Thursday, March 12, 2009

Greek Models in T. S. Eliot's 'The Family Reunion'

With the demise of T. S. Eliot, the world of English literature lost a staunch and resolute advocate of the Greek tradition in modern literature. The precise interaction between this tradition in which the poet believed so firmly and his own five verse dramas proves it amply.

Murder in the Cathedral, written for the Canterbury Festival of 1935 and The Family Reunion are case in point. No wonder, in 1941 Eliot was invited to become the president of the Classical Association and his presidential address delivered at Easter 1942 was also entitled The Classics and the Man of Letters.

In the course of his lecture Eliot remarked: "It should be apparent that our prime concern in considering the education of the man of letters is not the amount of learning which a man acquires, or the degree of scholastic distinction which he attains-what is of prime importance is the type of education within which his schooling falls... Shakespeare's education, what he had of it, belongs in the same tradition as that of Milton: it was essentially a classical education."

Eliot goes on to observe: "Without knowing any Latin you may write English poetry; I am not sure whether without Latin you can wholly understand it " Same may be said about his views on the knowledge of Greek Classic literature.

The eminent Liberal statesman Lord Samuel chose to discuss Eliot's plays in the course of his Presidential Address to the Classical Association in 1953. He remarked, "Mr. Eliot tells us, in his published lecture on Poetry and Drama, that his play The Family Reunion was founded on the Orestes myth in Aeschylus and The Cocktail Party on the Alcestis of Euripides ... For all their literary skill and dramatic interest, both plays leave a feeling of disappointment. The climaxes do not grip.

The Greeks were genuinely interested in the Eumenides, Ananke, and the like; but we are not ready to believe they have anything to do with what may be going on today at a family gathering in a country-house in the north of England or at a lively cocktail party in London. It is noteworthy, however, and perhaps significant as a sign of the times, that precisely the same tendency is to be found simultaneously among some of the principal dramatists in France."

T S Eliot observed, "I do not know whether it is pertinent for your purpose to call attention to the uses made of Greek drama on the contemporary French stage. The first important example within my memory was Jean Cocteau's La Machine Infernale, a new version in contemporary French idiom of Oedipus Tyrannus. He was followed by other dramatists, notably Giraudoux, and more recently, Anouilh in Antigone, as well as Sartre in Les Mouches, but the method of all these French dramatists is in some ways diametrically the opposite of mine. They have retained the names of the original characters and stuck rather more closely to the plots of the original dramatists, the innovation being merely that the characters talk as if they were contemporary French people, and in some cases employ what one might call anachronistic allusions to modern life.

The method that has appealed to me has been rather to take merely the situation of a Greek play as a starting point, with wholly modern characters, and develop it according to the workings of my own mind. The chief aim of this piece is to observe precisely how these workings of Eliot's mind in fact developed with each one of his themes in his plays including The Family Reunion and to show that how he used Greek plays as a starting-point.

In The Family Reunion, we have an elaboration of the plot of Aeschylus' Choephoroe. A full analysis scene by scene will not be necessary for this comparison: it will be sufficient to compare the outline of the two plots. The reader will recall that in the Choephoroe Clytemnestra has had a bad dream and therefore is sending offerings to appease the ghost of Agamemnon, the husband she had murdered with the aid of her lover Aegisthus.

Whilst Electra, her daughter prays that Agamemnon may be avenged, Orestes and Pylades are waiting to introduce themselves. Electra and Orestes recognize one another, and brother and sister at once concert a plan to avenge their father. Orestes then calls on Clytemnestra, pretending to be a stranger from Daulis sent by Strophius to Argos on the errand of reporting Orestes' death in a chariot race.

When she sends out Aegisthus for further details, Orestes slays him. He then slays his mother too, urged on by Pylades his friend. However, once his mother is slain, the young prince beholds the Eumenides, who constrain him to depart, though remaining invisible to the chorus. This chorus is composed of women of Argos, while the remaining characters are Orestes' old nurse, who is sent to tell Aegisthus the supposed news, and the servant who first admits the supposed Daulian messenger to the palace and then runs to tell Clytemnestra that Orestes has slain Aegisthus.

How does Eliot use this plot as his starting-point for The Family Reunion? Believing that the Furies have caused the hero to murder his mother as much as they enforce his departure, Eliot determines to treat each aspect separately in his Orestes, Harry, Earl Monchensey. He is returning after years abroad for the birthday of his mother, Amy, Dowager Countess Monchensey.

The false accident of Aeschylus' tale becomes two real motor accidents which prevent Harry's brothers Arthur and John from reaching Wishwood for the occasion. Harry himself had murdered his wife by pushing her overboard in mid Atlantic, and is thus pursued by Furies visible only to him and his faithful chauffeur Downing. Unlike Clytemnestra, Amy wishes her son to come home, and his departure at the urging of the Furies occasions her fatal seizure.

Again, Eliot divides the fixations of Electra on her dead father and her absent brother between two characters. The latter duty is given Harry's cousin Mary, his childhood playmate, who now lives with Amy as a companion poor relation. The former function is discharged by Agatha, Amy's younger sister, a retired headmistress who was Monchensey's beloved before Amy's mental cruelty finally caused his death when Harry was still a small boy.

Aegisthus is replaced by the more innocuous figure of Amy's medical adviser and confidant, Dr. Warburton, whom she asks to dinner in the hope that he can prescribe for Harry's unsettled nerves.

The role of the Aeschylean chorus is shared by Harry's two uncles Gerald and Charles Piper and his aunts Violet and Ivy. Denman the parlor maid replaces Clytemnestra's manservant, while the old policeman whom Harry knew as a boy, Sergeant Winchell, has the function of the old nurse of Orestes.

Finally the chauffeur Downing, who takes Harry away in the last act, replaces some of the functions of the faithful friend Pylades in Aeschylus. So it is that in The Family Reunion the model for the plot is obscured from immediate view by the combined effect of the doubling of several roles and incidents, the division of the choral duties between four characters, and exchange of sex between two of the minor parts. Again, the motive for such modification is the desire to work out implications in the original tale which are of no concern to Aeschylus.

The general method of Eliot's dramatic adaptations from the Greek is to begin by asking some questions implicit in the play and then revise and develop the plot in modern terms in order to raise these issues. In consequence, some roles are rendered two or threefold to survey their different implications, while others which become less important in the new structure are combined or merged.

For the same reason there is a tendency to double the events or situations of the original play. Further, as gods, kings, and heroes walk the Greek tragic stage, Eliot takes care that his main characters are similarly well-bred and well-connected in their modern contexts. Finally, though in The Family Reunion the Greek unities of time and place are carefully observed, the later plays allow more latitude.

Lastly, Greek drama frequently embodied comment on current affairs. Though this function is most evident in Comedy, its presence in Tragedy cannot wholly be ignored. Therefore it is probable that Eliot would also have wished to redevelop this aspect of his Greek models; and his plays seem susceptible of such interpretation.

The speeches of the Knights in 1935 are also the speeches of the Age of Appeasement, of that 'National' Government which abetted Franco's Fascists and countenanced the invasion of Abyssinia under the HoareLaval pact. Murder in the Cathedral criticizes such things by implication, and finds them displeasing to God.

Again, The Family Reunion does not merely express the workings of the family curse of Wishwood: it is the guilt of the depression, of the abdication crisis, and, above all, of Munich which haunts the conscience of Harry's generation. In 1949 The Cocktail Party offers the choices of the days of post-war austerity. Does a man run away or does he face the call of duty, whether it bring routine tasks or martyrdom? The Confidential Clerk is the play of Coronation Year, full of hope and of a reconciliation brightened by richer understanding of life and experience.

Finally, The Elder Statesman is the post-Suez play, belonging to a day when Britain, like Claverton, has retired from active leadership and can only escape the unhappy legacies of the past by a similar total honesty. The play ends with a mood of peaceful acceptance and a serenity which the poet perhaps desired both for himself and his adopted country.

Perhaps Eliot has put his own view of the significance of the models he chose, in more telling language than any literary scholar can presume to coin, in the fifth canto of East Coker:

And what there is to conquer

By strength and submission, has already been discovered

Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope

To emulate-but there is no competition-

There is only the fight to recover what has been lost

And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions

That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.

Equivalents between Aeschylus' Greek Play Choephoroe and Eliot's The Family Reunion:

1. Orestes : Harry, Earl Monchensey (and Arthur and John)

2. Chorus of Captive Women: Ivy and Violet+ Gerald and Charles

3. Electra : Agatha and Mary

4. Nurse : Sergeant Winchell

5. Clytemnestra : Amy, Dowager Countess Monchensey

6. Aegisthus: Dr. Warburton

7. Serving man: Denman, a parlour maid

8. Pylades : Downing, the chauffeur


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