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Oedipus, Suez, and Hungary: T. S. Eliot's Tradition and The Elder Statesman


Michael Simpson


Notwithstanding its mighty pedigree in Sophocles’ Theban tragedies, The Elder Statesman is initially a study in bathos, as the Sophoclean elements are massively scaled down: Lord Claverton is a superannuated invalid rather than the fearsome itinerant protagonist of Oedipus at Colonus. Yet these diminutive elements are produced by considerable compression, originating in much larger forces. At the outset, Charles, the suitor of Claverton’s daughter Monica, objects to the pressurized triangulation of himself, between Monica and her father, in which he must compete for Monica’s affection. Familial love and sexual love are immediately opposed. Whereas psychoanalysis postulates familial love as a rehearsal for sexual love, but emphasises that the former must give place to the latter, The Elder Statesman dramatises the claustrophobic convergence of these loves. Compounding the stresses on Claverton are the perverted affinities of Gomez, Mrs Carghill and his own son, as they emerge from his past and triangulate against him. Caught in and among these triangles, Claverton collapses in on himself. Yet the pressures that make him and break him also re-make him. From the perspective of his own Colonus, he recognises the regressive versions of self in these quasi-oedipal triangles and becomes a new self in rejecting the old selves. The familial love, sexual love and the lingering attachments to Carghill and Gomez that linked characters only by putting them into opposition, competition or conspiracy with one another are summarily reconciled under the higher love of Christian forgiveness. But this higher love is dramatised as even more capacious, as it retroactively embraces the roles of Oedipus and Antigone. Thus expanding, this higher love reconciles pagan and Christian cultures, asserting a direct continuity between Platonic and Christian love. The secular love modeled by psychoanalysis is also accommodated. This decorous, understated, very English play, confined to the drawing room and the nursing home, explodes into a cosmically inclusive vision. There is more to this cultural ‘big bang’. The Elder Statesman is not merely Lord Claverton but also the play The Elder Statesman. By including itself within this higher love, along with Sophocles’ Theban Cycle, the play potentially includes, within the interval, the whole of the European canon as it is postulated in Eliot’s earlier essay, ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919). Embraced within the play, along with so much else, this essay is put dramatically to work. But does the play really absorb anything and everything under the sign of its infinite cultural love? It embraces everything except that which its compulsive unity is designed to exclude. Begun in 1955 but not completed until 1958, the play straddles a historical moment in 1956 constituted by the Suez Crisis and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. As it affirms the integrity of the Western tradition, in the aftermath of American dissent from European ambitions in Suez, The Elder Statesman asserts the First World of a Europe beginning in Greece against Soviet imperialism in the Second World, and against Arab nationalism in the Third World. Though Eliot’s re-writing of Oedipus has prevailed historically over its Soviet adversary, Arab nationalism has diversified to perplex our younger statesmen in the White House and Downing Street, and the stories of civilisation that they tell us.

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