The Family Reunion Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

The Family Reunion, T. S. Eliot’s second full-length play, is a significant contribution to the world of verse drama. After Murder in the Cathedral (1935), Eliot declined all invitations to write more religious, historical dramas. He chose instead to attempt a synthesis of religious and secular drama on a contemporary theme. The Family Reunion was his first effort in that direction.

As in most of Eliot’s plays, the characters in The Family Reunion represent four basic role types: pilgrims or martyrs, witnesses, watchers, and tempters. Harry Monchensey, the play’s pilgrim, is the only character to experience growth or at least a turning point. Harry learns to take the way of self-denial to discover redemption for himself and his community; he learns that he must perfect his will and deny himself the comfortable life of Wishwood, which would prevent him from reaching his spiritual potential. Harry functions as the center of a concentric pattern representing the integration of spiritual values with temporal ones. Harry is surrounded by four witnesses—Agatha, Mary, Downing, and Dr. Warburton—who in various ways aid and reveal Harry’s progress. These four characters function like points on the face of a clock on which Harry is the pivotal point, a clock that symbolizes the new order of time he ushers into Wishwood. The walk Mary and Agatha take around the birthday cake at the end of the play portrays this new order.

In contrast to the witnesses, the watchers—Ivy, Violet, Gerald, and Charles—see much on the surface but choose to ignore the inklings of spiritual insight they encounter. They form a second concentric pattern around Amy Monchensey, who represents frozen, lifeless time. In her effort to persuade Harry to sacrifice his life to maintain her illusory world at Wishwood, Amy is the tempter. When the aunts and uncles stand around at the end of the play after Amy’s death, they betray their incapacity to move beyond old patterns of merely doing “the right thing.”

The characters in Eliot’s second full-length drama resemble those in his first, but their pattern of distribution is different. Eliot’s most important innovation in characterization is his employment of the...

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