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Oedipus, Suez, and Hungary: T.S. Eliot's tradition and The Elder Statesman.

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. Intersecting with this urgent political moment are new forms of exciting theater, and Eliot's play will be understood to react to and against these innovations, in part by assimilating some of them to itself, and to the capacious tradition that it asserts against the damage of Suez. Even as this intersection promotes the play's contemporaneity, the play itself emphasizes its classical antecedents as a vital component in the cultural tradition with which it answers its fierce historical moment. Beyond this argument, there will be a methodological reflection on how much critical value classical reception studies possesses now, when our political leaders have projected into public culture the immense term civilization. (8) Along the way, some further reference will be made to the recent and rare performance of the play at the King's Head in 2008. Taking a cue from this production, and another from the Donmar's Festival, my argument cherishes the aim that it might incite further critical reinterpretation of Eliot's plays, particularly within classical reception studies.

I. Oedipus among the Teacups

Eliot's play is frightfully and stiflingly "English." The action begins with an embarrassed exchange about an invitation to tea. The first act, furthermore, is set in a London drawing room, and the following two acts take place at a nursing home in the country. Here are the contours both of the English drawing-room drama and of the English country-house drama, concentrated together. Behind this Englishness, however, there is the depth of a classical dimension. But then, most of Eliot's dramas, and all that have a contemporary setting, are fixated on at least one Greek tragedy: The Family Reunion is paired with Aeschylus's Eumenides, The Confidential Clerk with Euripides' Ion, The Cocktail Party with Euripides' Alcestis, and The Elder Statesman with Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, Oedipus Tyrannus, and Antigone. By citing no fewer than three Greek tragedies, however, and in virtue of being Eliot's last play, The Elder Statesman may well be advancing cumulatively large claims for its classical aspect. Such classicism, in the event, need not detract from the Englishness that characterizes all of Eliot's dramas. After all, what could be more English than classical Greek?

But let's get back to the play so that we can cringe at the tergiversations over tea. The characters present here are Monica, daughter of the retired politician and banker Lord Claverton, and Monica's suitor, Charles. Responding to a repeated invitation from Monica, Charles declares,
   Very well then, I will stop to tea,
   But you know I won't get a chance to talk to you.
   You know that. Now that your father's retired
   He's at home every day. And you're leaving London.
   And because your father simply can't bear it
   That any man should have you to himself,
   Before I've said two words, he'll come ambling in. (9)

The play thus begins with an oedipal triangle in which familial love and erotic love are in tension. That Monica, in Charles's account, privileges her love for her father over her love for him is just one element in the allegorical equation that correlates Monica with Antigone, the iconic woman who cannot be separated from her paternal family. Antigone's adhesion to the paternal family plays out, however, in both Oedipus at Colonus and in Antigone, and the allegorical identifications of the characters in Eliot's play are accordingly multiplied. Insofar as The Elder Statesman is read as an adaptation of Oedipus at Colonus, Lord Claverton is identified as a version of Oedipus, and Charles, correspondingly, as Theseus, supporting and rescuing Monica from the forces besetting her father. Insofar as Eliot's play is read as rewriting the Antigone, Claverton is Polyneices, waiting to be buried, and Charles is Haemon, waiting for Antigone; his surname is, in fact, Hemington. (10) Though this equation with Antigone fits less well overall than that with Oedipus at Colonus, the triangulation around the invitation to tea substantiates it quite neatly.

Almost as imposing as Oedipus at Colonus within The Elder Statesman is Oedipus Tyrannus. It is, however, only on the grounds of Claverton's secret past that there is a relationship here. Two secrets, major and minor, lurk in his past: the minor is an instance of breach of promise; the major is the fact that, driving a car many years before, he ran over an old man in the road. The latter is enough to cast him as Oedipus, successful now, but haunted by a fatal encounter. (11) As it happens, the old man was already dead, but Claverton did not know this, and his companion, Gomez, knows that he didn't know, and, more incriminatingly, knows that he did not stop the car to find out: "You didn't stop" (29), he reminds Claverton chillingly, in a reproach that could be applied comprehensively to Oedipus. Thus Gomez returns to haunt Claverton, as Oedipus's crimes pursue him, and Gomez is joined by Mrs. Carghill, whom Claverton disappointed in the breach of promise. Gomez and Carghill now constellate two symmetrical triangles against Claverton, with his disobliging son Michael; they effectively operate as sinister stepparents, tempting Michael into an unknown alternative family. As a result, Michael is configured in another triangle, with his sister Monica and their father, as he plays the rebellious son against Monica's role of dutiful daughter. Moreover, Monica is abidingly locked with Charles and her father in another such concatenation. Caught in and among these several triangles, Claverton begins to collapse in on himself.

The dramatic construct of multiple triangulation is one that had featured prominently in Eliot's earlier play, The Cocktail Party, first produced in 1949. As Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne conduct extramarital affairs with Celia and Peter respectively, Peter has also been involved with Celia, thereby figuring a triangle symmetrical with Edward's relationship to the two women. Enter Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, who triangulates twice in mediating between Lavinia and Celia to reconstitute the union between Edward and Lavinia. Such awkward constellations notwithstanding, none of them is charged with the intense gravity of the oedipal relation between children and parent that permeates The Elder Statesman. (12)

This vertical pressure does feature, if to lesser degree, in The Confidential Clerk, which was first staged in 1953. Colby Simpkins is caught in a triangle with his putative father, Sir Claude Mulhammer, and with Sir Claude's wife Lady Elizabeth, as each seeks to claim him as their own natural, and illegitimate, son. Compounding these forces is Colby's intuition of the claims of his adoptive parents, who form a second, ghostly triangle within which he is configured. In the event, Mrs. Guzzard, replaying the mediating role of Athena in Euripides' Ion, liberates Colby from the claims of both sets of parents and enables him, effectively, to become himself, in choosing to follow the career of his real natural father. In contrast to Ion and The Confidential Clerk, where the forces bear ultimately on the sons, in Oedipus at Colonus and The Elder Statesman the geometry singles out the fathers.

Yet the pressures that make and break Claverton also re-create him. As the two alien characters, Gomez and Carghill, increasingly triangulate against him, through Michael, he comes to recognize that
      They are merely ghosts:
   Spectres from my past. They've always been with me
   Though it was not till lately that I found the living persons
   Whose ghosts tormented me, to be only human beings,
   Malicious, petty, and I see myself emerging
   From my spectral existence into something like reality.

The protagonist of Oedipus Tyrannus, of course, comes to recognize himself in others whom he has fictionalized, such as the anonymous murderer of Laius, Oedipus's father. Claverton likewise identifies others as his own past selves, specifically insofar as those others represent his earlier relationships with them. He recognizes and repudiates the regressive versions of self entailed in these quasi-oedipal triangles and becomes a new self in the very act of rejecting the old selves:
   I've spent my life in trying to forget myself,
   In trying to identify myself with the part
   I had chosen to play.


   So I'd become an idol
   To Monica. She worshipped the part I played


   Now, I'm tired of keeping up those pretences,
   But I hope you'll find a little love in your heart
   Still, for your father, when you know him
   For what he is, the broken-down actor.

Oedipus similarly seeks to forget himself by fleeing from Delphi and Corinth and is spectacularly successful in fashioning a new identity for himself in Thebes. It cannot go on, of course, and the original emptiness of Oedipus, the abandoned baby, reasserts itself, destroying all the roles later constructed upon that hungry void, as this original absence of identity creates contradictions between those roles.

As soon as this equation has been established, however, it is over, as Eliot's play ceases to shadow Oedipus Tyrannus. Once the play has concluded the plot of exposure, in Claverton's admission of his past, it seems to settle into a more systematic, intimate relationship with Oedipus at Colonus, and tragedy itself correspondingly becomes only one scale within the larger, emerging composition. It is specifically the intimacy among characters in Eliot's play that brings it into a close relationship with those moments in Oedipus at Colonus that can be seen to figure "reconciliation." Of these, Oedipus's alliance with Theseus and his integration into Athens are the most salient, but there is also his recognition of the worth of his daughters, especially vis-a-vis his useless sons. Such recognition, and tenderness, in Eliot's play prompts this response from Monica, after Claverton has confessed his guilty, but anticlimactic secret:
   Oh Father, I've always loved you,
   But I love you more since I have come to know you
   Here, at Badgley Court. And I love you the more
   Because I love Charles.

Far from Monica's love for her father precluding her love for Charles, as Charles initially alleges, her love for Charles augments her love for her father. So what about him? Even as Claverton may seem to be the ultimate beneficiary here, he reciprocates by asserting that Monica's love for Charles is greater than her love for him but that this very fact accentuates his love for her: "And I love you, my daughter, the more truly for knowing / That there is someone you love more than your father" (69). You love me more because you love someone else, and I love you more because I know that you love that someone else more than you love me. So familial and romantic loves, mutually exclusive at the beginning because they pivoted on the single figure of Monica, are rendered mutually inclusive. (13) Instead of the oedipal triangle being dismantled, it is reconstructed as an enabling structure of mediation wherein one love enhances another, but not by means of competition. (14)

The production of The Elder Statesman at the King's Head played up this embracing serenity, even in some of the earlier scenes. As a conscious celebration and promotion of the play on the fiftieth anniversary of its first production at the Edinburgh Festival, this event imparted the dignity of the occasion to the dramatization itself. Given that this production was a "rehearsed reading" moreover, in which the cast sat in a line, gently arcing toward the audience, at the two ends, a certain coziness was configured, not qualified by other aspects of the production. Claverton presided benignly, if wearily, from center stage, and there was no evident attempt to infuse the character with the energy of Oedipus or of Lear. (15) Even the sinister undertones of Gomez and Mrs. Carghill were muted by an emphasis on levity, and the audience duly responded to these characters' arch insinuations about Claverton's past with complicit laughter. We were in on the jokes. Concluding this pacification of aggressive impulses in the text was Michael's earnest beseeching of his father, which conspicuously lacked the petulance and oedipal hostility otherwise legible in the text. The net results of this effort to suffuse the play with a version of the equanimity that is clearly bestowed on Claverton at the end were a production that was coherent, because consistent in mood, but also lacking in dramatic tension. Rather than reducing a structural tension, this production increased a given harmony, by retrojecting it.

II. The Big Bang of Culture

Now, a good deal of my analysis so far has been pretty much established within the criticism of the play, but I want to extend it to generate a new argument. As these three characters make their mutual declarations, Claverton exorcizes not only his past selves locked in those oppressive relationships with Gomez and Carghill but also the ghosts of Sophocles' Oedipus and Freud's Oedipus. Both Greek tragedy and psychoanalysis are subsumed into the service of something larger. What might that be? Well, one possibility, suggested by Claverton's repeated use of terms such as love, confession, and forgiveness is an encompassing Christian love, and this suggestion is corroborated by Monica's declaration to Charles at the end of the play: "I've loved you from the beginning of the world. / Before you and I were born, the love was always there / That brought us together" (70). But the love here is so transcendent that it seems to transcend even the Christian love that it otherwise resembles. Canvassed here is the implication of an expansive platonic love, cosmically co-extensive with Christian love but preceding it as a historical paradigm. Thus, The Elder Statesman, in its closing gesture, declares how it and its Greek antecedent between them straddle both pagan and Christian paradigms. (16) Since the plays are posed as doing so, furthermore, on the basis of different models of love, there is a strong implication that platonic and Christian loves are effectively reconciled under the sign of an even higher love at this moment of dramatic closure.

What that even higher love might be is indicated by the fact that the Elder Statesman beneficently marrying different loves is not only Claverton but also the play of which he is the eponym; "The Elder Statesman," just like Oedipus at Colonus, is both protagonist and play. The import of this punning that foregrounds the play is that the higher love marrying classical and Christian is none other than the capacious, syncretizing power of European drama itself, ranging, as a tradition, from Greek tragedy all

the way to Eliot's play. Claverton is an eponym of the play, and the play is a metonym of the tradition. Such a colossal context is leveraged into visibility by the systematic traces of King Lear in The Elder Statesman: these elements are concentrated in Claverton's political abdication, in his persecution, especially by Michael, and in his reconciliation with Monica, as she, like Cordelia, loves her father according to her bond. Thus invoked, this Shakespeare play functions as a pivot between Oedipus at Colonus and The Elder Statesman, located at opposite ends of the historical scale. And the latest play can accommodate them all, along with Oedipus Tyrannus, Eumenides, and potentially many others, as we shall now see. Ibsen's Ghosts, haunting Eliot's play in the forms of Carghill and Gomez, as well as in the general apparition of so many other plays within it, almost goes without saying. (17)

Among the other possible plays so embraced, several are traced in a remarkable passage where Monica and Claverton discourse on his empty "engagement book," once inscribed with meetings but now a blank canvas, bleakly awaiting the next dramatic appointment. Of the blank pages, Monica observes:
   You would soon fill them up if we allowed you to!
   That's my business to prevent. You know I'm here to protect you
   From your own restless energy--the inexhaustible
   Sources of the power that wears out the machine.

Traced glancingly here may be both Jean Cocteau's La Machine Infernale, an adaptation of Oedipus Tyrannus, and Jean Anouilh's Antigone, which also cites Cocteau's play in the Chorus's lines about tragic inevitability:

"The spring is wound up tight. It will uncoil itself. That is what is so convenient in tragedy.... The rest is automatic. You don't need to lift a finger. The machine is in perfect order; it has been oiled ever since time began." (18) In this one reference to the machine and its power may be discerned Oedipus Tyrannus, in Cocteau's play, and Antigone, in Anouilh's drama, each flanking the third play of the Theban cycle as it develops within Eliot's play.

To Monica's admonition about his health, couched in terms of "energy" and "the machine," Claverton responds with a different dramatic conceit:
   If I had the energy to work myself to death
   How gladly would I face death! But waiting, simply waiting,
   With no desire to act, yet a loathing of inaction.
   A fear of the vacuum, and no desire to fill it.
   It's just like sitting in an empty waiting room
   In a railway station on a branch line,
   After the last train, after all the other passengers
   Have left, and the booking office is closed
   And the porters have gone. What am I waiting for
   In a cold and empty room before an empty grate?

Godot, of course, is one answer, and, unlike Prufrock, Claverton may well be Prince Hamlet, and was meant to be. The latter identification is impressed by the contradiction of "no desire to act, yet a loathing of inaction" and by the sheer ambivalence of this experience, which may recall Eliot's account of Hamlet as wanting an "objective-correlative." (19) Echoing Beckett's play may be a timely reflex, since its British premiere occurred at the Arts Theatre, London, in August 1955, provoking controversy but also high praise from Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson. (20) The first English translation was published, furthermore, by Faber and Faber, Eliot's publisher and employer, in 1956. Here again, The Elder Statesman was unfortunate in its timing, just as it was in relation to Look Back in Anger. Even so, Eliot's play may be seen at least to acknowledge Waiting for Godot in the empty rituals and other vacuities of Claverton's life. (21) Moreover, Claverton's minor diatribe above may even gesture to Look Back in Anger and the tirades therein, especially since Osborne's play, like Eliot's, remorselessly triangulates characters throughout. Linking them further may be Osborne's figure of the desolated Alison, who sits on a train from London, not unlike Claverton in the waiting room, bereft of her miscarried child; there may even be an intertextual pun on the "porters" (17) here, which by way of "Mrs Porter / And ... her daughter" in The Waste Land 22 brings Alison Porter, perhaps Jimmy, and their miscarried baby into the loop.

There is a yet another manifestation of the curse of bad timing brooding over Eliot's play. Brecht's Berliner Ensemble made its first visit to Britain in August 1956, bringing Mother Courage, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, and Trumpets and Drums to a season at the Palace Theatre, London. Tynan was duly impressed, as by Beckett and Osborne's plays, and became a proselytizer for Brecht's work. And yet again, The Elder Statesman might be read to incorporate an element or two from the very theatrical media rampantly superseding it, along with Eliot's whole mode of drama; the apparently genial permeability of the play goes on. If the poetic declamations about "love," in particular, are not conducive to the alienation effect, in their affront to naturalism, I don't know what is. So much bad timing has accrued to Eliot's play, in fact, that it seems to have willed its own appearance at this juncture, even as an anachronism. Rather than innovative theatrical forms, pioneered by Osborne, Beckett, and Brecht, simply relegating Eliot's drama, as passive victim, The Elder Statesman appears to be a critical and creative reaction to those forms. It is evidently a reaction against them, yet how it reacts is, in part, by assimilating some of their features, not only to itself but crucially to the tradition of European drama that it parades.

Greek tragedy, Shakespearean drama, and even modern experimental drama thus seem to be subsumed, quite audaciously, within a single majestic tradition exemplified by a small play that contains elements of them all. As the Elder Statesman jettisons his ghosts, The Elder Statesman accumulates its own. Should the blank pages of Claverton's engagement book pose a question about what kind of play is to ensue, this compressed metonym of a whole tradition is the answer. Look back in love.

From this decorous, understated, very English play, confined parochially to the drawing room and the nursing home, explodes a cosmically inclusive vision; from comic to cosmic is a small step, as well as a giant leap. Just as Claverton, Monica, and Charles are embraced within a newly non-oedipal triangle of affinity, so platonic, Christian, and even psychoanalytic models of love are reconciled within the great tradition of European drama. The play dramatizes a vast, cultural family romance extending from Plato to Freud, Sophocles to Osborne. That Brecht is potentially embraced too, despite his animus against neo-Aristotelian poetics, proves that this tradition is much larger than the neo-Aristotelian edifice, because it can also accommodate this Brechtian antithesis, as well as the broad Neoplatonic alternative. The stakes here are even higher, since the tradition invoked and reasserted by Eliot's play can be deemed to write the cultural script of so-called Western civilization itself.

Such a sublimely ambitious gesture has a precedent in Eliot's work, in the coordinated arguments of the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and the poem The Waste Land. Written and published in the aftermath of the First World War, these texts can be read, and generally have been read, as attempts to reaffirm the underlying integrity of European culture after contemporary Europe itself had been so divided and devastated. First published in 1919, "Tradition and the Individual Talent" furnishes a classically idealist formulation of "the classical tradition":
   Tradition ... cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must
   obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the
   historical sense ... and the historical sense compels a man to
   write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a
   feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and
   within it the literature of his own country has a simultaneous
   existence and composes a simultaneous order. (23)

As the individual talent labors to enter it, the tradition itself, far from being an immutable monolith, responds in an almost organic choreography with the authentic writer:
   The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which
   is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of
   art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work
   arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty,
   the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and
   so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward
   the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old
   and new. (24)

Combining flexibility and integrity, and servicing the latter with the former, this version of tradition is itself situated within a paradigmatically conservative tradition of thinking about historical change. (25) Perhaps the epitome of that larger tradition is Edmund Burke's model of the English constitution: "A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation" such that there are "two principles of conservation and correction" constantly at work. (26) Much of Eliot's writing, critical and poetic, can be understood as operating within such a large tradition of tradition-building. Yet, more even than "Tradition and the Individual Talent" and The Waste Land, both published in the aftermath of a world war, Eliot's last play seems committed to synthesis. (27)

Given the close concinnity between the ideological project of these texts and that of The Elder Statesman, a question poses itself. Since the essay and the poem can be correlated with the historical juncture of the immediate postwar period, what might be the later historical crisis that motivates the rhetorical reflexes of Eliot's last play? The play was drafted, in part, in 1956 and was then completed and produced for theater in 1958. Within this period, no fewer than two egregious historical crises present themselves: the Suez Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. 1956 and all that.

Suez, indeed, seems engraved on the large loving heart of the play. Since this crisis involved a breach between the UK, France, and Israel, on the one hand, and the United States, on the other, in their responses to a new, assertive Arab nationalism, a cultural rapprochement to affirm underlying affinities was quite in order. Compounding this need was the fact that the three powers initially involved as allies against Egypt--the UK, France, and Israel--fell out not only after but also during the effort to break President Nasser's blockade of the Suez Canal. Now, I'm not quite suggesting that Claverton can be construed as a thinly veiled analogue of the British prime minister Anthony Eden, who resigned over his mishandling of Suez, but the chastened, burned-out Eden does seem to be lurking as another of our Elder Statesman's ghosts. Both retire citing ill health, and yet there is the greater underlying cause in Eden's case and perhaps in Claverton's too. Gomez insinuates as much when he probes intrusively:
      you withdrew from the world of politics
   And went into the City. Director of a bank
   And chairman of companies. You looked the part-Cut
   out to be an impressive figurehead.
   But again, you've retired at sixty. Why at sixty?

Claverton's response is to declare an indisposition: "I had a stroke. / And I might have another" (26). Although none of the reviews hazards an analogy between Claverton and Eden, E. Martin Browne, who directed the first productions of all Eliot's dramas, does observe about Paul Rogers, the actor playing Claverton, who was considerably younger than the character: "He achieved the necessary age through a crispness of manner covering an underlying weariness; and the appearance which matched this emerged uncannily like Harold Macmillan, who was Prime Minister at the time" (338). (28) Indeed he was, but he had been in post barely a year since the hapless Eden had resigned.

Eden's discreet haunting of the play might have been witnessed, had a substantial passage ascribed to Monica in the second draft not been cut in rehearsal. Here is the passage, from act 1, as Monica defends her father against Charles's early charge that he is "selfish":
   I won't have you saying that my father is selfish.

   He has sacrificed himself, always,
   To his sense of public responsibility;
   In sacrificing himself, he's had to sacrifice others.
   And if he's identified himself with public causes
   Isn't it natural enough, Charles,
   After a lifetime, now that he's old
   And tired and discouraged--he's fought for so much,
   And so often alone--and so often in vain--
   Isn't it natural that he should have come
   In his personal relations--and there's noone [sic] but me--
   To regard himself as a sort of public cause? (29)

Emphasizing Clavertons sacrifice of self as well as of others, this passage dilates on his public service and the costs that it entails and thereby seems to profile him as a version of Eden. (30) Churchill too had finally retired in 1955, but the elegiac disappointment attached to Claverton's public failures recalls the shade of Eden much more readily. (31) Gomez briskly dismisses Claverton's litigiously defensive claim that "I was never accused of making a mistake" (25), and the latter has already identified himself as one "Of the failed successes, the successful failures" (18). Even Gomez's speculation that "You were given a ministry before you were fifty: / That should have led you to the very top!" (25) resonates pertinently: Eden was regarded, especially after the event, as not being of prime ministerial timber. In the event, he retired, ignominiously, into a devoted relationship with his second wife in January 1957.

Much indeed is made of this date in Martin Browne's narrative of the play's genesis, which is ascribed in its later phase not to political circumstances at all, but rather to Eliot's personal happiness, dated in this account to his second marriage in January 1957. Martin Browne explains Claverton's serenity in act 3, as it rehearses that of Oedipus at Colonus, with biographical reference to Eliot's connubial bliss. There was, in the event, only a brief indication of the play pertaining to his own life from the dramatist himself, in the dedication to his wife, which concludes: "The words mean what they say, but some have a further meaning / For you and me only." Monica's speech above, meanwhile, may have been cut because it gestured all too clearly to another "further meaning" within the political sphere, as a reference to Eden.

After the transatlantic trauma of Suez, as I've said, Eliot's The Elder Statesman can be seen to put Britain, as well as France and Israel, back together with one another and with America, under the sign of Western civilization, as dramatized by European literary culture. In reproducing so much cultural history under the sign of Christian reconciliation and platonic love, Eliot's play can be seen to reassert the coherence of the Judeo-Christian tradition by underwriting it with, and rehearsing its relationship to, the Greco-Roman tradition. (32) The cultural imperative to do so may have been made more urgent because the closest precedent to Suez, among the Western powers, had played out quite differently: this immediate antecedent was the Korean War--between 1950 and 1953--in which the fledgling United Nations had functioned quite successfully in orchestrating the Western powers, indirectly against the USSR and directly against China. The Anglo-American Eliot, the elder statesman of English letters, shifts the faultline that has emerged in the Atlantic, between Europe and America, back to the Suez Canal, between the West and the East.

III. A Raid on the Barbarians

In reinscribing that boundary along a more traditional contour of cultural geography, Eliot's play is leveraged not only by the monolithic tradition that it invokes but also by the one play at the far end of that cultural genealogy on which it is most explicitly modeled. Oedipus at Colonus is a play obsessed with borders and with insides and outsides. The play opens with a curious, improvised choreography as Antigone micromanages the movements of Oedipus near the grove of the Furies, especially in response to the detailed stipulations of the citizen. Once correctly situated in Colonus, on the threshold of Athens, he is granted "citizenship with full rights" (33) in Athens, by Theseus. From being anathema throughout Greece, Oedipus is suddenly transfigured into a powerful value. So compelling is Athenian power in revalorizing him that the other poleis of Thebes and Argos validate it by desiring him likewise. Even though the city states of Greece had uniformly ostracized him earlier, as soon as Athens wants him Creon and Polyneices surge onstage expressing a symmetrical, mimetic desire.

This compelling reterritorialization of Oedipus, after his compulsory deterritorialization, may be as significant historically as it is geographically. Oedipus at Colonus was first produced in Athens, in 401 BCE, at the very end of the Peloponnesian War, when the political, military, and economic power of Athens had been decimated. In representing Athens' initiative and preeminence in deciding the fate of Oedipus, Sophocles' play might be construed as asserting the continuing cultural power of Athens, even as other forms of power obtain no longer. Though much reduced from the Athens related in the play, as it prospers under Theseus, the real postwar Athens may be understood here as abidingly blessed with the power of cultural valorization, because Oedipus, as an object of that power, reciprocates by committing himself, in perpetuity, to Athenian soil. In the symbolic terms of the play, he is still there, imparting his protection to the city. Even now, in defeat, Athens is at the center of the Greek world. Several commentators have remarked on the tranquility and even transcendence that characterize Oedipus at the end of the play, as his guilt is finally accommodated, and this aspect of the play accords fully with Eliot's Elder Statesman. (34) Others, more recently, have addressed the difficult politics of Sophocles' play, seeking to make sense of it as a reflection on Athens, and even as a critique of Athenian democracy. (35) Regardless of how the latter view is played out in detail, it is broadly consistent with my argument about the cultural politics of Eliot's play, as much as the other focus on Sophocles' play, on the serene Oedipus, meshes with the established reading of The Elder Statesman as Eliot's theatrical swansong and as testament to his personal felicity. Personal and political here embrace.

The play, then, has its day. Far from being insulated against the mighty historical events and forces swirling round it, and far from being marginalized and superseded by new styles of theater, The Elder Statesman reacts resourcefully to the latter, partially introjecting these styles and then directing them, plus itself, and the larger tradition in which it casts them, against the contemporary depredations of political history. (36) Despite the political and diplomatic disunity created by Suez, and by the weakened Western response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary, Eliot's drama asserts, firmly if quietly, an underlying unity of culture. It is this cultural compensation that permits Claverton, specifically as identified with Eden, to enjoy a mitigation of his errors, much as Oedipus establishes some distance from his crimes. The Elder Statesman's link with Oedipus at Colonus is accentuated by this economy between politics and culture that the play asserts. Once Theseus relegates Oedipus's crimes and admits him to Athens, generative possibilities abound. Just as Oedipus institutes a tradition of protecting Athens, so too Claverton and Eden stand to benefit from its massively accumulated presence. No matter their failings as statesmen, this tradition is there to make up for them.

So much harmony is attained here that the tragedy of Oedipus, as overwritten by the tragedy of Claverton, begins to modulate into a tragicomic mode that is indeed sufficiently capacious to represent European culture in its broad extent; the later play is aspiringly Shakespearean in its modal range, if not its texture. Even the great tradition of European tragedy is only one strand in the larger edifice signified here. Yet this very largest cultural harmony serves to divide West and East, in the play, as the Atlantic world is reconsolidated. Like Athens at the close of the Peloponnesian War, London after Suez has been spectacularly demoted from its historical role, but, like Athens in Sophocles' play, can perhaps retain a symbolical version of it, as the potent cultural nucleus of the West, historically refracting classical Greek icons. The trope of England as Greece to America's Rome may hover in the background here. Such a cultural underwriting of the NATO alliance was made even more ideologically needful by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, as the Soviet Union apparently took advantage of the Western powers' preoccupation with Suez to assert itself in Eastern Europe. (37) While NATO had been formed in 1949, the Warsaw Pact, designed to counterbalance it, was of more recent vintage, materializing in 1955.

Thus, the cultural big bang that I have been reading in Eliot's The Elder Statesman is not perhaps so lovingly inclusive, after all. In the event, this cultural love embraces everything except that which its compulsive unity is designed to exclude. As it affirms the integrity of the Western tradition, in the aftermath of American dissent from European ambitions in Suez, The Elder Statesman asserts the First World of a West beginning in Greece against Soviet imperialism in the Second World, and against Arab nationalism in the Third World. The play's inclusive triangle of platonic, Christian, and Freudian love constitutionally excludes socialist materialism and an anticolonial nationalism touched by Islam, and thus offers to compose a new oedipal triangle of impassioned strife among the First, Second, and Third Worlds.

That geopolitical geometry largely prevailed until the fall of the Wall in 1989, when the Soviet angle collapsed, and the Western tradition modeled and compounded by Eliot's rewriting of Oedipus seemed vindicated in its claims to preeminence. But there is the third angle that has not gone away and is now more obtuse: Arab nationalism has diversified to perplex a generation of younger statesmen in Downing Street and the White House, and the stories about civilization that they tell us. Just before taking office as British prime minister in May 2007, Gordon Brown declared, "the 'shared values' of the UK, Europe, and the US 'have endured over the ages.'" (38) In enabling us to read the tradition-mongering in Eliot's play, as elsewhere, classical reception studies can provide an analytical antidote to our leaders and their modern mythmaking.

Goldsmiths' College, University of London


(1) 20 November 2008 to 17 January 2009.

(2) The Elder Statesman did creditably, but not much better. In 1958, after opening in Edinburgh, it had a reasonable run of 92 performances in London, and stalled there, unlike The Cocktail Party, which had 325 performances in London and 409 in New York. See Jewel Spears Brooker, ed., T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), xxxvii. See also "Love and Mr Eliot," ibid., 567, where a selective review of the reviews quotes Kenneth Tynan's adjective "banal."

(3) On 21 September 2008.

(4) Terence Rattigan's very English drama was similarly eclipsed.

(5) Eliot recorded an interview for BBC Radio, "About Angry Young Men," broadcast on the European Service, 20 November 1957, and on the Home Service, 13 December 1957. See Michael Coyle, "T. S. Eliot's Radio Broadcasts, 1929-1963: A Chronological Checklist," in T. S. Eliot and Our Turning World, ed. Jewel Spears Brooker (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001), 205-13 (211).

(6) Robin Grove, "Pereira and after: The Cures of Eliot's Theaters," in The Cambridge Companion to T. S. Eliot, ed. A. David Moody (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 158-75 (164-65).

(7) One of the first such articles was Geoffrey Wheatcroft, "Iraq: Looking Back; The Echoes of '56," New York Times, 19 November 2003 (available at [accessed 11 April 2009]).

(8) Addressing UK foreign policy and "terrorism" Tony Blair declared, "This is not a clash between civilisations. It is a clash about civilization," in a speech at the Foreign Policy Centre, 21 March 2006 (transcript available at [accessed 29 October 2009]).

(9) The Elder Statesman (London: Faber & Faber, 1969), 12. All further quotations of this play are from this edition.

(10) In Oedipus at Colonus, Theseus is king of Athens and extends asylum to Oedipus, protecting him and his daughters from the Thebans. In Antigone, Polyneices is the dead brother to whose interral Antigone is committed. Haemon, son of the new ruler Creon, is her betrothed, who is displaced by her preoccupation with Polyneices.

(11) The second part of "Coriolan" in T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (London: Faber & Faber, 1963), 129-33, is entitled "Difficulties of a Statesman." Here the statesman resembles Coriolanus on the outside, but Prufrock on the inside.

(12) The Family Reunion (London: Faber & Faber, 1969) features one prominent triangle constituted by Amy, as Clytemnestra, Agatha as Cassandra, and Harry's father as Agamemnon. Harry, as Orestes, succeeds to his father's position (108).

(13) Elisabeth Daumer opines that "only in his last play ... does he [Eliot] focus on the redemptive power of a daughter's love for her father" (248), in "Vipers, Viragos, and Spiritual Rebels: Women in T. S. Eliot's Christian Society Plays," in Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot, ed. Cassandra Laity and Nancy K. Gish (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 234-53.

(14) Some corroboration is in Derek Stanford's review in Brooker, T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews, 574: "For years now, in this author's writing, we have seen the losing fight which Eros has put up against a narrowly conceived Agape.... The Elder Statesman revises this conflict ... renunciation is still in the picture; but Eros and Agape are brought into balance, and this equilibrium is a lovely thing," enough, perhaps, to figure a tradition of European syncretism.

(15) Since the protagonist was played by the experienced, versatile actor Christopher Timothy, such a rendering of the role was practicable.

(16) See Simon Perris's contribution in this volume for intriguing comparanda.

(17) Carol H. Smith suggests an allusion to Shakespeare's The Tempest in T. S Eliot's Dramatic Theory and Practice: From "Sweeney Agonistes" to "The Elder Statesman" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963), 235.

(18) Jean Anouilh, Antigone, trans. Lewis Galantiere (London: Methuen, 1960), 23.

(19) T. S Eliot, Selected Essays (London: Faber & Faber, 1976), 141-46.

(20) See Tynan's review in the Observer, 7 August 1955, 11, and Hobson's in the Sunday Times, 7 August 1955, 11.

(21) This intertextual possibility approximates Grove's reading of the play as a knowing "last haven for decrepit motifs of 'successful' West-End drama" and for "theatrical pretence" (165).

(22) T. S. Eliot, Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), 59.

(23) Eliot, Selected Essays, 14.

(24) Ibid, 15.

(25) I agree with the premise of T. S. Eliot and the Concept of Tradition, ed. Giovanni Cianci and Jason Harding (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), that Eliot's traditions are more than a blunt ideological instrument enforcing a culturally conservative agenda, but maintain that The Elder Statesman creatively serves that end, in a moment of crisis. Within this collection, Jason Harding's "Tradition and Egoism: T. S. Eliot and The Egoist," 90-102, plots Eliot's essay within a debate about modernism; Brett Neilson's "At the Frontiers of Metaphysics: Time and History in T. S. Eliot and Walter Benjamin," 201-14, compares distinct traditions on the question of traditions; and Stan Smith's "Proper Frontiers: Transgression and the Individual Talent," 26-40, amplifies my implication that The Elder Statesman is quite Romantic in its ambition for totalization.

(26) Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981), 106.

(27) See Perris's contribution in this volume.

(28) J. G. Weightman's review in Brooker, T. S. Eliot: The Contemporary Reviews, 575, confirms this effect.

(29) E. Martin Browne, The Making of T. S. Eliot's Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969), 318.

(30) Eden had already returned the compliment, by writing an appreciative foreword to a published lecture of Eliot's. See Eliot,The Literature of Politics: A Lecture Delivered at a C.P.C Luncheon, etc. (London: Conservative Political Centre, 1955).

(31) Given the timing, the 2008 production at the King's Head may even have linked Claverton with Tony Blair.

(32) Bonamy Dobree's review approximates this notion: "[T]he end is suffused with an ethos that is a curious dovetailing of the Christian ethos and the Perennial Philosophy," in Brooker, T. S. Eliot: The Contemprorary Reviews, 582. Dobree also reads a tradition "from Sophocles to Ibsen" (588).

(33) Sophocles, The Theban Plays, trans. Robert Fagles (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984), 323.

(34) The locus classicus of this reading is, perhaps, in Cedric Whitman, Sophocles: A Study of Heroic Humanism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1951).

(35) Laura Slatkin, "Oedipus at Colonus: Exile and Integration," in Greek Tragedy and Political Theory, ed. Peter J. Euben (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1986), 210-21, and Mary Whitlock Blundell, "The Ideal of Athens in Oedipus at Colonus," in Tragedy, Comedy, and the Polis, ed. Alan H. Sommerstein (Bari: Levante, 1993), 287-306, detect a distinct reservation about Athens, while Joseph P. Wilson, The Hero and the City: An Interpretation of Sophocles' "Oedipus at Colonus" (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), and Josh Beer, Sophocles and the Tragedy of Athenian Democracy (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2004), argue that the play assails Athenian democracy.

(36) Kenneth Asher, T S. Eliot and Ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) argues for a strong continuity in Eliot's political investments, deriving from a French model of classicism.

(37) This event, of Soviet aggression against a satellite socialist state, split the left in Western Europe and the United States, leading to the "New Left" and its Continental counterparts.

(38) BBC News, "Brown 'Humbled' by Labour Backing," 17 May 2007 (available at [accessed 20 August 2009]).
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Author:Simpson, Michael
Publication:Comparative Drama
Geographic Code:4E
Date:Dec 22, 2010
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