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.


Stories of Detection

Apart from being a regular reader of crime fiction, T. S. Eliot also reflected on it as a critic, mainly in two essays from 1927. In “Wilkie Collins and Dickens,” he celebrated The Moonstone as the first detective novel in English. Further, he concluded “Homage to Wilkie Collins: An Omnibus Review of Nine Mystery Novels” with a set of five rules to which any successful specimen of the genre should conform. Eliot also admired Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie as well as other less known authors, and most of his plays have elements of mystery.

In Murder in the Cathedral, the dialogue between Becket and the Second Tempter unequivocally echoes the Musgrave Ritual, an incantatory exchange of questions and answers from the Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual”:

THOMAS: Who shall have it?
TEMPTER: He who will come.
THOMAS: What shall be the month?
TEMPTER: The last from the first.

Later in the play, after Becket’s murder, the Four Knights break the fourth wall and try to justify their action as if they were witnesses in a trial or crime suspects questioned by the police. Similarly, in Part I of The Family Reunion, Gerald questions Downing in order to find out about Harry’s wife’s death; in Part II, Dr. Warburton, who may remind us of J. B. Priestley’s Inspector Goole, sagaciously interrogates Harry, hoping to reach a diagnosis as an investigator hopes to solve a case.

In The Confidential Clerk, Mrs. Guzzard resolves the conundrum of Colby’s identity, applying wider knowledge and logical thinking. In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton stands accused of past crimes by two mysterious characters, Federico Gomez and Mrs. Carghill. Sir Henry, first appearing in The Cocktail Party as an “unidentified guest” and then as a combination of therapist and confessor, also has something of the detective, prying for motives and seeing through his patients’ deceptions.

One of these patients is Lavinia Chamberlayne. Early in the play, we learn that she has left her husband and no one knows her whereabouts. In 1926, Agatha Christie went missing for eleven days, her long absence attributed to a marital crisis or, less plausibly, an episode of amnesia. When, in Eliot’s play, Lavinia returns home, she is puzzled to find her husband surrounded by friends who claim that she has invited them by telegram. Lavinia cannot account for these telegrams, and one of her friends, Julia – a nosy old lady as fond of mystery as Miss Marple – exclaims: “Lavinia! Don’t say you’ve had a lapse of memory!”

The character who, in The Family Reunion, helps Harry to unravel the mystery of his family’s curse, curiously, is named Agatha. She speaks two crucial lines: “What we have written is not a story of detection, / Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation”. Although Agatha’s statement is undeniable, and true of all Eliot’s plays, we may also identify features of “a story of detection” in each of his dramatic plots.

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