Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Wishwood. English home of Amy, Dowager Lady Monchensey, and the location for the planned meeting for a family reunion. The name implies that Amy has tried hard to make the wishes of her children and herself come true, even though she has faced significant opposition. Even her effort to organize the family reunion is doomed to disaster. The play is set in late March, so no flowers are in bloom to adorn the tables. Amy’s son John overdrinks and has an automobile accident that prevents his attendance at the reunion. Harry, Amy’s oldest son and the heir apparent of the estate, arrives in a troubled state and abandons his mother for a spiritual quest. Harry, or Lord Monchensey, is driven by the appearance of Eumenides, who haunts him concerning his wife’s recent death when she was swept overboard while sailing on a passenger ship with Harry. His various aunts and uncles quarrel with each other and, especially during the choral passages, reveal the superficial and deeply disturbing lifestyle they have been living. In the last scene, a lighted birthday cake is brought out, and Agatha and Mary walk clockwise around the cake as they gradually blow out the candles a few at a time. By this time Amy has died and the birth of some new era is symbolized in this party that declares the undoing of a family curse. With Agatha’s help, Harry has been freed from the family curse and now sees the once frightening Eumenides as bright angels whom he must pursue beyond the artificial hopes of Wishwood.
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. A useful biography that includes a discussion of The Family Reunion, its genesis, mixed critical reception, and importance to Eliot’s early career as a playwright. Ackroyd considers the play to be Eliot’s most powerful work because of its use of symbolism.
Evans, Giles. Wishwood Revisited: A New Interpretation of T. S. Eliot’s “The Family Reunion.” Lewes, England: Book Guild, 1991. A subtle analysis of the play, with references to the work of critics and biographers. The author recognizes that the play develops the Christian sympathies and philosophical concerns of earlier works, and he regards it as Eliot’s best drama.
Hamalian, Leo. “The Figures in the Window: Design in T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion.” College Literature 4 (1977): 107-121. A useful analysis of the three levels of consciousness and other patterns that make this play a cohesive and successful whole.
Kari, Daven M. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Pilgrimage: A Progress in Craft as an Expression of Christian Perspective. Studies in Art and Religious Interpretation 13. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990. Considers the play to offer an important experiment in religious verse drama. Examines Eliot’s use of characterization, verse techniques, and stagecraft.
Spanos, William V. The Christian Tradition in Modern British Verse Drama: The Poetics of Sacramental Time. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1967. One of the most eloquent and insightful treatments of how Christian beliefs have been expressed through modern British verse drama. Excellent discussion of The Family Reunion in chapter 6.