Saturday, February 28, 2009

Romance and Ritual in T. S. Eliot's 'The Family Reunion'

In The Family Reunion, T.S. Eliot's second complete play, he set himself the task of creating Christian comedy out of the materials of pagan tragedy. He faced an audience whose lives and whose literature, he thought, were "corrupted" by "Secularism" and who neither understood nor wished to understand "the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life."'

He also wished to reinstitute poetry as a dramatic medium. In 1942, he stressed the importance of "a verse medium for the theatre, a medium in which we shall be able to hear the speech of contemporary human beings, in which dramatic characters can express the purest poetry without high-falutin and in which they can convey the most commonplace message without absurdity."

Given this concern for the response of his audience, it is little wonder that he emphasized "the music of poetry" (hence its emotional, extra-rational appeal) and that he fancied the poet as "something of a popular entertainer" who could "think his own thoughts behind a tragic or a comic mask." He was a poet turned playwright who sought to show a stratified and unpredictable audience the principles of theological and aesthetic truth.

The Family Reunion is Eliot's attempt to use the comic and tragic masks for purposes of conversion. It is therefore a rigidly organized play, a conversion ritual in itself, that begins with the stuff of romance-a repressed and lonely man whose life prior to the action of the play has been little more than a frustrated search for love.

The Family Reunion has at its center Aeschylus's version of the myth of Orestes. Eliot uses three of Aeschylus's dramatic figures-the chorus, the Eumenides, and Orestes-to suggest the timelessness of the situation enacted at Wishwood, the Monchensey estate in the North of England.

He uses several themes worked out in the Oresteia for a similar purpose, carefully setting up the "curse" on the house of Monchensey and Harry as both the victim and the exorcist of that curse. Just as, in the Choephori, the returning Orestes prays to the dead Agamemnon for aid in his revenge,"Father, . . . I ask / the gift of lordship at your hands, to rule your house,"

Harry identifies himself with "the old house / With the noxious smell and the sorrow before morning" (234), referring directly to the curse under which he lives and attesting to his despair of ever escaping it. Harry, as does Orestes, struggles to understand his past and, consequently, his fate. But Eliot soon makes a crucial distinction between Harry and his prototype: It is not for Harry to rule the house, as must Orestes; Harry must abandon Wishwood, leave the house in order to save both it and himself.

Eliot wants Harry's decision to appear heroic in a Christian rather than a classical sense; so he tries in The Family Reunion to remove the material connotations from the Greek concept of oikos, to transform the house into a purely spiritual notion.

He makes Wishwood "noxious" and the possession of it undesirable, and he forces us to applaud Harry's decision to divest himself of his status in the world of mortals. And with this transformation of oikos comes a reappraisal of moira, or fate, particularly that of the play's hero.

If it is Harry's task to awaken the spiritual side of life at Wishwood, Eliot must show us a cast of characters in dire need of redemption; he must also give us a protagonist, a hero, callous enough to ignore the wishes of those characters, yet perceptive enough to function consciously as a spiritual agent for them.

Northrop Frye suggests that there exists an intimate connection between the genres of tragedy and romance, and I think it is a connection that Eliot realizes in the character of Harry Lord Monchensey. Because tragedy recounts man's struggle against his own death, Frye says, it contains a "counter-movement of being that we call the heroic, a capacity for action or passion, for doing or suffering, which is above ordinary human experience.

This heroic energy, glorified by itself as something invincible which bursts the boundaries of normal experience, is the basis of romance."7 Harry hardly shows the "heroic energy" of an Othello or even an Orestes, but he certainly has more of this quality than anyone else at Wishwood.

He tells his assembled family:

You are all people
To whom nothing has happened, at most a continual impact
Of external events. You have gone through life in sleep,
Never woken to the nightmare. I tell you life would be unendurable
If you were wide awake. (234)

Harry speaks here most directly to the play's chorus, four of his aunts and uncles who exist in the world of Eliot's Hollow Men. Also in this speech, Harry identifies himself with "the old house"; in his next, he refers to the "slow stain" of the curse and, abruptly, confesses to the murder of his wife:

It was only reversing the senseless direction
For a momentary rest on the burning wheel
That cloudless night in the mid-Atlantic
When I pushed her over. (235)

Harry, like Orestes, is caught on the wheel of fate, entangled in the net of moira. The speakers of the chorus, in order to protect themselves from Harry's charge regarding their spiritual insensitivity, ignore Harry's remarks on destiny and instead "isolate the single event" for comment: Charles speaks for them when he says, "You mustn't indulge such dangerous
fancies" (235-36).

Harry is initially defined, then, as both a tragic and a romantic figure-as a man more perceptive and intelligent than those around him, as one whose experience sets him apart from his contemporaries. Moreover, by adding yet another layer of literary allusion to Harry's characterization, Eliot makes his protagonist aware of himself as a player in a drama. He recreates in Harry the dilemma of Hamlet:

So you must believe
That I suffer from delusions. It is not my conscience,
Not my mind, that is diseased, but the world I have to live in
I am afraid of sleep:
A condition in which one can be caught for the last time.
And also waking. She is nearer than ever.
The contamination has reached the marrow
And they are always near. (236)

We have in the character of Harry an Orestes pursued by a Shakespearean ghost through "death's dream kingdom." Harry has in the above speech the same awareness of his own theatricality that Eliot discerned in Othello; he, as does Othello, "sees himself in a dramatic light."8 He is a thoroughly literary creation by any standards.

Obviously, Eliot's next task was to make Harry human, to turn the audience's attention away from Harry's rather contrived characterization and toward his experience as it unfolds in the action of the play.

Eliot accomplishes this by removing Harry from the stage as quickly as possible and shifting the audience's attention to the family, each member of which responds to Harry according to the degree of his or her spiritual sensitivity. Amy is a director of other people's lives, and she ignores Harry's consternation. Ivy, Violet, Gerald, and Charles are "afraid of all that has happened" and express four different ways to cope with that fear: Ivy "struggles" against it; Gerald fails to understand it; Violet is unnerved by attempts to explain it; Charles wants to "manage the situation" that it creates (256-57). Only Agatha and Mary try to understand the spiritual implications of Harry's speeches. They, as Agatha says, "are only watchers and waiters" (246).

Like Eliot's auditors, then, the family members fall into distinct strata of spiritual awareness. By placing directly onstage such a variety of personalities and such a range of reactions to Harry's words, Eliot actually dramatizes his audience's response to his poetic material even as the action unfolds.

Such a technique allows Eliot to direct audience response by degrees: we begin perhaps as baffled as Gerald, with some of Charles' desire to discover the facts of Harry's case, but we agree to watch and to wait with Agatha and Mary. And this reaction seems to be exactly what Eliot desired from theatre-goers and what he praised in Shakespeare:

For the simplest auditors there is the plot, for the more thoughtful the character and the conflict of character, or the more literary his words and phrasing, for the more musically sensitive the rhythm, and for the auditors of greater sensitiveness and understanding a meaning which reveals itself gradually. The sensitiveness of every auditor is acted upon by all these elements at once, though in different degrees of consciousness. At none of these levels is the auditor bothered by the presence of that which he does not understand, or by the presence of that in which he is not interested.

This last comment seems disingenuous on Eliot's part, for in The Family Reunion it is precisely the presence of something which we do not understand- the nature of Harry's character and experience-which keeps us interested in the action of the play. Eliot's brief introduction and subsequent removal of his hero allow his auditors to meet the man and then to reflect upon his situation as they weigh the various responses given to Harry onstage.

Theoretically, the device is a simple one: what could be easier for a playwright than to juxtapose a superior individual and a dull crowd in order to create sympathy for the hero? Yet, admitting the variation in potential audience response that Eliot faced, how could this playwright bring each member of that audience to the point of understanding "a meaning which reveals itself gradually"?

To raise the spiritual awareness of his audience was Eliot's definition of the goal of the dramatist, of the successful "popular entertainer."

He knew in which direction he wanted to pull his auditors. Martin Browne, who directed the first production of The Family Reunion and reviewed several drafts of the play, indicates that Eliot conceived the pattern of the play before he developed the specific personalities that inhabit Wishwood, that he thought first of "family relationships and the irruption into them of the force represented by the Furies."'l Browne's reproduction of Eliot's scenario does show that this "irruption" was to form the central action of the play; but the scenario also includes Eliot's central thematic concern-the notion of "purgation."

Eliot avoids even the mention of the word, however, until halfway through both the scenario and the play; he withholds the announcement of his "meaning" until after he has traced his hero's situation for the audience. Aeschylus and Shakespeare did much the same thing. We know the precise nature of the curse of the Atrides long before we meet Orestes." We discover Hamlet's disgust with Gertrude, what Eliot saw as Hamlet's "problem," in Act III, scene iv of Shakespeare's play-long after the ghost has set Hamlet on a course of revenge.

As were his predecessors, Eliot was obviously concerned with the order in which his audience dis-covers the events that shaped Harry's life. We hear first his confession to the murder of his wife. Then Mary and Agatha tell us that he avoided an arranged marriage with Mary and eventually eloped with a "weak" woman who "was frightened of the family" (245). Near the end of Part I, we discover that his childhood was "not happy"; his mother destroyed even the hollow tree which was his "only memory of freedom" (247-48).

These conversations reveal in reverse chronological order the events that shaped Harry's character. We first see how he behaves toward his family, and then we begin to understand the pattern of a life that produced this behavior. Actors and auditors alike move toward the very origin of Harry's troubled existence.

The Family Reunion, then, is a conversion play organized on the principle of revelation, on an explanation of the present through a return to the past. Beginning with Harry's attempts to explain himself, moving to his discovery of some portion of spiritual truth, and finally returning to life at Wishwood, Parts I and II both end with Agatha chanting a rune.

By following the revelation of Harry's character with these runes, Eliot deliberately moves the action of the play toward a ritual meant to contain the significance of the events that precede it. This is what rituals are for, after all to explain and to commemorate stages of human life. And human beings understand both the need for order that demands rituals, and the actual, if temporary, order that they provide.

Paradoxically, then, Harry becomes a more comprehensible and sympathetic character because he becomes the object of a ritual; moreover, the ritualization of his personal experience allows Eliot to unify the play's rather disparate aesthetic elements.

We can observe this twofold resolution in Harry's private conversations with Mary and Agatha, the two characters who act as his spiritual guides. In order to distinguish Mary and Agatha as superior to the cruel Lady Monchensey and the straw-headed chorus, Eliot treats the two women much as he does Harry: he introduces a conflict between each of them and the rest of the family (Mary is Amy's self-conscious "companion," Agatha the one who finds meaning where others cannot) and then ushers them both offstage.

He then establishes a connection between the women; we discover during their conversation in Part I that Agatha is Mary's former teacher. Agatha's status as a teacher or adviser is crucial to the action of the play. She understands Mary's dilemma, but she also knows that Mary still has a part to play in Harry's development:

I would like to help you: but you must not run away.
Any time before now, it would have shown courage
And would have been right. Now the courage is only the moment
And the moment is only fear and pride. I see more than this,
More than I can tell you, more than there are words for. (246)

The conversation with Agatha encourages Mary to speak honestly with Harry. Agatha, in other words, prepares Mary to help Harry recognize the nature of his spiritual burden. Eliot thus constructs a pedagogical chain in The Family Reunion, a sequence of spiritual stages through which Harry is guided, directly or indirectly, by Agatha. Harry's first glimpse of the truth of his situation occurs during his conversation with Mary, a talk which begins with a rather commonplace exchange about Wishwood and turns immediately into a fulfillment of Agatha's prophecy that "The man who returns will have to meet / The boy who left" (229):

It's very unnatural,
This arresting of the normal change of things:
But it's very like her [Amy]. What I might have expected.
It only makes the changing of people
All the more manifest. (247)

Mary understands part of Harry's comment but fails to recognize that he speaks primarily of himself. However, she can make the imaginative connection between her own "commonplace troubles," her "ordinary hopelessness," and the "unexpected crash of the iron cataract" of Harry's despair (248-49).

The sympathy that arises between the two characters develops into the spontaneous articulation of their innermost thoughts and feelings, a lyrical duet that leads Harry to listen to Mary's charge that his emotional state is self-inflicted and therefore deceptive. Her subsequent speeches evoke the imagery of The Waste Land ("The cold spring is now the time /
For the ache in the moving root") but turn these images into symbols of rebirth and regeneration:

I believe the moment of birth
Is when we have the knowledge of death
And what of the terrified spirit
Compelled to be reborn
To rise toward the violent sun
Wet wings to the rain cloud
Harefoot over the moon? (251-52)

She sees the end in the beginning, the beginning in the end, as does the speaker of East Coker. The wheel of fate, of time, does not bur her as it does Harry; realizing its regenerative power frees her from the fear of its turning. Her sympathy brings Harry "news / Of a door that opens at the end of a corridor, / Sunlight and singing" (252). And this admission of possible relief rouses Harry's fear of "another world," represented onstage by the Eumenides.

The appearance of the Eumenides is clearly the most important of the revelations occurring in Part I. We have been prepared to see ghosts, and Harry leads us to expect Clytemnestra's Furies, sharp-clawed and hungry for human flesh. What we actually see, however, are "one man and two women, in evening dress." They must look as though they expect to be invited to Amy's birthday party.

The discrepancy between Harry's imaginative vision of these ghosts and the ghosts we all see onstage lets us (and Mary) know that Harry does indeed suffer from self-deception. His horror of the Eumenides is, at this point in the play, called into question. He cannot see them for what they are-Eumenides, "kindly ones," rather than Furies.

His problem, as Mary has suggested, is one of perception; yet her solution, "depend on me" (253), cannot correct Harry's faulty vision. In order for Harry to see what Eliot wants him to see, he must move through "the love of creacted beings" to an understanding of those very beings, of the forces that join him with as well as divide him from his family. Agatha's first rune indicates that the "three together"-she, Mary, and Harry in this act, and she, Harry, and Harry's father in the second-must be "separated," explained, in order for Harry to comprehend and to escapethe curse of Wishwood.

By the end of Part I, we understand that Eliot's chorus represents the confused masses both in need and in terror of spiritual rebirth; we have a view of disorder, of individuals at cross purposes, of moral values in flux. We realize that Harry, in facing this terror, is superior to the chorus. Yet he seems, at best, a rather skittish and directionless hero whose brooding speeches verge too closely on whining self-pity.

One doesn't understand why Harry should wish to remain at Wishwood even through dinner; we have at the end of the first act only Agatha's rune as a promise that "the crooked" (perhaps a reference to the play's plot) will be "made straight" (257).

Eliot had at this point to step up the pace of the play, to increase the action in order to keep his audience's attention while he worked out Harry's spiritual dilemma.14 Part II of The Family Reunion therefore contains most of what Aristotle would have described as the play's plot, character, and thought-the action of the persons onstage that, by defining them morally, reveals to the auditor the poet's moral point.

Eliot accelerates the play's movement by re-introducing the curse on Wishwood and its classical prototype. "Whatever happens began in the past," the chorus declares, and The agony in the curtained bedroom, whether of birth or of dying, Gathers into itself all the voices of the past, and projects them into the future.

There is no avoiding these things
And we know nothing of exorcism
And whether in Argos or in England
There are certain inflexible laws
Unalterable, in the nature of music. (270-71)

It is tempting to take the chorus' word on the "unalterable" nature of the family curse, but it seems clear that Eliot ascribes belief in "inflexible laws" to lost souls rather than to his hero. Harry must not succumb to his house, as has the chorus.

He must actively seek to understand it, as he does in Part II of The Family Reunion: he inquires about his father; he characterizes his absent brothers, takes charge of Amy, and admonishes the chorus. Most importantly, he initiates the play's central scene-the conversation with Agatha which produces the vision of the rose garden, an image that Eliot used throughout his canon as a symbol of a state of spiritual purity.

The most perceptive of the "watchers and waiters," Agatha can see that Harry's attention must be refocused. "What we have written," she says, "is not a story of detection, / Of crime and punishment, but of sin and expiation" (275). This statement follows Agatha's revelation to Harry of his father's wish to murder Amy.

Having thus explained the origin of the "curse" upon the house of Monchensey, Agatha cautions Harry to avoid the chorus' mistake of isolating "the single event" and to look instead at the significance of that event. Agatha directs Harry's (and our) attention from the mortal to the spiritual realm; it is she whom

Eliot meant to introduce the notion of "purgation" that lies at the moral center of the play. Helen Gardner voices what is probably the most common criticism of Eliot's treatment of Agatha when she notes that Agatha has very little "reality" of her own, that her character remains so mysterious throughout the play that she is ultimately inaccessible to us.

But to argue, as Gardner does, that Agatha is "featureless" because Eliot presents her, as he does Harry and Mary, in almost exclusively psychological or spiritual terms is to miss entirely Eliot's point in writing The Family Reunion. He wanted to show the soul in the process of liberating itself from the flesh that holds it. He needed to show us souls in motion in order to convince us that an escape could be effected from the mire of life at Wishwood. He needed, in short, just such a character as Agatha, one who had freed herself from the family curse.

It is also important to note that Eliot first saw his hero as a man "psychologically partially desexed" with a "horror of women as of unclean creatures."6 The fact that Agatha is a woman allows Eliot to point out Harry's psychological and sexual limitations. She, after all, has known human love:

There are hours when there seems to be no past or future,
Only a present moment of pointed light
When you want to burn. When you stretch out your hand
To the flames. They only come once,
Thank God, that kind. (274)

Agatha understands sexual passion. She understands what passion brings, too-the desire to be consumed by that passion, the fear bred by that desire. She knows the passion of material desire as well; for it was she who saved the unborn Harry, "a thing called life'- / Something that should have been mine."

Finally, Agatha understands the possibility of spiritual passion or martyrdom. She tells Harry that there is "another kind" of love, of flames "across a whole Tibet of broken stones / That lie, fang up, a lifetime's march." She sees what Eliot wants Harry to see. She has divested herself of the love of created beings; and although she is no martyr, she can instruct
Harry in both human and divine love, thus directing his spiritual path:

It is possible that sin may strain and struggle
In its dark instinctive birth, to come to consciousness
And so find expurgation. It is possible
You are the consciousness of your unhappy family,
Its bird sent flying through the purgatorial flame.
Indeed it is possible. You may learn hereafter,
Moving along through flames of ice, chosen
To resolve the enchantment under which we suffer. (275)

Far from "featureless," Agatha has the single feature possessed by no one else at Wishwood: she bears the marks of love. Consequently, she understands the death of love as a sin, and she makes an intriguing comparison between the birth of sin and the birth of a child. We can read the speech that begins. "

A curse comes into being / As a child is formed" as though she thinks of Harry as a curse. It seems more correct, both thematically and syntactically, to read the speech as an extended metaphor for purgation: a child is formed unconsciously, as is a curse (one thinks of the generational repetitions of the curse of the Atrides); both child and curse are acted upon
unconsciously, "formed to grow to maturity" (278-79).

A mature child is as obviously an adult as a mature curse is one that has run its course, and a sin expiated is no longer a sin. Agatha's comparison of the unloved child to a sin and to a curse indicates that love can end the child's plight, dissolve the curse, expiate the sin. Harry, then, must simply learn how to love.

After receiving Agatha's instruction, Harry moves quickly from the love of mortals to the spiritual love symbolized by his meeting Agatha in the rose garden. "Family affection," he says, "was a kind of formal obligation" at Wishwood; and he knows that human love is not possible in the Monchensey house. Yet the knowledge that some kind of love has existed in his past frees Harry from "that awful privacy / Of the insane mind" (276) and, consequently, leads to his escape from the "circular desert" of self-deception into the rose garden where he meets his spiritual mother, Agatha. Her revelation of Harry's spiritual origins gives him what she earlier called "a present," the crucial link between his past and his future.

This accomplished, the second appearance of the Eumenides comes as no surprise to Harry or to his auditors. His vision, as he says, has changed. The ghosts merely validate the correctness of his new perception. They are dressed for travel, and once Harry agrees to accept them as his guides the action of the play begins to decelerate.

Even Agatha's quarrel with Amy reveals few unexpected sources of tension or information. For the remainder of the play, the poetry becomes again conversational, the language almost commonplace; and Eliot allows our attention to shift out of the world represented by the rose garden and back to the pattern of life at Wishwood.

Harry soon escapes this pattern, leaving his home, "a world of insanity," to take up life "somewhere on the other side of despair" (281). He knows, as does Becket in Murder in the Cathedral, that action and suffering are identical. This knowledge creates in both men a despair of human life, but it also gives each a curious kind of painful freedom characteristic of the tragic hero.

Yet neither play can properly be called a tragedy, for each clearly arises from Eliot's desire to show that a man need not succumb to what Harry's aunts and uncles call "certain inexorable laws." Eliot believed in Law, of course, but in the Law of a Christian universe in which "everything tends toward reconciliation" rather than toward the eternal repetition of a form of pagan curse. By setting certain elements of the Oresteia in contemporary England, Eliot dramatized the Christian concept of reformation, of seeing with new eyes what Agatha calls the "deeper organisation" of human life.

That Harry forms a new life by following the "bright angels," that he is able to follow them because he discovers both mortal and spiritual love-these indicate Eliot's belief that the old patterns, the ancient forms of both art and theology, must be reinvigorated by just such an infusion of Christian principles.

If '"Tradition and the Individual Talent" tells us that works of art all enrich one another, then The Family Reunion tells us that theological forms are connected in much the same fashion. And, as The Waste Land might lead us to expect, Eliot's preoccupation with ritual (the formalization of conduct) and the destruction of ritual is central to the organization of his second play.

The ritualistic final scene of The Family Reunion, which has been criticized as "an unintentional parody of liturgy rather than a reinvigoration from it," represents Eliot's successful integration of the play's aesthetic elements. From a purely dramatic point of view, the spectacle of blowing out Amy's birthday candles while announcing the end of the Monchensey curse is visually powerful: the mortal world ends in darkness before our eyes, and we are left with Agatha's promise that this ritual foreshadows the success of the "pilgrimage of expiation" (293).

The play ends with a blessing, a promise of redemption, not with a view of life at Wishwood. Eliot, in other words, moves our attention once again into the realm of the spiritual because he intends for us to see, as does Harry, the primacy of the supernatural over the natural life. Furthermore, Agatha's rune gives the play its structural symmetry; both acts close this way, and the last chant fulfills the hope expressed in the first.

Finally, these runes are a simplification of what has come before them: the mystery of Harry's origins, both physical and emotional, has been explained, and the knots of plot and personality untied by the end of the second act. And, interestingly enough, the first director of The Family Reunion had no qualms about the appropriateness of Agatha's runes and in fact requested very strongly that Eliot keep the one that ends Part I and adjust only the degree to which Harry's fantasy of murdering his wife parallels his father's feelings about Amy.

Eliot was obviously concerned with the formal qualities, the structural principles, of the play. He organized his play in such a way as to increase his audience's knowledge of Harry's situation at very nearly the same rate that Harry's self-knowledge increases. The dramatic pacing, a result of Eliot's concern for the connection between the play's structure and its meaning, accounts for the almost complete lack of irony (even dramatic irony) in the work.

For Eliot to direct any irony at his Orestes would have been to create a hero in some way inferior to his auditors, thus reducing the chances of converting them by Harry's example. Although he was impatient with his audience's secularism, then, Eliot took care at least not to increase its love of created beings by staging before it an inferior religious play.

If Eliot voiced some impatience at hearing a bit too much of "a bang and a whimper," he also might have been expected to despair of hearing about the relationships between his theory of literature and his practice of the art-particularly in those instances in which he was generally thought to have failed aesthetically.

Eliot's plays in particular have been called "failures" in light of his own ideas about how plays should be written. Then, too, Eliot judged them adversely. There are, of course, large gaps between the dramatic effects of Eliot's plays and the explanations that he offered, usually after the plays were staged, of their contents and themes.

The Family Reunion, however, has a theory behind it that Eliot took great care not to obscure. In fact, his revisions of the play show that he was almost reluctant to reveal too much of his plot for fear of distracting an audience from the presentation of his meaning. That meaning originated in the author's desire to show his auditors that human sight must give way to spiritual vision. The waste land, with its litter of broken images and rituals emptied of meaning, can evolve into the rose garden, but only if, as these lines from Ash Wednesday indicate,

The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme.

Eliot once said that poetic drama could "give us some perception of an order in life,"21 and the task of writing plays gave him an opportunity to reunite two genres that had been forcibly separated by the prevalence of prose drama.

By moving Harry's experience through the forms of tragedy and romance and subsuming it into Agatha's runes, Eliot made a ritual with an ancient verse. Each of Harry's discoveries is a revelation for the audience as well, and the revelations culminate in Agatha's ritualistic promise of hope for the soul as it undertakes its purgatorial journey. The play succeeds precisely because it provides its audience with a ritual that has meaning in its dramatic context and because the playwright makes his auditors participate
in each stage of that ritual.

credits; THERESA M. TOWNER . University of Virginia

T. S. Eliot's The Family Reunion: Overview

The Family Reunion

The Family Reunion is a play by T. S. Eliot written mostly in blank verse. It incorporates elements from Greek drama and mid-twentieth century detective plays to portray the hero's journey from guilt to redemption.

The play was unsuccessful when first presented in 1939, and was later regarded as unsatisfactory by its author, but has been successfully revived since the 1940s. Some critics have thought aspects of the tormented hero reflect T.S. Eliot's own difficulties with his estrangement from his first wife.


The play is in two acts set in Wishwood, a stately home in the north of England. At the beginning, the family of Lady Monchensey is assembling for her birthday party. She is, as her doctor later explains, clinging on to life by sheer willpower:

I keep Wishwood alive/ To keep the family alive,
to keep them together,
To keep me alive, and I keep them.

Lady Monchensey's two brothers and three sisters are present, and a younger relation, Mary, but none of Lady Monchensey's three sons. Among other things they discuss the sudden, and not to them wholly unwelcome, death at sea of the wife of the eldest son Harry, the present Lord Monchensey.

Neither of the younger sons ever appears, both being slightly injured in motoring accidents, but Harry soon arrives, his first appearance at Wishwood for eight years. He is haunted by the belief that he pushed his wife off the ship.

In fact Harry has an alibi for the time, but whether he killed her or not he wished her dead and his feelings of guilt are the driving force in the rest of the play. Lady Monchensey decides that Harry's state warrants the discreet observation of the family doctor, who is invited to join the party, ostensibly as a dinner guest. Mary, who has been earmarked by Amy as a future wife for Harry, wishes to escape from life at Wishwood, but her aunt Agatha tells her that she must wait:

You and I, Mary/ Are only watchers and waiters, not the easiest role.

Agatha reveals to Harry that his father attempted to kill Amy while Harry was in her womb, and that Agatha prevented him. Far from being grateful, Amy resented and still resents Agatha's depriving her of her husband. Harry, with Agatha's encouragement, announces his intention to go away from Wishwood, leaving his steady younger brother John to take over. Amy, despairing at Harry's renunciation of Wishwood, dies (offstage), "An old woman alone in a damned house", and Harry and his faithful servant, Downing, leave.


The play is partly in blank verse and partly in prose. Eliot had already experimented with verse drama in Murder in the Cathedral, and continued to use the form in his post-war stage works.[12] Though the work has superficial resemblances to a conventional 1930s drawing room drama, Eliot uses two devices from ancient Greek drama:

1. Harry's uncles and aunts occasionally detach themselves from the action and chant a commentary on the plot, in the manner of a Greek chorus
2. Harry is pursued by the Eumenides – the avenging Furies who pursue Orestes in the Oresteia; they are seen not only by Harry but by his servant and the most perceptive member of his family, Agatha

Despite these Greek themes, Stephen Spender commented that the whole play was "about the hero's discovery of his religious vocation as a result of his sense of guilt

The play is divided in two parts, each divided in three scenes. The first part takes place in the drawing room, after tea, an afternoon in late March. The first scene is used as an introduction of the persons Amy, Ivy, Violet, Agatha, Gerald, Charles, Mary and Denman. They are talking about tonight, when a dinner is being held with the entire family. They are also talking about Harry, whom they haven't seen for eight years.

Before those years, something terrible had happened to Harry's wife and he thinks he is to blame. His wife was swept off the deck of a boat. Because harry thinks he has thrown her overboard, his family thinks he is not sane. But know, eight years later, Harry is the only one who acts sane about it, his aunts Ivy, Violet and Agatha are the ones who are making a fuss out of it. And that upsets Harry.

When the others notice Harry sees 'persons' that they don't see, they really begin to think Harry's gone crazy. It appears that these ghosts are from his deceased wife, and he is haunted by them, at least he thinks he is. Scene two describes a conversation between Harry and Mary, they talk about their youth and Harry sees the ghosts again.

Mary doesn't see them and she feels sorry for him. Scene three tells that everyone is preparing for dinner and that the guests are worried about John and Arthur, who haven't arrived yet. Part two takes place in the library, after dinner.

In scene I, Dr. Warburton has a conversation with Harry, at advice of Harry's uncles and aunts. It's about Harry's mother, Warburton explains that Harry's mother gets her strength to live from her determination of keeping the family together, and that she is very feeble at the moment. Then Sergeant Winchell appears with the message that John has had an accident, but that it is nothing serious, just a concussion. Later on, it appears that Arthur has also had an accident.

In scene II, Harry asks Agatha for the truth behind his parents and she is strong enough to tell him. She tells Harry that his father was going to kill his mother while she was pregnant of him. Agatha stopped Harry's father just in time. When she is finished telling she sighs with relief and says that Harry is now the one who has to carry the burden.

Scene III describes an argument between Amy and Agatha, Amy is very angry with Agatha for taking away her son, saying she first took her husband and now her son. Agatha explains that it was inevitable and that they have to start their lives over again and leave the past behind them.

Harry realises he has to follow the ghosts and that they will lead him. I'm not sure, but I think Amy dies at the end because she can take no more. That is when Ivy says: "I shall have to stay till after the funeral: will my ticket to London still be valid?" The play ends with Agatha, saying that the knot is unknotted, the cross is uncrossed and the crooked is made straight as a conclusion of what she said before:

"The eye is on this house
The eye covers it
There are three together
May the three be separated
May the knot that was tied
Become unknotted
May the crossed bones
In the filled-up well
Be at last straightened
May the weasel and the otter
Be about their proper business
The eye of the day time
And the eye of the night time
Be diverted from this house
Till the knot is unknotted
The cross is uncrossed
And the crooked is made straight."

T.S. Elliott's "The Family Reunion" is a play about the return to home, and the looking back at ghosts of the past. The play starts with Harry returning to his boyhood home for his mother's birthday. The plot centers around Harry's return, the mystery surrounding his wife's death, and his family's desire to have Harry take over the role as head of the household. It's an anticipated return, one that they all have been waiting for.

There are concurrent plots threading through the work, such as the mystery involving his own father's death and disappearance, Harry's schizophrenia and Mary's return to the family as well as her inability to leave.

In Scene II of "The Family Reunion", Mary and Harry meet in the drawing room, waiting for the family dinner (reunion) to begin. Mary & Harry are second cousins, both growing up in Wishwood. Harry has returned after an absence of eight years, and mysterious death of his wife at sea.

There's a recurring thread of "waiting" that runs through the play: waiting for Harry's return, waiting for dinner to begin, waiting for Harry's brothers to appear, waiting for the other guests. In waiting for Harry's return to Wishwood, everything in the house has been kept the way it was when he left. "I had only just noticed that this room is quite unchanged: The same hangings...the same pictures...even the table, the chairs, the sofa...all in the same positions. I was looking to see if anything was changed, but if it is so, I can't find it."

The unchanged room symbolizes the Harry of his youth, and the person that Harry is hoping to find when he returns. It also symbolizes his family's inability to accept the fact that Harry has moved on. Their longing to keep life the same. In this scene Mary and Agatha have been waiting for Harry to appear for dinner. Agatha exits and Mary alone says, "Waiting, waiting, always waiting, I think this house means to keep us waiting."

Harry, returning from Wishwood after eight years discusses his longing to return back to his childhood home. (The home theme this semester.) His return to Wishwood is actually his need to make peace with his past, his loss of his father and the confines of his childhood.

By returning to Wishwood he also is looking to escape his recent past, and his inability to live in the present. "But I thought I might escape from one life to another, and it may be all one life, with no escape." He speaks about returning home for the school holidays as a young man and escaping the family gatherings to go down to the river, their only place of freedom. "I made my escape as soon as I could, and slipped down to the river to find the old hiding place."

T.S.Elliott has a poetic and descriptive voice. He uses the metaphors of nature and the senses to describe Harry & Mary's constricted and contrived upbringing at Wishwood. They describe the hollow tree in the wilderness as their place of escape. "It's absurd that one's only memory of freedom should be a hollow tree in a wood by the river."

In a speech between Mary and Harry, he describes his lost hope "Where the dead stone is seen to batrachian, the aphyllous branch of ophidian." Mary tells Harry that "You bring your own landscape, no more real than the other. And in a way you contradict yourself." "You deceive yourself like the man who believes that he is blind while he still sees the sunlight."

Harry rebukes her by saying "You have staid in England, yet you seem like someone who comes from a very long distance, or the distant waterfall in the forest, inaccessible, half-heard. And I hear your voice as in silence between two storms, one hears the moderate usual noises in the grass and leaves, of life persisting, which ordinary pass unnoticed. Perhaps you are right, though I do not know how you should know it. Is the cold spring is the spring not an evil time, that excites us with lyric voices? "That apprehension deeper than all sense, deeper than the sense of smell, but like a smell in that it is indescribably, a sweet and bitter smell from another world."

Harry' Character

A contemporary review described Harry as "an unresolved amalgam of Orestes and Hamlet" and Eliot himself had vetoed the casting of John Gielgud because he thought him "not religious enough to understand the character's motivation." Some modern critics see in Harry a parallel with Eliot's own emotional difficulties of the time, with his estrangement from his first wife.

When Eliot was asked , "What happens to Harry after he leaves?" Eliot responded with an additional fifty lines to Harry's scene with Amy and Agatha (Part II, scene 2) in which his destination is said to be "somewhere on the other side of despair". READ MORE!

T.S. Eliot: An Introduction and Biography

Thomas Stearns Eliot (26 Sept. 1888-4 Jan. 1965), a poet, critic, playwright and editor was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He was the son of Henry Ware Eliot, president of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company, and Charlotte Champe Stearns, a former teacher, an energetic social work volunteer at the Humanity Club of St. Louis, and an amateur poet with a taste for Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Eliot was the youngest of seven children, born when his parents were prosperous and secure in their mid-forties. His father had recovered from an earlier business failure) and his siblings were still quite young.

Afflicted with a congenital double hernia, he was in the constant care of his mother and five older sisters. His paternal grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, had been a protégé of William Ellery Channing, the dean of American Unitarianism.

William Eliot graduated from Harvard Divinity School, then moved toward the frontier. He founded the Unitarian church in St. Louis and soon became a pillar of the then southwestern city's religious and civic life. Because of William's ties to St. Louis, the Eliot family chose to remain in their urban Locust Street home long after the area had run down and their peers had moved to the suburbs.

Left in the care of his Irish nurse, Annie Dunne, who sometimes took him to Catholic Mass, Eliot knew both the city's muddy streets and its exclusive drawing rooms.

He attended Smith Academy in St. Louis until he was sixteen. During his last year at Smith he visited the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and was so taken with the fair's native villages that he wrote short stories about primitive life for the Smith Academy Record.

In 1905 he departed for a year at Milton Academy outside of Boston, preparatory to following his older brother Henry to Harvard. Eliot's attending Harvard seems to have been a foregone conclusion.

His father and mother brought the family back to the north shore every summer, and in 1896 built a substantial house at Eastern Point, in Gloucester, Massachusetts. As a boy, Eliot became an accomplished sailor, trading the Mississippi River in the warm months for the rocky shoals of Cape Ann.

Later he said that he gave up a sense of belonging to either region, that he always felt like a New Englander in the Southwest, and a southwesterner in New England his American World. Despite his feelings of alienation from both of the regions he called home, Eliot impressed many classmates with his social ease when he began his studies at Harvard in the fall of 1906.

Like his brother Henry before him, Eliot lived his freshman year in a fashionable private dormitory in a posh neighborhood around Mt. Auburn Street known as the "Gold Coast." He joined a number of clubs, including the literary Signet. And he began a romantic attachment to Emily Hale, a refined Bostonian who once played Mrs. Elton opposite his Mr. Woodhouse in an amateur production of Emma.

Among his teachers, Eliot was drawn to the forceful moralizing of Irving Babbitt and the stylish skepticism of George Santayana, both of whom reinforced his distaste for the reform-minded, progressive university shaped by Eliot's cousin, Charles William Eliot.

His attitudes, however, did not prevent him from taking advantage of the elective system that President Eliot had introduced. As a freshman, his courses were so eclectic that he soon wound up on academic probation. He recovered and persisted, attaining a B.A. in an elective program best described as comparative literature in three years, and an M.A. in English literature in the fourth.

Symbolist Form

In December 1908 a book Eliot found in the Harvard Union library changed his life: Arthur Symons's The Symbolist Movement in Literature (1895) introduced him to the poetry of Jules Laforgue, and Laforgue's combination of ironic elegance and psychological nuance gave his juvenile literary efforts a voice.

By 1909-1910 his poetic vocation had been confirmed: he joined the board and was briefly secretary of Harvard's literary magazine, the Advocate, and he could recommend to his classmate William Tinckom-Fernandez the last word in French sophistication--the Vers Libre of Paul Fort and Francis Jammes. (Tinckom-Fernandez returned the favor by introducing Eliot to Francis Thompson's "Hound of Heaven" and John Davidson's "Thirty Bob a Week," poems Eliot took to heart, and to the verse of Ezra Pound, which Eliot had no time for.) On the Advocate, Eliot started a lifelong friendship with Conrad Aiken.

In May 1910 a suspected case of scarlet fever almost prevented Eliot's graduation. By fall, though, he was well enough to undertake a postgraduate year in Paris. He lived at 151 bis rue St. Jacques, close to the Sorbonne, and struck up a warm friendship with a fellow lodger, Jean Verdenal, a medical student who later died in the battle of the Dardenelles and to whom Eliot dedicated "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

With Verdenal, he entered the intellectual life of France then swirling, Eliot later recalled, around the figures of Émile Durkheim, Paul Janet, Rémy de Gourmont, Pablo Picasso, and Henri Bergson. Eliot attended Bergson's lectures at the College de France and was temporarily converted to Bergson's philosophical interest in the progressive evolution of consciousness.

In a manner characteristic of a lifetime of conflicting attitudes, though, Eliot also gravitated toward the politically conservative (indeed monarchistic), neoclassical, and Catholic writing of Charles Maurras. Warring opposites, these enthusiasms worked together to foster a professional interest in philosophy and propelled Eliot back to a doctoral program at Harvard the next year.

In 1910 and 1911 Eliot copied into a leather notebook the poems that would establish his reputation: "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," "Portrait of a Lady," "La Figlia Che Piange," "Preludes," and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night." Combining some of the robustness of Robert Browning's monologues with the incantatory elegance of symbolist verse, and compacting Laforgue's poetry of alienation with the moral earnestness of what Eliot once called "Boston doubt," these poems explore the subtleties of the unconscious with a caustic wit.

Their effect was both unique and compelling, and their assurance staggered his contemporaries who were privileged to read them in manuscript. Aiken, for example, marveled at "how sharp and complete and sui generis the whole thing was, from the outset. The wholeness is there, from the very beginning."

In the fall of 1911, though, Eliot was as preoccupied with ideas as with literature. A student in what has been called the golden age of Harvard philosophy, he worked amid a group that included Santayana, William James, the visiting Bertrand Russell, and Josiah Royce. Under Royce's direction, Eliot wrote a dissertation on Bergson's neoidealist critic F. H. Bradley and produced a searching philosophical critique of the psychology of consciousness.

He also deepened his reading in anthropology and religion, and took almost as many courses in Sanskrit and Hindu thought as he did in philosophy. By 1914, when he left on a traveling fellowship to Europe, he had persuaded a number of Harvard's philosophers to regard him as a potential colleague.

Eliot spent the early summer of 1914 at a seminar in Marburg, Germany, with plans to study in the fall at Merton College, Oxford, with Harold Joachim, Bradley's colleague and successor. The impending war quickened his departure. In August he was in London with Aiken, and by September Aiken had shown Eliot's manuscript poems to Pound, who, not easily impressed, was won over.

Pound called on Eliot in late September and wrote to Harriet Monroe at Poetry magazine that Eliot had "actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own." The two initiated a collaboration that would change Anglo-American poetry, but not before Eliot put down deep English roots.

Eliot's Plays

Eliot spent much of the last half of his career writing one kind of drama or another, and attempting to reach (and bring together) a larger and more varied audience. As early as 1923 he had written parts of an experimental and striking jazz play, Sweeney Agonistes (never finished, it was published in fragments in 1932 and performed by actors in masks by London's Group Theatre in 1934).

In early 1934 he composed a church pageant with accompanying choruses entitled The Rock, performed in May and June 1934 at Sadler's Wells. Almost immediately following these performances, Bishop Bell commissioned a church drama having to do with Canterbury Cathedral, which, as Murder in the Cathedral, was performed in the Chapter House at Canterbury in June 1935 and was moved to the Mercury Theatre at Notting Hill Gate in November and eventually to the Old Vic. In the late 1930s, Eliot attempted to conflate a drama of spiritual crisis with a Noël Coward-inspired contemporary theater of social manners.

Though Eliot based The Family Reunion on the plot of Aeschylus's Eumenides, he designed it to tell a story of Christian redemption. The play opened in the West End in March 1939 and closed to mixed reviews five weeks later. Eliot was disheartened, but after the war fashioned more popular (though less powerful) combinations of the same elements to much greater success. READ MORE!