CA. Other Poets and Works

10. T. S. Eliot (1888-1965). Verse drama, 1926-50.

  ‘The action should be stylized as in the Noh drama—see Ezra Pound’s book and Yeats’ preface and notes to The Hawk’s Well. The characters ought to wear masks.’  

Several studies trace Asian motifs in Eliot’s work, but critics rightly have been cautious in positing an influence from Japan. Such attempts as have been made focus largely on Eliot’s drama and its relation either to the nô or to Yeats’s adaptations of the nô. Eliot was among those in attendance at the first performance of AT THE HAWK’S WELL (BL12), and thereafter thought of Yeats ‘rather as a more imminent contemporary than as an elder’ (see BL72), and he expressed interest in the ‘unity of image’ Pound discovered in the nô, and recognised that such a device had been theretofore absent on the European stage (see BK92b, and for the most compelling analysis of the effects of this in Eliot’s work, Bush, BK161). Finally, however, the traceable effect of Japanese forms in Eliot’s work is minimal. The only direct connection is related to the fragment SWEENEY AGONISTES, first published as ‘Fragments of a Prologue’ and ‘Fragment of an Agon’ in New Criterion (October 1926 and January 1927; reprinted as Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama [London: Faber & Faber, 1932], and this is not in the text itself, which is ironic and comedic and therefore unlike the nô. Eliot’s 1933 letter to Hallie Flanagan, however, who was preparing the first production of the work, indicates that in considering the way it should be played he had the nô in mind, at least as it had been filtered through Pound and Yeats: ‘The action should be stylized as in the Noh drama—see Ezra Pound’s book [BK24] and Yeats’ preface and notes to The Hawk’s Well [BL12a]’, Eliot wrote, and ‘characters ought to wear masks’ (quoted in Carol H. Smith, T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Theory and Practice [Princeton: Princeton UP, 1963]). Beyond this, Durnell’s efforts (in A55) to find nô principles at work in MURDER IN THE CATHEDRAL (Faber & Faber, 1935) are strained. The work avoids the methods of realism, relies on a spiritual theme, and incorporates a chorus that comments on the action, but the antecedents to these are many and the effects of the work are neo-Elizabethan and not classical Japanese. Tsuneari Fukuda (‘God Present Though Absent’, in T. S. Eliot: A Tribute from Japan [Tokyo: Kenkyusha, 1966]) discusses THE COCKTAIL PARTY (Faber & Faber, 1950) in terms of the nô and other Japanese principles, but does not claim influence, or that Eliot wrote with these in mind. Other critics make passing reference to Japanese techniques in Eliot’s work (see A46, 70, BL190, and 212), but finally one must agree with Miner (in A25), writing in 1958 of Pound’s hand in THE WASTE LAND (1922) but nonetheless offering a fair summary of the relation between Eliot’s work and Japan: ‘whatever of . . . “Japanese” techniques Eliot found useful are so covered with traditional Western modes and forms that the Japanese element is all but completely submerged’. Surely Eliot’s drama was written with an awareness of the nô as it had been filtered through Pound and Yeats. Like Yeats’s work it relies on an aesthetics self-consciously opposed to the realism of Ibsen and Shaw, but unlike Yeatsian drama neither aims for nor achieves effects related in more than passing ways to the nô itself.





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