Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Family Reunion: Eliot, James, and the Buried Life*

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

The Family Reunion: Eliot, James, and the Buried Life*

Article excerpt

T. S. Eliot's play The Family Reunion (1939) has not become part of the standard repertoire and is not likely to do so. Eliot himself came to consider it a failure, but it remains stubbornly alive; some of the scenes and individual speeches have indisputable power, and every decade or so there is a major production of the play in England or the United States.1 For Eliot specialists, of course, the play is crucial in various ways. Eliot was always, from his first monologues, a dramatic poet, and his experiments in form are always of interest; the language and versification of the play also echo earlier and anticipate his later work and provide a vital link between "Burnt Norton" (1935) and the later Quartets and plays. As David Moody says, "The Family Reunion is far and away the most interesting of Eliot's plays" (172); it is also his most successful extended analysis of the human resistance to reality and of the ability of some individuals to grow and change. More importantly, for my purposes, the play illustrates Eliot's preoccupation with "the road not taken." In returning to his childhood home, Harry Monchensey is forced to confront the reality of his childhood and the genuine self he has evaded for decades. In conveying Harry's situation, Eliot makes intriguing although tangential use of Henry James's story "The Jolly Corner" in ways that have not been fully analyzed before.

Even in his earliest poems, Eliot's interest in unrealized possibilities is apparent. Much of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is an uneasy justification of inaction haunted by the ghost of what might have been: "And would it have been worth it, after all ... ?" (Complete Poems and Plays 15, 16). In "Gerontion," the speaker admits

I was neither at the hot gates

Nor fought in the warm rain

Nor knee deep in the salt marsh, heaving a cutlass,

Bitten by flies, fought. (CPP 37)

The inhabitants of The Waste Land have also retreated from action, choice, and risk, "the awful daring of a moment's surrender/ Which an age of prudence can never retract" (CPP 74), and as a result they live a half-life between "memory and desire" (CPP 61). In "Burnt Norton" and the succeeding Quartets, the concern with "the door we never opened" and "what might have been and what has been" is still strong (CPP 171).

The unhappiness with one's actual life and the sense of having failed to live in a meaningful way are aspects of what Matthew Arnold famously called "the buried life."2 The speakers in Eliot's poetry tell us little about the context of their lives - the matrix of family and relationships that shapes all of us - and that little is mostly hints and suggestions. In attempting a fuller portrayal of character and consciousness, Eliot was drawn not to fiction but to verse drama, a form which had never entirely died out and which he thought capable of successful renewal on the commercial stage. His earlier dramatic experiments had enjoyed some success, but none had been written for commercial performance.3

Eliot's attempt to use the form of the West End play in The Family Reunion was both ambitious and subversive:

The curtain was to open on the most conventional of dramatic worlds, the English drawing room, but every device at the dramatist's disposal was to be used as the play progressed to shake the audience's confidence in the validity of that world of surface reality as a total representation of existence. (C. Smith 116)

Beneath this surface reality, or through it, Eliot would show, without overt reference to Christianity, the universal desire for meaning, purgation, and renewal, using the Orestes myth and the primitive religious ritual that underlay it. He had, of course, used this same mixture of "unreal" surface reality, myth, and ritual with great success in The Waste Land, but here he was constrained by the conventional form he had chosen, and his deviations from that form, necessary to show its artificiality, created more dissonance than theatregoers were able to accept. …

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