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Shocks and Violations

The Furies are central to T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939). Initially, we are led to believe that the protagonist, Harry, has murdered his wife and is consequently being pursued by these avenging spirits. However, as the play draws to a close, the Furies show Harry a path of expiation and of spiritual progress. By implication, the Furies appear here as the Eumenides (“kindly ones”), the “sleepless hunters” transformed into “bright angels” to convey the play’s themes of purgation and transcendence.

The Family Reunion was the first play by Eliot to combine a classical source and Christian principle in a contemporary setting. In “Poetry and Drama” (1951), Eliot criticised his own play as an adaptation of Aeschylus’s The Furies; he found that the goddesses had not undergone and imaginative translation sufficient for the twentieth century audience. As an objective correlative of Harry’s remorse and sinful family past, the Furies are limited by their incoherence with the modern dramatic situation.

Carol H. Smith referred to the appearance of the Furies in Eliot’s The Family Reunion as “a shock tactic” [*]. The shock is produced by inconsistency: a classical irruption into a modern world, pagan divinities in a play with an uncompromising Christian world view. In an early review, the critic Horace Gregory referred to the presence of the Furies as “a violation of the play’s integrity,” comparing it to the knights’ interaction with the audience at the end of Murder in the Cathedral (1935) [**].

After the climax of Becket’s murder, the knights break the fourth wall and address the audience in order to justify their action. The drama of martyrdom suddenly transforms into a “Trial by Jury,” with each of the four knights pleading his case. They stress the Archbishop’s flaws and – in an instance of what we might nowadays call “post-truth” – conclude that he commited “Suicide while of Unsound Mind.” There is even an attempt to make any spectators complicit in the crime: “if you have now arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State, remember that it is we who took the first step”.

Like the Furies in the play that was to follow, the knights’ appeal to the audience disturbs the temporal setting. It also counteracts tragedy with the comedy of incongruity, and sets argumentative prose against the devotional verse with which the play ends. Eliot’s disruptive strategies both in Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion may be perceived as “shocks” or “violations,” but they are also signs of modern experimentation with the dramatic medium.

[*] Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice. From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 117.

[**] Gregory, Horace. “The Unities and Eliot,” in T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Jewel Spears Brooker (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), pp. 403-406 (p. 406).

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Rejoice and Mourn

The women of Canterbury in Hoellering’s film adaptation of Murder in the Cathedral

The two acts of Murder in the Cathedral are separated by a prose “Interlude” in which Eliot reconstructs Thomas Becket’s last sermon, given on Christmas Day of 1170 at Canterbury Cathedral, only a few days before the archbishop’s assassination. Nowhere else does Eliot’s drama come as close to liturgy.

Glossing Luke 2.14 (“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will”), Becket’s sermon develops a curious line of argument. First, he emphasises that the Christmas mass celebrates Christ’s birth but, like any mass, it also mourns his Passion. This puzzling simultaneity is a paradox and a mystery: “so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason”.

The preacher then urges his listeners to consider why the angels should have heralded “peace” – significantly, this is the first word spoken by Becket in Act I, on entering the cathedral. During the interwar period (the play was first produced in 1935), when the population was still suffering the consequences of a world war and fearing the outbreak of another, Becket’s words inevitably had a contemporary resonance: “ceaselessly the world has been stricken by War and the fear of War”.

The peace that “the heavenly host” anounced is the peace that Christ left with his disciples, who “went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom”. Thus is one of the sermon’s central themes introduced. Rejoicing does not preclude mourning, and peace also means martyrdom. Sinfully brought about but fulfilling God’s design, martyrdom can be mourned and celebrated. The sermon alludes to two martyrs: St Stephen, whose feast is on the second day of Christmas, and St Alphege, Becket’s Anglo-Saxon predecesor. The archbishop finishes foreshadowing his own death: “it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr”.

About twenty years after Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” (1954), the last of his Ariel Poems, seemed to echo Becket’s sermon with a different emphasis. The perspective is that of a child who will understand, with age, that the joy of Christmas is disturbed not only by the premonition of the Passion, but also by the uncertainty of the Second Coming:

The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

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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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Pizzetti’s “Assassinio nella Cattedrale”

Nicola Rossi-Lemeni as Beckett in Assassinio nella Cattedrale

The Italian opera Assassinio nella Cattedrale, by Ildebrando Pizzetti (1880-1968), premiered at the Teatro alla Scala (Milan) in 1958. It was also produced, a few months later, at the Teatre del Liceu (Barcelona). According to a note on the programme of this production, Pizzetti’s son had read Eliot’s play in English and recommended it to his father. In 1948, Pizzetti and his wife attended a performance of Eliot’s play, and she remarked that Murder in the Cathedral seemed perfect for him to adapt to opera.

In the early twentieth century, the young Pizzetti worked in close collaboration with the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio. Some of his operas were inspired by Greek drama and myth; spirituality and symbolism were characteristic elements of his lyrical dramas. As his son and wife felt, Pizzetti seemed destined to compose Assassinio nella Cattedrale. He also wrote the libretto, drawing on the Italian translation of Eliot’s play by Alberto Castelli. The structure of the original text is mirrored by the opera: two acts and an intermezzo in which Beckett’s Christmas sermon, somewhere between operatic and liturgical singing, is accompanied by an orchestral arrangement both lyrical and full of foreboding.

Before this intermezzo, the conclusion of Act I illustrates what Pizzetti’s opera offers: Beckett’s soul-searching and his final surrender to God’s will can be heard as a dramatic aria, sung in a powerful bass voice; the choir of Canterbury women warn the Archbishop, singing at the top of their voices, or in whispers and glissandos (two of them, prima and secunda corifea, soprano and mezzosoprano, singularize the choral lament); the polyphony of the tempters (two basses, a baritone and a tenor who also play the knights in Act II) contribute to the growing tension; finally, a full orchestra brings the first half of the opera to a climactic close, echoing the protagonist’s leitmotif.

A review of the Liceu production of Assassinio nella Cattedrale cautioned those accustomed to nineteenth-century bel canto: they would find Pizzetti’s opera challenging. He was, after all, a Modernist, a contemporary of Stravinsky or Bartók; curiously, he became Olga Rudge’s mentor and friend in Rome. Despite its high reputation, the opera adaptation of Murder in the Cathedral has seldom been programmed (Pizzetti’s fascist sympathies have not helped). A recent production, filmed at the Basilica di San Nicola di Bari and with Ruggero Raimondi as the Arcivescovo Tommaso di Canterbury, can be viewed here.

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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).