Here by Thames’ Side

In one of his diary entries for the year 1662, Samuel Pepys describes how the city of London welcomed Catherine of Braganza, the new Queen, with pageants on the Thames: “all the show consisted chiefly in the number of boats and barges – and two Pageants, one of a King and another of a Queene, with her maydes of honour sitting at her feet very prettily” [*]. T. S. Eliot subtitled The Rock (1934) “a pageant play,” and Pepys is one of the historical characters appearing in it.

The building and rebuilding of the temple, a symptom of the unity and strength of the Church community, is the leit motif of The Rock. We can think of Eliot’s pageant play as a staged summary of London’s ecclesiastical history – from the Middle Ages to the interwar period – with an emphasis on Church architecture. Impressionistic historical scenes are separated by the better known lyrical “Choruses”.

In the scene preceding the final chorus and benediction, Pepys converses with the other great Restoration diarist, John Evelyn, and the architect Christopher Wren, “seated round a dining-table,” with “nuts and wine”. As he recalls in his diaries, Pepys often met “Dr. Wren” with other members of the Royal Society (at a concert, at an artist’s studio); with “the good Mr. Eveling,” he often shared his concern over the King’s ill-advised decisions and their consequences.

The chorus leaders introduce the scene with references to “plague-stricken London,” and the “great fire [that] has ravaged the City”. To Pepys we owe the most vivid accounts of these historical events – as well as a wealth of information on theatrical activity in Restoration London. In Eliot’s scene, Evelyn alludes to his plan to rebuild London, which competed with Wren’s: “I did make myself some proposals to His Majesty, but yours had prevented me”. Wren, congenial and confident, cherishes the ambitious dream “to build here by Thames’ side the most beautiful city of all Europe, excelling Vicenza or Rome itself”. Pepys, the curious London rambler, “walked to-day in the City, to witness how the demolition of old St. Paul’s progressed”. Wren prides himself on the security and convenience of this project, which he advanced.

The new St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Wren’s dome “which was formed in his mind,” will be “a symbol for London,” as well as an image of all churches erected, demolished and rebuilt. These churches would include those that the proceeds of Eliot’s The Rock would allow to build in the near future, by the playwright’s donation.

[*] The Diary of Samuel Pepys, edited by Kate Loveman, Everyman’s Library, 2018, p. 142.