Categories
Categorías

Striving Toward the Condition of Drama

In 1959, the year after its first production in Britain, The Elder Statesman, was programmed in a new theatre in Germany, the Staatstheater at Kassel. For the occasion, Eliot wrote a note of greeting (*) in which, very much the “elder statesman” of international letters, he stressed how drama had shaped his work, and also looked back on his career as a dramatist.

As a critic, Eliot had reflected on the golden age of verse drama, and the possibility of its revival for modern audiences. He dedicated some of his most insightful essays to key Renaissance dramatists. In his note for the Kassel Staatstheater, however, he does not refer to his critical work: “among the English influences upon my development as a poet, the verse dramatists of the age of Shakespeare took first place” (emphasis added). Dramatic elements (effective characterisation, presentation of scenes, vivid dialogue) can be found in Eliot’s poetry, culminating in The Waste Land. In 1959, echoing Walter Pater’s famous dictum on art and music, Eliot makes a revealing statement: “many of my early poems appear, in retrospect, to have been striving, so to speak, toward the condition of drama”.

In defining his aim as a playwright, Eliot correlates poetry with characters, situations and speech of his own day: “to bring back poetry to the stage, to accustom the public to plays written in verse but concerned with contemporary society and with characters talking in contemporary idiom”. With The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman, he perfected his ideal of naturalistic verse. This was his main innovation – valuable but subtle in comparison with the daring theatrical experimentation of the times. Eliot had been in a position of leadership as a poet and critic, but not – he was well aware – when he ventured into drama: “there were living dramatists with greater native talent for the theatre, writers of unerring instinct for theatrical effect, and of technical accomplishment which I could not hope to emulate”.

Eliot’s confidence was in the poetry, in his conviction that, traditionally, the transition from poetry to drama was not – to quote Frost’s best known poem – “the road less traveled by,” a journey easier than that departing from prose: “I maintain that it is only in poetry that the deepest emotion and the finest states of feeling can be expressed; and that it is more possible for a poet, by enthusiasm and hard work, to become a playwright, than for a prose playwright to become a poet”.

(*) “Greetings to the Staatstheater Kassel,” in The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot. Still and Still Moving, vol. 8, eds. Jewel Spears Brooker and Ronald Schuchard, Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber and Faber, 2019, pp. 367-69.

Categories
Categorías

Investigations Into the Life of the Spirit

Light comedy in The Confidential Clerk (1953) is provided mostly by a character, Lady Elizabeth Mulhammer. She is presented to Colby by Eggerson as whimsical, absent-minded, and often needing rescue:

It’s been a very unusual privilege
To see as much of Europe as I have,
Getting Lady Elizabeth out of her difficulties.

But more importantly, “she has a good heart”. Her inner restlessness finds an outlet in alternative medicine: she has undergone treatment in Zürich or Lausanne (where Eliot himself recovered from stress and chronic fatigue in the early 1920s). An earl’s daughter, she is socially superior to her husband, and snobbishly looks down on Sir Claude’s illegitimate daughter and her fiance, the “rather vulgar” Lucasta and Kaghan.

Yet, Lady Elizabeth was an alienated child in an aristocratic family, to the point of believing herself a “changeling”. Her estrangement resulted in extravagance and esotericism: she approves of Colby’s aura; she believes in reincarnation, the “art of health,” “the importance of colour for our spiritual life,” and “the Wisdom of the East”; she stresses the benefits of “health cures,” of a “quiet hour” for meditation, and teaches “recollection” to the maid; she is interested in “modern art,” “dervish dancing” and “herbal restaurants”.

In conversation with Colby, Sir Claude makes a crucial statement:

my wife’s investigations
into what she calls the life of the spirit
are a kind of substitute for religion.

Lady Elizabeth’s investigations recall the “usual pastimes and drugs” to which Eliot referred in section V of “The Dry Salvages”: ufology, spiritualism, astrology, chiromancy, or the interpretation of dreams. These are all rife “when there is distress of nations,” and opposed to “the intersection of the timeless with time,” which “is an occupation for the saint”. Lady Elizabeth’s mock religion contrasts with Colby’s music, which will lead him to a saintly life as the organist of a parish church.

Early in the play, Eggerson refers to Lady Elizabeth’s confidence in her intuition or “guidance,” and Sir Claude jokingly suggests that this takes the place of “judgement”. But Eliot chooses Lady Elizabeth to voice key verse lines at the end of the play, expressing a central theme:

Between not knowing what other people want of one,
And not knowing what one should ask of other people,
One does make mistakes!

Categories
Categorías

Pottery, Music and a Garden

In its opening, “Burnt Norton” (1935) leads us from abstract relativisation of sequential time “into the rose-garden”. The experience is imbued with factual uncertainty: “what might have been,” “the passage which we did not take,” “the door we never opened,” “shall we follow?,” “then a cloud passed, and the pool was empty”. Garden seclusion and the oxymoronic “unheard music hidden in the shrubbery” are part of the scene, a moment out of time.

The poet associates these moments with the simultaneity of opposites such as sound and silence, or movement and stillness. Speech and music need silences, figures on surfaces give the impression of movement, and a sustained musical note one of stillness:

[…] Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
Not the stillness of the violin, while the note lasts,
Not that only, but the coexistence, […]
(“Burn Norton” V)

In The Confidential Clerk (1953), similar images become central. For Sir Claude, pottery balances the demands of his life as a financier; Colby – his new confidential clerk – is equally transported when he plays the piano. These escapes through art allow them to experience time in a subjective way, to – in Sir Claude’s words – “go through the private door / Into the real world”. It is coherent with the transcendent vision of Four Quartets that this dimension should be more real than the predictable aspects of everyday life.

Lucasta refers to Colby’s music as his secret garden. Yet, he wishes “God would walk in my garden,” so as “not to be alone there”. Similarly, the pleasure that Sir Claude derives from pottery “takes the place of religion”. As a result, their “real world” of artistic fulfilment feels as unreal as the surface of life. If Sir Claude has pottery and Colby music, Eggerson – former confidential clerk – has gardening. His actual garden at Joshua Park is Colby’s ideal: it is not lonely and unreal, but “a part of one single world”.

Early in the play, Eggerson invites Colby to see his garden in the spring. He also predicts that “some day,” his replacement will “want a garden of his own”. Colby finally decides to move in with the Eggersons at Joshua Park and make a living as an organist, unifying both his worlds as real. Furthermore, Colby’s new life also materialises the ethereal rose-garden of “Burnt Norton”.

Categories
Categorías

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.

Categories
Categorías

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>.

Categories
Categorías

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.