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.