Oedipus, Suez, and Hungary: T.S. Eliot's Tradition and the Elder Statesman

By Simpson, Michael | Comparative Drama, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Oedipus, Suez, and Hungary: T.S. Eliot's Tradition and the Elder Statesman


Simpson, Michael, Comparative Drama


On a scale of bangs and whimpers, T. S. Eliot's dramas have been regarded as inclining toward the less explosive end. From The Rock in 1934 to The Elder Statesman in 1958, Eliot's attempts to rehabilitate verse drama in English theater have been seen as brave but inherently challenged, and ultimately unavailing. There have been honorable exceptions to this critical consensus, and most recently at the Donmar Warehouse in London, a creative, theatrical effort has been made, in the form of a "T. S. Eliot Festival" to refute and even replace it. (1) This festival was refreshing not least because it did not seek to justify itself with explicit reference to any historical abacus of centenaries or other anniversaries. More compelling, though, was the extent of the dramatic offerings, as the festival not only staged The Family Reunion, but also theatricalized some of Eliot's more strictly poetic works, such as The Waste Land and Four Quartets, as rehearsed readings.

In its effort to promote Eliot's dramas, and others of his works, as dramatic, the festival had more history on its side than the received critical wisdom about these plays suggests. The Cocktail Party, also presented as a rehearsed reading at the Donmar, and The Confidential Clerk enjoyed some significant commercial success, as well as critical acknowledgment, when they were first produced in 1950 and 1953 respectively. There was one play, however, that garnered no such accolades at its premiere and that the Donmar's Festival did not include. (2) This play was The Elder Statesman, which nonetheless put in an isolated appearance in 2008 as a rehearsed reading at the King's Head, Islington, where it was performed by the theater group Primavera, as part of its series of "Forgotten Classics." (3) Unlike the efforts at the Donmar, however, this brave attempt required the pretext of a fiftieth anniversary.

As the fourth and final instance of the English drawing-room dramas that were Eliot's favored generic template, The Elder Statesman was singularly unfortunate in its timing: in 1956, just two years before its premiere, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger had opened in London, triggering a revolution in British theater that probably served to obscure retrospectively even the mixed success of Eliot's drama. (4) The elder statesmen meet the angry young men. (5) But another historical intersection will be the subject of this essay, and it is one that Robin Grove has observed independently:

   For the close of the 1950s, the plot could hardly be more
   old-fashioned. Europe may have torn itself apart, Hungary be
   crushed, Soviet and American empires threaten each other with
   destruction, Suez heap humiliation on top of dishonour, and
   Macmillan (1957) have come to power in a year of unprecedented
   industrial non-cooperation, but not a tremor from public event
   disturbs the protected milieux of the play. (6)

Against this backdrop, of course, Look Back in Anger itself looks not just parochial but also bathetic. Whereas Grove asserts a disjunction between this context and Eliot's play, I propose a conjunction. And the pressure to do so may well derive from our recent historical vantage. As the fiftieth anniversary of Suez impinged on the public consciousness, there were articles in the news media that took this opportunity to plot the vicissitudes of the special relationship between the UK and the USA. (7)

My argument about the play will be that it articulates a vision of loving inclusion that extends beyond the characters into an allegory of how European, and more widely "Western" culture retains its historical and transatlantic integrity, specifically after the Suez Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. This cultural tradition thus compensates for political division among those parties that share in the tradition and externalizes that division by emphasizing where this sharing ceases to apply, namely in the Second and Third Worlds. …

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