Jeremy Herrin On ... TS Eliot, The Playwright
This month, the Donmar Warehouse presents a festival dedicated to TS Eliot (1888-1965), the Nobel Prize-winning, American-born poet, playwright and literary critic. Eliot’s plays include The Family Reunion, Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party, but he’s best remembered for his poetry including The Waste Land, Four Quartets and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which provided the inspiration for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats. Donmar associate director Jeremy Herrin, who helms the festival’s centrepiece revival of The Family Reunion, explains why Eliot’s contribution to theatre is worth celebrating. Herrin’s other credits include Statement of Regret at the National, The Vertical Hour at the Royal Court and Polly Stenham’s That Face, which transferred from the Royal Court to the West End earlier this year.
TS Eliot’s The Family Reunion is as an incredibly ambitious piece of writing. It is multi-layered and complex and that always really appeals to me. It\'s one of Eliot\'s strongest plays and I would say the most pertinent for a serious revival. The play looks back to Greek drama, certainly, but you could also argue that it prefigures a lot of later 20th-century material, like Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett.
In his day, Eliot was aggressively trying to challenge what he saw as the spiritual emptiness of the drama of his time. And so I believe there is great relevance in presenting this play now, particularly in a theatre culture that might occasionally be accused of shying away from mystery and the life of the spirit: it is a serious play, and provides an intellectually stimulating experience in our secular age. Although it explores dislocation and pain, it is certainly not without laughs: for an intensely serious poet, Eliot knows the importance of a joke or two. Daring to place Harry’s divine yearning in the framework of an aristocratic drawing-room of 1939 is not without entertainment.
Eliot is arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century and this, inevitably, has overshadowed his remarkable achievements as a dramatist. I see the TS Eliot Festival at the Donmar as a fantastic opportunity to celebrate and rediscover the variety of his work and I believe people will find nourishment from it.
As someone with a background in new work, I am particularly thrilled to be taking on the challenge of working an existent text. I will be trying to approach it in the same way I do with a piece of new writing but obviously there are limitations. Usually, I would spend a long time with the writer to try and unlock the play: looking at where they have come from, what they are trying to say and who they are as an artist. So we’ve done a different version of that by immersing ourselves in Eliot\'s poetry, plays and material about him and his life. His presence looms large and benevolently over our rehearsal room.
The play is a fantastic collation of different tones. It is psychologically naturalistic, it explores the supernatural with bravery and it manages to express very complex thoughts and emotional shifts with startling economy. It remains to be seen how successful the production is in marrying these disparate elements: our audiences will let us know - but we’ve had fun trying. One particular element of his work that is extremely exciting is his use of time - the idea of it having some sort of elasticity. As in the summit of his poetic achievement the Four Quartets, The Family Reunion plays with the past, present and future coexisting. This is fascinating to explore and has informed our design.
Written in free verse and a chorus typical of Greek drama, the language of The Family Reunion is both intricate and bewitching. One of the challenges of the production is how to make it clear enough that the narrative gets across to the audience whilst not reducing the scope and the reach of the play. But as Eliot helpfully said, poetry can communicate without comprehension.
And, hopefully, there will be something about watching this play in an intimate and supportive space, with such a talented and committed ensemble, that the variety of the play’s the meaning will become apparent, through purity of intention and possibly through poetic osmosis. We want it to be an intriguing, mesmeric experience for its audience: it should feel like nothing else, it is like nothing else.
The Family Reunion runs at the Donmar Warehouse from 25 November 2008 (previews from 20 November) to 10 January 2009. The ensemble production features Samuel West and Penelope Wilton. The T S Eliot Festival also includes several readings, all performed on The Family Reunion set: Four Quartets, performed by Stephen Dillane (14-17 January); Murder in the Cathedral (2 December); The Cocktail Party; and an evening of Eliot verse, including The Waste Land (1 December, 5 January).