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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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Who Saw the Ghosts?

Still from Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961)

The Family Reunion had a successful London revival in 2008. Part of a “T. S. Eliot Festival,” it was directed by Jeremy Herrin, staged at the Donmar Warehouse and performed by an attractive cast – among them, Samuel West as Harry, Penelope Wilton as Agatha and Gemma Jones as Amy. Harry, tormented by his wife’s mysterious death, returns to the family home, the country house of Wishwood, only to find that the Furies, representing his sense of guilt, have followed him.

In “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot showed his concern on the difficulty of presenting the Furies on stage, giving multiple examples of “expedients tried” and concluding that “they are never right.” In a review of the 2008 production of The Family Reunion for Variety, David Benedict described how the Furies had been “reimagined as ghastly, creepily perfect, silent children holding butterfly nets, who loom into the room in eerily calm formation after gasp-inducing sudden appearances as if from nowhere”. Benedict compares this effect, and the production’s general atmosphere with the film The Innocents (1961), Jack Clayton’s celebrated adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

The connection is felicitous, at least for two reasons, the first being the attribution of disturbing associations to childhood. Harry deludes himself by thinking of Wishwood as a refuge, a lost paradise of carefree summers spent in play with his brothers and with cousin Mary – the image of the hollow tree, where the children used to hide, is particularly evocative. But these years were obscured by Harry’s frustrated attempts to please Amy, his standoffish domineering mother, and by his parents’ loveless relationship. There is a continuity between their mysterious separation and Harry’s present derangement, which Wishwood will not soothe, as the presence of the Furies confirms.

Secondly, and more importantly, the key question of seeing is central to both James’s novella and Eliot’s play. While reading The Turn of the Screw, we cannot be sure if anyone, except the governess who tells the story, has seen the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel; Mrs Grose, the housekeeper and the governess’ loyal confidante, has not had to confront them and is therefore not in a position to reinforce the reliability of the narration. In The Family Reunion, Harry denies that the Furies live only in his mind. Three other characters claim to have seen “them”: aunt Agatha and cousin Mary, whose spiritual awareness causes them to sympathise with Harry and support him in his quest, and Downing, an unexpectedly perceptive valet-chauffeur who has also seen “them ghosts.”

These are not, however, the ghosts of moral corruption or dead innocence, as in James’s story or Clayton’s film: Downing has seen the Furies in their benevolent aspect as Eumenides (a different name for these divine mythological creatures, meaning “the gracious ones”). So has Harry, after the Eumenides appear at Wishwood for a second time, when he refers to them as the “bright angels” that he must follow, submitting to a journey of purgation of his own sins and those of his family.

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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).