The Family Reunion

by T. S. Eliot

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion is a two-act play composed in blank verse. It was first produced in 1939 (following the comparatively successful Murder in the Cathedral in 1935) and is set in the fictional estate of Wishwood, where the ailing matriarch, Amy "Lady" Monchensey is hosting a birthday party with the aid of her sisters, Ivy, Violet, and Agatha, as well as her two brothers, Charles and Gerald Piper. They are joined by Mary, a daughter of a deceased cousin of Amy's, as well as a servant. Amy is very ill but awaits the arrival of her three sons.

It is a cold springtime at Wishwood (in Northern England) and Gerald misses being a subaltern so that he could be back in the warmer climes of the East. The group discusses differences between their generation and their children's (claiming, for example, that the younger generation is decadent). They look to Mary to ask for her commentary on her own generation, but, feeling socially marginalized by virtue of being nearing thirty and without serious marriage prospects, she comments that she feels she belongs to no generation.

Finally, Harry arrives. Agatha (Amy's sister) suspects it will be hard for him to adapt to the return, but his mother disagrees, as she is interested in him taking over the estate. Before Harry's return, Amy insists that they are lucky not to have met Harry's late wife, who died after falling overboard on a ship at sea.

When Harry arrives, the family expects it to be John and is surprised to see him. Harry is accompanied by creatures noticeable only to him—the Eumenides of Greek tragedy who haunt the culprits of murder. Harry insists that, contrary to his mother's wishes, they cannot act as if nothing has changed. He suffers from intense feelings of guilt for having been angry with his wife and thinking of killing her when she fell overboard. Though Harry has an alibi and did not push his wife overboard, his experience of guilt makes him question the reality of what happened. Mary confesses to Agatha that she wants to leave Wishwood, though she knows that Amy wants her to stay. Harry and Mary reminisce about their childhood together but do not become romantically involved as Harry's nearly dead mother would wish.

Agatha admits that when Harry was in utero, his father thought of killing his mother, which Agatha prevented by dissuading him. It is announced in sequence that neither John nor Arthur (Amy's other two children) will be coming. Harry, too, announces that he is leaving, which his mother first protests and then wishes to know why. She claims to her brother that he is becoming a missionary in order to account for his sudden departure. Amy also accuses Agatha of taking her son just as she took her husband (though Agatha insists that she did not prompt Harry to leave).

After Harry leaves, Agatha and Mary admit to having seen the Eumenides, too. The chorus describes how humans are resistant to changes in their lives. Amy dies, and Mary and Agatha pray around her body while blowing out candles on her birthday cake.

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