The Rock (1934) is T. S. Eliot’s first drama after his Anglo-Catholic conversion of 1927 and, like Murder in the Cathedral (1935), was commissioned for church occasions. As the subtitle indicates, The Rock is a charity play, written in support of the ambitious Forty-Five Churches Fund of the Diocese of London, an initiative of Bishop Winnington Ingram to raise funds for the building of churches in the rapidly growing areas of north London during the interwar period.
After his conversion, Eliot became deeply preoccupied with the social use of literature and with defining a Christian view of culture. In The Use of Poetry and The Use of Criticism (1933), he asserted that “the ideal medium for poetry ... and the most direct means of social ‘usefulness’ for poetry, is the theatre” (691), since drama appealed to everybody cutting across class, sensitivity, cultural background or levels of awareness. This view extended to his other critical texts: The Idea of a Christian Society (1939) and Notes towards the Definition of Culture (1948).
The Rock was published in 1934 by Faber and in the same year by Harcourt in the U.S.A. It was never to be reprinted again, nor played on stage. Eliot disclaimed full authorship, regarding it as a collaborative effort both in the Preface and in “Three Voices of Poetry” (1953), where he avowed that he was given a scenario and had to provide “words for this spectacle” and “choral passages in verse,” at a time when he felt his poetry was exhausted (818-19). Eliot underlined the play’s shortcomings, remarking that the chorus fails to attain “the third or dramatic voice,” and that the most distinctively audible voice is “the second voice, that of myself addressing – indeed haranguing – an audience” (819). In a letter to the Spectator (1934), Eliot declared that his only dramatic aim was to show that “there is a possible rôle for the Chorus” (93). And, indeed, Eliot’s Chorus returns to ritual drama and is both a vehicle of social commentary in the Greek sense, as well as a narrator and interpreter of the play’s philosophical and theological significance.
Eliot’s modesty, his usual self-deprecatory moods and his later omission of the play in the Collected Poems and Plays – where only the Choruses appeared – encouraged the later neglect of or objections to The Rock. In general, Eliot’s dramatic writing was not well received by artists and literary critics, who considered it a betrayal of the standards of high art for popular culture, and The Rock’s religious theme aggravated the rejection of his colleagues. Yet what literary critics and academics considered a failure – for Grover Smith it was “mere hackwork” and “an insult to the mature audience” (171) – seemed to enchant the common public and theatre reviewers. Critics did justice to the poetic expression of the Choruses, which anticipate the choral verse of Murder in the Cathedral and the meditations of the Four Quartets. However, the Choruses were not conceived as isolated poems and, if they are abstracted from the dramatic texture in which they were embedded, Eliot’s groundbreaking contribution to the creation of a new poetic idiom, which merges avantgarde experimentalism with social concerns and breaks from modernist aesthetics, cannot be fully appreciated.
The Rock was conceived as an open air pageant, in vogue before and after the Great War, as an array of present and historical scenes, oscillating between a parade and a play, and representing the different phases of English Christianity’s history and the adversities it had faced since its beginnings. It consists of a series of tableaux reminiscent of the music hall – with dramatic sketches, songs, a ballet inspired by a legend, choruses, meditative and philosophical verse, prayers, sermons – and it ends with the benediction by a real Archbishop. These “revue” acts are meant for the entertainment and participation of the audience. The modern and historical scenes are linked together by the Chorus, a philosophical-prophetic voice that meditates on the present and the past, diagnoses the spiritual emptiness of the contemporary world, reaches conclusions and shows the way to the “son of man.”
The occasion of the play is the construction of a church. The lead characters are a group of modern Cockney builders who bear the names of Anglo-Saxon kings. The foreman Ethelbert, a self-styled sage, and his companions, Alfred and Edwin, eager listeners and learners, struggle to overcome a series of difficulties that mar their endeavor of building a temple. They have to battle natural elements (swampy ground and bad foundations), economic factors (lack of funds) and political forces (the hostility of secular groups, contractors, agitators, politicians, Redshirts, Blackshirts, Plutocrats, who impede their progress).
The characters are mainly stock figures representing workmen, politicians, exponents of economic forces and social classes, the unemployed, as well as legendary and historic heroes, among whom the Chorus and the Rock stand out. The Chorus represents the Church, and the Rock – who enters first “led by a boy” (8), like Samson or Sophocles’ Tiresias – is the eternal witness, the sufferer, the stranger, who sees what has happened and what will happen. The role of the Rock is to boost the morale of the Chorus, and to bear witness through memory. In the end, he is revealed as St. Peter.
The building of the temple unfolds on two levels: the concrete building per se is linked to a growing awareness of its spiritual dimension. The building of the new church is intertwined with the history and legends of other emblematic temples, such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, St Bartholomew or St Michael Pater Noster Royal, which have been destroyed and rebuilt over the years. Biblical or historical characters come to the workmen’s aid, who become aware that they are being helped by supernatural and spiritual forces. The modern builders are united across time with the first Christians and with those who will follow them. Their actions transcend time and become archetypal. Ethelbert, the foreman, is aware that building the church is something more than erecting a building. They build the physical church in its eternal dimension. They share together in a common duty vis à vis a common inheritance. The construction of the church represents continuation of God’s design and becomes the foundation of a nation and its identity.
The Rock develops the theme of the point of intersection of the eternal with time, the notion of man’s double belonging to the spiritually transcendent dimension, which will be fully explored later in the Four Quartets.
Eliot creates a new poetic idiom of a community that marks the transition from the early solipsistic poetic language of The Waste Land to a language that forges a community, a pattern that underlies all his plays. The play’s aim is to shape an enduring sense of community, an essential element of an existence rooted in Christian faith. The Chorus incisively demands “What life have you if you have not life together,” and proclaims: “There is no life that is not in community” and there is “no community not lived in praise of God” (21).
The main idea of The Rock is that the temple is never finished, it is a constant construction, “forever to be destroyed, forever to be restored” (78). And this is so because of man’s fallibility. The Christian ideals are always distorted in reality by “enemies armed with the spears of mistaken ideals” and “the swords of the will to power,” or “the deadly gas of indifference” (78). The building of the Church entails ever new difficulties and exacts a continual effort from which there is no respite: “The Church must be forever building, for it is forever / decaying within and attacked from without” (21).
In 1923 Eliot announced a new way of writing invented by Joyce and which was in fact also his, “the mythical method”, which he conceived as a “continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity” (478). In The Rock Eliot continues this parallelism and the modern building of the temple is the counterpart of both legendary and biblical vignettes, historical tableaux and transhistorical testimonials. The action is not chronological and oscillates between the present and the past while it unfolds at the junction of reality and myth, suggesting a pattern of recurrence.
The hardships with which the modern church builders struggle are contrasted with Biblical stories – an analogue of Moses’s plight when trying to persuade people to observe God’s law – and with a series of historical moments since the introduction of Christianity in Anglo Saxon (601) and Norman times (1123), the Danish invasion (1069-1070), the Crusades, the iconoclasm in the Stuart and Tudor period, the Reformation of 1640, the Great Fire of London (1666), which destroyed St. Paul’s Cathedral and many other emblematic churches of London, and the building of churches in the nineteenth century. These scenes illustrate the different phases of Christian history and the struggle for survival of the Church of England.
The Rock was an impressive largescale production that involved almost 330 actors mostly amateur and volunteers, with 22 scene changes, a choir, and an orchestra of 40. The director was E. Martin Browne, who was to direct all of Eliot’s plays, Martin Shaw the musical director, and Stella Mary Pearce the costume designer. Among the actors were a West End preacher (Rev. Clarence May, the Plutocrat), an East End vicar (Vincent Howson, Ethelbert), and a bishop (Dr. Winnington-Ingram, Bishop of London). The Rock was performed at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, the most prestigious venue for opera and ballets. It played every night for two weeks, and was viewed by a total of 20.000 London parishioners and churchgoers. Reviewers remarked that the actors were under rehearsed yet the Chorus, trained and coordinated by Elsie Fogerty, received words of praise. The Chorus, composed of 10 men and 7 women, wore half masks, Greek style, to underline their impersonality.
The main goal of The Rock is to reveal the essence of Christian beliefs and values for the growth of the self and the existence of a community. In this new style the collage of earlier myths gives way to the realities of the Great Depression; it becomes closer to contemporary concerns and common speech, accepting everyday life and social realities. Modern Cockney interludes run parallel with the philosophical meditative lyrics of the Choruses which rank among Eliot’s best poems. Although there are still harangues and jeremiads, the tone has lost its sarcasm and vitriol. The Rock marks an important turning point in Eliot’s career. It looks back to the high modernist avantgarde of The Waste Land and anticipates the mystical meditative verse of Four Quartets as well as Eliot’s social criticism.
Yet, more than a religious play, The Rock is political; it is Eliot’s only drama which actively represents social ideas. Eliot alludes to then-fashionable economic theories, mentioning Maynard Keynes, the Social Credit theory of Major C. Douglas, much admired by Pound, and the two major totalitarian ideologies of his day, communism and fascism. He offers an x-ray of the panaceas of left and right and debunks their totalitarian tendencies. Inspired by Auden’s expressionism, The Rock is also Eliot’s only political drama. Though often charged with anti-Semitic stances, in The Rock Eliot openly denounces, as early as 1934, the anti-Semitism of fascist propaganda.
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