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Clues on a Treasure Hunt

Sweeney Agonistes (1926) was T. S. Eliot’s first attempt to write verse drama. Unlike the plays of his maturity, it projects the novelty of experimentation and has been accorded the prestige of modernity. It is chronologically and stylistically closer to Eliot’s early work, which established him as a renewer of poetry. Among its themes and devices, we may identify a disenchanted worldview, an absence of spiritual commitment, as well as urban sordidness, dry humour, fragmentation and allusiveness.

Allusions and quotes lead us into the poem/play. Intertextuality begins at the very title, a variation on Samson Agonistes (1671), the verse tragedy by John Milton. Like Eliot’s Sweeney, Samson is both violent and sensitive. Milton’s dramatic poem was conceived as a closet drama, unsuitable for performance; Sweeney Agonistes has seldom been produced, and it is often read as a poem (one of Eliot’s Collected Poems). When he came to be a devoted dramatist, Eliot was persuaded that theatre was meant to be performed, to communicate with the audience.

The subtitle “Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama” is certainly intriguing. The sketchiness of Sweeney Agonistes is one of its defining, perhaps appealing, traits. Its two scenes, “Fragment of a Prologue” and “Fragment of an Agon”, were first published separately in the journal Criterion, and there is no obvious narrative continuity between them. Eliot’s poem/play has something of Aristophanes’ satirical comedy, but why melodrama? In “Fragment of an Agon,” Sweeney and the other characters discuss the sensational news of two women’s murder, reminding us of that popular example of nineteenth-century melodrama, Sweeney Todd, the Barber of Fleet Street (1842).

The text of Sweeney Agonistes is preceded by two epigraphs indicative of Eliot’s sense of tradition, his literary affinities and the characteristic cohesion of his work. The first is from the end of Choephoroi (The Libation Bearers, the second play in Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy), where the Furies’ implacable pursuit of Orestes begins. The second is from St. John of the Cross’ prose writings on the mystic process; it emphasises the necessity of dispossession and detachment on the via purgativa. At the end of Eliot’s play, Sweeney voices a mystic paradox (“Death is life and life is death”), and the chorus conjures up a nightmare of persecution (“you’ve got the hoo-ha’s coming to you”).

The references explored above are like clues on a treasure hunt, helping us to make the most of Sweeney Agonistes as an “unfinished poem” and as the seed for future plays. Years later, The Family Reunion (1939) would continue or develop from Sweeney Agonistes, each work on either side of a crucial dividing line: Eliot’s conversion of 1927 and his determination to convey his religious beliefs through drama.

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On Drama and Melodrama

Colby Simpkins is the protagonist of The Confidential Clerk (1953). The story of the orphan child who as a young man discovers the unexpected truth about his parents has something about it of melodramatic implausibility. We would not readily associate this with Eliot, which may explain why this play puzzles many of his readers, and his audiences.

As a critic, Eliot reflected on melodrama in his essay “Wilkie Collins and Dickens” (1927), where he focused on Collins’s novels, drawing attention to their dramatic features. Eliot praises Collins for his mastery of “plot and situation,” which he considers the most dramatic aspects of fiction. The author of The Woman in White, however, lacks Dickens’s powers of characterisation, in which Eliot sees a depth and precision that strike him as poetic in nature.

The relationship between character and plot is crucial to Eliot’s discussion of melodrama. In what he calls “great drama,” there exists a purposeful conjunction between character and plot, so that one determines the other; if this interdependence becomes unbalanced, the effect may be melodramatic – in the form of excessive emotion or of delayed, improbable action. As Eliot points out, the difference between drama and melodrama is “largely a matter of emphasis”; it could be argued, therefore, that melodrama is the result of misdirected emphasis.

Apropos of Collins’s melodrama, Eliot makes another interesting distinction between theatrical and dramatic plots, solely the latter being justified in terms of structure and evolution. It follows that melodrama often indulges in theatricality, sacrificing the economy of purpose that should characterise drama. The binary opposition theatrical-dramatic prefigures the prominence Eliot gave to the principle of dramatic justification, which would guide his evolution as a playwright.

Despite its limited success, The Confidential Clerk may be the play where dramatic justification (of character, plot and verse) is closest to Eliot’s ideal. Melodrama is apparent, if at all, in the comedic elements of the play, which have a Victorian flavour. The final succession of revelations in the plot is instrumental, with no melodramatic misalignment, in Colby’s fulfilment as a character.