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.
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...
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