Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 926

The Family Reunion, T. S. Eliot’s second full-length play, is a significant contribution to the world of verse drama. After Murder in the Cathedral (1935), Eliot declined all invitations to write more religious, historical dramas. He chose instead to attempt a synthesis of religious and secular drama on a contemporary theme. The Family Reunion was his first effort in that direction.

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As in most of Eliot’s plays, the characters in The Family Reunion represent four basic role types: pilgrims or martyrs, witnesses, watchers, and tempters. Harry Monchensey, the play’s pilgrim, is the only character to experience growth or at least a turning point. Harry learns to take the way of self-denial to discover redemption for himself and his community; he learns that he must perfect his will and deny himself the comfortable life of Wishwood, which would prevent him from reaching his spiritual potential. Harry functions as the center of a concentric pattern representing the integration of spiritual values with temporal ones. Harry is surrounded by four witnesses—Agatha, Mary, Downing, and Dr. Warburton—who in various ways aid and reveal Harry’s progress. These four characters function like points on the face of a clock on which Harry is the pivotal point, a clock that symbolizes the new order of time he ushers into Wishwood. The walk Mary and Agatha take around the birthday cake at the end of the play portrays this new order.

In contrast to the witnesses, the watchers—Ivy, Violet, Gerald, and Charles—see much on the surface but choose to ignore the inklings of spiritual insight they encounter. They form a second concentric pattern around Amy Monchensey, who represents frozen, lifeless time. In her effort to persuade Harry to sacrifice his life to maintain her illusory world at Wishwood, Amy is the tempter. When the aunts and uncles stand around at the end of the play after Amy’s death, they betray their incapacity to move beyond old patterns of merely doing “the right thing.”

The characters in Eliot’s second full-length drama resemble those in his first, but their pattern of distribution is different. Eliot’s most important innovation in characterization is his employment of the Eumenides, or Furies, to function in the double role of haunting the Harry who tries to evade the truth and leading the Harry who seeks enlightenment. Although the Eumenides at first seem like tempters (as in Aeschylus’s Oresteia of 458 b.c.e., the Greek model for this play), in the end they appear as “bright angels” leading to the “single eye above the desert” where Harry the pilgrim can at last work out his salvation.

The verse in The Family Reunion sometimes suffers from artificiality. The choral passages and the lyric duets are particularly difficult to make believable because both types of verse are spoken in a kind of trance during moments broken off from the action of the play. These passages tell rather than show what is happening. The choral passage spoken by the aunts and uncles at the end of the first act illustrates this point well. This passage has poetic qualities but it is encumbered with a self-conscious tone that breaks with the tone employed by the characters in the rest of the play. As Eliot noted in his 1953 lecture “The Three Voices of Poetry,” in such instances the poet is speaking rather than the characters. Ideally, the characters should use what Eliot calls the “third voice,” which emanates from the persona or character instead of from the writer.

The Family Reunion uses several images from the Christian liturgy and it is indebted to the Eucharistic worship service for its pattern of action. As the title suggests, the play focuses on the reuniting of a family for a special dinner, an activity symbolically similar to the “love feast” of the liturgy. The gathering to which Amy calls her relatives, however, involves little love and even less feasting; the meals take place off stage in a cold and formal ritual. The only visible sharing of food occurs in the opening scene, when the aunts and uncles stand around and complain about the bad habits of the younger generation, including habits of smoking and drinking in which the uncles themselves indulge freely. This unawareness of their own actions illustrates their unawareness of life, as Harry later points out. Because they have never wakened to life, they cannot draw any meaningful pleasure from it or participate in any feast, least of all the Eucharist. Their lives consist of empty rituals.

The drama revolves around a fundamental tension between the empty rituals promoted by Amy’s Wishwood and the purposeful rituals sponsored by those who accept a spiritual order of time surpassing that of Wishwood. This tension between rituals is depicted in several varieties of sacrifice, including fruitless sacrifices that result from loveless or self-centered motives. Harry’s wife dies at sea because of the lovelessness, selfishness, and malice of her husband and relations. Amy experiences a tragic end because she is so intent on preserving her illusory Wishwood that she rejects a spiritual life. In contrast, Agatha sacrifices her life for Harry’s sake, and Harry sacrifices his life for the benefit of his family. These sacrifices are motivated by love and produce something positive. Although some critics find Harry’s quest a cold and selfish one, others point out that his quest is to discover the irreplaceable qualities of love that make of a family more than an association of isolated people joined solely by the accidents of heredity.

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