. Choreography also contributes to a more effective staging of Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion, where choruses – and their positions on stage – have crucial dramatic functions. And we should not forget the musical Cats, with Gillian Lynne’s evocation of feline form in a complex, ground-breaking, and demanding choreography.