Eliot's experiment with drama in Sweeney Agonistes constituted a false start. Not until 1934 did another such effort come to light, and that was so unfortunate—through no great fault of Eliot's own—that scarcely anyone could have predicted for him a successful future in theatrical writing. The Rock, it is true, is a pageant rather than a play, and largely a prose pageant at that, so that within the terms of his arrangement with the producers he had little opportunity to improve his theory of "levels."… What Eliot wrote was subjected to criticism by various kinds of expert people, with the natural result that a good deal of it is mediocre at best. Eliot cannot be censured for having missed an adequate conception of characters he did not invent; but he may barely be acquitted, on grounds of piety, of having abused his talent with such hackwork. (p. 171)
Where verse is present, as in the only scene without prose, that featuring the Chorus, the Plutocrat, and the totalitarians, Eliot's genius flourishes. In this scene, the one solely of his own invention, he diversified his style to sharpen contrasts…. Yet, despite the comparative excellence of this scene, most of The Rock causes one to regret that a certain anthologist was not right when he amusingly stated as a fact that the play did not exist and that the choruses printed in Collected Poems 1909–1935 were all that there was. Musically, whatever their dramatic deficiencies, these rank among Eliot's best poems. (pp. 173-74)
For the Canterbury Festival of June, 1935, Eliot wrote his first independent full-length drama, Murder in the Cathedral. Though, unlike The Rock, this play was a product of his own architectonic, it was not originally an independent venture into the competitive world of the theater. Assured of an audience to whom for the occasion the subject would appeal, Eliot was again able to indulge his affection for religious symbolism without calculating, as was needful with his later plays, the odds against success if he did not compromise with the public caprice. He could remain a poet writing about life on his own terms without unduly fretting over the fact that these were not the terms of most other people. Murder in the Cathedral, in other words, is just as much coterie literature as Eliot's earlier poetry. (p. 180)
The play, though certainly taking its theme from the murder of St. Thomas à Becket in 1170, is not about "murder in the cathedral" but about the spiritual state of a martyr facing death, the spiritual education of the poor women who are witnesses to his sacrifice, and the wilful opposition of secular to eternal power…. Eliot took a good deal of care to make the historical actions accord with the most trustworthy accounts by Becket's contemporaries, but, since the play concerns rather what happens through the man than what happens to him, such details are largely incidental—as is all the action properly so called—to verbal expressions of various attitudes. (pp. 181-82)
Murder in the Cathedral surprises by two strong dissimilarities to George Darley's and Tennyson's verse plays on Becket—by the quality of its diction and by Eliot's novel and peculiarly unhistorical treatment of the protagonist's character. Instead of assuming the common judgment of Becket as overweeningly arrogant, waging a battle of personal and ecclesiastical spleen with a foe hardly more impoverished in spiritual attributes, Eliot depicts him as humbly submissive, accepting death, not resisting it. (p. 183)
Murder in the Cathedral is a drama of such symbolic relationships that the ingredients of tragedy are all present, but apportioned—in fact, allegorically—among the different characters rather than confined to Becket himself. There is a moral flaw, original and particular sin; there is (in the external view) a catastrophe, affecting the victim destined to expiation; there is justification. The first is manifested in the suggestions of the Tempters, the will and act of the Knights, and the suffering of the Chorus; the second, the martyrdon, is executed upon the sufferer, Becket; the third is fulfilled in the damnation of the Knights, the potential salvation of the Chorus, and the exaltation of the saint. The late Theodore Spencer aptly pointed out that the characters live on different levels of moral refinement: that is, Becket, the Priests, the Chorus of Women of Canterbury, and the murderers have, on a descending scale, distinct ideas of reality, ranging from the acute spirituality of Becket to the depraved worldliness of the Knights. The cumulation of these, with a distributive allotment of dramatic functions, makes up the total movement sometimes called "tragic."… [The] levels create something as distinguishable from Sophoclean tragedy as is a Greek frieze from the procession or battle it represents. In its "spatial" treatment of character Murder in the Cathedral is as static as a Grecian urn: it belongs almost to a genre which is pre-tragic, the ritual drama of sin and redemption, where all the components of strain and antithesis are externalized, discrete. The internal conflicts of Becket and the Chorus are, as it were, microcosmical. (p. 185)
Through most of the drama the polarity of action and suffering finds correspondence in the imagery appertaining to the Knights and the Chorus. The principal examples are in the choruses themselves and in the speeches of the protagonist. Perhaps the most prominent imagery is zoölogical; it has two purposes, to characterize the murderers, in which application it joins with the imagery of sensation, and to associate the passive Chorus with unredeemed, elemental nature. But not less important is the imagery of nature in wider aspects—the cycles of day and night, summer and winter, spring and autumn; these identify the Chorus with the great turning wheel of creation and corruption, growth and ruin. (p. 191)
The Family Reunion , like Murder in the Cathedral, depicts two different worlds. The larger, the "normal" world, is subdivided into different orders of reality according to the potentialities of the characters moving within it. Like the Knights, the people in this play whose vision is circumscribed by purely natural law are shallow, almost flat, lacking complexity. They see only events; they cannot interpret motives except by the selfish standards of profit and loss, expediency, private satisfaction. The strongest and best characterized of them is Amy, dowager Lady Monchensey, mother of Harry, Lord Monchensey, the hero of the play. (p. 197)
The second, or "spiritual" world, has only one representative, Harry's Aunt Agatha, another sister of Amy. Agatha, if not exactly an inhabitant of the world of vital spirituality, is at any rate a guardian of its threshold; and she has looked within. Harry, the self-styled wife-murderer, does not submit to the authority of Amy and her world, as do his uncles, his two brothers, and all his aunts except Agatha. Nor does he yet belong to the world of which Agatha is the custodian. He exists rather "between sleep and waking," too sensitive and acute not to revolt against the dictatorship of his mother and the family who serve her, yet spiritually too childish without Agatha's guidance and, indeed, too ignorant without her instruction, to understand the preternatural messengers calling him away to purgatorial trial. (pp. 197-98)
The imagery of The Family Reunion is designed largely to support Harry's nightmarish impressions. Afflicted with horror because of the duration of his anterior life …, he objectifies his feelings by talking of stench and contamination, of "the slow stain," "Tainting the flesh and discolouring the bone." (p. 199)
Unfortunately, the play evades explanation of Harry's spiritual goal. An audience has the right to wonder in what way Harry's life after he departs from Wishwood will differ spiritually from his present condition. Though knowledge of Eliot's other work might give some people a sufficient hint, The Family Reunion needs an explicit equivalent to Becket's "make perfect my will," with some religious sanction for Harry's program, if only to define the future transcendence. The play has the wheel; it requires, in clearer fashion than by so casually introduced a symbol as "the single eye," a definition of the pivotal point. It is not enough that Harry should foresee deliverance; the audience wants to know precisely what vision he may encounter. He himself does not know. He says of it merely, when the moment of understanding comes:
I feel quite happy, as if happiness
Did not consist in getting what one wanted
Or in getting rid of what can't be got rid of
But in a different vision.
Eliot perceived when he wrote the play that the purgation was another story; he has since suggested that in leaving this a mystery he failed to respect "the rules of the game." (p. 200)
In The Family Reunion as in the Eumenides the suffering of the hero is not caused by personal guilt. Although Eliot at one stage of the writing planned that Harry should be expiating the crime of having desired to kill his wife, the play conveys nothing of the kind. Harry is expiating a family curse, of which he is simply the victim. (p. 201)
If it seems perverse that the play should offer justification for Harry's past and future instead of blaming him, it is merely that the plot abstracts for its use the deterministic elements of life. Harry is not a wholly voluntary agent.
Perhaps my life has only been a dream
Dreamt through me by the minds of others.
Eliot's mistake consisted in giving Harry so much irritability without making clear that the curse alone has been responsible for it. The side of Harry's personality which has resisted the curse ought to be likable. He is too...
(The entire section is 4158 words.)