It seems like when I learn something new about Eliot, I end up realizing that earlier things I read had more meaning than I previously saw. Now that the List has been discussing "Sweeney Agonistes", I went back and re-read Eliot's essay, "A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry" from 1928. Given the topic and the year that the essay appeared, it seems to me that the essay has to be about Sweeney Agonistes even though the characters in the 'dialogue' appear to be discussing plays, prose, and poetic drama in a somewhat theoretical sense.
For those not familiar with this particular Eliot essay, Eliot invents 'characters' named "A", "B", "C", "D", "E", and "F" who discuss dramatic poetry. The essay is written with the characters speaking to each other, as if the reader is eavesdropping on a scholarly discussion at some unnamed university. Because of this technique, the reader cannot say for certain that a particular line from the essay is the opinion of Eliot (as opposed to the made-up opinion of "character A" or "character C"). However, as the essay unfolds, certain ideas emerge that I think originate in Eliot's view of what he was trying to do with Sweeney Agonistes.
Here are some excerpts from the essay that the list may find interesting:
A: . . . People have tended to think of verse as a restriction upon drama. They think that the emotional range, and the realistic truth, of drama is limited and circumscribed by verse. People were once content with verse in drama, they say, because they were content with a restricted and artificial range of emotion. Only prose can give the full gamut of modern feeling, can correspond to actuality. But is not every dramatic representation artificial? And are we not merely deceiving ourselves when we aim at greater and greater realism? Are we not contenting ourselves with appearances, instead of insisting upon fundamentals? Has human feeling altered much from AEschylus to ourselves? I maintain the contrary. I say that prose drama is merely a slight by-product of verse drama. The human soul, in intense emotion, strives to express itself in verse. It is not for me, but for the neurologists, to discover why this is so, and why and how feeling and rhythm are related. The tendency, at any rate, of prose drama is to emphasize the ephemeral and superficial; if we want to get at the permanent and universal we tend to express ourselves in verse.
. . .
E: . . . I say that the consummation of the drama, the perfect and ideal drama, is to be found in the ceremony of the Mass. I say, with the support of the scholars whom B mentions (and others), that drama springs from religious liturgy, and that it cannot afford to depart far from religious liturgy. I agree with B that the problem of drama was simpler for Aristotle and for Dryden and for Corneille than for us. They had only to take things as they found them. But when drama has ranged as far as it has in our own day, is not the only solution to return to religious liturgy? And the only dramatic satisfaction that I find now is in a High Mass well performed. Have you not there everything necessary? And indeed, if you consider the ritual of the Church during the cycle of the year, you have the complete drama represented. The Mass is a small drama, having all the unities; but in the Church year you have represented the full drama of creation.
. . .
B: . . .
Now what I maintain is, that you have no business to care about the Mass unless you are a believer. And even if you are a believer you will have dramatic desires which crave fu1£11ment otherwise. For man lives in various degrees. We need (as I believe, but you need not believe this for the purpose of my argument) religious faith. And we also need amusement (the quality of the amusement will, of course, not be unrelated to the quality of our religious belief). Literature can be no substitute for religion, not merely because we need religion, but because we need literature as well as religion. And religion is no more a substitute for drama than drama is a substitute for religion. If we can do without religion, then let us have the theatre without pretending that it is religion; and if we can do without drama, then let us not pretend that religion is drama.
. . .
B: . . . A devout person, in assisting at Mass, is not in the frame of mind of a person attending a drama, for he is _participating_ -- and that makes all the difference. In participating we are supremely conscious of certain realities, and unconscious of others. But we are human beings, and crave representations in which we are conscious, and critical, of these other realities. We cannot be aware solely of divine realities. We must be aware also of human realities. And we crave some liturgy less divine, something in respect of which we shall be more spectators and less participants. Hence we want the human drama, related to the divine drama, but not the same, as well as the Mass.
E: You have admitted all that I expected, and more. That is the essential relation of drama to religious liturgy.
D: I have a suggestion to put forward. It is this: can we not take it that the form of the drama must vary from age to age in accordance with religious assumptions of the age? That is, that drama represents a relation of the human needs and satisfactions to the religious needs and satisfactions which the age provides. When the age has a set religious practice and belief, then the drama can and should tend towards realism, I say _towards_, I do not say arrive at. The more definite the religious and ethical principles, the more freely the drama can move towards what is now called photography. The more fluid, the more chaotic the religious and ethical beliefs, the more the drama must tend in the direction of liturgy. Thus there would be some constant relation between drama and the religion of the time. The movement, in the time of Dryden and indeed of Corrnellie, and indeed of Aristotle, was towards freedom. Perhaps our movement should be towards what we called, in touching upon the ballet, form?
E: An interesting theory, with no historical backing whatever, but concluding in exactly what I said myself.
. . . ['C' then talks about John Dryden, and 'E' continues] . . .
The Unities of Place and Time, for instance. Dryden gives what is the soundest and most commonsense view possible for his time and place. But the Unities have for me, at least, a perpetual fascination. I believe they will be found highly desirable for the drama of the future. For one thing, we want more concentration. All plays are now much too long. I never go to the theatre, because I hate to hurry over my dinner, and I dislike to dine early. A continuous hour and a half of _intense_ interest is what we need. No intervals, no chocolate-sellers or ignoble trays. The Unities do make for intensity, as does verse rhythm.
A: You think that we need stronger stimulants, in a shorter space of time, to get the same exaltation out of the theatre that a sensitive contemporary may be supposed to have got out of a tragedy by Shakespeare or even out of one by Dryden.
E: And meanwhile let us drink another glass of port to the memory of John Dryden.
-- Tom --