Sunday, March 28, 2010

How (Mostly) Pleasant to Re-encounter Mr. Eliot!

"I have heard the cellphones ringing, each to each—
I do not think that they will ring for me."

Today this announcement drew the expected giggles from a literate off-Broadway audience gathered for a performance of T.S. Eliot's seldom-performed The Cocktail Party (1949), effectively presented by New York's TACT/The Actors Company Theatre.

To some extent, Eliot has fallen out of fashion in the 21st century, but he was lauded and even revered in his heyday in the 20th. Even relatively recent revelations regarding his intense anti-Semitism have failed to diminish the importance of works such as "The Waste Land," "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," or Murder in the Cathedral, among several others. Many of his phrases and observations, such as the one parodied above, have become standard expressions. He even invaded popular culture with the musical Cats, based on his poems gathered as Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, though he himself may (or may not, if he knew how much money it's made), have turned over in his grave.

Although I subscribe to the Richard Dawkins/Christopher Hitchens school regarding religion in general, I still find it fascinating that Eliot could transform what begins as a sophisticated British drawing-room comedy into an analysis of sin and redemption, what we can expect from the world, and how we should live our lives. What does seem quaint in 2010 is the sin that is redeemed only by the character's self-sacrifice, martyrdom, and death is merely that of having an affair with another woman's husband. The character becomes a nursing sister in a remote tropical country, where she is killed and perhaps cannibalized during civil uprisings which are, of course, Christian versus pagan (what else, since it's good old T.S.?). In spite of the religious flummery (IMHO), the play is sophisticated, diverting, and linguistically elegant. And we certainly need to be reminded of these artistic virtues at any time these days.