Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

Return to the Ordinary World: From the Family Reunion to the Cocktail Party

Academic journal article Yeats Eliot Review

Return to the Ordinary World: From the Family Reunion to the Cocktail Party

Article excerpt

A memorial plaque to Eliot mounted in 1998 on the sidewalk at the site of his birthplace, 2635 Locust Street in St. Louis, notes his titles: "Poet, Philosopher, Literary Critic, Dramatist, Nobel Laureate." In fact, Eliot did not get down to writing poetic drama until as late as his last masterpiece Four Quartets (1936-43), although he made an attempt to write his first poetic drama Sweeney Agonistes in 1923-25, but could not complete it. Nevertheless, he had been deeply interested in poetic drama and had written many essays on poetic dramas and poetic dramatists since the beginning. (1)

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1. The Dramatist Eliot's Aspirations

Eliot used dramatic techniques in his early poems, while he was strongly conscious of poetic verse forms in his poetic dramas. Writing plays was always closely related to writing poems in his mind, as his interacting with the director E. Martin Browne during the writing of plays clearly shows. Eliot was convinced that a poetic drama was "more likely to come from poets learning how to write plays, than from skillful prose dramatists learning to write poetry" ("Poetry and Drama" OPP 86). (2) In other words, Eliot's plays are definitely written by a poet. They have been often analyzed from such a point of view. However, it is not only the element of the poet who had been ambitious for a poetic drama that established the foundations of his poetic dramas.

In the early part of the 1930s, editing The Criterion made Eliot turn his eyes to the social world. He, as a Christian and a moralist, came to be concerned about the future of the modern world without God. He remarked in a lecture in 1933: "Every poet would like, I fancy, to be able to think that he had some direct social utilityO. He would like to convey the pleasures of poetry, not only to a larger audience, but to larger groups of people collectively; and the theatre is the best place in which to do it" (UPUC 147). (3) Just after the lecture, he was asked to write ten choruses for a pageant play The Rock (1934) which had a social and religious purpose to provide funds for church-building in new housing areas. Next year, he wrote his first full-scale play Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and got a sense of an audience which reacted visibly and directly. These experiences made him think seriously about the theatre as a means of appealing to various people more directly. In those days, he became a Warden of a church and positively engaged in church works, (4) which gave him more opportunities to relate to ordinary people. At the same time, he published the two major cultural studies, The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948) on a parallel with writing his plays. It would seem, then, that the base of his poetic dramas was established from the points of view of a Christian and an intellectual person seeking to connect with more ordinary people as well as of a poet ambitious for a poetic drama.

Eliot's writing a poetic drama focusing on poetic verse forms had broken down in the mid-1920s. The dramatist Eliot's writing began to run smoothly after he became aware of a flesh-and-blood audience reacting directly and realized what he had to convey to them. He had expressed the lives of modern people and his own philosophy of life in his poems. They would be described in his plays more widely and deeply and changed by degrees. In this article, I won't attach importance to the development of poetic verse forms in his poetic dramas. Rather, I will pay attention to the view of life which he tried to describe and convey to his audience through his plays, especially focusing on The Cocktail Party (1949) which is said to have been most commercially successful.

2. The Frontier between the Two Worlds

Eliot wrote the five poetic dramas for theatres. Speaking roughly, all he depicted in them were just the two worlds and the three kinds of people. Those two worlds are named variously by many critics--"the 'sainted' life" and "the common life" (Arrowsmith The Critical Heritage 639), "the 'spiritual' world" and "the 'normal' world" (G. …

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