A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

T. S. Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1888.  He is not only one of the greatest playwrights of the twentieth century, but he is also the poet of that century.  Educated at Harvard University, he went to Oxford for graduate work, but his return to the States was interrupted by World War I.  The first volume of his letters, edited by his second wife, Valerie, depicts him as a lonely, shy and innocent youth, always short of money, and easy prey for an uninhibited, off-center English woman older than he.  With the connivance of her family who were aware of her mental problems, Vivienne and Tom were married at the Hampstead town hall. 

Despite his marital difficulties with Vivienne (skewed in her favor by the play and film "Tom and Viv"), he wrote poetry and criticism that came to the notice of the Bloomsbury Group, writers and artists including Virginia Woolf, who lived in that area of London, where Tom also resided.   Woolf and her husband Leonard founded the Hogarth Press, which published Tom's collected poems, including "The Love Song of  J. Alfred Prufrock" and "Portrait of a Lady."  "The Waste Land" appeared in 1922 in Criterion , a literary magazine which Eliot was editing. 

Of special interest to lovers of drama is Eliot's use of dialogue in these early poems, which are important works of modern literature.  "Prufrock" (1917) is an interior monologue by a overly-shy young man who thinks of himself as old, and who is uncomfortable in society, where he wastes his time on the trivialities that make up his life. ("I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.")  He realizes he is a nonentity in  society, especially with women, for whom he longs, but at the same time fears their ridicule.("And should I then presume? / And how should I begin?") 

Eliot’s wording in “Prufrock” is far from poetic diction; the words are those of speech or silent thought, and as does thought, “Prufrock” jumps from one subject to another without the transitions that were expected in literature at that time.  So that another important contribution made by Eliot was to popularize the "stream of consciousness" which reaches its height in James Joyce's Ulysses, a work Eliot championed on its first appearance, while most critics dismissed it as incomprehensible.

"Portrait of a Lady" combines the speech of a lady who is visited dutifully by a young man who would rather be somewhere else and who perhaps is using their acquaintance to further his own ends, which may be social or even monetary.  It contrasts her actual dialogue during his visits with his thoughts, which he recognizes,

with some sensitivity, are not always admirable.         

"The Waste Land" makes use of dialogue throughout, but of special theatrical interest are the two scenes at the end of section II, "A Game of Chess."  Like "Portrait," it is based on contrasts: first, a marriage relationship between an upper-class man and woman, who sound like Tom and Viv, when the wife insists:  "Speak to me.  Why do you never speak.  Speak./ What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?  / I never know what you are thinking."  The second scene is set in a pub, a monologue by a lower-class woman who gives an account of her advice to a friend about how to behave now that her husband is returning from the army: "He's been in the army four years, he wants a good time/ And if you don't give it him, there's others will, I said."  Intervening is the bartender's customary announcement of closing time, symbolizing more than the closing of the pub: "Hurry Up Please It's Time."

"Sweeney Agonistes" is an unfinished play with rhythmic dialogue and music, which Eliot labels "Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodram," in imitation of the classic Greek satirist.  Performed by the Birkenhead Exchange Company in a pub theater in London about a decade ago, it was most effective, bringing in Eliot's other Sweeney poems, and suggesting that the work, a jazzy, disjointed, avant garde musical, was ahead of its time.  Dusty and Doris, two call girls, tell their fortunes in the cards, and then welcome a group of men.  Sweeney enters with a song about the South Seas ( a popular song subject then) that turns somber and eerie.

In another fragmentary poem by Eliot, "Coriolan," the dialogue is that of the common people waiting for the triumphal parade of Coriolanus, which combines Roman elements of the triumphal march (virgins, urns, temples) with those of World War I: rifles, machine guns, and airplanes, all suggesting that the enthusiasm of parade-watchers celebrating destruction is the same no matter the century.

In 1935 Eliot was asked by Canterbury Cathedral to write a play for presentation at their Festival in June. His first play, "Murder in the Cathedral" centers upon the character of Saint Thomas Becket, whom King Henry created Archbishop of Canterbury.  Becket returns to the Cathedral after seven years abroad and is murdered there in 1170, after which he was sanctified.  Although the priests and the chorus of women of Canterbury urge Thomas to save himself, he refuses.  Nor does he succumb to the tempters, who offer him pleasure and power, but the last temptation, pride, is the most difficult to resist, being the "greatest treason/To do the right deed for the wrong reason," that is, to aspire to glory after his death.  But he does overcome the temptation, preaches his Christmas sermon from the pulpit, and is murdered by four knights, who justify their action in an address to the audience. 

"Murder in the Cathedral" is an amazing achievement, for it is not only great poetry but it is great spoken poetry, that is, dialogue.  The wording is simple but rhythmic, sometimes riming, always balanced, at times using repetition for emphasis, as the Chorus, made up of the "poor women of Canterbury," repeat the line "living and partly living" to describe their uneventful lives.  The play is frequently revived, staged in churches and theaters; a fine production was a highlight of the Edinburgh Festival in recent years, offered by the National Youth Theatre of England.

Eliot's second play, "The Family Reunion" (1939), a modern version of the Orestes legend, was recently revived by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Greg Hicks played Lord Harry, the guilt-ridden son of an aristocratic family returning to his ancestral home.  He imagines he is being pursued (as was Orestes) by the Furies, mythic punishers of the guilty, for he believes that he may have been responsible for the death of his wife at sea.  Margaret Tyzak was Amy, Harry's mother, a tough, unforgiving matriarch who presides over Wishwood, their home, and who wishes to maintain all as it has been, to cover up or ignore any unpleasantness that might mar the homecoming.  In contrast to Amy are two forgiving women, Agatha, Harry's aunt, and young Mary, whom Amy had intended for Harry before he married another.  It is Agatha and Mary who save Harry from his despair and banish the Furies, who in the legend become the Eumenides, the "kindly ones."  While the dialogue is poetry, it sounds like everyday speech, using balance, rhythm, and exactness of diction to depict the social chatting of relatives gathered for a party or the agonized confession of Harry.  The final sequence shifts gears and becomes both lyric and ritualistic.

"The Cocktail Party" is Eliot's most successful play, which debuted at the Edinburgh Festival in 1949 and subsequently was performed both in London and on Broadway to acclaim from critics and audiences.  It is a drawing-room comedy (then popular on the London stage, exemplified by the plays of Noel Coward and Terence Rattigan) with a difference.  Not only is it better written and more polished and sophisticated than any drawing room comedy before and since, but it treats with wit and compassion that most serious of subjects, how should we live our lives?

"The Cocktail Party" begins and ends at a party in the drawing room of Edward and Lavinia, whose marriage is breaking up.  Who, in modern times, could counsel them but a psychiatrist?  Reilly, however, is more than a psychiatrist, just as Julia and Alex, social gadflies and friends of the troubled couple, are more than they seem.  With devastating truth and fascinating insights, delivered with the lightest and most eloquent of touches, it is revealed that Edward is a man incapable of loving, and Lavinia a woman incapable of being loved. The psychiatrist informs them of this, and announces, "you begin to see, I hope,/ How much you have in common. . . . /The best of a bad job is all any of us make of it."  There are shocks throughout, mostly of recognition, but the surprise that is no surprise when one re-reads the play is what happens to Celia.  Read the play, if you don't know it, and if you do, hopefully you will agree with this appraisal.

Although I have not seen the play since the opening night on Broadway in the early fifties, I can still hear and see Alec Guinness as the psychiatrist, Irene Worth as Celia, and Cathleen Nesbitt as Julia when I read this play.

Eliot was not as fortunate in the reception of his subsequent plays, "The Confidential Clerk" and "The Elder Statesman," though modern productions well directed  might reveal values missed the first time around. 

Eliot's influence on English poetic drama can be seen in the verse plays of Christopher Fry as well as in the verse adaptations by Ted Hughes of "The Oresteia," for the Royal National Theatre in London, and in Hughes' adaptations of Racine which were produced by the Almeida Theatre and seen in London and New York. Hughes was one of the young poets Eliot encouraged as an editorial director of the publishing house of Faber and Faber.

In 1948 Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and died in 1965.  His biggest success in theater came after his death, when  his delightful book of verse written to amuse the children of friends, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, was set to music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, as the musical "Cats," still playing to enthusiastic audiences in London's West End.