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Eliot’s Drama at the 41st ITSES Conference

Last weekend (October 2-3) I attended the 41st T. S. Eliot International Society Conference. Around the date of Eliot’s birth in late September, scholars meet in his home town (St Louis), or at some other location associated with the author’s life and work. This year’s reunion would have been celebrated at Harvard – Eliot’s alma mater – had it not be for the pandemic. Instead we met on line.

A number of participants presented on Eliot’s drama, or provided insights relevant to it:

  • In assessing Eliot’s critcism of the poems of Alan Seeger (his contemporary at Harvard), Kevin Rulo observed the former’s emphasis on the notion of theatricality in Seeger’s poetic representation of Paris.
  • In one of the round tables on Eliot’s recently revealed correspondence with Emily Hale, John Whittier-Ferguson emphasised the strikingly direct parallels between some of these letters and The Family Reunion. The awkwardness and tormented frustration into which Eliot’s relationship with Hale developed cast a shadow over the play, in contrast to their transmutation into poetry in “Burnt Norton.”
  • Sara Fitzgerald, the author of The Poet’s Girl (a biofiction on the Hale-Eliot relationship), touched on Hale’s involvement with amateur theatre, her role as teacher of speech and drama in several colleges, and as advisor to Eliot on aspects of performance.
  • The T. S. Eliot Memorial Lecture was delivered by Robert von Hallberg, who scrutinised the more discursive and prosaic passages of “East Coker,” especially those in which the poet reflects on the difficulties of poetic expression. I could not help connecting those lines with Eliot’s continued struggle to find the right language for his verse dramas.
  • In exploring the influence of detective fiction on Eliot, Deborah Leiter alluded to Sherlock Holmes’s “Musgrave Ritual” as echoed by one of the knights in Murder in the Cathedral; Alex Davis examined the factual origins of the crime mentioned in Sweeney Agonistes, where the protagonist’s friend kills a woman an keeps her body in a “lysol bath.”
  • Sørina Higgins discussed liturgical elements of Murder in the Cathedral, and their authenticity within the framework of a play that dramatises religious ceremony.
  • Parker T. Gordon focused on The Rock as a text for the stage and on the production details of its first performance, directing special attention to the choral sections and drawing on rarely seen archival material (photographs, costume designs and musical scores).

Eliot’s drama, approached from multiple perspectives (criticism, biography, intertextual links with poetry, elements of popular culture, performance), is possessed of great versatility as an object of research in itself, and as a conduit to researching other facets of Eliot’s oeuvre.

I will be looking forward to future conferences – and the reopening of theatres – in better times.

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The Economy of “The Rock”

The Rock (1934) contains choruses of great beauty, of which its author was justly proud. Most readers of Eliot are only familiar with these as some of his finest religious poems, ignoring that they were originally part of a pageant play characterised by its ecclecticism: allegorical characters, historical as well as contemporary scenes, comic interludes, even song and dance. The Rock was an ambitious project, not only as a dramatic text, but as a fund-raising activity.

During the interwar period, the Diocese of London became alert to the absence of worshipping communities in the city’s suburbs, and issued an appeal for public funding destined for the building forty-five new churches. Eliot involved himself in the initiative, The Rock being the result. Decisively, it launched the author’s career as a playwright and instigated a lasting collaboration with the director E. Martin Brown. Despite its shortcomings, The Rock was an achievement for Eliot and a source of profit for the Forty-Five Churches Fund, raising no less than £1,500.

The leitmotif of Eliot’s play is, not surprisingly, the building of a church in suburban London. Alfred, Edwin and Ethelbert, three cockney construction workers named after Christian Anglo-Saxon kings, discuss the necessity of the project and its difficulties. Ethelbert, a shrwed but charismatic foreman, defends co-operative economy, as opposed to the impersonality of the bank system: “That’s a bank, that is. It’s all profit what nobody gets and nobody knows ‘ow they gets it. Nah, then: you take a church. There ain’t no profit about that. It’s for you and me”.

In response to a trade-unionist (the “Agitator”) who accuses the three builders of “betrayin’ your class” and “prostitutin’ yourselves,” Ethelbert comically asks “What’s your view o’ Maynard Keynes’s theory o’ money?”. When the Agitator argues that society needs no churches but “decent ‘omes for the workers,” Ethelbert attributes this argument to “some antiquated theory of money.” Later in the play, Bishop Charles Blomfield, “builder of many churches” in nineteenth-century London, appears as a character and echoes the foreman’s view, in referring to “economic laws that are half superstition.”

Only a few years later, in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), Eliot defended “a direction of religious thought which must inevitably proceed to a criticism of political and economic systems.” He denounced “the hypertrophy of the motive of Profit,” “the misdirection of the financial machine” and “the iniquity of usury.” This was after the Great Depression and immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War. The social thinker was, as The Rock evidences, also a social dramatist.

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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).