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More Liberty with Myth

Michael Redgrave as Orin in Dudley Nichols’s film adaptation of Mourning Becomes Electra

Michael Redgrave played Harry, Lord Monchensey in the first production of T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939). Curiously, a few years later, he would be cast as Orin Mannon in the film adaptation (1947) of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931). Both roles are transpositions of Aeschylus’ Orestes: Eliot’s drama is set in the north of England in the 1930s, O’Neill’s in New England as the Civil War comes to an end. Like Harry, Orin and his sister Lavinia (Electra) carry the weight of a family curse on their shoulders.

In criticising The Family Reunion (an adaptation of The Furies, the third play of the Oresteia trilogy) in “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot admitted to a “failure of adjustment between the Greek story and the modern situation”; he also regretted not having “taken a great deal more liberty with his [Aeschylus’] myth”. The two most unsatisfactory elements of the play, according to its author, were the incongruity of the chorus and the interference of the Furies.

Eliot’s chorus is made up of Harry’s uncles and aunts. Their speech as individual characters is rife with platitudes and clichés, but when they speak together as a chorus, their tone becomes enigmatic, even oracular. The members of the chorus in Mourning Becomes Electra, on the other hand, are “types of townsfolk […] representing the town,” “a human background for the drama of the Mannons” [*]. They are more distant from the action than Harry’s relatives, but their demeanour and conversation are always realistic.

Like the chorus in The Family Reunion, who may speak poetically “beyond character,” the appearance of the Furies also compromises the play’s realism. O’Neill found a subtle yet effective equivalence for the Furies in his setting: Orin and Lavinia’s guilt for their mother’s suicide and her lover’s murder is symbolised by the staring ghostly portraits of their ancestors in the sitting-room, including “one of a grim-visaged minister of the witch-burning era” (131). The two Mannon children react to the threatening presence of these ghosts, even confront them. Like the portraits, the windows on the façade of the symbolic family house “reflect the sun in a smouldering stare, as of brooding, revengeful eyes” (273). Interestingly, the Furies are first seen in Eliot’s play through a drawing-room window.

Aspects of The Family Reunion that Eliot considered to be errors (poetic language without a clear dramatic purpose, mythological figures at odds with a modern setting) are ironically among the most attractive features of the play. And it is interesting to compare Eliot’s “flaws” with the dramatic solutions reached by O’Neill, the more confident playwright.

[*] Eugene O’Neill, Mourning Becomes Electra (London: Jonathan Cape, 2013), pp. 17, 113. All quotes from this edition.

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Choral Voices

First edition of Virginia Woolf’s
The Waves (1931)

The character of Louis in Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves (1931) is often assumed to have been inspired by T. S. Eliot. Louis is a foreigner in England, always self-consciously trying to fit in; he is characterised by his need for order, and by his sense of history and tradition; he has a clerical job, but shows a profound literary sensitivity. Eliot shared these traits – and was born in Saint Louis.

The Waves is essentially a choral novel in which six friends (Bernard, Susan, Rhoda, Neville, Jinny and Louis) express their thoughts and relive their memories, without directly interacting. They are, to use Henry James’s term, “centres of consciousness,” and the projections of their minds overlap. In the final section of the novel, the six voices become one as Bernard, the writer in the group, blurs perspectival distinctions.

When we first hear them, the characters speak short statements – like verse lines – conveying elemental visual and auditory images:

“I see a ring,” said Bernard, “hanging above me. It quivers and hangs in a loop of light.”
“I see a slab of pale yellow,” said Susan, “spreading away until it meets a purple stripe.”
“I hear a sound,” said Rhoda, “cheep, chirp; cheep, chirp; going up and down.”
“I see a globe,” said Neville, “hanging down in a drop against the enormous flanks of some hill.”
“I see a crimson tassel,” said Jinny, “twisted with gold threads.”
“I hear something stamping,” said Louis. “A great beast’s foot is chained. It stamps, and stamps, and stamps.” [*]

Four characters integrate the chorus in Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939): Ivy, Violet, Gerald and Charles. A single choral voice alternates with four voices that, despite fulfilling a common purpose, are distinct. Although this alternation was an innovative dramatic device, the critic Desmond MacCarthy dismissed it as “a violation of auditory psychology” [**]. The members of Eliot’s chorus comment on the action collectively, but they also show concern on trivialities or attack one another, as if voicing their thoughts:

IVY. I do not trust Charles with his confident vulgarity, acquired from worldly associates.
GERDALD. Ivy is only concerned on herself, and her credit among her shabby genteel acquaintance.
VIOLET. Gerald is certain to make some blunder, he is useless out of the army.
CHARLES. Violet is afraid that her status as Amy’s sister will be diminished.

Eliot’s chorus is very different from Woolf’s dramatis personae. The former are secondary characters lacking any depth, they are relatives with strained relationships and not friends, and they are satirised by Eliot for their meaningless mundane priorities. Yet, the cadence and diction of their language, the way their voices are alternatively integrated and individualised, are reminiscent of the opening of The Waves, in which the six voices emerge, almost with an incantatory effect.

[*] Virginia Woolf, The Waves (London: Vintage, 2004), p. 2.
[**] Desmond MacCarthy, “Some Notes on Mr. Eliot’s New Play, New Statesman, 25-03-1939.” T. S. Eliot. The Contemporary Reviews, ed. by Jewel Spears Brooker (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004), pp. 381-84 (p. 382).

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Clues on a Treasure Hunt

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.

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Shocks and Violations

The Furies are central to T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1939). Initially, we are led to believe that the protagonist, Harry, has murdered his wife and is consequently being pursued by these avenging spirits. However, as the play draws to a close, the Furies show Harry a path of expiation and of spiritual progress. By implication, the Furies appear here as the Eumenides (“kindly ones”), the “sleepless hunters” transformed into “bright angels” to convey the play’s themes of purgation and transcendence.

The Family Reunion was the first play by Eliot to combine a classical source and Christian principle in a contemporary setting. In “Poetry and Drama” (1951), Eliot criticised his own play as an adaptation of Aeschylus’s The Furies; he found that the goddesses had not undergone and imaginative translation sufficient for the twentieth century audience. As an objective correlative of Harry’s remorse and sinful family past, the Furies are limited by their incoherence with the modern dramatic situation.

Carol H. Smith referred to the appearance of the Furies in Eliot’s The Family Reunion as “a shock tactic” [*]. The shock is produced by inconsistency: a classical irruption into a modern world, pagan divinities in a play with an uncompromising Christian world view. In an early review, the critic Horace Gregory referred to the presence of the Furies as “a violation of the play’s integrity,” comparing it to the knights’ interaction with the audience at the end of Murder in the Cathedral (1935) [**].

After the climax of Becket’s murder, the knights break the fourth wall and address the audience in order to justify their action. The drama of martyrdom suddenly transforms into a “Trial by Jury,” with each of the four knights pleading his case. They stress the Archbishop’s flaws and – in an instance of what we might nowadays call “post-truth” – conclude that he commited “Suicide while of Unsound Mind.” There is even an attempt to make any spectators complicit in the crime: “if you have now arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State, remember that it is we who took the first step”.

Like the Furies in the play that was to follow, the knights’ appeal to the audience disturbs the temporal setting. It also counteracts tragedy with the comedy of incongruity, and sets argumentative prose against the devotional verse with which the play ends. Eliot’s disruptive strategies both in Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion may be perceived as “shocks” or “violations,” but they are also signs of modern experimentation with the dramatic medium.

[*] Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice. From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 117.

[**] Gregory, Horace. “The Unities and Eliot,” in T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews, ed. Jewel Spears Brooker (Cambridge: CUP, 2006), pp. 403-406 (p. 406).

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New Year, New Beginnings

The first scene of The Family Reunion (1939) is set on a cold winter´s evening, symbolic of Amy’s life which is about to be extinguished. As she awaits the arrival of her son, Harry, she also longs for the return of spring: “Will the spring never come?” Her rhetorical question seems to invert the reassuring last line of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”: “If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?” The play´s second scene opens on a similar note with Mary complaining that “the spring is very late in this northern country,” and Agatha agreeing.

Later, when Agatha leaves Mary alone with Harry, he evokes the negativity of a “cold” spring and wanders whether it is not “an evil time, that excites us with evil voices”. Echoing Harry’s lyrical tone, Mary refers to “the ache in the moving root” or “the aconite in the snow”. The connection with The Waste Land and with the natural imagery of Four Quartets seems inexorable, although The Family Reunion was to be the last of Eliot´s plays where intertextuality with his poetry is patent.

Harry goes on to identify the spring, the birth of the natural year, as “a season of sacrifice”. Carol H. Smith convincingly interpreted The Family Reunion within the framework of fertility rites, and therefore in continuity with The Waste Land (*); after the sacrifice of the fertility god, his return to life is mirrored in nature as springtime regeneration. Mary shares Harry’s vision of spring, her words suggest the interconnectedness of Christ’s birth (in winter) and his death and resurrection (in spring): “I believe the season of birth / Is the season of sacrifice”.

Amy’s birthday, the occasion of her family reunion, is also to be the day of her death; she was born, and will die in winter. According to Smith, the Dowager is the old year that must die, while her son stands for the new year (*). Harry will embrace the prospect of rebirth, leaving family and Wishwoood manor behind. One of his younger brothers, John, will therefore experience a different new beginning by becoming the Lord of Wishwood. As we learn from the news item reporting the road accident that prevented his arrival at Wishwood, the events of the play take place on or around January 1st.

Eliot’s “Little Gidding” (1942) contains the two famous lines, sometimes quoted at this time of year: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / and next year’s words await another voice”. They readily apply to The Family Reunion as a turning point in Eliot’s dramatic production: a play written in “last year’s language” (a language lacking in dramatic purpose and plausibility), but prefiguring “another voice” (that of a more confident playwright).

(*) Smith, Carol H. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice. From Sweeney Agonistes to The Elder Statesman (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963) 134-5.

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Hoo-ha’s Coming to You

In “Fragment of a Prologue,” the first part of Sweeney Agonistes (1933), Sam Wauchope brings his friends (Captain Horsfall and two American businessmen, Mr. Klipstein and Mr. Krumpacker) to Doris and Dusty’s flat. They talk casually about the war, a memorable poker game, and London. The five men reappear in the second part (“Fragment of an Agon”), where their singing mingles with the dialogue between Doris and Sweeney (music-hall style) and, as a chorus, they bring the play to a close:

When you’re alone in the middle of the night and
you wake in a sweat and a hell of a fright
When you’re alone in the middle of the bed and
you wake like someone hit you in the head
You’ve had a cream of a nightmare dream and
you’ve got the hoo-ha’s coming to you.

This grim impression harks back to earlier poems by Eliot, such as “Preludes” (1917): “You dozed, and watched the night revealing / the thousand sordid images / of which your soul was constituted”. On the other hand, they prefigure The Family Reunion (1939), whose protagonist, Harry, conveys to his sympathetic cousin Mary the terror of being chased by the Furies: “At the moment before sleep / I always see their claws distended”. In fact, The Family Reunion is often assumed to revisit Sweeney Agonistes, and both texts draw on Aeschylus’s trilogy, the Oresteia. The former is inspired by The Furies, and the latter opens quoting Orestes in The Libation Bearers: “You don’t see them, you don’t – but I see them: they are haunting me down, I must move on”.

The final chorus suggests the nightmare of death in life (“And perhaps you’re alive / And perhaps you’re dead”), echoing Sweeney when he clarifies for Doris that “Death is life and life is death,” a perfect four-stress line that could be interpreted as a mystical paradox. Not surprisingly, the other opening quote chosen by Eliot for Sweeney Agonistes is from St. John of the Cross’s description of the dark night of soul: “Hence the soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created beings”.

The via negativa is only tangentially present, as a paratext, in Sweeney Agonistes, a prodigy of rhythm and experimentation published as an “unfinished poem”. It is unfinished literally, but also in the sense of lacking transcendent completion. When Eliot returned to his project of verse drama in the late thirties with The Family Reunion, after his conversion, he was a different man and a different author. In the later work, Harry could leave his family behind in order to follow the Eumenides (that is, the Furies in their benevolent aspect), to head for “somewhere on the other side of despair”.

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Who Saw the Ghosts?

Still from Jack Clayton’s The Innocents (1961)

The Family Reunion had a successful London revival in 2008. Part of a “T. S. Eliot Festival,” it was directed by Jeremy Herrin, staged at the Donmar Warehouse and performed by an attractive cast – among them, Samuel West as Harry, Penelope Wilton as Agatha and Gemma Jones as Amy. Harry, tormented by his wife’s mysterious death, returns to the family home, the country house of Wishwood, only to find that the Furies, representing his sense of guilt, have followed him.

In “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot showed his concern on the difficulty of presenting the Furies on stage, giving multiple examples of “expedients tried” and concluding that “they are never right.” In a review of the 2008 production of The Family Reunion for Variety, David Benedict described how the Furies had been “reimagined as ghastly, creepily perfect, silent children holding butterfly nets, who loom into the room in eerily calm formation after gasp-inducing sudden appearances as if from nowhere”. Benedict compares this effect, and the production’s general atmosphere with the film The Innocents (1961), Jack Clayton’s celebrated adaptation of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.

The connection is felicitous, at least for two reasons, the first being the attribution of disturbing associations to childhood. Harry deludes himself by thinking of Wishwood as a refuge, a lost paradise of carefree summers spent in play with his brothers and with cousin Mary – the image of the hollow tree, where the children used to hide, is particularly evocative. But these years were obscured by Harry’s frustrated attempts to please Amy, his standoffish domineering mother, and by his parents’ loveless relationship. There is a continuity between their mysterious separation and Harry’s present derangement, which Wishwood will not soothe, as the presence of the Furies confirms.

Secondly, and more importantly, the key question of seeing is central to both James’s novella and Eliot’s play. While reading The Turn of the Screw, we cannot be sure if anyone, except the governess who tells the story, has seen the ghosts of Peter Quint and Miss Jessel; Mrs Grose, the housekeeper and the governess’ loyal confidante, has not had to confront them and is therefore not in a position to reinforce the reliability of the narration. In The Family Reunion, Harry denies that the Furies live only in his mind. Three other characters claim to have seen “them”: aunt Agatha and cousin Mary, whose spiritual awareness causes them to sympathise with Harry and support him in his quest, and Downing, an unexpectedly perceptive valet-chauffeur who has also seen “them ghosts.”

These are not, however, the ghosts of moral corruption or dead innocence, as in James’s story or Clayton’s film: Downing has seen the Furies in their benevolent aspect as Eumenides (a different name for these divine mythological creatures, meaning “the gracious ones”). So has Harry, after the Eumenides appear at Wishwood for a second time, when he refers to them as the “bright angels” that he must follow, submitting to a journey of purgation of his own sins and those of his family.

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Endless Humility

Two of the most memorable verse lines in “East Coker” are: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” They belong to the second section, which opens with images of seasonal turmoil and astronomical warfare, criticised in the following stanza: “That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory.” The poet cannot evade “the intolerable wrestle / with words and meanings” – we find comparable passages at other points of Four Quartets.

When Eliot published the second of his Quartets (1940), he was also “wrestling” with dramatic verse, plot and structure. As David Chinitz puts it, he was “retraining himself as a playwright” [*]. Despite Eliot’s unquestioned reputation as a poet and critic, he learned to become a dramatist in a spirit of humility. His attitude is reflected in the notes of acknowledgement included in the first editions of his plays, and in his essay “Poetry and Drama” (1951).

In a “Prefatory Note,” Eliot presents The Rock (1934) as follows: “I cannot consider myself the author of the ‘play,’ but only of the words printed here.” He also explains that the Rev. Vincent Howson, who took part in the performance, “has so completely rewritten, amplified and condensed the dialogue [of his part] . . . that he deserves the title of joint author.” These observations evidence that Eliot thought of his task as contributing to a collaborative project.

In each of his notes, Eliot expresses his gratitude to E. Martin Browne – the director of all the original productions – whose suggestions were incorporated to the definitive text of the plays. Eliot admits that he “rewrote” The Rock for publication, being “submissive” to Browne’s “expert criticism.” John Hayward, one of Eliot’s closest friends, is also thanked for his critical reading of drafts. When he published The Cocktail Party (1949), Eliot acknowledged his “debt to both these censors,” Hayward and Browne.

The Cocktail Party was a commercial success in the West End and Broadway. It received a Tony Award for Best Play, and there was even a project for a film adaptation. Yet, in referring to his first comedy in “Poetry and Drama,” three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Eliot declares: “I have not yet got to the end of my investigation of the weaknesses of this play.” In the same essay, when he traces the process of composition of Murder in the Cathedral (1935), he refers to himself as “a beginner,” and when he considers The Family Reunion (1939), he finds it “defective” in different aspects.

In writing, presenting and assessing his plays, Eliot did show “the wisdom of humility,” which, needless to say, not all successful writers acquire.

[*] David E. Chinitz, “A Vast Wasteland? Eliot and Popular Culture.” A Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by David E. Chinitz, Blackwell, 2014, p. 68 (pp. 66-78).

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Bacon, Sweeney and the Furies

T. S. Eliot is popularly known as the poet of The Waste Land (1922), the voice of disillusion. Understandably, the association mortified him after his poetry veered to hope and his drama confirmed this tendency. Even though the artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) found inspiration in Eliot’s dramatic texts, his style seemed incompatible with Eliot’s poetics of illumination.

Bacon’s Triptych 1967, inspired by Sweeney Agonistes, exemplifies his typical representation of bodies: lifeless, amorphous, objects of physical violence or engaged in sexual activity. We are reminded of Sweeney’s brutal fantasies: he will be “the cannibal” who “will gobble up” Doris “the missionary,” and he declares that “any man might do a girl in.”

Two decades earlier, Eliot’s drama had already influenced Bacon. His Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), also a triptych, came to be associated – by critics and the artist himself – with the Eumenides. Conventionally, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and John the Evangelist are represented at the foot of the Cross, but Bacon depicts three grotesque and threatening forms.

The artist admitted that the presence of the Furies in Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1936), which he saw staged, had stirred his imagination while working on Three Studies. Ironically, the text of the play gives almost no clue as to the appearance of the Furies; the emphasis is on Harry’s terror when he confronts the avenging creatures that other characters seem not to see. In “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot expressed his concern that the representation of the Furies was a daunting production challenge.

Yet, Sweeney has mystical inclinations and the Furies become “bright angels” who show Harry the way of purgation. In Sweeney Agonistes and The Family Reunion, however, Bacon saw (primarily) the sordid and disturbing, the terrifying primitivism of myth.