Eliot and Fry: Modern Verse Drama
THE COCKTAIL PARTY by T. E. Eliot; Harcourt, Brace and Company; 190 pp. THE LADY'S NOT FOR BURNING by Christopher Fry; Oxford University Press; 90 pp.
Two new verse plays have been published this month. This is something of an event in itself-particularly since one of them is by the most influential poet writing in English-but the really remarkable thing about these plays is that, before publication, both have proved themselves on the stage. T. s. Eliot's "The Cocktail Party" is currently one of the most popular plays on Broadway; Christopher Fry's "The Lady's Not For Burning" has just concluded a long run in London.
Both Mr. Fry and Mr. Eliot call their plays comedies and both, indeed, have written some very amusing lines and created some very amusing characters. Mr. Eliot, of course, has a way of letting you know all along that his intent is serious and Mr. Fry, just as determinedly, tries to tell you that his play is just a mockery.
Mr. Eliot's play is concerned with the anguish and isolation of a woman meant for sainthood but enmeshed in London's cocktail circuit.
A man who is a psychiatrist by profession, but must really be something more, offers the young woman the choice of reconciling herself to the human condition.
Of solitude in the phantasmal world Of shuffling memories and desires.
The alternative way out for the woman is a truly Christian life, in this case working with some heathens in a far away island. She chooses the latter and is crucified by the natives. On hearing of his the psychiatrist says that "it is part of the design," that his job was unwittingly to direct her in the preparation of her death. Everyone must make a decision and then take the consequences, be it a crucifixion or a cocktail party.
The best of a bad job is all any of us make of it, Except of course, the saints...
Though Eliot has succeeded in creating out of verse some believable people, they are not people about whom one can become very concerned. The spiritual plight of Celia, the "saint," is not introduced until the last of the second set, the first and third acts being occupied with the breaking-up and patching-up of the marriage of the Chamberlaynes, who give the cocktail party. Interest in Celia blooms too late and too suddenly to allow much sympathy or investigation by the reader. The strongest character in Julia Shuttlethwaite, who is the epitome of all cocktail party gossips and ideal chatterers.
In a speech on the BBC some time ago, Mr. Eliot put forth his views on poetic drama, arguing that "there are things which can be said in poetic drama that can't be said in poetic drama that can't be said in the ordinary speech of prose drama." That he is right, there can be no argument. But while the dialogue of "The Cocktail Party" has wit, intelligence, and a genteel flow and rhythm-all of which are certainly desirable in verse drama-one is not altogether sure that what Mr. Eliot has to say could not just as well have been said in prose. None of the poetry of "The Cocktail Party" really illuminates any untapped wells of thought or beauty. I have an old fashioned fondness for metaphor in poetry, even when it is put into everyday speech.
"The Lady's Not For Burning" is a play with characters who are "as much 15th Century as anything." A young man, hearing of a itch hunt in the town, announces to the city's functionaries that he wishes to be hanged. To satisfy their requirements he will even confess to several murders. Things are considerably complicated when he discovers that the witch is an attractive young person and falls in love with her.
In a foreword to "The Lady," Mr. Fry says that his poetic form is really "no one's business but my own, and every man is free to think of the writing as verse, or sliced prose, or as a bastard offspring of the two. It is, in the long run, speech, written down in this way because I find it convenient, and those who speak it may also occasionally find it helpful." Mry Fry's glittering poetry is fun to listen to. Ignore the meaning, and watch it soar and spin about the page or stage, like a toy airplane would too tight that swirls crazily, bumps into a chair (laughter), backs up a bit, and takes off again.
Perhaps some of the poetry is too bright for our modern, well-lit stages. But much can be forgiven Mr. Fry because his play is such delightful entertainment. Some suitable quotations seem here in order:
Thomas: (a cuckoo) is heard) By God, a cuckoo! Grief and God. A canting cuckoo, that laugh with no smile! A world unable to die sits on and on In spring sunlight, hatching egg after egg.
Hoping against hope that out of one of themWill come the reason for it all; and alwaysOut pops the arid chuckle and centuriesOf cuckoo-spit
Jennet: (the witch) What can we see in this light?
Nothing, I think, except flakes of drifting fear.
The promise of oblivion...
Thomas, can you mean to let
The World go on?
Thomas: I know my limitations.
When the landscape goes to see, the wind is obsessed
The theatre is richer and wiser for Mr. Elliot having give it his "Cocktail Party," even though he paints a landscape generally gone to see; and for Mr. Fry, though he writes like his own "obsessed wind.