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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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Hoo-ha’s Coming to You

In “Fragment of a Prologue,” the first part of Sweeney Agonistes (1933), Sam Wauchope brings his friends (Captain Horsfall and two American businessmen, Mr. Klipstein and Mr. Krumpacker) to Doris and Dusty’s flat. They talk casually about the war, a memorable poker game, and London. The five men reappear in the second part (“Fragment of an Agon”), where their singing mingles with the dialogue between Doris and Sweeney (music-hall style) and, as a chorus, they bring the play to a close:

When you’re alone in the middle of the night and
you wake in a sweat and a hell of a fright
When you’re alone in the middle of the bed and
you wake like someone hit you in the head
You’ve had a cream of a nightmare dream and
you’ve got the hoo-ha’s coming to you.

This grim impression harks back to earlier poems by Eliot, such as “Preludes” (1917): “You dozed, and watched the night revealing / the thousand sordid images / of which your soul was constituted”. On the other hand, they prefigure The Family Reunion (1939), whose protagonist, Harry, conveys to his sympathetic cousin Mary the terror of being chased by the Furies: “At the moment before sleep / I always see their claws distended”. In fact, The Family Reunion is often assumed to revisit Sweeney Agonistes, and both texts draw on Aeschylus’s trilogy, the Oresteia. The former is inspired by The Furies, and the latter opens quoting Orestes in The Libation Bearers: “You don’t see them, you don’t – but I see them: they are haunting me down, I must move on”.

The final chorus suggests the nightmare of death in life (“And perhaps you’re alive / And perhaps you’re dead”), echoing Sweeney when he clarifies for Doris that “Death is life and life is death,” a perfect four-stress line that could be interpreted as a mystical paradox. Not surprisingly, the other opening quote chosen by Eliot for Sweeney Agonistes is from St. John of the Cross’s description of the dark night of soul: “Hence the soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created beings”.

The via negativa is only tangentially present, as a paratext, in Sweeney Agonistes, a prodigy of rhythm and experimentation published as an “unfinished poem”. It is unfinished literally, but also in the sense of lacking transcendent completion. When Eliot returned to his project of verse drama in the late thirties with The Family Reunion, after his conversion, he was a different man and a different author. In the later work, Harry could leave his family behind in order to follow the Eumenides (that is, the Furies in their benevolent aspect), to head for “somewhere on the other side of despair”.