The Elder Statesman premiered in 1958, one year after Eliot’s marriage to Valerie Fletcher, when he was nearly 70. After a difficult first marriage and traumatic separation, after decades of frustrated relationships and celibacy, Eliot fell in love. It seems inevitable to read his last play as a reflection of the author’s recent biography: its protagonist, the ageing Lord Claverton, is redeemed by love, which he had previously seemed unable to experience.
The play was published with the dedication poem “To My Wife”: “To you I dedicate this book, to return as best I can / With words a little part of what you have given me.” A version of this love lyric would finally be included in Eliot’s Collected Poems, although it had been disparaged as self-conscious and unworthy of a master of poetic innovation. In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton finds peace of mind as his daughter Monica realises the intensity of her love for Charles. The lovers’ dialogues in the play and “To My Wife” are coherent in style.
Throughout his career as a dramatist, Eliot persevered in order to perfect his paradoxical concept of dramatic verse that would not strike a modern audience as crafted poetry: it should be rhythmic but natural. The Confidential Clerk (1953), where Eliot’s accentual lines (divided by their characteristic caesura) flow without ever attracting attention to themselves, comes closest to the ideal. The illusion of naturalism is broken momentarily in other plays: the choruses in The Family Reunion (1939), the occasional tone of disquisition in The Cocktail Party (1949), and Monica and Charles’ lyrical duets in The Elder Statesman.
In the couple’s dialogues, however, we also find exemples of verse applied to simple conversation and apparently trivial matters, as in the following verse lines from Act One, where Charles and Monica each speaks one half of the line:
CHARLES: Is your father at home today?
MONICA: You’ll see him at tea.
MONICA: If you don’t like shopping with me…
CHARLES: Of course I like shopping with you.
In Act Three, the young lovers meet again. During their separation, Monica has been concerned about her father, plunged in abstracted gloom, and about her brother Michael’s unsettled life. During her fiancé’s absence, she has realised how much she needs and loves him. Charles also professes his love to Monica, with lyrical intensity that contrasts with ordinary tea and shopping, and with a rather unconventional simile:
Oh, my dear.
I love you to the limits of speech, and beyond.
It’s strange that words are so inadequate.
Like the asthmatic struggling for breath,
So the lover must struggle for words.
The lover is compared to the asthmatic, and the ineffability of genuine love harks back to Eliot’s dedication – curiously, in the Collected Poems version of “To My Wife,” lovers are said to “breathe in unison.” Charles and Monica’s love is sealed as Lord Claverton prepares for a good death. In its concluding climax, the focus of The Elder Statesman is on both divine and human love. Eliot’s fifth drama also displays unusual facets of his poetic talent: sincerity and lyricism, which we should perhaps learn to appreciate without prejudice.