Theater business

21 Feb 2020 2:53 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

From August 1933, when Eliot tells Hale that he has been invited to write a play, to the May 1934 premier of The Rock, his letters contain reflections on drama and the process of writing (what he considers) his first serious verse since Ash-Wednesday. In addition to hoping to create a stronger bond with her by writing for the stage, he sees the pageant play as a way to force himself to write poetry. On 21 October he writes that poetic composition is difficult and depressing work requiring some external pressure to expel it from him. A few days later he tells her that he has drafted four choruses, rather on the grim and ironic side, as he wants to avoid sentimentality or prettiness. In the meantime, he keeps up a lively schedule of theater-going that he describes to her. On 8 December he reports a music hall revival at the Garrick, where he saw Charles Austin and Marie Kendall, particularly enjoying “A Little Bit o’ What You Fancy Always Does You Good” and “Down at the Old Bull and Bush” (an old favorite). He finds London nostalgic for the pre-Boer War days. 

In the new year (1934) Eliot also goes to see moving pictures, commenting freely and acerbically on them to Hale. Mae West is a bad actress with no personality (6 Feb), but the Marx Brothers are worse (16 Feb). He describes them as low-class Jews peddling crude humor that he finds repulsive (unfortunately, such remarks are not uncommon in these letters). In contrast, he enjoyed two “Silly Symphony” Walt Disney films. He sees plays by Margaret Kennedy and Sean O’Casey (“Within the Gates,” whose poetry he thinks is maudlin). On 24 February he looks forward to attending Cleopatra acted by Cambridge undergraduates and on 16 March reports with amazement on the excellence of the young lead actress in what he deems Shakespeare’s most difficult play. He also sees a performance of Auden’s The Dance of Death, whose characters do not seem like real people. Comparing himself to Auden, he thinks his own characters in Sweeney were more lifelike, but grants Auden a talent for finding a dramatic situation (2 March). Sweeney is on his mind because he has just seen Hallie Flanagan, the director of his play at Vassar in 1933, and finds her thoughtful and intelligent. (Flanagan is to play an unfortunate role in Hale’s future life: shortly after Flanagan is hired at Smith in 1942, Hale loses her job.) On 23 March, he takes Christina Morley to see Congreve’s Love for Love at Sadlers' Wells, noting how dependent the dramatist is on his audience: Restoration comedy must now be played as farce, but is really a somber satire of a kind that audiences no longer understand. However, he expresses cautious optimism about the play he is finishing and the strength of his comic hero, Ethelbert the Anglo-Saxon bricklayer. 

On 10 May, Eliot thanks Hale for reading and commenting on his poetry, which she seems not to have liked very much. He says he is relieved: if she liked it too much, he would worry that she only liked him as its author. Other people mix him up with his poetry, and he craves some private life.

Comments

  • 21 Feb 2020 8:00 PM | Jonathan Morse
    My father seems to have been right about the motivation behind Eliot's correspondence with Groucho Marx after the Second World War, when antisemitism had become something of a social liability. About the implausibility of the relationship, my father's guess was that Eliot was angling for a knighthood.
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    • 21 Feb 2020 11:51 PM | Sonetka
      Socializing with Groucho Marx seems like an odd way of bidding for a knighthood (though admittedly I don't know anyone who's actually gotten one). It's possible he regretted his former attitudes, it's also possible he had gotten older and more relaxed about just admitting that he liked something which wasn't highest of the highbrow. We can't see the letters yet ourselves so this is just my guess, but from the descriptions I'm getting a whiff of a 16 year old who's trying to be impressive by showing how much he despises the popular things *common* people enjoy. While I have no doubt his casual antisemitism was quite real, he may have been playing up his dislike. I do wish there were some remaining hint as to how Hale felt about these movies; I don't mean to impute antisemitism to her, but if she didn't enjoy slapstick comedy he may have been playing up to her somewhat.
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      • 22 Feb 2020 3:19 AM | Jonathan Morse
        In a stern letter from the 1950s, Eliot does warn Pound that he regards any attack on the Jewish religion as an attack on his own Christian religion. But the social climate in Britain had changed by then, and antisemitism of (say) the G. K. Chesterton variety had begun to make some intellectuals uncomfortable in ways it didn't before the war. Eliot, of all people, would have been aware of that. A useful perspective from 1945 is George Orwell's essay "Antisemitism in Britain," online at https://www.orwellfoundation.com/the-orwell-foundation/orwell/essays-and-other-works/antisemitism-in-britain/
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      • 22 Feb 2020 6:59 AM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
        As you say, readers will have to decide for themselves, but the frequency of anti-Semitic remarks in these letters certainly suggests that Hale didn't openly disapprove of his attitude and may have shared it. That doesn't, of course, excuse Eliot, and I have to say it is one of the more dismaying aspects of his correspondence with Hale in the 1930's. However, after a burst of remarks in late 1939, he seems to stop (from what I have seen).
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      • 22 Feb 2020 10:17 AM | David Chinitz (Administrator)
        I don't think Eliot's later enthusiasm for the Marx Brothers needs an ulterior motive. He did sometimes change his mind about things. That said, his dislike of "Duck Soup" in 1934 wasn't just an adolescent pose. He wouldn't have praised Disney's "Silly Symphonies" in the same letter if he were trying to distance himself from the pleasures of common people.
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        • 23 Feb 2020 12:16 AM | Jonathan Morse
          For Professor Dickey, about Hale's possible sympathy with Eliot's antisemitism:

          If she did sympathize, she would have had plenty of co-sympathizers in the American academy of the 1930s. One college president at the time who made no secret at all of his loathing of Jews, for instance, was Ernest Hopkins of Dartmouth. And in 1934, when Harvard's president James Bryant Conant publicly refused a gift to the university from the Nazi propagandist Ernst Hanfstaengl, the eminent Harvard philologist Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., protested in a letter to the <i>New York Times</i> on behalf of what he called "the new Germany."

          About the general topic, two books that capture the American campus climate of Eliot's and Hale's time are F. Scott Fitzgerald's first and (in his lifetime) most popular novel, <i>This Side of Paradise</i>, and Dan Oren's <i>Joining the Club: A History of Jews and Yale</i>.
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          • 23 Feb 2020 6:07 AM | Jonathan Morse
            Correction: Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., used the phrase "the new Germany" in a letter to the editor of the New York Times not about the Hanfstaengl incident but about an anti-Nazi protest in New York. It was published on September 13, 1935, page 20.

            The Times's coverage of Magoun's reaction to Conant's refusal of Hanfstaengl's gift is in an article, "Professors Regret Hanfstaengl Snub," December 1, 1934, page 6. It quotes Magoun as having told Hanfstaengl, "The former students of Harvard are ashamed of the manner in which the university acted." The phrase "former students" refers to the circumstance that Hanfstaengl, a Harvard graduate, had tried to present his gift during his class reunion.

            And for what it's worth in the way of Eliot interest, Hamfstaengl was briefly engaged to, wait for it, Djuna Barnes.
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          • 23 Feb 2020 2:00 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
            Thank you for your comments, Jonathan. For what it's worth, I don't think Eliot or Hale's anti-Semitism specifically reflects the academy, of which both were distinctly peripheral members, but rather the Boston Brahmin class to which their families belonged, and from which, of course, the academy drew many of its leading lights.
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  • 22 Feb 2020 10:27 PM | CR Mittal
    Apropos of Hale’s reaction to Eliot’s poetry:

    “That was a way of putting it—not very satisfactory:
    A periphrastic study in a worn-out poetical fashion,
    Leaving one still with the intolerable wrestle
    With words and meanings. The poetry does not matter.”

    - ‘East Coker’
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    • 23 Feb 2020 12:57 AM | CR Mittal
      Maybe Hale is the imagined audience for Eliot’s poetic reflections.
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