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Stories of Detection

Apart from being a regular reader of crime fiction, T. S. Eliot also reflected on it as a critic, mainly in two essays from 1927. In “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” he celebrated The Moonstone as the first detective novel in English. Further, he concluded “Homage to Wilkie Collins: An Omnibus Review of Nine Mystery Novels” with a set of five rules to which any successful specimen of the genre should conform. Eliot also admired Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie as well as other less known authors, and most of his plays have elements of mystery.

In Murder in the Cathedral, the dialogue between Becket and the Second Tempter unequivocally echoes the Musgrave Ritual, an incantatory exchange of questions and answers from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”:

THOMAS: Who shall have it?
TEMPTER: He who will come.
THOMAS: What shall be the month?
TEMPTER: The last from the first.

Later in the play, after Becket’s murder, the Four Knights break the fourth wall and try to justify their action as if they were witnesses in a trial or crime suspects questioned by the police. Similarly, in Part I of The Family Reunion, Gerald questions Downing in order to find out about Harry’s wife’s death; in Part II, Dr. Warburton, who may remind us of J. B. Priestley’s Inspector Goole, sagaciously interrogates Harry, hoping to reach a diagnosis as an investigator hopes to solve a case.

In The Confidential Clerk, Mrs. Guzzard resolves the conundrum of Colby’s identity, applying wider knowledge and logical thinking. In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton stands accused of past crimes by two mysterious characters, Federico Gomez and Mrs. Carghill. Sir Henry, first appearing in The Cocktail Party as an “unidentified guest” and then as a combination of therapist and confessor, also has something of the detective, prying for motives and seeing through his patients’ deceptions.

One of these patients is Lavinia Chamberlayne. Early in the play, we learn that she has left her husband and no one knows her whereabouts. In 1926, Agatha Christie went missing for eleven days, her long absence attributed to a marital crisis or, less plausibly, an episode of amnesia. When, in Eliot’s play, Lavinia returns home, she is puzzled to find her husband surrounded by friends who claim that she has invited them by telegram. Lavinia cannot account for these telegrams, and one of her friends, Julia – a nosy old lady as fond of mystery as Miss Marple – exclaims: “Lavinia! Don’t say you’ve had a lapse of memory!”

The character who, in The Family Reunion, helps Harry to unravel the mystery of his family’s curse, curiously, is named Agatha. She speaks two crucial lines: “What we have written is not a story of detection, / Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation”. Although Agatha’s statement is undeniable, and true of all Eliot’s plays, we may also identify features of “a story of detection” in each of his dramatic plots.

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Eliot’s Drama at the 41st ITSES Conference

Last weekend (October 2-3) I attended the 41st T. S. Eliot International Society Conference. Around the date of Eliot’s birth in late September, scholars meet in his home town (St Louis), or at some other location associated with the author’s life and work. This year’s reunion would have been celebrated at Harvard – Eliot’s alma mater – had it not be for the pandemic. Instead we met on line.

A number of participants presented on Eliot’s drama, or provided insights relevant to it:

  • In assessing Eliot’s critcism of the poems of Alan Seeger (his contemporary at Harvard), Kevin Rulo observed the former’s emphasis on the notion of theatricality in Seeger’s poetic representation of Paris.
  • In one of the round tables on Eliot’s recently revealed correspondence with Emily Hale, John Whittier-Ferguson emphasised the strikingly direct parallels between some of these letters and The Family Reunion. The awkwardness and tormented frustration into which Eliot’s relationship with Hale developed cast a shadow over the play, in contrast to their transmutation into poetry in “Burnt Norton.”
  • Sara Fitzgerald, the author of The Poet’s Girl (a biofiction on the Hale-Eliot relationship), touched on Hale’s involvement with amateur theatre, her role as teacher of speech and drama in several colleges, and as advisor to Eliot on aspects of performance.
  • The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture was delivered by Robert von Hallberg, who scrutinised the more discursive and prosaic passages of “East Coker,” especially those in which the poet reflects on the difficulties of poetic expression. I could not help connecting those lines with Eliot’s continued struggle to find the right language for his verse dramas.
  • In exploring the influence of detective fiction on Eliot, Deborah Leiter alluded to Sherlock Holmes’s “Musgrave Ritual” as echoed by one of the knights in Murder in the Cathedral; Alex Davis examined the factual origins of the crime mentioned in Sweeney Agonistes, where the protagonist’s friend kills a woman an keeps her body in a “lysol bath.”
  • Sørina Higgins discussed liturgical elements of Murder in the Cathedral, and their authenticity within the framework of a play that dramatises religious ceremony.
  • Parker T. Gordon focused on The Rock as a text for the stage and on the production details of its first performance, directing special attention to the choral sections and drawing on rarely seen archival material (photographs, costume designs and musical scores).

Eliot’s drama, approached from multiple perspectives (criticism, biography, intertextual links with poetry, elements of popular culture, performance), is possessed of great versatility as an object of research in itself, and as a conduit to researching other facets of Eliot’s oeuvre.

I will be looking forward to future conferences – and the reopening of theatres – in better times.