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On Drama and Melodrama

Colby Simpkins is the protagonist of The Confidential Clerk (1953). The story of the orphan child who as a young man discovers the unexpected truth about his parents has something about it of melodramatic implausibility. We would not readily associate this with Eliot, which may explain why this play puzzles many of his readers, and his audiences.

As a critic, Eliot reflected on melodrama in his essay “Wilkie Collins and Dickens” (1927), where he focused on Collins’s novels, drawing attention to their dramatic features. Eliot praises Collins for his mastery of “plot and situation,” which he considers the most dramatic aspects of fiction. The author of The Woman in White, however, lacks Dickens’s powers of characterisation, in which Eliot sees a depth and precision that strike him as poetic in nature.

The relationship between character and plot is crucial to Eliot’s discussion of melodrama. In what he calls “great drama,” there exists a purposeful conjunction between character and plot, so that one determines the other; if this interdependence becomes unbalanced, the effect may be melodramatic – in the form of excessive emotion or of delayed, improbable action. As Eliot points out, the difference between drama and melodrama is “largely a matter of emphasis”; it could be argued, therefore, that melodrama is the result of misdirected emphasis.

Apropos of Collins’s melodrama, Eliot makes another interesting distinction between theatrical and dramatic plots, solely the latter being justified in terms of structure and evolution. It follows that melodrama often indulges in theatricality, sacrificing the economy of purpose that should characterise drama. The binary opposition theatrical-dramatic prefigures the prominence Eliot gave to the principle of dramatic justification, which would guide his evolution as a playwright.

Despite its limited success, The Confidential Clerk may be the play where dramatic justification (of character, plot and verse) is closest to Eliot’s ideal. Melodrama is apparent, if at all, in the comedic elements of the play, which have a Victorian flavour. The final succession of revelations in the plot is instrumental, with no melodramatic misalignment, in Colby’s fulfilment as a character.

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What’s in a Name

Sir Claude’s new family in Act Three of The Confidential Clerk

According to Pope Francis, “God calls each one of us by name, loving us individually in the concreteness of our history”; with baptism, a child, “in his or her name, will have an original identity, including the Christian life linked to God” (*). In Eliot’s The Confidential Clerk – a transcendent comedy about double, feigned and mistaken identities – naming and renaming is crucial.

Sir Claude Mulhammer believes Colby Simpkins to be his son. Colby, a sensitive and conscientious young man, will replace Eggerson, Sir Claude’s long-serving confidential clerk. Sir Claude hopes that his wife, Lady Elizabeth, will grow fond of Colby and will accept him as her son. In fact, Lady Elizabeth feels more at ease with the new clerk than Sir Claude does: significantly, the latter calls him “Mr. Simpkins,” whereas the former prefers “Colby”.

Lucasta Angel is also Sir Claude’s illegitimate daughter. She has a maladapted relationship with her father; the antipathy she feels for Lady Elizabeth is mutual and thinly disguised. She shocks Colby by calling them “Claude” and “Lizzie”: “it did make my head spin – all those first names”. Lucasta has embraced the role of black sheep, but Colby quickly identifies this image as a mask of self-assurance.

Similarly, Lucasta sees through Colby and understands that being Sir Claude’s confidential clerk and Lady Elizabeth’s adoptive son will not make him happy. Colby is the only character with whom Lucasta can be honest, and her honesty helps him realise that spiritual fulfillment must be sought elsewhere. In that sense, the name “Lucasta” (originally derived by the Renaissance poet Richard Lovelace from the Latin lux casta, “pure light”) and the surname “Angel” are highly symbolic.

In the play’s final act, Colby’s “aunt” – whose name, Mrs. Guzzard, resonates with “wizard” – resolves the mystery of his identity, and incidentally, that of Lucasta’s fiancé, Mr. Kaghan. Kaghan – another unusual surname – goes by the pragmatic name “B,” which, as Mrs. Guzzard reveals, stands for the unfashionable “Barnabas”. The ambitious young businessman who started life as a foundling jokingly argues that “Barney Kaghan […] wouldn’t make the right impression in the City”.

At the end of The Confidential Clerk, Sir Claude, Lady Elizabeth, Lucasta and Kaghan redefine their relationships, which implies calling themselves by other names and so adopting new familial identities. On the other hand, as Colby begins a promising new life under Mr. Eggerson’s mentorship, he surprises himself calling his new (symbolic) father “Eggers”.

(*) Junno Arocho Esteves, “Name given at baptism gives sense of identity, belonging, Pope says,” National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2018, <https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-chronicles/name-given-baptism-gives-sense-identity-belonging-pope-says>.

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Eliot and Comedy

In reviewing Eliot’s first comedy, The Cocktail Party, the critic John Peter remarked that “only the incidentals” were comical. The character with the highest comic potential is Julia Shuttlethwaite, a talkative and nosy old lady with a talent for creating confusion:

JULIA
Edward! How lucky that it’s raining!
It made me remember my umbrella,
And there it is! Now what are you two plotting?
How very luck it was my umbrella,
And not Alexander’s – he‘s so inquisitive!
But I never poke into other people’s business.
Well, good-bye again. I’m off at last.

The situation and language is typical of drawing-room comedy, which Eliot chose as the element for his last three plays and is by definition light. He evolved from pageant (The Rock), to historical biographical drama (Murder in the Cathedral), tragedy with a ray of hope (The Family Reunion) and finally naturalistic and sophisticated comedy (The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman).

With The Cocktail Party, Eliot adopted a different genre because he was not fully satisfied with the tragic elements of The Family Reunion (the choruses, the Furies), because this second play had been coldly received, because he realised comedy could make the depth of his transcendent vision more palatable and, last but not least, because he was aware that it attracted audiences. And Eliot wanted his drama to be profound, yet popular, successful, commercial. Tragedy became comedy, but the aristocratic / bourgeois drawing-room remained as spatial and social setting.

Peter accurately suggests that Eliot’s comedy is Dantean in quality. Its heroes and heroines succeed in finding their ways to commune with the divine. Precisely in The Cocktail Party, Celia Copplestone achieves this union through martyrdom and sacrifice – so gruesome and inimical to comedy in its details, that it shocked early audiences and still baffles contemporary readers. Paradoxically, and in the context of the dramatist’s vision of the temporal and the timeless, Celia’s tragical death is comical.

In Eliot’s next comedy, The Confidential Clerk, Colby Simpkins’ existence intersects with the eternal in a more placid way. Comic relief tends to be provided by Lady Elizabeth’s absent-mindedness, whims and esoteric practices, in which she has been instructing one of the maids:

LUCASTA
I thought I heard someone singing in the pantry.
LADY ELIZABETH
Oh, I forgot. It’s Gertrude’s quiet hour.
I’ve been giving her lessons in recollection.
But she shouldn’t be singing.

The Confidential Clerk, because of its misunderstandings and mistaken identities, is reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest, although it lacks Wilde’s pungent satirical wit. Lady Elizabeth is no Lady Bracknell, Eliot’s humour is gentle, perhaps incidental – his priority is to lead Colby to his rose garden.