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Offstage Purgatories

Spatial settings in T. S. Eliot’s plays are mostly determined by those plays’ main situations. We may think of the dismal London flat of Sweeney Agonistes, of Canterbury Cathedral in Murder in the Cathedral, or Wishwood manor in The Family Reunion. Occasionally, Eliot introduces imaginary locations of a dramatic relevance: examples are San Marco in The Elder Statesman, or Kinkanja in The Cocktail Party.

Frederick Culverwell was an Oxford friend of Lord Claverton’s. After serving a jail sentence in England for forgery, he settles in San Marco. This is a fictional republic in Central America where Culverwell becomes a respectable citizen as Federico Gomez. However, as he points out to Lord Claverton, “out there they respect you for rather different reasons” – the republic’s name seems evocative of Venetian moral decadence. According to Gomez, San Marco is “a good place / to make money in, though not to keep it in,” and the people there “have Indian thoughts”. Lord Claverton dismisses his former friend’s activity as “systematic corruption,” but his sense of moral superiority will soon waver. Gomez has returned from his own purgatorial San Marco to teach Claverton a lesson in humility.

Kinkanja is an island in the East to which Celia Copplestone travels as a missionary, and where she undergoes her via purgativa. Alex MacColgie Gibbs, returning from “a tour of inspection of local conditions,” characterises the conflict in Kinkanja: the heathen population venerates monkeys, Christian converts eat monkeys, and the heathen eat Christians in revenge. Alex also brings news of Celia’s death in this context: she has been crucified by heathen insurgents (her final via unitiva). The population of Kinkanja is portrayed, from a prejudiced orientalist perspective, as cruel and irrational (“The native is not, I fear, very rational”), but their land, present through Alex’s narration, is important as the setting where Celia fulfils her destiny of sacrifice and sainthood.

San Marco and Kinkanja contribute to characterisation, plot evolution and thematic definition. Neither is staged, but both represent foils to the plays’ actual or alternative settings: San Marco is a contrast to Lord Claverton’s England, where law, order and morality seem to prevail; Kinkanja is diametrically opposed to the glamour of Hollywood, of which Celia may have dreamt as an aspiring actress. Crucially, they are comparable as offstage, symbolic purgatories.

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That Peculiar Man’s Plays

Photograph from the original production of Look Back in Anger

In a 2016 interview, Julie Walters declared that when she started her acting career in the early 70s, “you’d hear middle-class actors trying to sound working class because it was cool”. She lamented the decline of “working-class drama” that “comes out of people being unhappy and angry with the unfairness of life” [*]. The cycle, which included Walters’ training as an actress and now closed, began with the emergence of the “angry young men,” and also coincided with the appearance of T. S. Eliot’s The Elder Statesman (1958).

In John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), Jimmy and Cliff, “common as dirt” (26) [**], criticise J. B. Priestley, as part of the establishment they reject. Later, Jimmy alludes to “that peculiar man’s plays” (83) without giving a name. However, two joking references to Eliot follow: Jimmy suggests “T. S. Eliot and Pam” (83) as an artistic name for him and Cliff; he then puns on the title of the last of the Four Quartets, in the style of music-hall repartee: “she was called a little Gidding, but she was more like a gelding iron!” (84). Furthermore, Jimmy has written a poem that – he parodically claims – contains “a good slosh of Eliot” (50).

The social setting of The Elder Statesman is upper class and not obviously satirical, by contrast with the treatment of aristocratic dullness in certain characters of The Family Reunion (1939). In Eliot’s last play, when Michael confronts his father, he reveals that the father’s title, Lord Claverton, was the culmination of a political career, and that he married “up.” As a young man, Lord Claverton, then Dick Ferry, courted a chorus girl, Maisie – humble enough to be deserted without scruple. For Michael, his father’s status is more an encumbrance than a privilege, and he longs for an independent life away from his family.

Look Back in Anger concerns itself with the lives of young people of the working class; the protagonist of The Elder Statesman is an old man, and a lord. Eliot’s play is realistic, but it conforms to the conventions of drawing-room comedy and is written in verse, albeit transparent. Osborne’s realism, on the other hand, colours the characters’ speech. Colonel Redfern observes that Jimmy “speaks a different language from any of us,” and that he “has quite a turn of phrase” (65, 69). The rhythmic balance of Eliot’s measured lines is strikingly different from Jimmy’s verbal incontinence: “Mummy and Daddy turn pale, and face the east every time they remember she’s married to me. But if they saw all this going on, they’d collapse. Wonder what they would do, incidentally. Send for the police I expect” (28).

Look Back in Anger and The Elder Statesman are separated by just two years, but also by a generation. Osborne’s play depicts a new society, a society not in step with Eliot’s drama.

[*] Susie Mesure, “Julie Walters: ‘There will be another working-class acting revolution’,” The Independent, 28 February 2015.

[**] All quotes from this edition: John Osborne, Look Back in Anger, London: Faber and Faber, 1960 (1996).

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If He Becomes a Famous Man

In 1952, John Peter published “A New Interpretation of The Waste Land,” reading the poem as a homoerotic elegy for “a young man” loved by the main speaker. As explained in a postcript from 1969, the essay was withdrawn at Eliot’s displeased request and effectually censored for seventeen years. Interestingly, Peter claimed that the disturbance caused by his interpretation informed The Elder Statesman, and even saw himself as the inspiration for one of its characters, Federico Gomez.

In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton (generally considered a trasnposition of Eliot himself) is unexpectedly reunited, after many years, with Federico Gomez and Mrs. Carghill. Both confront the ageing protagonist with past guilt, prompting something of a life review. Gomez, an old Oxford friend, reminds Lord Claverton that, after a night out on the town, he ran down a man and failed to provide assistance. On the other hand, Mrs. Carghill, whom Lord Claverton met as a chorus girl, has not forgotten his breach of promise, despite her subsequent successful and respectful marriage(s).

Lord Claverton wrote “very loving” letters to Mrs. Carghill, Maisie, and they “would have figured at the trial . . . If there had been a trial”. These letters, about which Lord Claverton is still uneasy, are in her “lawyer’s safe”. It was Maisie’s friend Effie who made her realise how valuable they could be: “They’ll be worth a fortune to you, Maisie”; “If he becomes a famous man / And you should be in want, you could have these letters auctioned.”

The Elder Statesman was first performed in 1958. In 1957, Eliot had married Valerie Fletcher, to whom the play is dedicated and who has been compared to Monica – Lord Claverton’s loving daughter. In 1956, Emily Hale, the actress and drama teacher who lived a frustrated and painful love story with Eliot and was his correspondent for three decades, donated his letters to Princeton Library, on condition that they be made public only in 2020. Even this caveat did not prevent Eliot – the man who banned a personal reading of his best known poem – from disapproving of Hale’s decision.

Peter’s identifying himself with Federico Gomez may seem self-conscious. The connection between Mrs. Carghill and Hale, however, seems more convincing. Not only are there potentially compromising letters, but also the music number said to have made Maisie famous – “It’s Not Too Late for You to Love Me”. While Lord Claverton feels guilt for the pain he caused Maisie, this song title might be interpreted as an unsympathetic allusion by Eliot to Hale’s sentimental dependence upon him.

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An Empty Diary

The “objective correlative” is probably Eliot’s most influential critical term. He theorised it in discussing Shakespeare’s Hamlet, where he found emotion to be in excess of its dramatic expression (conversely, he put forward Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking as the perfect physical reflection of a troubled conscience). The objective correlative, “the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art,” is “a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion”.

Eliot formulated the concept in an early essay, “Hamlet” (1919). In his last play, The Elder Statesman (1958), we find an effective objective correlative: Lord Claverton’s empty engagement book. He has just retired from a successful career “in politics” and “as chairman of public companies”. He keeps all previous diaries (the record of his active years), but the pages of the present one are blank. As his daughter’s fiancé, Charles, suggests, Lord Claverton has neglected his private life. No longer the object of public attention, he sits in his office “contemplating nothingness” and experiencing “fear of the emptiness before me”.

Lord Claverton refers to his state of mind through simultaneous, mutually exclusive images – the coincidence of opposites, reminiscent of mystical writing, and also of certain passages of Four Quartets: “With no desire to act, yet a loathing of inaction / A fear of the vacuum, and no desire to fill it.” He first appears on the stage with the empty engagement book in his hand. The symbolic implications of this objective correlative (a visible, tangible stage prop) are conceptually reinforced by a powerful extended metaphor with which Lord Claverton presents his bleak prospects:

It’s just like sitting in an empty waiting room
In a railway station on a branch line,
After the last train, after all the other passengers
Have left, and the booking office is closed
And the porters have gone. What am I waiting for
In a cold and empty room before an empty grate?

Lord Claverton imagines himself waiting for a train that will not arrive. His will be an introspective journey of atonement for the sins of his youth. Two long-lost characters whose lives were thwarted by those sins (Federico Gomez and Mrs. Carghill) return to confront Lord Claverton with “the shame / of things ill done and done to others’ harm” (these are lines from “Little Gidding,” the last of the Quartets). In the jargon of modern psychology, Lord Claverton undertakes a “life review,” from which he will emerge humbled and contrite.

Lord Claverton will finally be saved by contrition and by the revelation of the pure love that he feels for his children: Monica, Michael and Charles – significantly, he calls this an “illumination”. At the end of the play, when the protagonist’s death is felt to be imminent, Charles suspects that the elder statesman “has passed through some door unseen by us”.

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Love, Sincerity and Lyricism

The Elder Statesman premiered in 1958, one year after Eliot’s marriage to Valerie Fletcher, when he was nearly 70. After a difficult first marriage and traumatic separation, after decades of frustrated relationships and celibacy, Eliot fell in love. It seems inevitable to read his last play as a reflection of the author’s recent biography: its protagonist, the ageing Lord Claverton, is redeemed by love, which he had previously seemed unable to experience.

The play was published with the dedication poem “To My Wife”: “To you I dedicate this book, to return as best I can / With words a little part of what you have given me.” A version of this love lyric would finally be included in Eliot’s Collected Poems, although it had been disparaged as self-conscious and unworthy of a master of poetic innovation. In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton finds peace of mind as his daughter Monica realises the intensity of her love for Charles. The lovers’ dialogues in the play and “To My Wife” are coherent in style.

Throughout his career as a dramatist, Eliot persevered in order to perfect his paradoxical concept of dramatic verse that would not strike a modern audience as crafted poetry: it should be rhythmic but natural. The Confidential Clerk (1953), where Eliot’s accentual lines (divided by their characteristic caesura) flow without ever attracting attention to themselves, comes closest to the ideal. The illusion of naturalism is broken momentarily in other plays: the choruses in The Family Reunion (1939), the occasional tone of disquisition in The Cocktail Party (1949), and Monica and Charles’ lyrical duets in The Elder Statesman.

In the couple’s dialogues, however, we also find exemples of verse applied to simple conversation and apparently trivial matters, as in the following verse lines from Act One, where Charles and Monica each speaks one half of the line:

CHARLES: Is your father at home today?

MONICA: You’ll see him at tea.

*****

MONICA: If you don’t like shopping with me…

CHARLES: Of course I like shopping with you.

In Act Three, the young lovers meet again. During their separation, Monica has been concerned about her father, plunged in abstracted gloom, and about her brother Michael’s unsettled life. During her fiancé’s absence, she has realised how much she needs and loves him. Charles also professes his love to Monica, with lyrical intensity that contrasts with ordinary tea and shopping, and with a rather unconventional simile:

Oh, my dear.
I love you to the limits of speech, and beyond.
It’s strange that words are so inadequate.
Like the asthmatic struggling for breath,
So the lover must struggle for words.

The lover is compared to the asthmatic, and the ineffability of genuine love harks back to Eliot’s dedication – curiously, in the Collected Poems version of “To My Wife,” lovers are said to “breathe in unison.” Charles and Monica’s love is sealed as Lord Claverton prepares for a good death. In its concluding climax, the focus of The Elder Statesman is on both divine and human love. Eliot’s fifth drama also displays unusual facets of his poetic talent: sincerity and lyricism, which we should perhaps learn to appreciate without prejudice.