T. S. Eliot Essay - Critical Essays

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 the homecoming of Harry, Lord Monchensey, to Wishwood, the family mansion that his mother, Amy, has maintained, unchanged, for his benefit. Harry, convinced that he murdered his wife a year ago, is unable to agree with the conventional wishes of his mother or of his featherheaded aunts, Ivy and Violet, or of his blundering uncles, Gerald and Charles. On another level, he arrives convinced that he is pursued by the Furies, only to learn from his Aunt Agatha that to follow the “bright angels” is the way to redemption through suffering.

The Family Reunion reflects Eliot’s recurring preoccupation with original sin. Although Harry’s own uncertainty about his responsibility for his wife’s death may be unsettling to the audience, the point is surely that for Eliot the fact is irrelevant; what is important is that Harry (and Eliot, because of his own marital situation) feels guilty about the wish itself. Indeed, Harry seems to be burdened with a family curse that he must expiate. As Agatha tells him, his father wanted to murder Harry’s mother but was prevented from doing so by Agatha, who loved him; Harry has lived to reenact his father’s will. Harry’s guilt thus is shifted to the larger framework of the felix culpa, or fortunate fall.

Again, Harry’s character is so unappealing that to call him, as Agatha does, “the consciousness of your unhappy family,/ Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial fire,” is not acceptable on the metaphoric level. His rudeness and abrupt repudiation of his mother (which leads to her death) conspire against the suggestion that he is to become a Christian mystic or saint—that, as Agatha says, he is destined for “broken stones/ That lie, fang up” or that, as he says, he is headed for “A stony sanctuary and a primitive altar” or “A care over lives of humble people.”

The transformation of the Eumenides from “hounds of hell” to “bright angels” is justified not only by the Oresteia of Aeschylus but also by the idea, developed in Murder in the Cathedral, that suffering precedes atonement; on a psychological level, however, the idea poses problems. As the evocation of the watchful eyes possessed by both mother and wife, the Eumenides suggest a developing Oedipus complex; interpreted by Agatha as helpful guardians, they suggest a childish transference of affection to Agatha, an affection that is at once incestuous and spiritual. As both Barber and Grover Smith point out, Mary, Harry’s childhood sweetheart, simply presents the desired but now impossible fulfillment of human love. For Agatha, however, and eventually for Harry, the Eumenides posit a frontier beyond which all experience is private, save that it is a confrontation between the human spirit and the divine, a purgatorial confrontation under “the judicial sun/ Of the final eye.”

In the final analysis, the play is not a triumph of comedy—or of tragedy. With Amy dead, Harry’s father has ironically gotten his wish; Wishwood is to be ceded to Harry’s brother John, about whom Harry says brutally, “A minor trouble like a concussion/ Cannot make very much difference to John.” In the ritualistic chorus performed by Agatha and Mary at the end of the play, Eliot emphasizes the inexorability of the curse around which he has built his plot as well as the possibility of salvation. What is lacking is an explanation of the nature of expiation.

The Cocktail Party

First produced for the 1949 Edinburgh Festival, The Cocktail Party is, like The Family Reunion, an attempt to express modern concerns in the guise of ritualistic drama. In this case, however, Eliot depends on Euripides’ Alkstis (438 b.c.e.; Alcestis, 1781) as his classical antecedent, wisely eliminating the embodiment of the Furies that proved to be so dramatically disruptive. In one view, he effectively reproduced the sophisticated patois of cocktail-party chatter to distract his secular audience from what Grover Smith calls the play’s theological “underpattern.” Other critics, among them Barber and Carol Smith, suggest that the comic approach was a deliberate attempt at a reversal in which “surfaces” become “depths” and the comic resolution an indication of divine order.

A number of this play’s themes are taken from Eliot’s earlier plays. There is a reunion, although not in the sense of Harry Monchensey’s mythopoeic experience, for the Chamberlaynes literally as well as figuratively re-create their marriage; again, there is the figure of the mystic, this time, however, a more convincing one, in Celia; moreover, there is a guardian, Reilly, who achieves expressed validity in his role as a psychologist. Finally, and perhaps most important, there is a sense that spiritual illumination is not restricted, except in its intensity, to martyr figures.

Superficially, the plot is familiar drawing-room comedy, entailing a series of love affairs. Edward’s wife, Lavinia, has inexplicably left him; Peter Quilpe, a filmmaker, is in love with Celia Coplestone, Edward’s mistress, while Lavinia is in love with Peter. Comic relief is provided by the scatter-brained Julia Shuttlethwaite, the peripatetic Alexander MacColgie Gibbs, and Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, an enigmatic, gin-swilling psychologist. As in the well-made play, the plot revolves around a secret: Julia and Alex have conspired with Reilly to reinvigorate the Chamberlaynes’ marriage, in an association called variously “the Christian conspiracy” or, as Jones puts it, “the Community of Christians.”

The marital difficulties would be familiar to the audience, but not Eliot’s interpretation of them. Having confused desire with affection in his attachment to Celia, Edward must face the fact that he is essentially unloving, whereas Lavinia is by nature unlovable: Thus, Eliot suggests, they are perfectly matched. In addition, Edward, who is indecisive, must learn to face the consequences of making a decision—in this case, the decision that Lavinia should return to him. What he realizes is that her return is tantamount to inviting the angel of destruction into his life.

Possessed by the belief that he is suffering “the death of the spirit,” that he can live neither with the role Lavinia imposes on him nor without it, Edward goes to Reilly for help. The language that this counselor uses indicates his role of spiritual guardianship. He speaks of Edward’s “long journey” but refuses to send him to his “sanatorium,” for to do so would be to abandon him to the “devils” that feast on the “shadow of desires of desires.” Instead, he brings him face to face with Lavinia to convince him that the unloving and the unlovable should make the best of a bad job—or, in terms of the blessing he administers, must “work out [their] salvation with diligence.” Carol Smith’s review of Christian mysticism as a background to the play makes clear that Reilly encourages the Chamberlaynes to follow the “Affirmative Way,” in which “all created things are to be accepted in love as images of the Divine,” rather than the “Negative Way,” which is characterized by detachment from “the love of all things.”

Reilly’s interview with Celia is substantially different, for while she, like Edward, complains of an awareness of solitude, she focuses less on herself than on a perception that loneliness is the human condition and that communication is therefore illusory. She also complains, unlike Edward, of a sense of sin, of a feeling that she must atone for having failed “someone, or something, outside.” She attributes her failure to a self-willed fantasy: In Edward, she loved only a figment of her imagination. Unlike Edward, she has had a vision of the Godhead, an ecstatic exaltation “of loving in the spirit.” It is this vision that she chooses to follow, although Reilly emphasizes that it is an unknown way, a blind journey, a way to being “transhumanized,” the “way of illumination.” Her way, the “Negative Way” of mysticism, culminates in her crucifixion “very near an ant-hill” in the jungles of Kinkanja.

What Eliot offers in The Cocktail Party is a series of gradations of spiritual understanding, gradations that were not presented adequately in The Family Reunion. Celia’s way of illumination is undoubtedly more believable because her developing perceptions are not expressed in sibylline pronouncements; likewise, the guardians are given authenticity by the comic role their very eccentricity engenders. The common way, represented by the Chamberlaynes, is not appealing but understandable, and, as Reilly says, “In a world of lunacy,/ Violence, stupidity, greed . . . it is a good life.” Finally, Peter Quilpe, shocked by the news of Celia’s death, comes to understand that he had been loving only the image he had created of her. As Grover Smith comments, “the kind of comedy Eliot devised has been compared generically by some critics to Dante’s Commedia, for in it the characters either fulfill their greatest potentialities or else are set firmly on the way toward doing so.”

The Confidential Clerk

In Eliot’s fourth play, The Confidential Clerk, the theme of redemption is again explored, this time through a dependence on Euripides’ In (c. 411 b.c.e.; Ion, 1781), a play that deals with hidden paternity. Eliot examines the sense of aloneness expressed so effectively by Celia, and the human penchant for re-creating other individuals to conform with one’s own desires. In addition, Eliot shows the path that a mystical vocation may take.

Denis Donoghue pertinently remarks that Eliot solved the “false tone” occasioned by Celia’s death by shifting his terms: Illumination becomes Art, and the worldly way, Commerce, both terms that avoid doctrinal problems. Metaphorically, an escape into Art (illumination) becomes an escape into a garden, one in which real communication is possible. So it is for the musical Colby Simpkins, about whom Lucasta Angel, Sir Claude Mulhammer’s illegitimate daughter, notes that he has his “own world.” Taken in by Sir Claude as his presumptive son, Colby is immediately claimed by Lady Elizabeth Mulhammer, a fashionable reincarnation of Julia Shuttlethwaite, as the lost son of her former lover, a poet. Each imagines Colby in terms of personal wish-fulfillment. To Colby, the failed musician, Sir Claude reveals his early yearnings to be a sculptor and his decision to follow in the family business. For Sir Claude, the act of creation is “a world where the form is the reality” and an “escape into living” from an illusory world. Indeed, for Sir Claude, life is a constant compromise, just as it is for the Chamberlaynes, a constant coping with two worlds, neither of which offers perfect fulfillment. It is, as he says, a substitute for religion.

Despite this analogy, Colby is unwilling to accept Sir Claude as a father. Colby expresses his yearning for an ideal father in words that may be read for their religious connotation. He wishes, as he says, to have a father “Whom I had never known and wouldn’t know now/ . . . whom I could get to know/ Only by report, by documents,” a father, he continues, “whose life I could in some way perpetuate/ By being the person he would have liked to be.” The analogues to Christ are unmistakable. The revelation that Colby is actually the son of Herbert Guzzard, a “disappointed musician,” suggesting a harmony between the mystical and the commonplace that is seldom achieved in The Family Reunion, adds to the success of The Confidential Clerk.

Like Celia, Colby chooses a life of service, if one more prosaic than joining a nursing order and perishing in Kinkanja. He acknowledges his inheritance by becoming the organist at a small church (rather than continuing to live on Sir Claude’s generosity, for Sir Claude is eager to think of Colby as one with whom he shared disillusionment); Eggerson, the retired confidential clerk—who, as Jones notes, was for Eliot “‘the only developed Christian in the play’”—suggests that Colby will enter the ministry.

As Barber points out, the play presents a succession of individuals who are reaching out after Colby, essentially as a way of gratifying their own expectations. It is only, however, when the audience knows the secret of Colby’s birth that many of the early conversations make sense; consequently, Barber suggests, the play is weak in its early acts. Despite this criticism, The Confidential Clerk offered Eliot’s most convincing and optimistic treatment to that time of the possibility of human communion, pointing the way to his hopeful treatment of human love in his last play, The Elder Statesman. It seems less important that Lady Elizabeth’s up-to-date spiritualism, her substitute for religion, fails her in her perception that Colby is her son than that she is willing to accept as her real offspring B. Kaghan, a brash, successful businessman, a diamond in the rough. Again, it seems less important that Sir Claude has lost his desired son than that, in the end, he emotionally accepts Lucasta as a daughter. Indeed, the note that Eliot strikes—that, as the Mulhammers say, they are “to try to understand our children” and that both Lucasta and B. Kaghan desire to “mean something” to their newfound parents—is exceptionally conciliatory and suggestive of greater amelioration in the “good life” than is posited in the earlier plays.

The Elder Statesman

Eliot’s final play, The Elder Statesman, is an extension not only of the idea that one must come to terms with his past, just as Harry Monchensey and the Mulhammers attempt to do, but also that this is, indeed, the only way to redemption. Such atonement on the part of Lord Claverton is presented in words that are less mystical than prosaic; indeed, his past is populated by the blackmailers Federico Gomez, who seeks to capitalize on his knowledge that Lord Calverton had run over a dead man after a drinking party, and Mrs. Carghill, who, as the actress Maisie Montjoy, possesses incriminating love letters. Certainly Calverton’s immediate problem—that of being a terminally ill, newly retired man of consequence, suffering from the loneliness of “sitting in an empty waiting room”—is one with which the audience can quickly identify. As Jones points out, The Elder Statesman has a “naturalistic surface”: The more plays Eliot wrote, the more muted the spiritual enlightenment became, so that eventually the social relationships became primary. Carol Smith, on the other hand, sees the play as a culmination of Eliot’s development of the “dramatic fable” that serves as a “transparent mask” for permanent, religious meanings.

The corollary to Calverton’s loneliness takes on sinister (and existential) connotations when it is present in Gomez, who has adopted a new name and new country after a prison sentence. As he says, he has returned to face Lord Calverton in order to find the self he left behind. Gomez charges Calverton with “creating him,” with engineering his tastes and altering his career. In revenge, he threatens to make others see Calverton for what he really is—a murderer and a hypocrite. Calverton, in fact, has created his own ghosts by dominating the lives of others. The lesson that he must take responsibility for meddling in others’ lives is reinforced by his realization that he is no better than those he created. Both Jones and Carol Smith point out that Calverton’s and Gomez’s careers parallel each other in that their ethical standards merely mirror the society of which they are a part and in that both have changed identities, the “statesman” Dick Ferry having adopted his wife’s name for its impressiveness and the Oxford student having changed his name to blend into his new country. Gomez’s desire to amalgamate his two personalities and his desire for revenge are satisfied when he meets Calverton’s ne’er-do-well son Michael, to whom he offers the lure of easy money and a new identity. Gomez is, in short, reenacting Calverton’s earlier role of tempter.

The other ghost that Calverton must face—Maisie Montjoy, known as Mrs. Carghill—has also been “created” by him. As his mistress, who sued him for breach of promise, she was irrevocably affected by his offer of and withdrawal of love. Indeed, their relationship is a parody of the fruitful, redeeming love that comes to Monica Calverton and Charles Hemington. Like Gomez, Mrs. Carghill has gone through a series of name changes reflecting a progressive confusion in identity. Like him, she resorts to blackmail to gain companionship, insisting on what Jones calls the “uncomfortable Christian conception of a man and a woman becoming the inseparable unity of ‘one flesh,’” and like him, she seeks revenge by encouraging the weak-willed Michael to emigrate to South America.

The cure that Eliot proposes for Calverton’s loneliness, for his series of facades, and for his discomfort with the past—love—also exorcises his ghosts by allowing him to face them. Accompanying that love is the relinquishment of power; understanding that Michael is a free agent, Calverton recognizes that he has been trying to dominate his son’s choice of friends, lifestyle, and career. If Michael is a free agent, then Gomez and Carghill’s revenge has lost its sting, because Calverton is no longer responsible for his son’s actions. The model for the cure is the love shared by Monica and Charles, a love that creates a new, viable personage out of the you and the me. Unlike the kind of false images projected by Calverton’s desire to dominate, the new individual is created by a submission of wills, a voluntary merging of the selves. It is, in short, a model of divine love. Eliot thus points to an achievable salvation unspoiled by artificial dramatic techniques such as the evocation of the Eumenides or the awkward ritualistic libation in The Cocktail Party.

Although Jones notes that for one reviewer, at least, the language of the lovers is abstract and lacking in evocative details, Calverton’s illumination is clearly expressed: As Calverton says, if an individual is willing to confess everything to even one person—willing, that is, to appear without his mask—“Then he loves that person, and his love will save him.” Calverton further realizes that his wish to dominate his children arises not from love but from the desire to foist on them an image so that he “could believe in [his] own pretences.” At peace with himself and with Monica, who has promised to remember Michael as he really is so that he may one day shed his mask and return to his real self, Calverton approaches death with serenity: “It is worth dying,” he says, “to find out what life is.”