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The Poetic Drama Movement

Twentieth-century verse drama has come to be regarded as a literary project commanded by, indeed limited to T. S. Eliot; because of his aims toward commercial comedy, it may also be perceived as an anachronistic extravagance. Yet, in Eliot’s “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry” (1928), one of the speakers places verse drama in an innovative middle ground, somewhere between exhausted realism and mere entertainment.

The realisation of this creative possibility, in any case, was far from being a one-man venture. E. Martin Browne (1900-1980) was hailed as “the high priest of the then [the mid 1930s] renascent ‘poetic drama’ movement” (*). He had been appointed director of religious drama of the diocese of Chichester, and it was its Bishop (Rt Rev George Bell) who introduced Browne to Eliot. Browne shared a devotional vision of drama with the poet, and they initiated a collaboration that spanned Eliot’s whole career as a dramatist, from The Rock (1934) through to The Elder Statesman (1958). In 1969, Browne published The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays, an invaluable resource for the study of their origins, composition and original productions.

After the Second World War, Browne took over the artistic direction of the London Mercury Theatre, where Murder in the Cathedral had been successfully performed in 1935, after being transferred from Canterbury. This small venue in Notting Hill was founded in 1933 by Ashley Dukes (1885-1959), himself a cosmopolitan drama scholar and critic, familiar with new theatrical trends and keen on finding alternatives to the stale dramatic naturalism of the early twentieth century.

The Mercury Theatre would become the home of poetic drama: a production of W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s verse play The Ascent of F6 (1936) followed Murder in the Cathedral, and other verse dramatists ( James Bridie, Christopher Fry, Ronald Duncan, Donagh MacDonagh, Norman Nicholson, Anne Ridler, or Gilbert Horobin) would be programmed during the 1940s and 1950s.

Unfortunately, most of the plays first seen at the Mercury Theatre are now largely forgotten, having met approbation that was little more than mercurial. May we yet hope that the general concept of “poetic drama” – a genuine and democratic attempt to renovate the British stage, involving Eliot and other interesting theatre professionals – has better mettle?

(*) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 8, OUP, 2004, p. 184.

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The Economy of “The Rock”

The Rock (1934) contains choruses of great beauty, of which its author was justly proud. Most readers of Eliot are only familiar with these as some of his finest religious poems, ignoring that they were originally part of a pageant play characterised by its ecclecticism: allegorical characters, historical as well as contemporary scenes, comic interludes, even song and dance. The Rock was an ambitious project, not only as a dramatic text, but as a fund-raising activity.

During the interwar period, the Diocese of London became alert to the absence of worshipping communities in the city’s suburbs, and issued an appeal for public funding destined for the building forty-five new churches. Eliot involved himself in the initiative, The Rock being the result. Decisively, it launched the author’s career as a playwright and instigated a lasting collaboration with the director E. Martin Brown. Despite its shortcomings, The Rock was an achievement for Eliot and a source of profit for the Forty-Five Churches Fund, raising no less than £1,500.

The leitmotif of Eliot’s play is, not surprisingly, the building of a church in suburban London. Alfred, Edwin and Ethelbert, three cockney construction workers named after Christian Anglo-Saxon kings, discuss the necessity of the project and its difficulties. Ethelbert, a shrwed but charismatic foreman, defends co-operative economy, as opposed to the impersonality of the bank system: “That’s a bank, that is. It’s all profit what nobody gets and nobody knows ‘ow they gets it. Nah, then: you take a church. There ain’t no profit about that. It’s for you and me”.

In response to a trade-unionist (the “Agitator”) who accuses the three builders of “betrayin’ your class” and “prostitutin’ yourselves,” Ethelbert comically asks “What’s your view o’ Maynard Keynes’s theory o’ money?”. When the Agitator argues that society needs no churches but “decent ‘omes for the workers,” Ethelbert attributes this argument to “some antiquated theory of money.” Later in the play, Bishop Charles Blomfield, “builder of many churches” in nineteenth-century London, appears as a character and echoes the foreman’s view, in referring to “economic laws that are half superstition.”

Only a few years later, in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), Eliot defended “a direction of religious thought which must inevitably proceed to a criticism of political and economic systems.” He denounced “the hypertrophy of the motive of Profit,” “the misdirection of the financial machine” and “the iniquity of usury.” This was after the Great Depression and immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War. The social thinker was, as The Rock evidences, also a social dramatist.

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Endless Humility

Two of the most memorable verse lines in “East Coker” are: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” They belong to the second section, which opens with images of seasonal turmoil and astronomical warfare, criticised in the following stanza: “That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory.” The poet cannot evade “the intolerable wrestle / with words and meanings” – we find comparable passages at other points of Four Quartets.

When Eliot published the second of his Quartets (1940), he was also “wrestling” with dramatic verse, plot and structure. As David Chinitz puts it, he was “retraining himself as a playwright” [*]. Despite Eliot’s unquestioned reputation as a poet and critic, he learned to become a dramatist in a spirit of humility. His attitude is reflected in the notes of acknowledgement included in the first editions of his plays, and in his essay “Poetry and Drama” (1951).

In a “Prefatory Note,” Eliot presents The Rock (1934) as follows: “I cannot consider myself the author of the ‘play,’ but only of the words printed here.” He also explains that the Rev. Vincent Howson, who took part in the performance, “has so completely rewritten, amplified and condensed the dialogue [of his part] . . . that he deserves the title of joint author.” These observations evidence that Eliot thought of his task as contributing to a collaborative project.

In each of his notes, Eliot expresses his gratitude to E. Martin Browne – the director of all the original productions – whose suggestions were incorporated to the definitive text of the plays. Eliot admits that he “rewrote” The Rock for publication, being “submissive” to Browne’s “expert criticism.” John Hayward, one of Eliot’s closest friends, is also thanked for his critical reading of drafts. When he published The Cocktail Party (1949), Eliot acknowledged his “debt to both these censors,” Hayward and Browne.

The Cocktail Party was a commercial success in the West End and Broadway. It received a Tony Award for Best Play, and there was even a project for a film adaptation. Yet, in referring to his first comedy in “Poetry and Drama,” three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Eliot declares: “I have not yet got to the end of my investigation of the weaknesses of this play.” In the same essay, when he traces the process of composition of Murder in the Cathedral (1935), he refers to himself as “a beginner,” and when he considers The Family Reunion (1939), he finds it “defective” in different aspects.

In writing, presenting and assessing his plays, Eliot did show “the wisdom of humility,” which, needless to say, not all successful writers acquire.

[*] David E. Chinitz, “A Vast Wasteland? Eliot and Popular Culture.” A Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by David E. Chinitz, Blackwell, 2014, p. 68 (pp. 66-78).