Though he wrote some of the most powerfully dramatic poems of the last century, T.S. Eliot never succeeded in writing a fully achieved play. His most exciting attempt, Sweeney Agonistes, never got beyond a pair of tantalizing fragments. Partly, Eliot’s failure as a playwright came from the larger disaster that blighted the latter part of his poetic life: His gift for mimicry—one of the things that had attracted him to theatrical forms in the first place—engulfed his sense of reality. Having put on, for a variety of audiences, an ingenious range of stock roles (enumerated wittily by Edmund Wilson in a famous deflationary essay), he began to believe in the stodgiest and most reiteratuve of them: the Catholic conservative as country gentleman, England’s salvation and resident sage.
In buttoning the Norfolk jacket of this role around himself, Eliot seems never to have considered how uncomfortably it would fit the chaos-haunted, neurosis-driven, sardonic modernist he actually was. Instead he tried, in The Family Reunion (1939), to bring the Furies—Freudian as well as Aeschylean—into an English country house, as if they could casually be brought over to the vicarage for tea. Naturally, he gets so frazzled shuttling between his outer and inner worlds that his play becomes abstruse, incoherent, and at moments even faintly dyslexic: The play’s squirearchical family is named “Monchensey,” as if Eliot couldn’t get his pen to form the old Norman name Monchesney. But Eliot must have been under too much strain to straighten out these little things: Having shown his readers fear in a handful of dust, he now wanted to show them fear in a manor to which he had not been born. His most relentlessly American play, The Family Reunion is clearly the work of a man whose notion of country houses comes straight from Agatha Christie, with a few hints from Oscar Wilde, Saki, and E.F. Benson.
On the other hand, Harry, the Monchenseys’ heir, comes straight from The Waste Land by way of the tabloids: He thinks he has murdered his unsuitable wife, who jumped or was swept from the deck of a ship one stormy night; as a result, Harry now finds himself pursued by silent figures, apparently invisible to most others, wherever he goes. To convey Harry’s terror, Eliot marshals a battalion of inadequate phrases—starting with “the noxious smell untraceable in the drains”—that suggest nothing so much as kindergartners trying to frighten each other; their cumulative insistence is one of many features that make the play ludicrous. By the time all of Harry’s typologized relatives have chimed in, his offstage younger brothers have had the mysteriously coincidental accidents that keep them offstage, and we’ve learned that a select few in the house party can also see Harry’s “Eumenides” (I suspect Eliot meant “Erinyes,” but never mind)—by that time the text, relentlessly prosy whenever it strives to be most poetic, has been reduced to a laughingstock.
Its dramatic substance, late to arrive and clumsily handled, only makes it more so: Harry is innocent of his wife’s death; the woman he was actually destined to kill—his mother—dies from his actions at the end. (Eliot was always big on the obligation to kill women; compare Sweeney: “Any man has to, needs to, wants to/Once in a lifetime, do a girl in.”) As Harry goes off on an expiatory pilgrimage, the two characters who have abetted him in fulfilling this cockeyed fate perform a ritual of closure that rings the final gong on the play’s absurdity: Circling the dead woman’s birthday cake, they recite alternate snatches of hieratic mumbo-jumbo, blowing out a few candles with each stanza. Very few great poets who dallied with the drama have perpetrated an image that, made flesh, looked quite so stupid. O’Neill’s worst lapses into the faux-naif, like the climax of Dynamo, have the purity of folk art by comparison.
Inevitably, this closing stage direction was one of the few in Eliot’s text that Adrian Noble’s Royal Shakespeare Company production elected to preserve. For a poet helplessly adrift in drama, what better director could there be than one whose only virtue, as we know from previous examples, is his frank ineptitude? Noble can be relied on never to do anything emptily flashy or slick; he wouldn’t know how. In The Family Reunion, he outdid himself by eliminating the one element that offered Eliot’s gaseous metaphysics some firm ground to drift over: the country house itself. The script gets what little dynamic tension it has from its wonky combination of elements: Pull the curtains of a country- house window, and you find the Furies curled up in the window seat. Here there was no house and no window—just a bare stage with four upright chairs and a pair of side tables for prop storage, plus an angled mirror overhead that, when backlit, revealed a haze full of stalking or capering shapes, bearing all the menace of a really dull postmodern dance recital.
And recital was the prevailing tone, though some of the older actors, led by the infinitely blessed Margaret Tyzack, occasionally caught the crisp comedy of Eliot’s mock country-house chatter. The minute the abstract nouns started to appear, however, up went the little flags that say “poetry” in the English actor’s mind, and everyone’s voice became gray, solemn, and oratorical. Ask not for whom the Eliot tolls; it tolls slowly and grandly, in snooze-provoking earnest. At least Tyzack, playing Harry’s mother, and the quartet of old hands who played his befuddled relatives, had the advantage of varying their blank-verse pieties with badinage: More than anything, Eliot was a satirist; even his tragic poems have an air of condescending snidely to humanity. If he had stuck to the verbal ping-pong and left out the piety, he might have produced some tolerable intentional comedies.
Regrettably, he played up his ponderous side, leaving Harry, his tragic hero, with the unenviable job of embodying Orestes with only a bare hint of Orestes’s motive, and none of Orestes’s context in which to fulfill it. This isn’t fun, and one could feel only pity for Greg Hicks, who struggled mightily to animate the role, with no language, no direction, and, apparently, no inner resources to help him out. In desperation, he kept facing front, pointing his chin at the balcony, and shouting his lines out like a train announcer. BAM’s smaller theater—which used to be majestic, but is now merely harvey—doesn’t really have a balcony, but then, this Harry was a lord with no country house, so a little desperation was justified. Not as much, however, as Zoe Waites insisted on displaying in the role of Mary, the poor relation who loves Harry and helps him find himself. Where Hicks at least struggled to invent his role, Waites galumphed through hers with patent inadequacy in every department, starting with a coarse London accent (Mary is supposed to have lived in the house for seven years) that put her only a few streets away from Yard Gal. No wonder Hicks’s hands, in their scenes together, kept straying up towards her neck. Or perhaps he too recognized that Eliot’s source was not Christi Redemptoris, but that other Christie, the beloved Agatha—first cause of this mysterious affair of muddled style.