Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 974

Although often treated as a minor work, The Elder Statesman embodies some of T. S. Eliot’s finest achievements in verse drama. As Eliot’s final play, this work represents a culmination of many of Eliot’s themes and techniques. His ability to make each character on stage an aspect of the central character, his technique of forming characters into competing triangles, and his facility for depicting spiritual conflicts through visible, human struggles all reach a zenith in this play.

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Many of the characters in The Elder Statesman fit into the recognizable roles of pilgrim, witness, watcher, and tempter, roles used in Eliot’s earlier plays, and do so more naturally than in any of Eliot’s previous dramas. Lord Claverton is the pilgrim who gains his redemption through facing his past failures. Monica Claverton-Ferry and Charles Hemington serve as witnesses whose love and forgiveness enable Lord Claverton to discover his real self and make peace with his past. These three form a triangle of compassion and of forgiveness. Michael Claverton-Ferry is a watcher who sees much but learns little, and like most of Eliot’s watchers is destined to failure. Mrs. Carghill and Federico Gomez are the tempters who haunt Claverton and complete their merciless revenge by tutoring Michael in their diabolical habits. Mrs. Carghill and Señor Gomez entice Michael into a triangle of hate and unforgiveness. The only other prominent character not fitting into one of these triangles is Mrs. Piggott. As the meddlesome manager of Badgley Court, she prods and prompts characters into action or self-expression. Her treatment in the play is too scant to allow the audience to observe her full character, but Mrs. Piggott seems to function as a watcher, an observer who gains little from the events of the play.

Claverton’s escape from the triangle of hate involves more than overcoming guilt, a potentially healthy emotion. He struggles against the hate that would use guilt as a weapon for revenge. His cure takes place in two stages. First, Claverton must accept his true self and his past. He must likewise recognize the potential for good his friends once had. Claverton accomplishes this first step when he confesses to Charles and Monica how he has failed his friends Fred and Maisie. Second, Claverton must accept only his part of the guilt and refuse the rest. In both of these processes, his daughter’s all-accepting love is vital to his final redemption from a deadening past. Through this love he finds the courage to die and, ironically, experience a new life. Claverton’s struggle ends in self-acceptance, peace, and completion. His recognition that “in becoming no one, I begin to live” shows that he has grasped the essence of childlike humility. With the yielding of vanity and pride, the ghosts of fear over humiliation also dissipate.

As a completion of Eliot’s treatment of Christian community, The Elder Statesman illustrates how witnesses can function as agents of redemption for the pilgrim. This pattern of action is the opposite of that in Murder in the Cathedral (1935), in which the pilgrim-martyr pours out his life as a blessing upon his contrite parishioners. While Claverton, the pilgrim, remains the focal point of the play throughout, he is dependent upon the love of the two witnesses, Monica and Charles, to make possible his spiritual pilgrimage from ghostly hollowness to wholeness. In this play divine love is portrayed through human love, as reflected in Monica’s self-sacrificing love for her father. For the first time in Eliot’s works, human love functions as an agent of divine love. Thus the opening and closing love scenes create a fitting frame for the play and mark a high achievement in Eliot’s career.

Eliot’s treatment of tempters nearly comes full circle in The Elder Statesman, for in this final play he used the morality play as a model. Just as Eliot uses characters surrounding Thomas Becket in Murder in the Cathedral to portray his inner qualities and struggles, so the playwright uses various characters around Claverton in The Elder Statesman to represent his strengths and deficiencies. In Eliot’s last play he discovers how to depict spiritual struggles as the visible trials of human beings. Consequently, the tempters are far more natural and believable than in Eliot’s earlier plays. As Eliot learned to appreciate the value of the natural world, he also discovered how to use it as the basis for his drama on spiritual themes. In this sense, his plays demonstrate a definite improvement in characterization.

Eliot made use of Sophocles’ Oidipous epi Kolni (401 b.c.e.; Oedipus at Colonus, 1729) as a foundation for The Elder Statesman. In The Elder Statesman Claverton functions as the aged and dying Oedipus who is aided by his daughter as he seeks a happy death, or translation into a new life. Although some critics find Eliot’s use of Greek models too subtle for comparison, these models nevertheless form an important reference point for interpreting the patterns of Eliot’s plays. Another element often overlooked in Eliot’s dramas is his use of poetry of the common person. In fact, the first viewers of The Cocktail Party (1949) and subsequent plays did not perceive that the plays were written in verse at all. Certainly The Elder Statesman reads smoothly, and only skillful actors can capture the written music without overplaying it. In this matter, too, Eliot was an experimenter, one who finally achieved his stated objective of writing such natural verse that listeners would declare “I could speak in verse, too.”

The Elder Statesman is an excellent example of Eliot’s ideals for verse drama. Although this drama is not considered by many to be his best work, it nevertheless points toward a new mode of writing verse drama in which few have excelled as Eliot did.

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