T. S. Eliot
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.
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.
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?")
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.
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,
some sensitivity, are not always admirable.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.