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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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New Year, New Beginnings

The first scene of The Family Reunion (1939) is set on a cold winter´s evening, symbolic of Amy’s life which is about to be extinguished. As she awaits the arrival of her son, Harry, she also longs for the return of spring: “Will the spring never come?” Her rhetorical question seems to invert the reassuring last line of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” The play´s second scene opens on a similar note with Mary complaining that “the spring is very late in this northern country,” and Agatha agreeing.

Later, when Agatha leaves Mary alone with Harry, he evokes the negativity of a “cold” spring and wanders whether it is not “an evil time, that excites us with evil voices”. Echoing Harry’s lyrical tone, Mary refers to “the ache in the moving root” or “the aconite in the snow”. The connection with The Waste Land and with the natural imagery of Four Quartets seems inexorable, although The Family Reunion was to be the last of Eliot´s plays where intertextuality with his poetry is patent.

Harry goes on to identify the spring, the birth of the natural year, as “a season of sacrifice”. Carol H. Smith convincingly interpreted The Family Reunion within the framework of fertility rites, and therefore in continuity with The Waste Land (*); after the sacrifice of the fertility god, his return to life is mirrored in nature as springtime regeneration. Mary shares Harry’s vision of spring, her words suggest the interconnectedness of Christ’s birth (in winter) and his death and resurrection (in spring): “I believe the season of birth / Is the season of sacrifice”.

Amy’s birthday, the occasion of her family reunion, is also to be the day of her death; she was born, and will die in winter. According to Smith, the Dowager is the old year that must die, while her son stands for the new year (*). Harry will embrace the prospect of rebirth, leaving family and Wishwoood manor behind. One of his younger brothers, John, will therefore experience a different new beginning by becoming the Lord of Wishwood. As we learn from the news item reporting the road accident that prevented his arrival at Wishwood, the events of the play take place on or around January 1st.

Eliot’s “Little Gidding” (1942) contains the two famous lines, sometimes quoted at this time of year: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / and next year’s words await another voice”. They readily apply to The Family Reunion as a turning point in Eliot’s dramatic production: a play written in “last year’s language” (a language lacking in dramatic purpose and plausibility), but prefiguring “another voice” (that of a more confident playwright).

(*) Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice. From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963) 134-5.

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An Empty Diary

The “objective correlative” is probably Eliot’s most influential critical term. He theorised it in discussing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where he found emotion to be in excess of its dramatic expression (conversely, he put forward Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking as the perfect physical reflection of a troubled conscience). The objective correlative, “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art,” is “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion”.

Eliot formulated the concept in an early essay, “Hamlet” (1919). In his last play, The Elder Statesman (1958), we find an effective objective correlative: Lord Claverton’s empty engagement book. He has just retired from a successful career “in politics” and “as chairman of public companies”. He keeps all previous diaries (the record of his active years), but the pages of the present one are blank. As his daughter’s fiancé, Charles, suggests, Lord Claverton has neglected his private life. No longer the object of public attention, he sits in his office “contemplating nothingness” and experiencing “fear of the emptiness before me”.

Lord Claverton refers to his state of mind through simultaneous, mutually exclusive images – the coincidence of opposites, reminiscent of mystical writing, and also of certain passages of Four Quartets: “With no desire to act, yet a loathing of inaction / A fear of the vacuum, and no desire to fill it.” He first appears on the stage with the empty engagement book in his hand. The symbolic implications of this objective correlative (a visible, tangible stage prop) are conceptually reinforced by a powerful extended metaphor with which Lord Claverton presents his bleak prospects:

It’s just like sitting in an empty waiting room
In a railway station on a branch line,
After the last train, after all the other passengers
Have left, and the booking office is closed
And the porters have gone. What am I waiting for
In a cold and empty room before an empty grate?

Lord Claverton imagines himself waiting for a train that will not arrive. His will be an introspective journey of atonement for the sins of his youth. Two long-lost characters whose lives were thwarted by those sins (Federico Gomez and Mrs. Carghill) return to confront Lord Claverton with “the shame / of things ill done and done to others’ harm” (these are lines from “Little Gidding,” the last of the Quartets). In the jargon of modern psychology, Lord Claverton undertakes a “life review,” from which he will emerge humbled and contrite.

Lord Claverton will finally be saved by contrition and by the revelation of the pure love that he feels for his children: Monica, Michael and Charles – significantly, he calls this an “illumination”. At the end of the play, when the protagonist’s death is felt to be imminent, Charles suspects that the elder statesman “has passed through some door unseen by us”.

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All Things Great and Small

At the end of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Mariner famously exhorts the Wedding-Guest: “He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast.” In the final chorus of Murder of the Cathedral, the women of Canterbury sing of “all things great and small,” as physical proof of God’s omnipresence:

They affirm Thee in living; all things affirm Thee in living; the
bird in the air, both the hawk and the finch; the beast on the
earth, both the wolf and the lamb; the worm in the soil and the
worm in the belly.

Characteristically, the Chorus uses very specific images – here indicating size, ferociousness and habitat – for an effect of comprehensiveness. The same is true of botanical, domestic, agricultural or farming imagery in other choruses. Various images suggest the richness of human experience, its sensory immediacy (“I have tasted the living lobster”) or its emotional background (“the child without milk in summer”).

The role of the Chorus being premonitory, the images it evokes before the climax of Becket’s murder tend to be unsettling. If, in the final choral prayer, all animals are granted their place in the order of Creation, earlier in the play they are presented as threatening creatures, detached from any human activity or interest:

Laughter in the noises of beasts that make strange noises: jackal,
jackass, jackdaw; the scurrying noise of mouse and jerboa; the
laugh of the loon, the lunatic bird.

These beasts could inhabit the demonic Biblical settings described by Northrop Frye in The Great Code – typically, a desert or wilderness where the divine has no presence or influence. In Eliot’s play, the imagery of demonic fauna also serves the purpose of characterising the Four Knights, when the Priests try to persude the Archbishop to bar the doors of the Cathedral against the return of the murderous emissaries of the King:

My Lord! These are not men, these come not as men come, but
Like maddened beasts. […]
You would bar the door against the lion, the leopard, the wolf or the boar, […]

The Priests seem to echo the women of Canterbury in these lines, although their voice is more closely related to the details of the dramatic action. Concrete images constitute the basic material for the choruses, just as abstract and sententious reflection – in verse dialogues as in the prose sermon – tends to be voiced by Becket. Murder in the Cathedral (1935) was written simultaneously with “Burnt Norton” (1936), the first of the Four Quartets, where the combination of these two modes (imaginal versus meditative) becomes a defining element.

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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).