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You can see the action of the choragos in the passage which starts the fragment of an agon.
It is light and playful even though the subject matter might be considered gruesome. From
the beginning to the end Doris NEVER is bothered by it. It involves role playing, and SHE assigns
Sweeney the role of the CANNIBAL. She is very at ease, and trusts him throughout the entire
routine. Sweeney in turn, plays the game and as a good choragos educates her as to the
consequences of what she is playing with. This is the passage I call the missionary stew
passage. It has the irony that a "missionary stew" parallels the "lysol stew" Sweeney narrates.
It is not till some time later, when the playing is over and the talk gets real that Doris gets
apprehensive. The fun passage shows that she doesn't like facing reality. Sweeney, as a good
choragos, forces the chorus to face reality. It may make Doris apprehensive, but her apprehension
hardly makes Sweeney a bad guy. Thinking that that makes him a bad guy is just way off the charts
as far as I'm concerned. What is key here is that the perpetrator of the lysol bath loses his
sense of reality. It is an object lesson in the importance of facing reality. Staying in the
unreal world corrodes the mind just as the lysol corrodes the body.

Goodness gracious. We've discussed the whole play without a hint of embryology. What happened?
Could it be that Eliot's conversion, roughly contemporaneous with this play, is too embryological
to deal with?

Best wishes with your research. If you get serious about  looking
at Sweeney's Irish background, let me know, and I will try to dredge
up the article from U of Toronto I mentioned earlier.


Jul 28, 2009 11:12:44 PM, [log in to unmask] wrote:

Thanks, Peter.  The list discussion of Sweeney Agonistes has been very helpful for me. Because so little of the play was finished by TSE, I never gave it much attention  -- a mistake on my part. I can see now that it was a very ambitious and innovative work. I've been re-reading it a lot these days (and reading some of the references such as the section by David Chinitz that Nancy cited).
Once I get interested in a particular TSE piece, Eliot has a way of getting under my skin. I find myself driving to work with the damn phrase "Birth, and copulation, and death" bouncing around in my head like a repeated drumbeat. ARGGH!
-- Tom --

Date: Tue, 28 Jul 2009 19:53:37 -0600
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Moreover---Re: P.S.--on Birth, and copulation, and death
To: [log in to unmask]

Further thoughts, Tom. Info which you may already have:
The early Eliot believed in the morality of the lower classes,
in the sense that he thought they really had a morality, good or evil.
He rejected the amorality of the middle and upper classes
for being dead, as he portrayed so well in his plays.
This was one of his reasons for identifying with Baudelaire and the
British music hall. His classic statement about that was in his
short essay MARIE LLOYD (in Selected Essays). The folks
in Sweeney A. are just such folk. They confront it all, good and evil
Friends and fiends (like Sweeney's guy). Interestingly, the MARIE LLOYD
essay also references a south sea island community.

There are several layers in the play:
music hall
Greek satire
Irish mythology  (Sweeney's ancestor Suibhne)
Christian/Jewish culture (conversion,weddings, funerals,Samson)

I think Eliot was experimenting with what he called
the mythic method to braid several traditions together
to get a rich texture.

I see Sweeney as a kind of Greek choragos who reports
and comments on what is going on, but is detached
from it all.

He uses the light playful musical ritual to teach the folks that
life as an escape on a south sea island is not real, is
very misleading. Commercial culture is deadening.

The women are sharp. They know exactly what danger they are in.
But they see Sweeney as a good guy. He may warn of threats, but
he is not one himself. It is periera who is the threat, the truly dark


Jul 26, 2009 04:43:34 PM, [log in to unmask] wrote:

P> The style of the missionary stew conversation is musical
P> and playful, by ALL the characters. It is distinct from
P> regular conversation.

I basically agree with this, Peter. And I also agree with Nancy that there is horror running throughout the play. I have not read "The Origin of Attic Comedy" (which Eliot apparently told people to read to better understand what he was trying to do with the play), but from my second-hand knowledge, the 'Attic Comedy' work talks about the close relation of comedy and tragedy. I'm starting to understand that the structure of 'Agonistes' continuously demonstrates this relation.

If that's right, then I have a different take on my original question about the phrase "Birth, and copulation, and death". On one hand, I can hear that line said in a jazz rhythm, upbeat and exciting in tone. But Sweeney also says, "That's all the facts when you come down to brass tacks". Notice that he uses the word "facts". From a viewpoint of facts, of knowledge, the "brass tacks" things that you need to know about a society is its rate of birth, how many people are copulating to predict the upcoming births, and the deaths. That's all that German registrar census book wanted to know that I cited in an earlier post.

But upon reflection, this is horrifying. Is that all there is to human existence? An endless cycle of birth and copulation and death? The "facts" of human existence do not yield the meaning of being human. This reminds me of an Eliot line from 4Q yet to be written at the time of "Sweeney Agonistes": "We had the experience but missed the meaning".

I'm suggesting that Sweeney's line, jazzy and witty and concise, is intended to be both amusing and horrifying at the same instant. The audience is supposed to tap its feet and gasp in horror at the same time.

Anyway, some thoughts triggered by the list discussions. . .

-- Tom --


Date: Sat, 25 Jul 2009 22:29:28 -0800
From: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Moreover---Re: P.S.--on Birth, and copulation, and death
To: [log in to unmask]

The style of the missionary stew conversation is musical and playful,
by ALL the characters. It is distinct from regular conversation. My
original remarks were qualified so as not to exclude Sweeney
from the values displayed in the lysol story. Nonetheless, Sweeney is not
responsible for the lysol episode. He is only reporting it, just as he is reporting
that the urge to such killing is universal. He might just as well have said
"Every woman wants to, needs to, has to, once in a lifetime do a boy in."
Surely you do not expect me to be responsible for your reactions to what
is said!?
Killing a missionary creates a martyr which has a religious significance.
(Cf Celia in The Cocktail Party)
The whole theme of tribal values vs civilized values
resonates of THE HEART OF DARKNESS and Kurtz being
decivilised or tribalised into the horror. The lysol character is
reported as being weakened in his sense of reality, certainly
a part of the horror also.
The horror is very much resonant of Eliot's interest in Baudelaire,
and how Baudelaire got into heaven by the back door, by a
committed descent into evill.
So the hoohas, as representing the horror, can be seen to have
religious significance, esp. given the two epigraphs, and the
association of the Ace of spades, the COFFIN with weddings.
Ultimate detachment of self, tortured conscience, funerals (coffin), weddings, martyrdom,
compulsion to evil ... a whole lot of religious baggage there.
----- Original Message -----
From: [log in to unmask]" href="mailto:[log in to unmask]" target="_blank" class="EC_ EC_parsedEmail EC_parsedEmail parsedEmail parsedEmail">Nancy Gish
To: [log in to unmask]" href="mailto:[log in to unmask]" target="_blank" class="EC_ EC_parsedEmail EC_parsedEmail parsedEmail parsedEmail">[log in to unmask]
Sent: Saturday, July 25, 2009 7:10 PM
Subject: Re: Moreover---Re: P.S.--on Birth, and copulation, and death

I do not think making her into a stew and eating her is really any more playful than other ways of destroying her.  The missionary in the pot is too common an image to be read any other way.  Sweeney no doubt thinks he's being playful or sexy or something, but the women have been terrified of the COFFIN and the sound of KNOCK from the start.
Also, I remember your remark as directly linked to the corpse, but it is not worth debating, given the above.  As your copied line below shows, your were talking about killing a woman and attributed it to someone Sweeney knows, and if it's by stewing her, it doesn't change my reaction.

>>> Peter Montgomery 07/25/09 10:55 PM >>>
I also indicated that you had misread my remarks, and that
the playful comment of Sweeney was about the missionary stew,
not about the corpse in lysol. You are creating a misimpression here.
----- Original Message -----
From: [log in to unmask]" href="mailto:[log in to unmask]" target="_blank" class="EC_ EC_parsedEmail EC_parsedEmail parsedEmail parsedEmail">Nancy Gish
To: [log in to unmask]" href="mailto:[log in to unmask]" target="_blank" class="EC_ EC_parsedEmail EC_parsedEmail parsedEmail parsedEmail">[log in to unmask]
Sent: Thursday, July 23, 2009 7:30 AM
Subject: Re: Moreover---Re: P.S.--on Birth, and copulation, and death

I hope you're right.  I think the terms "light" or "playful" applied to a corpse in lysol are appalling.  My response, as you see below, was to Peter, who did say Sweeney was describing it in a "playful" way.  I copied that from Peter's message; I did not write from memory.  Both Ken and Rickard then said I was the one who introduced "just," but they attributed it to the whole play rather than, as I stated, to the section on the corpse and in response to Peter.
And yes, it is the incongruity that creates black comedy and cynical wit.  I say that below.  It does not mean light or playful.
This is getting Byzantine.  The issue is whether the play is about horror, and I think it is quite understandable that Vivienne found it unbearably horrible.  Moreover, killing a wife or lover turns up in many places in Eliot's work, not just here.  But I do not think he represents it as light.  In "The Love Song of St. Sebastion, however, it is somehow deeply satisfying to the narrator who plans it.  I have now placed brackets around the sections I wrote:  they should come through for all.

>>> "O'Sullivan, Brian P" <[log in to unmask]> 07/23/09 11:04 AM >>>
It seems to me that some of this disagreement is really just semantic. I'm pretty sure that Rick isn't saying that there's anything "light" or "playful" intrinsic to the subject of a corpse in a lysol. But doesn't "black comedy" and "cynical wit" often come from the incongruity of treating "heavy" subject matter in styles usually deemed appropriate to "light" subjects (or vice versa)?

From: T. S. Eliot Discussion forum. [[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Nancy Gish [[log in to unmask]]
Sent: Wednesday, July 22, 2009 10:56 PM
To: [log in to unmask]
Subject: Re: Moreover---Re: P.S.--on Birth, and copulation, and death

[I appreciate a serious response. I cannot, however, agree with it as an explanation. See follow-up notes below.]

>>> "Rickard A. Parker" <[log in to unmask]> 07/22/09 9:42 PM >>>
Nancy Gish wrote:

NG> I'm astonished and offended at this notion that a horror story
NG> about death, a corpse in lysol, and terror can be treated
NG> "lightly" because it is just about a murdered woman.

As Ken wrote earlier, it was you who added the bit about "just about a
murdered woman."
[Ken and you have taken my words completely out of context.

I was responding to this, from Peter; he is describing the killing as described in a playful way, not only the rest of the play:

Peter: "Don't think he felt like killing a woman, but then Sweeney doesn't exactlly demo. that except in a playful way. He did happen to know someone like that, as I am sure, did Jesus."
My response, as follows, was directly keyed to Peter's calling the Sweeney's description of killing as "in a playful way."

I'm astonished and offended at this notion that a horror story about death, a corpse in lysol, and terror can be treated "lightly" because it is just about a murdered woman. Frankly, you are the last person I expected to add to such a notion.

More importantly, this play is about horror throughout. Doris says from the beginning that you can't trust Pereira, and she and Dusty try to avoid him even though "he pays the rent." When they cut the cards they get the COFFIN and are frightened--and the KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK of the later horror begins when the men first arrive.

I did not deny "comedy" in the sense Eliot implies: this is what I said:

If what is meant by any of this is that it is perverse, black comedy, cynical wit--yes. "Light," "playful," where? The words on the page are about uneasy and frightened women dependent for the rent, and crass men, and the cynical aftermath of war, and murder.

To any woman all this is fear. Is that hard to see? ]

I'll let the playright speak to this:
For to those who have experienced the full horror of life, tragedy is
still inadequate. […] In the end, horror and laughter may be one —
only when horror and laughter have become as horrible and laughable
as they can be; and […] you may laugh or shudder over Oedipus or
Hamlet or King Lear--or both at once: then only do you perceive that
the aim of the comic and the tragic dramatist is the same: they are
equally serious. […] There is potential comedy in Sophocles and
potential tragedy in Aristophanes, and otherwise they would not be
such good tragedians or comedians as they are.
The citation given for the above was:
T. S. Eliot, "Shakespearian Criticism: From Dryden to Coleridge,"
in 'A Companion to Shakespeare Studies', ed. by H. Granville-Barker
and G.B. Harrison (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977),
pp. 295–6
although I saw a 1934 date given also.

[Precisely--comedy is as serious as tragedy, and there is dark comedy, and we know that the ending of Measure for Measure
makes it a comedy but the terror of death is powerful in the play. Unlike MM, Eliot's does not end well but in terror. "Comedy" does not simply mean light or funny--read Checkhov, who blends comedy with misery. Do you think Eliot is saying Oedipus is "light"? Or Hamlet or Lear? One may laugh or shudder not because any are light or funny or "comic" in the contemporary limited sense but because there is horror in laughter and laughter in horror. But none of it is light. I never said there was no comedy in the Sweeney drama any more than I said "just" in the way you decontextualize it. See above on "black comedy" and "cynical wit." ]
Note that Eliot is identifying Aristophanes as a writer of comedys and
also that Sweeney Agonistes" is sub-titled "Fragments of an Aristopanic
Melodrama" (where melodrama means a play with music.) So it doesn't seem
inconcievable that Eliot might have included both comedy and drama in
the play.

NG> "Light," "playful," where?

I had already written:
Still, there is a lighter tone throughout the play. There are
the names, repetition and rhythm leading to that.

Yes, there is the dark side of the murdered woman but then there is also
the lighter side of a Greek chorus made of white minstrels (and then
that made up with Swarts (black) and Snow (white,) Snow on bones
(white).) And let's add Sweeney as the King of clubs. Oh, yes, the
completed play apparently was to be entitled "Wanna Go Home, Baby?" (a
hint that a tradegy was to follow?)
[It is the ironic use of comic material that is, in fact, horrible; it is not "light" because, as you quoted Eliot above, it is as serious as tragedy. ]

NG> What does the fact that a woman's college performed it have to do
NG> with seeing it as horrific or not? Women are the ones who are most
NG> danger from such men. Of course they would put it on. What does
NG> one expect? Light comedy and cheerleading?

Okay, that was not one of my better moments but I did not expect a 1933
Vassar production to put on a play then as dark as you imagine.
[I still wonder why ever not? What do you think intellectual women did then?]
I'm a bit more unsure of that now I still doubt that they would. I'll
appreciate some proof before changing my mind. In the meantime this is
what I have to go on besides my belief:

May 6, 1933

The Experimental Theatre presented a mime sequence, Now I Know Love,
which included the world premiere of T.S. Eliot's first play, Sweeney
Agonistes. The other plays were three by Theocritus, translated by
Professor Philip H. Davis, Penthouse by Mary Morley Crapo, '34, and
Telephone by Dorothy Parker. The music was composed by Associate
Professor Quincy Porter. Mr. Eliot was present and gave a poetry
reading on the following day.

Also, the director wrote Eliot about the play beforehand and he wrote
Haille Flanagan that F.M. Cornford's "The Origin of Attic Comedy" (1912)
was essential to understanding his goals in that play. I'll just let it
go at that for now except for acknowledging that there could be a lot of
discussion on that in itself.

And now, off topic for a bit.

*POSSIBLY* Dorothy Parker's "Telephone" at Vassar was a performance of
her short work "A Telephone Call." The text of that is at:
A MP3 file of a reading can be gotten via page (I haven't downloaded it):

To get me into more hot water, here are some short items my searches
have picked up:
A quip on Vassar by Dorothy Parker:
If all the girls at Vassar were laid end to end, I wouldn't be
This one is unattributed. I picture it said with a Yiddish accent:
You can lead a whore to Vassar, but you can't make her think.

[That sort of thing used to be thought funny. I had thought explicit misogyny (even from Dorothy Parker) and a Jew being nasty would have lost some of its claim to wit.

This whole discussion has been unfortunately revealing. I don't think you would find many women who would find the fear of men, the need to rely on them to pay rent and so have to let them in, the joking about being eaten, and the story about "doing a girl in" light or funny or "comic." What is the matter with any of you? Can you simply not imagine playing Doris instead of Sweeney?

Eliot apparently knew it was horrible tragi-comedy.
N ]
One more thing. At a question and answer session at Vassar Eliot
mentioned that his poetry was simple and [something]. That prompted
laughter from the audience.

Rick Parker

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