T.S.Eliot – Don’t mention the War

During the War years, Eliot could be scathing about sentimental poets, but was economical with his comments about the events and conduct of the war. Interestingly, he still didn’t want to write about it even sixteen years after the Armistice.

Today I was looking again at Martin Browne’s book on the making of Eliot’s plays – in particular the chapter on that unsatisfactory but fascinating pageant play, The Rock (1934), which interweaves scenes about building a church with scenes from history. In Browne’s original scenario, which Eliot was fleshing out with words, the first half of the play was originally scheduled to climax with “a scene during an air-raid in the recent war.” Eliot was dubious:

…The matter we must consider is the climax of part 1. You will remember perhaps that I had qualms about any suggestion of the late war. Recently I have had a letter from the Master of the Temple, and one from Pat McCormick on this point, and they both feel very strongly about the undesirability of any such allusion. I think we should defer in any case to such opinion, which probably represents what many other people would feel. The difficulty is to think of some other appropriate catastrophe to end off this part of the play.

Using the war in this way was presumably “undesirable” because of the connotations. It might have encouraged unthinking nationalism and reflex anti-German feeling.

It was Eliot who came up with the appropriate substitute, the attack on the two totalitarian ideologies, Communism and Fascism. Browne says “I think it was entirely his invention. It was certainly a most effective one.” I’ve written before about the impact that Eliot’s attack on anti-Semitism must have had in 1934. Such strong political statements were uncommon in thirties theatre, and so was the expressionist technique used (The Rock was produced before Auden and Isherwood’s Dog Beneath the Skin). I think the scene is even more interesting when one considers it as a deliberate rejection of falling back on standardised rehashing of wartime emotions.

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Update 2008: I’ve now added a paper to this site dealing with The Rock much more fully.

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