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Poet in the Playhouse

Ralph Fiennes in rehearsal of Four Quartets

In 2009, Faber and Faber published an audio recording of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1936-1942), read by Ralph Fiennes. The actor recently announced that he is to direct and act in a dramatic adaptation of this poetic sequence. There have been other attempts to bring Eliot’s poems to the stage: Deborah Warner’s The Waste Land with Fiona Shaw, for example, premiered in 1995 and was successfully performed for over a decade.

The opposition and integration of movement and stillness, as well as the image of “the dance,” are central to Four Quartets. Drawing mainly on these elements, and reproducing the rhythms and development of the original poetic texts, coreographer Pam Tanowitz created a Four Quartets ballet in 2018. Eliot chose a musical metaphor as a title for his poems, and Tanowitz’s dancers danced to the poet’s words.

It might be argued that the variety of characters and scenes in The Waste Land facilitates a dramatic transposition. Conversely, the poems that make up Four Quartets – densely meditative and conceptual, but also lyrical and rich in images of nature – do not seem, a priori, very theatrical. In contrast with the polyphony of The Waste Land, the four poems of the sequence are unified by a single poetic voice that could be identified with the poet’s. In fact, Four Quartets has been called Eliot’s “spiritual autobiography.” Its thematic complexity will have to be conveyed by the sole actor’s voice and gesture, by lighting and sound effects.

The text which presents Fiennes’s production, to open at Bath in late May, points out that the sequence of four poems was completed during the years of the Second World War. The entertainment site Ox in a Box connects their historical context with the present pandemic situation: “Four Quartets contain some of the most exquisite and unforgettable reflections upon surviving periods of national crisis […] So it is fitting that […] Fiennes’ world premiere […] is announced this week – a year since regional theatres were forced to close”. [*]

Press releases have also reminded readers that Eliot directed his creative efforts to Four Quartets because of the impossibility to produce plays in wartime London. These were the years when he was determined to pursue a career as a dramatist. While intrigued by the prospect of seeing Four Quartets on stage, I cannot suppress a sense of wistfulness, on behalf of Eliot the playwright, that is Eliot the poet who returns to the theatre on this occasion.

[*] “Breaking News: Ralph Fiennes to Star at Oxford Playhouse This Summer in Stage World Premiere of Eliot’s Four Quartets!” (March 17, 2021).

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Bull’s Hide, Tough Land

Txe Arana in La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau)

Producing a play by Eliot for a general audience has become a rare and risky venture. Dramatising his best-known poem has proved more feasible in recent years: Deborah Warner’s production of The Waste Land with Fiona Shaw was successfully staged, from the late 1990s, for over a decade. In 2013, Francesc Cerro-Ferran created and directed La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau), a stage production based on Eliot’s poem (translated into Catalan by Agustí Bartra as La terra eixorca) and on La pell de brau ([The Bull’s Hide], 1960), by Salvador Espriu (1913-1985).

We may distinguish two main facets in Espriu’s poetic work: meditation on death / transcendence influenced by negative theology and mysticism, and vindication of Catalan culture (or Spanish cultural diversity) in a context of postwar political repression. The first of these concerns connects with Eliot’s poetic vision; in a less obvious way, so too does the second. Espriu’s most popular poem (or poetic sequence) is precisely La pell de brau, the finest example of his “civil” poetry. As with Eliot’s The Waste Land, critics and readers felt that it expressed “the disillusion of a generation.”

Although La pell de brau envisages national reconciliation, the trauma of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) is at the heart of the poem. Espriu calls Spain “Sepharad,” imaging the hard times of the war and the dictatorship as a wandering in the desert (a symbolic wasteland). The poem’s title translates as “the bull’s hide,” the ancient geographer Strabo’s metaphor for a delineation of the Iberian peninsula’s coastline. La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau) combines Espriu’s and Eliot’s titles, as well as drawing on their common sense of hopelessness and prophetic tone.

Cerro-Ferran causes both poets to engage in dialogue, as extracts from their works are dramatised by the actress Txe Arana – who impersonates various voices and characters, including Eliot’s Tiresias – and the actor Jaume Comas, whose recorded voice is identified with the bull’s head seen onstage, symbolising Espriu’s concerns as expressed in La pell de brau. The stage is flanked by gnarled trees, with video projections reinforcing the wasteland atmosphere. Among these, Picasso’s Guernica and Goyas’s Disasters of War evoke tragic episodes of Spanish history.

La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau) commemorated the centenary of Espriu’s death, associating him with Eliot, the poet who – despite himself – gave poetic expression to the zeitgeist of the interwar years. Cerro-Ferran’s production also confirms that The Waste Land, characteristically fragmentary and polyphonic, can still inspire a contemporary dramatist.

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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.