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Striving Toward the Condition of Drama

In 1959, the year after its first production in Britain, The Elder Statesman, was programmed in a new theatre in Germany, the Staatstheater at Kassel. For the occasion, Eliot wrote a note of greeting (*) in which, very much the “elder statesman” of international letters, he stressed how drama had shaped his work, and also looked back on his career as a dramatist.

As a critic, Eliot had reflected on the golden age of verse drama, and the possibility of its revival for modern audiences. He dedicated some of his most insightful essays to key Renaissance dramatists. In his note for the Kassel Staatstheater, however, he does not refer to his critical work: “among the English influences upon my development as a poet, the verse dramatists of the age of Shakespeare took first place” (emphasis added). Dramatic elements (effective characterisation, presentation of scenes, vivid dialogue) can be found in Eliot’s poetry, culminating in The Waste Land. In 1959, echoing Walter Pater’s famous dictum on art and music, Eliot makes a revealing statement: “many of my early poems appear, in retrospect, to have been striving, so to speak, toward the condition of drama”.

In defining his aim as a playwright, Eliot correlates poetry with characters, situations and speech of his own day: “to bring back poetry to the stage, to accustom the public to plays written in verse but concerned with contemporary society and with characters talking in contemporary idiom”. With The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman, he perfected his ideal of naturalistic verse. This was his main innovation – valuable but subtle in comparison with the daring theatrical experimentation of the times. Eliot had been in a position of leadership as a poet and critic, but not – he was well aware – when he ventured into drama: “there were living dramatists with greater native talent for the theatre, writers of unerring instinct for theatrical effect, and of technical accomplishment which I could not hope to emulate”.

Eliot’s confidence was in the poetry, in his conviction that, traditionally, the transition from poetry to drama was not – to quote Frost’s best known poem – “the road less traveled by,” a journey easier than that departing from prose: “I maintain that it is only in poetry that the deepest emotion and the finest states of feeling can be expressed; and that it is more possible for a poet, by enthusiasm and hard work, to become a playwright, than for a prose playwright to become a poet”.

(*) “Greetings to the Staatstheater Kassel,” in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot. Still and Still Moving, vol. 8, eds. Jewel Spears Brooker and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, 2019, pp. 367-69.

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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).