T. S. Eliot Drama Analysis
T. S. Eliot’s conservative dramaturgy is clearly expressed in his 1928 essay “Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry” in which, as C. L. Barber notes, he suggests that “genuine drama” displays “a tension between liturgy and realism.” To be sure, Eliot differed sharply from the advocates of Ibsenite realism, maintaining throughout his career that untrammeled realism operating outside the limitations of art did not produce classic harmony. In consequence, Eliot relied on a number of traditional forms, including the Mass and Greek drama. On the other hand, he created new verse forms, convinced that traditional forms such as Shakespearean blank verse would be inadequate to express modern experience. In Sweeney Agonistes, he made use of the rhythms of vaudeville, believing that such robust entertainment contained the seeds of a popular drama of high artistic quality, comparable to the achievements of the great Elizabethan and Jacobean playwrights.
Modern religious drama, Eliot believed, “should be able to hold the interest, to arouse the excitement, of people who are not religious.” Redemption is the theme of all of his plays, a theme explored on different levels. For example, Becket’s understanding, in Murder in the Cathedral, that salvation is a willing submission to a larger pattern is developed and tempered in the later social comedies.
In almost all of his plays, Eliot presents characters on a continuum of spiritual understanding, including the martyr or saint figure, the “guardians” (the spiritual advisers), the common folk (capable of limited perception or at least of accommodation), and the uncomprehending. In The Family Reunion and The Cocktail Party, respectively, Harry and Celia experience a sense of having sinned and the desire to atone. Celia’s illumination is also characterized by a sense of having failed another person. Her martyrdom is correspondingly more moving, not because it is graphically described, but because it seems inexorable.
In The Confidential Clerk, Colby, whose search for a human father parallels his desire for a divine one, experiences his éclaircissement as a private moment in a garden and works out his salvation as an organist. In the aforementioned plays, guardian figures abound. Agatha councils Harry to follow attendant Eumenides if he wishes to expiate the family curse; Julia, Alex, and Reilly not only show Celia the way to enlightenment but reinstate the Chamberlaynes’ marriage; the retired valet Eggerson offers Colby a job as an organist and predicts his eventual entry into holy orders. Eliot’s last play, The Elder Statesman, is the only one in which human love is an adequate guide to divine love; in that sense, Monica, in her affection for her fiancé and in her unwavering love for her father despite his faults, is a guardian figure.
A development in the characterization of the common people may be seen as well. Because of their foolishness or their attempt to dominate, all of Harry’s relatives seem lost to perceptiveness, except, perhaps, for his Uncle Charles, who begins to feel “That there is something I could understand, if I were told it.” A wider hope is held out in The Cocktail Party, for while not all may follow Celia’s path, the Chamberlaynes learn to accept the “good life” that is available to them, and even Peter, in love with Celia, may learn to “see” through the same qualities that make him a film producer. Again, while Colby withdraws from the family circle, those who remain—no matter how superficially mismatched—engage in a communion characterized most of all by a desire to understand and to love. Finally, in The Elder Statesman, Eliot achieves a balance in his continuum of characters, for he presents the salvation of the Calvertons by love as well as the possibility that, through Monica, Michael might return to find his self-identity, while both Gomez and Mrs. Carghill become lost souls as they pursue their revenge.
Murder in the Cathedral
Although originally produced for the Canterbury Festival, Murder in the Cathedral has achieved the most lasting interest of all Eliot’s plays. It is a psychological and historical exploration of martyrdom that, as David R. Clark points out, speaks directly not only to current disputes about the interconnection between church and state but also to the ever-present contemporary threat of assassination. It is Eliot’s most successful attempt to adapt verse forms to drama, particularly in the speeches of the Chorus, whose function, Eliot believed, was to interpret the action to the viewers and to strengthen the impact of the action by reflecting its effects. In the speeches of the Knights and Tempters (characters doubled when the play is staged) as well, attitudes are mirrored by poetic cadence—a fine example of form following content. As Grover Smith notes, the title itself, while commercially attractive, is somewhat misleading, as were other possibilities Eliot considered, among them “The Archbishop Murder Case” and “Fear in the Way,” for Murder in the Cathedral is less a whodunit than an attempt to startle the unimpassioned believer into percipience and the nonbeliever into understanding.
Like Eliot’s first venture into ritualistic drama, The Rock, Murder in the Cathedral is based on an actual event, the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket in the year 1170 in the chapel of Saint Benedict in Canterbury Cathedral. Unlike The Rock, however, which is a spectacle play delineating the history of the Church, Murder in the Cathedral is focused on a dramatic event of great intensity. The play traces the spiritual education of Thomas, whose greatest temptation is self-aggrandizement; the education of the Chorus, who seek to escape both suffering and salvation; and the education of the Knights and the audience, whose worldliness implicates them jointly in the assassination.
Eliot’s addition of a Fourth Tempter to Becket’s “trial” in part 1 is crucial. The first three tempters are expected and easily rejected. The first, who offers sensual pleasures, resigns Becket to “the pleasures of [his] higher vices.” One such vice is offered by the Second Tempter: “Temporal power, to build a good world,” power that requires submission to secular law. Becket, who rejects this exercise in intelligent self-interest, also rejects the Third Tempter’s offer of a coalition with the barons to overthrow the King; such an action would bestialize Becket, make him “a wolf among wolves.”
The Fourth Tempter is, however, not so easily answered, for he brings the temptation of spiritual power through martyrdom. Counseling the Archbishop to seek death, he offers as its rewards the joy of wielding power over eternal life and death, the adulation of the masses, the richness of heavenly grandeur, and, finally, the sweetness of revenge, for Becket will then be able to look down and see his “persecutors, in timeless torment.”
For Becket, the only way to escape the damning effects of his own spiritual pride is to give up self-will so that he may become part of a larger pattern. As Grover Smith notes, the counsel that Becket gives to the Chorus (ironically quoted to him by the Fourth Tempter) has its roots in Aristotle’s image of the still point—on a wheel, for example—as the source of action:
You know and do not know, that acting is suffering,And suffering action. Neither does the actor sufferNor the patient act. But both are fixedIn an eternal action, an eternal patienceTo which all must consent that it may be willedAnd which all must suffer that they may will it,That the pattern may subsist, that the wheel may turn and stillBe forever still.
In theological terms, Eliot is suggesting that the nature of the relationship between action and suffering depends on the conception of God as the first mover, just as the still point is centered in the wheel. Becket, in willing martyrdom, has substituted his will for God’s will. When he understands that he was doing the right deed for the wrong reason, he enters the ideal relationship between human beings and God—one of submission, of a person’s consent to be an instrument. In that condition of bringing one’s will into conformity with that of God, one paradoxically does not suffer, for one acts as an instrument; neither does one act, for one gives up will. Both Grover Smith and David E. Jones explore the extension of this idea from Aristotle to Dante to clarify the sources of Eliot’s vision.
For the women whose barren lives are spent among small deeds, Becket becomes a new center; with their wills in conformity to his, they too become the instruments of God’s will, even as the Knights are in the murder of Becket. For Grover Smith, whereas Becket’s language is abstract and passionless, his decision hidden in difficult, paradoxical words, that of the women is overtly sensual; for Carol Smith, such language shows that the women have accepted their “Christian responsibility.” The women’s unwilling participation in the event is a violent disturbance of their willed attitude of noninterference; through Becket, they are touched not only by life but also by death. The key is in the homily delivered by Becket as an interlude in the play, a sermon in which he speaks of an attitude of mourning and rejoicing in martyrdom. Before his death, he warns the women that their joy will come only “when the figure of God’s purpose is made complete”—when, in other words, they understand that his martyrdom is the answer to their despair.
The prose in which the Knights speak after the murder has taken place is to some critics jarring, but Eliot deliberately made it so; a far graver criticism is that it is either amusing, or, as Grover Smith suggests, misleading, insofar as the emphasis on the “contest . . . between brute power and resigned holiness” is shifted to an argument about Church and State. Jones disagrees; for him, the prose shakes the audience’s sanctimonious complacency. The arguments offered by the Knights are familiar rationalizations. The Second Knight pleads disinterested duty as his reason for the murder, the Third that “violence is the only way in which social justice can be secured,” and the Fourth that, since Becket’s overweening egotism prompted the murder, the correct “verdict” is “Suicide while of Unsound Mind.” The final words of the Chorus, spoken to a Te Deum in the background, serve as a corrective to any distorted view, for they, the “type of common man,” not only accept responsibility for “the sin of the world” but also acknowledge that human consciousness is an affirmation of the ultimate design, of which they have willingly become a part.
The Family Reunion
Produced in March, 1939, The Family Reunion was considerably less successful than Eliot’s first full-length play, partly because he was attempting to appeal to a secular audience; moreover, his evocation of the Aeschylean Eumenides—the Furies—as a group of well-dressed aunts and uncles and his deliberate blurring of the hero’s motives and fate contribute to the weakness of the play. Various critics have traced the antecedents of The Family Reunion, including Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner,” William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601), and Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777), sources discussed thoroughly by Grover Smith and David Jones. Eliot attempted to wed the classical and the modern, believing that poetry brought into the audience’s world would help to heal social disintegration.
The two levels of the play—the realistic and the spiritual—are not always mutually illuminating. On the surface, the play depicts...
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