Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Superior pudding-basin haircuts

At the TLS, Oliver Reynolds on T. S. Eliot's plays:
Eliot was a rare, mostly silent presence at rehearsals of his plays. (Gwyneth Thurburn, who coached the Chorus for two of the plays, described how he “once came up to me . . . and murmured very confidentially, ‘That should be a colon, not a semi-colon’. I think this was the only spontaneous remark he ever made in rehearsals”.) His considered comments on actors (in “The Possibility of a Poetic Drama”, 1920) were antagonistic: “A struggle, more or less unconscious, between the creator and the interpreter is almost inevitable . . . we need, unfortunately, something more than refined automatons”. Eliot’s writing for the actor is mostly undynamic. Even so, one of the pleasures of this Reunion is watching actors making the best of refractory material. Penelope Wilton, as one of Harry’s aunts, gives a masterclass in listening: this is how – and when – you blink. (She also says the word “flute” in a way that evokes the bassoon.) Eliot’s explanation of the play’s failings was bloodless: “. . . an elementary fault in mechanics . . . a failure of adjustment between the Greek story and the modern situation”. The engineer traces the problem back to the blueprint. An early scenario, from around 1937, introduces Mary (a possible sweetheart for Harry): “She enters and soliloquises, about 5 inches, arranging flowers”. There is an actuarial dryness to that “about 5 inches”; in the play, the scene’s emotion is stillborn. Though the final text does not specify what kind of flowers, Eliot did so for the first production: hyacinths.

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