Dredging up and disposing of a lot of detritus from an ancient filing cabinet, I came across an undated interview I conducted with T.S. Eliot shortly after arriving in London to commence my studies at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art. I clearly recall interviewing him on an ancient tape recorder in his offices at Faber and Faber. Based on evidence from some of Eliot's allusions, I would date the piece around l957-58. To the best of my recollection, it has never been published anywhere. It is something of an oddity from another world and another time -- but because it is T.S. Eliot, I resurrect it here for whatever insights it may provide on the poet's opinions in regard to poetry and theatre, which he held at that particular period in his life. (He died on January 4th l965.) - If the interviewer appears to be somewhat jejeune, it's because he was.
(Swans - February 22, 2010) Crammed between mountains of slick new volumes bearing the imprint of Faber & Faber, in a l2' x l2' office in which one might expect to find a junior editorial assistant; his great walrus face peering over low-hung spectacles; his trousers not "unrolled," not "eating a peach" or "listening to mermaids singing each to each," sat T.S. Eliot.
T.S. Eliot: Well then, what's all this about?
Charles Marowitz: I've got about a dozen questions, Mr. Eliot and most of them refer to poetry and the drama. In a lecture delivered at Harvard University in 1950, you described what you called "a fringe of indefinite extent"...
T.S. Well now, I can't really recall every thing I wrote you know. "Fringe of.....?"
C.M. "Fringe of indefinite extent" -- you were referring to that part of experience which prose drama was unable to express adequately.
T.S. Oh yes, that was about the time of The Cocktail Party.
C.M. I believe so. Well in most plays, your own included, the poetic content is prepared by a more prosaic kind of writing. The poetry itself is only a matter of moments; moments in which the play reaches a higher dramatic intensity. In the same lecture you said there were prose dramatists such as Chekhov and Ibsen who had done things which you would not have believed prose to be capable of. My question is, does poetry in the theatre have to be expressed in verse?
T.S. I have always believed that a play should not be attempted in verse if it could be written in prose. I do not believe that poetry in the theatre should be a matter of decoration.
C.M. But if the poetry, in its formal sense, lasts only a matter of moments....
T.S. It's not a question of moments. There are certain moments in verse-plays which would be out of place in prose drama. In verse-plays the writer generates a certain rhythm; this rhythm should be able to sink to the commonplace or rise to moments of great intensity. There is such a thing as the "prosaic" in verse, but it remains verse. Of course Shakespeare combined prose and verse most notably in Henry IV, but I think if one is writing a verse-play, it is safer to keep it all in verse.
C.M. How would you grade your recent work The Elder Statesman in relation to your past works? Does it fulfill what you set out to do?
T.S. None of my stage-works fulfill what I set out to do. There is more poetry content in The Family Reunion than there is sound dramatic structure. The Confidential Clerk on the other hand is a better-made play, but less poetic. I believe The Elder Statesman is a bit nearer fusion of poetry and sound dramatic construction.
C.M. Do you believe the structure of a verse-play is strengthened by its being based on a former work? And do you do this out of a conscious design?
T.S. I think every legend has got to be interpreted according to our own age. I find that ancient themes often serve as a helpful springboard into my works. They are merely a point of departure; they help get things underway.
C.M. I have been told that in writing your plays you resort to a complicated system of blocks and diagrams; a system in which each block represents a different character. Is this true?
T.S. No. This all came about one day while I was a guest at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. The place is full of scientists and mathematicians and all that, and I was given a room with a blackboard. At the time I was working out certain problems in the play I was writing. Well, having the blackboard, I drew a few diagrams in order to make things a little clearer in my own mind. Some press-photographer chap who was passing by the window took a picture of me doing this, and I assume the fiction started there.
C.M. To return to poetry: Have you ever come across a definition which has satisfied you?
T.S. I've found it quite useless to try and define poetry once and for all. Every definition is always put forward with some particular kind of poetry in mind. All definitions can do is give partial insights, but don't misunderstand me, these partial insights are worth making, however it's quite impossible to be conclusive.
C.M. A good deal of the poetry in The Cocktail Party and The Confidential Clerk seems to border on the prosaic and yet it has scansion and is, technically speaking, poetry. Do you believe that poetry in the theatre has got to become more prose-bound, and do you think the conventional idea of poetry as a colorful and extravagant means of expression has to be done away with?
T.S. It's difficult to say. Not everyone is writing my kind of poetry. The verse in the plays of Christopher Fry for instance are extremely vivid and colorful.
C.M. What do you think of Christopher Fry?
T.S. Well, he is a living contemporary and I won't be critical of him. But very often, in the plays of Fry, I find myself more conscious of the language than the character who is speaking it.
C.M. What do you think of Dylan Thomas?
T.S. I think Under Milk Wood is a brilliant piece of work. Of course, it's much closer to poetical prose than it is to poetry.
C.M. Is there any particular playwright of the past whose work you would like to see staged today?
T.S. Some of the lesser-known Elizabethans I should say, and the Jacobean writers, I think Marston would be well worth reviving. Not too long ago I saw some of the older plays presented in arena-style. I think many of them benefit from this kind of staging. The "asides" and soliloquies seem to fit in much more naturally in such a theatre.
C.M. Do you have any fixed ideas about the production of verse plays?
T.S. No, not exactly "fixed ideas." I think it's important to have a producer who understands the rhythms of the verse. That is why E. Martin Browne always stages my plays.
C.M. Many people feel that the prose works of writers such as Tennessee Williams contain a great amount of poetry -- even though they are not written in metrical or formal verse. It's more a kind of poetic effect. What do you feel about Williams's work?
T.S. I must admit I've never seen any of his plays. I've met Tennessee Williams and think he's a charming man.
C.M. What about Arthur Miller?
T.S. I've never seen any of his plays either.
T.S. I have a great admiration for Ibsen, if that means anything.
T.S. Well, I must defer judgment on Osborne; we publish him you see (laughs). I did see Olivier in The Entertainer when I was in New York, and I have been corresponding with some young man who is of this new movement. There seems to be a good deal of "angriness" among the Angry Young Men themselves.
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