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Bacon, Sweeney and the Furies

T. S. Eliot is popularly known as the poet of The Waste Land (1922), the voice of disillusion. Understandably, the association mortified him after his poetry veered to hope and his drama confirmed this tendency. Even though the artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) found inspiration in Eliot’s dramatic texts, his style seemed incompatible with Eliot’s poetics of illumination.

Bacon’s Triptych 1967, inspired by Sweeney Agonistes, exemplifies his typical representation of bodies: lifeless, amorphous, objects of physical violence or engaged in sexual activity. We are reminded of Sweeney’s brutal fantasies: he will be “the cannibal” who “will gobble up” Doris “the missionary,” and he declares that “any man might do a girl in.”

Two decades earlier, Eliot’s drama had already influenced Bacon. His Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), also a triptych, came to be associated – by critics and the artist himself – with the Eumenides. Conventionally, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and John the Evangelist are represented at the foot of the Cross, but Bacon depicts three grotesque and threatening forms.

The artist admitted that the presence of the Furies in Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1936), which he saw staged, had stirred his imagination while working on Three Studies. Ironically, the text of the play gives almost no clue as to the appearance of the Furies; the emphasis is on Harry’s terror when he confronts the avenging creatures that other characters seem not to see. In “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot expressed his concern that the representation of the Furies was a daunting production challenge.

Yet, Sweeney has mystical inclinations and the Furies become “bright angels” who show Harry the way of purgation. In Sweeney Agonistes and The Family Reunion, however, Bacon saw (primarily) the sordid and disturbing, the terrifying primitivism of myth.