They do the Poet in Different Voices

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As Kenner writes, Eliot manages, ‘to be ridiculous without being funny (the speaker is not making a joke) or cruel (a joke is not being made about the speaker). Their [the lines’] mechanism is allied to the mock-heroic but it doesn’t burlesque anything. ‘ (Kenner, 5) It is just this ambiguity and refusal to be easily categorised that make Eliot’s work so memorable: the poems and even individual lines from each poem can mean so many diverse things to so many people. Using a wealth of personal associations he manages to screen his own perspective.

Whilst it is exciting to search for what these poems mean to particular readers, what I wanted to look for was what they could have meant to the poet himself. Eliot employed ideas, images and structures from poets as varied as Dante and Laforgue, so I decided to attempt the same working practice, for as the mimic so you learn the art of the master. More specifically, for this project, I used three of his most notable poems, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land and The Hollow Men and allowed them to find a common voice – that of the poet.

However, there was one aspect that even from the beginning threatened to swamp the project with extraneous work. The religious beliefs that were so crucial to Eliot and take up many pages and books of critical work about the man were something that left me cold. I simply did not want to grapple with the theological debate, but I knew I could not ignore it. What I wanted to give more time to and found far more interesting was the resonance of the phrases or the carefully missed beat of the metre.

It was a lecture on modernism that gave me the perfect dispensation to marginalise such an important aspect of this man: ‘Modern poetry’ said Professor Steven Matthews, ‘is something of a religious substitute. ‘1 T. S. Eliot, as the forerunner of the modernists, was a key poet in his address and I realised that I could write my play by (literally) using the poems as a substitute for the lack of spiritual discussion in this commentary. The pious aspect of Eliot’s poetry naturally found a voice in my play that was sometimes unexpected.

It was only when I looked for them that I found the accumulation of religious references to be interesting: from dog collars to nurses dispensing medicine as a priest would communion, the poet’s voice refused to be submerged. My introduction to T. S. Eliot was through an earlier re-write using ‘Hamlet’2. Eliot’s essay ‘The Problems with Hamlet’ had inspired me to cast the poet as a psychotherapist analysing the Prince – a role that, I came to acknowledge, was somewhat ironic when viewed against the biographical facts of his life.

My play, ‘They do the Poet in Different Voices’ is set in a mental hospital, which, on one level, is to reflect the importance of doctors to both the physical and mental well-being of Eliot and his wife, and on the other it is a constant visual reminder to the audience of the frailty of the mind. It is therefore no coincidence that it is a doctor who leads Eliot into the play using the opening cajoling command of the first poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, ‘Let us go then you and I’.

The idea of the rewrite comes very easily with the works of T. S. Eliot for it is, at the basest level, what he did. Words and phrases from sources both antiquated and modern are interwoven to create the disquieting stories in the three poems I chose to base my play upon. As Eliot’s titles epitomise the difficulty of his work so I spent much time before fixing upon mine. There is a richness of implication in his titles which is often undercut by the actuality of the poems that follows, for example, with The Love Song of J.

Alfred Prufrock it is very hard to understand who could be the addressee of such a wretched and lonely man terrified of old age – certainly this is a love song like no other. It is the economy of the ‘J. ‘ which brings with it connotations of a schoolboy trying out his adult signature that highlights the ridiculous underachievement of the man. It is simply the oxymoron of The Hollow Men that gives this poem its unsettling tone. However, The Waste Land was conceived under another name, one taken from the pathetic character in Dickens’s ‘Our Mutual Friend’, who claims to, ‘do the Police in Different Voices’3.

This original title, ‘They do the Police in Different Voices’, is more human, while The Waste Land re-centres post-war, apocalyptic London – I feel Eliot putting ‘the Unreal City’4 on as a mask and so I tried to push past it and return to its initial conception. His juvenilia featured character roles that could be identified with the poet, but in 1921 he moved away from the use of single central figures such as Prufrock. 5 It was with The Waste Land that, Lyndall Gordon believed, ‘Eliot deliberately played down the loner’s voice, and transferred the weight of his poem to the Voices of Society. (Gordon, 175) Hence the aptness of Dickens and of the ‘disconnected fragments of lives’6 in ‘Our Mutual Friend’ – so I appropriated the quote and the Police became the Poet. I had considered other possibilities such as: ‘She do the Poet … ‘; ‘We do the Poet … ‘; ‘The Poet does himself … ‘.

Ultimately, it was the paranoia within the nameless ‘They’ that allowed me to settle on the final version. However, Gordon does add a codicil to his reading: ‘Yet the medley of voices is put on, even mocking, for the lone voice is never wholly submerged’. Gordon, 175) It was Eliot’s perception of the sordidness of his life that led him to immerse his voice in a cacophony of others. That revulsion was to re-emerge four years later with ‘The horror, the horror’ of Conrad’s ‘The Heart of Darkness’ – the original epigraph for The Waste Land (edited out by Ezra Pound) that is the link between The Waste Land and the third poem that makes up my triptych, my (Holy) trinity of poems, The Hollow Men. For it is in this poem that the moral emptiness suggested by the discarded quotation really echoes with a desolate starkness.

The inability even to chant the simplest of prayers becomes piteous and desperate and the world ends, ‘Not with a bang but a whimper. ‘7 I had to fight a constant battle with myself not to end my play with such an obvious line. Its anguish is powerful, but its use would have been lazy. So the epigraph for The Hollow Men reads ‘Mistah Kurtz – he dead’8 and the finality of it is bleak. Thus it can be seen that the breakdown in his private life and the eminence of his public one was a conflict rich in dramatic possibility and I was looking for the actual voice of the poet, submerged or not.

The acknowledgement of the multi-vocal is held within the idea of doing someone in ‘Different Voices’ for which voice is the one to believe? Which voice is Eliot’s? He is certainly not a poet to give up his secrets easily, for you need only scratch the surface to uncover a much darker side: he had homosexual tendencies that came out in his lewd and pornographic poems; his relationship with the women in his life was always complicated; his anti-Semitism and his social climbing less frowned upon in the early part of the 20th century, but it was still marked.

However, once his work is framed in a social and historical context its references become clearer, as all his allusions and imagery, sounds and meanings are refracted through personal relations. The poems themselves, and The Waste Land in particular, destabilise these relationships. It is therefore important that I was aware of his biography in order to see this fragmentation in process. It is the biographical interaction between poet and poems that was the key for me, and the three biographers, Lyndall Gordon, Peter Ackroyd and Carole Seymour-Jones formed the basis of my work.

The copyright to his estate is closely guarded. ‘I am forbidden by the Eliot estate to quote from Eliot’s published work, except for purposes of fair comment in a critical context, or to quote from Eliot’s unpublished work or correspondence. ‘ So ends the acknowledgments in Peter Ackroyd’s 1984 biography of T. S. Eliot. Vivienne Eliot’s case is more poignant, her correspondence was bequeathed to the Bodleian Library in Oxford, but part of that was lost and the rest remains under the control of Eliot’s second wife, Valerie Fletcher.

Underneath all this subterfuge, somewhere was a personal voice, although more apparent in his plays it was buried between the stanzas of these poems. Then I watched the film, ‘Tom and Viv’9 and found my missing link – Vivienne. Perhaps it was her voice that lent the poems their unrest, and maybe it is her voice that Eliot used as a perverse muse to create such a sense of unease in these sharply observed works. Vivienne Eliot (ni?? e Haigh-Waugh), rather faded into the background10, and has only recently been re-established as a figure in her own right by Carol Seymour-Jones’s biography11.

However, both the biography and the film focus more on the Eliots’ lives together rather than on their work. Each of the three biographers agree that their marriage was a manifestly strange one: each dependent on the other’s illnesses, breakdowns and ‘nerves’. They seemed not to be able to exist in each other’s company and yet remained together for twenty-two years before T. S. Eliot ran away to America, came back to London, converted to High Anglican, went into hiding and then divorced her, all in a relatively short space of time.

In his final act as husband he had her committed. He never went to see her in Northumberland House and she died suddenly on 22nd January 1947, eight and a half years after her admittance; she had never left the mental hospital. My play was conceived as an attempt to make Eliot accessible. I felt the arguments of the more overtly religious poems such as Ash Wednesday and The Rock to be daunting for such a project; I had no affinity with the philosophical questions embedded within them.

Likewise, there was simply too much in other major poems, for example, The Four Quartets: as it was The Waste Land proved to be almost unmanageable. The former’s influence was more reflective of another time, continent, and woman, which would have fragmented a play that was supposed to allow more clarity of understanding. Although other poems are alluded to and lines are adopted by characters throughout, to deal with any more poems in a significant manner would take me to places and ideas that I could not gather into the body of the play with any real significance.

Using Vivienne’s life as a benchmark, the three poems chosen were all written before the conversion of faith that shut his wife out of his life forever. I wished to explore the rhetorical narrative aspect of his work, which led to the idea of staging his poems. Eliot himself wrote plays, but his attempt to re-establish verse drama came at a time when British theatre was looking for something new. 12 He was not to find the success he craved in the theatrical world. Nevertheless, he was a consummate actor in his role of T. S.

Eliot, Poet and Man of Letters, and both he and his first wife relished the idea of the mask and the hidden self. Eliot even rewrote his history when he was at the height of his career. He delighted in ambiguities, deliberately leading scholars down false paths, as the academic notes to The Waste Land added in 1922 attest, for they are more blind alleys than legitimate leads. Again I was struck by Vivienne’s role in all of this – for she had been all but written out of his life by friends and colleagues alike. There had to be a reason for this.

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