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Poet in the Playhouse

Ralph Fiennes in rehearsal of Four Quartets

In 2009, Faber and Faber published an audio recording of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (1936-1942), read by Ralph Fiennes. The actor recently announced that he is to direct and act in a dramatic adaptation of this poetic sequence. There have been other attempts to bring Eliot’s poems to the stage: Deborah Warner’s The Waste Land with Fiona Shaw, for example, premiered in 1995 and was successfully performed for over a decade.

The opposition and integration of movement and stillness, as well as the image of “the dance,” are central to Four Quartets. Drawing mainly on these elements, and reproducing the rhythms and development of the original poetic texts, coreographer Pam Tanowitz created a Four Quartets ballet in 2018. Eliot chose a musical metaphor as a title for his poems, and Tanowitz’s dancers danced to the poet’s words.

It might be argued that the variety of characters and scenes in The Waste Land facilitates a dramatic transposition. Conversely, the poems that make up Four Quartets – densely meditative and conceptual, but also lyrical and rich in images of nature – do not seem, a priori, very theatrical. In contrast with the polyphony of The Waste Land, the four poems of the sequence are unified by a single poetic voice that could be identified with the poet’s. In fact, Four Quartets has been called Eliot’s “spiritual autobiography.” Its thematic complexity will have to be conveyed by the sole actor’s voice and gesture, by lighting and sound effects.

The text which presents Fiennes’s production, to open at Bath in late May, points out that the sequence of four poems was completed during the years of the Second World War. The entertainment site Ox in a Box connects their historical context with the present pandemic situation: “Four Quartets contain some of the most exquisite and unforgettable reflections upon surviving periods of national crisis […] So it is fitting that […] Fiennes’ world premiere […] is announced this week – a year since regional theatres were forced to close”. [*]

Press releases have also reminded readers that Eliot directed his creative efforts to Four Quartets because of the impossibility to produce plays in wartime London. These were the years when he was determined to pursue a career as a dramatist. While intrigued by the prospect of seeing Four Quartets on stage, I cannot suppress a sense of wistfulness, on behalf of Eliot the playwright, that is Eliot the poet who returns to the theatre on this occasion.

[*] “Breaking News: Ralph Fiennes to Star at Oxford Playhouse This Summer in Stage World Premiere of Eliot’s Four Quartets!” (March 17, 2021).

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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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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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Bull’s Hide, Tough Land

Txe Arana in La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau)

Producing a play by Eliot for a general audience has become a rare and risky venture. Dramatising his best-known poem has proved more feasible in recent years: Deborah Warner’s production of The Waste Land with Fiona Shaw was successfully staged, from the late 1990s, for over a decade. In 2013, Francesc Cerro-Ferran created and directed La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau), a stage production based on Eliot’s poem (translated into Catalan by Agustí Bartra as La terra eixorca) and on La pell de brau ([The Bull’s Hide], 1960), by Salvador Espriu (1913-1985).

We may distinguish two main facets in Espriu’s poetic work: meditation on death / transcendence influenced by negative theology and mysticism, and vindication of Catalan culture (or Spanish cultural diversity) in a context of postwar political repression. The first of these concerns connects with Eliot’s poetic vision; in a less obvious way, so too does the second. Espriu’s most popular poem (or poetic sequence) is precisely La pell de brau, the finest example of his “civil” poetry. As with Eliot’s The Waste Land, critics and readers felt that it expressed “the disillusion of a generation.”

Although La pell de brau envisages national reconciliation, the trauma of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) is at the heart of the poem. Espriu calls Spain “Sepharad,” imaging the hard times of the war and the dictatorship as a wandering in the desert (a symbolic wasteland). The poem’s title translates as “the bull’s hide,” the ancient geographer Strabo’s metaphor for a delineation of the Iberian peninsula’s coastline. La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau) combines Espriu’s and Eliot’s titles, as well as drawing on their common sense of hopelessness and prophetic tone.

Cerro-Ferran causes both poets to engage in dialogue, as extracts from their works are dramatised by the actress Txe Arana – who impersonates various voices and characters, including Eliot’s Tiresias – and the actor Jaume Comas, whose recorded voice is identified with the bull’s head seen onstage, symbolising Espriu’s concerns as expressed in La pell de brau. The stage is flanked by gnarled trees, with video projections reinforcing the wasteland atmosphere. Among these, Picasso’s Guernica and Goyas’s Disasters of War evoke tragic episodes of Spanish history.

La pell eixorca (o La terra del brau) commemorated the centenary of Espriu’s death, associating him with Eliot, the poet who – despite himself – gave poetic expression to the zeitgeist of the interwar years. Cerro-Ferran’s production also confirms that The Waste Land, characteristically fragmentary and polyphonic, can still inspire a contemporary dramatist.

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Drama in “The Waste Land”

In 1988, a group of students from the Madrid School of Performing Arts (RESAD) produced Una partida de ajedrez, based on the second part of The Waste Land, “A Game of Chess”. Its director, Chema Castelló, who later developed into a visual artist, divided the production into four scenes:

  1. In an initial soliloquy, and framed as in a portrait, an actor described the rich spatial setting (as the poetic speaker does in the poem).
  2. An actress and an actor performed the scene of the “neurotic woman” and her lover as a dialogue, with a blank stare. The general aesthetics were inspired by Alain Resnais’s film Last Year at Marienbad (1961).
  3. The “neurotic woman” listened to another actress impersonating Lil’s friend. The tone was tragicomical and the actress’ voice, as she told Lil’s story, grotesquely high-pitched.
  4. A song by Olivier Messiaen was played and the actor in the picture frame put an end to the performance: “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.”

Apart from its well-known Shakespearean allusions, “A Game of Chess” has an obvious dramatic potential. So has The Waste Land as a whole: a poem of voices – provisionally titled “He do the police in different voices” – and therefore of characters. The rarefied situations in which these characters find themselves and their failed communication seem easy to adapt to expressionist performance.

According to Deborah Warner, who successfully directed a dramatised version of The Waste Land with Fiona Shaw, Eliot’s poem foreshadowed drama that would be staged later in the century. Paradoxically, Eliot’s work as a playwright has generally been perceived as discontinuous with the modernity and innovation of his early poetry.