T. S. Eliot, best known as one of the greatest English poets of the modern age, also produced several poetic dramas, of which The Confidential Clerk, first staged in Edinburgh in 1953, is perhaps the least known and appreciated. Eliot is reported to have said at a press conference after the play’s first stage production that “if one wanted to say something serious nowadays it was easier to say it in comedy”; this play can be considered both a serious tale conveyed comically and a high farce dramatized in serious tones. Certainly Eliot was inspired by Greek tragicomedies. The plot of The Confidential Clerk is based on Euripides’ In (c. 411 b.c.e.; Ion; 1781). With its lost children, searching parents, and mistaken identities, Eliot’s play also resembles the kind of comedy of manners made famous by Oscar Wilde. Despite the appearance of frivolity, however, a serious undertone is integrated into the pattern of events, and behind the farcical interchange of parents and children lies the spiritual revelation that all earthly relationships are swallowed up in one’s relation to God.
Eliot explored the worlds of spirituality and religion widely and deeply in all his writing. In this play, the central concept is Colby’s search for a way to integrate the outer world of action with the world of spiritual being, the two aspects of reality. He discovers, in the course of the play, that the path lies through the fulfillment of his true relationships to others, especially to his dead father (the failed musician Herbert Guzzard) and to God, and it is hinted that he may finally find his true vocation in the church. The other characters in the play find their spiritual peace in their own way. Eggerson, for example, finds physical and spiritual solace in retiring regularly to his “secret garden,” where he tends vegetables to bring back to his wife.
The play exists simultaneously at two levels: There is the comic, farcical world, in which long-lost relatives, parents, and children are revealed and reunited, and there is the world of spiritual discovery, in which self-knowledge is the goal....
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