Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama (1933) is the title T. S. Eliot gave to a book that anthologized two fragments of a play he had not finished. These fragments had first appeared in 1926 and 1927 respectively in The Criterion, of which Eliot was editor: “Fragment of a Prologue” and “Fragment of an Agon [From Wanna Go Home, Baby?].” Eliot had begun working on this his first play in the early 1920s following the publication of The Waste Land. The original title of the play (Wanna Go Home, Baby?) alluded to Eliot’s interest in popular culture for the reconstruction of a modern drama. However, he put the project aside as his poetic interest began to shift coinciding with his adoption of Anglo-Catholicism. The publication of the “Fragments” as a book in 1933 by Faber & Faber, however, reignited interest in the poet’s play, especially from experimental theatre companies such as the Group Theatre or the Vassar Experimental Theatre, both of which went on to stage the “Fragments”. Even if Eliot was ambivalent in his enthusiasm for these productions, he may have been tempted to complete the play. It has been argued that it was at this point that Eliot drafted a complete scenario of the play under yet another name: The Superior Landlord (Sidnell 100).
An extant manuscript synopsis of The Superior Landlord spells out the Aristophanic structure of the play: Prologue, Parados, Agon, Parabasis, Scene, Chorikon and Exodus. The title of the “Fragments” clearly sought to flaunt the Greek structure of the play. The synopsis of The Superior Landlord is followed by a five-page scenario which summarizes the action concerning the tenants of a London flat in the course of a dinner party. They are two prostitutes, Doris and Dusty, waiting to entertain four male guests, two Canadian soldiers, and two American businessmen, also joined by Sweeney, Mrs. Porter and a couple of musicians for entertainment, Snow and Swarts. Part I details the events around a dinner party marked by constant interruptions by “intruders”; namely, that of Pereira, who attempts to evict the prostitutes claiming, under false pretences, to be their landlord. Sweeney, in turn, accuses Pereira of sub-letting, revealing himself as the legitimate because “superior” landlord. A music and dance interlude “in complete contrast to the verse of the play” leads into part II, which introduces Mrs. Porter. She comes into violent conflict with Sweeney, who finally knocks her down and kills her. She is carried off but subsequently resurrects, comes back into stage and joins a singing procession which brings the play to an end. The theme of death and resurrection fits nicely with Eliot’s anthropological interest in pagan fertility rituals (already explored in The Waste Land’s intertextual references to the Arthurian legend of the Fisher King), but here articulated specifically via the dramatic model of Aristophanic comedy as expounded in F. M. Cornford’s The Origin of Attic Comedy (1914).
The two “Fragments” published as Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama are accommodated in part I of The Superior Landlord. “Fragment of a Prologue” opens the play. It introduces Doris and Dusty, who talk about Pereira. It principally features a telephone conversation between Dusty and Pereira, who is tricked into not visiting them in the flat, after which the girls entertain themselves cutting cards until the first guests arrive. “Fragment of an Agon” is more explicit in introducing avant-garde themes and aesthetics, mainly through borrowings from popular culture such as jazz and the music hall. These influences spill over into the particular high rhythm of the verbal exchanges in these “Fragments”, which at times evoke the back-chat of minstrelsy and vaudeville. More explicitly, two pairs of guests sing popular songs in succession to the accompaniment of the musicians, Lincoln Snow (Negro Jazz Drummer) and Milton Swarts (Jewish Jazz Drummer). This second Fragment is dominated by Sweeney conversing (mainly with Doris) about cannibalism and murder.
Eliot considered omitting the first of the “Fragments” from the final version of the play, but he never went on to complete it. He was allegedly side-tracked by other dramatic projects that came his way; first, the choruses for The Rock (1934) and, then, Murder in the Cathedral (1935). The dramatic lesson of Sweeney Agonistes lies not in its value as stage theatre. The title, in fact, alludes to Samson Agonistes, a closet drama John Milton deliberately barred from the stage – he preferred to think of it as a “dramatic poem.” That may be why Eliot anthologised Sweeney Agonistes (he deleted the subtitle Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama from the index) under “Unfinished Poems” in his Collected Poems 1909-1962. In the Hayward Collection at King’s College Cambridge, the manuscripts and typescripts of the “play” are filed under “verse,” not “drama.” But in showcasing the intersection between the stage and printed verse, Sweeney Agonistes can greatly illuminate the understanding of the theatrical complicity of Eliot’s poetic development thereon. A part from the sequence “Doris’s Dream Songs,” which also possibly originated in the drafts of the unfinished play, became the third part of “The Hollow Men” (1925), just as the birth of the first of the Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton,” can be traced to discarded lines from Murder in the Cathedral. But perhaps, more importantly, Sweeney Agonistes marked the beginning of Eliot’s disenchantment with avant-garde poetics and the exploration of modes of composition more in line with his growing persona as “the Pope of Russell Square.”
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