When Thomas Stearns Eliot’s play The Confidential Clerk premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in 1953, British drama was on the cusp of a revolution. Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party was only five years away, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger three years down the line, and the 1955 English premiere of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot right around the corner. Each of these plays changed the way we think of language in the theater, from the precise and musical patterns in the work of Pinter to the fierce working-class anger of Osborne. T.S. Eliot, taking into account his revolutionary 1922 poem The Waste Land, seems like an obvious fit with these new dramatists. The Waste Land’s experimental jumps through time and space imply a willingness to find new forms and structures, and its general mood of despair and disillusionment reflect the post-WWI atmosphere while looking forward to the mistrust and societal alienation felt by the Cold War era of dramatists. The poem is, in effect, a monologue, and was in fact performed as such by Irish actress Fiona Shaw in an acclaimed 1996 production. All of this points to great things for Eliot’s career as a playwright. What, then, was Eliot doing writing a conventional farce like The Confidential Clerk?
The answer, of course, is that The Confidential Clerk is no conventional farce. It has the structure of one, the typical “lost at birth” confusions that are reminiscent of Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Unlike Wilde, Eliot writes in verse, but it is a verse deliberately conversational and integrated into the plot. There are no flowery Shakespearian asides or soliloquies, and upon hearing the play it would be easy to mistake the lines for prose. However, Eliot was already an extremely respected and influential poet by the time the play premiered, so critics were expecting something far deeper. Brooks Atkinson, the New York Times critic, explained the play as a “deliberate attempt to be ordinary” and complained that, “Unfortunately, Mr. Eliot has succeeded.” Another review of the play’s New York premiere offered a more intriguing suggestion: on the level of simple entertainment, the play might be underwhelming, but it has a serious undertone that elevates it from the ordinary to the insightful. Eliot himself spoke in interviews of his intentions, to take a comedic theatrical form and, by embracing the audience through the devices they are accustomed to, use it to say something. As he puts it in a 1938 essay, “If the audience gets its strip tease it will swallow poetry.” Eliot is like a wolf dressed in sheep’s clothing, attacking his unsuspecting audience.
The question remains, then: what is Eliot saying? Critics have noted themes such as individual choice, the influence of parentage, self-identity, the machinations of destiny – and the list goes on. One critic at the time, tongue-in-cheek, said he could envision an audience member interpreting Sir Claude as Russia and his wife, Lady Elizabeth, as the atomic bomb. Like any good work of literature, the play’s meaning is open to endless debate (even more so if one wishes to discount whatever Eliot was actually intending to say). Nevertheless, the play’s starting point is clear enough. The plot is derived from Ion, a classical Greek play by Euripedes. Ion is the son of the god Apollo and Creusa, an Athenian princess, left to die by Creusa but secretly saved by Apollo. Xuthus, Creusa’s husband, is later led to believe that Ion is his own child, and the jealous Creusa plots to kill Ion. At the last minute, Ion’s identity is revealed, and mother and son are reunited. Eliot removes the murder plot and the gods, but he uses the device of disputed parentage to make some stunning comments about forging one’s own path despite genetic origins.
Ion is half-divine, and this revelation at the end allows him to inherit the throne of Athens. While the blatant strains of godly supernaturalism have been purged from The Confidential Clerk, itretains some spiritual implications. Eliot, who converted to the Anglican Church in 1927, was a devotedly religious man. Much has been made regarding a Christian interpretation of The Confidential Clerk, and it is easy to see why. The influence a father (or mother) has over his son is the backbone of the work, and the ultimate father for Eliot was a divine one. Colby, the confidential clerk of the play’s title, could be seen as a figure on a spiritual quest. Sir Claude and Lady Elizabeth both try to adopt him as their own in order to mold him into the shape they prefer. The play’s ending, in this interpretation, is a moral victory for spiritual enlightenment and faith-based pursuits over worldly concerns such as the business world, Sir Claude’s chosen life. While Eliot invited these religious interpretations, the play does not hit the audience over the head with its message, and it also says something more generally about finding oneself amidst competing claims to ownership, being what one is instead of living up to someone else’s image.
In marked contrast to The Wasteland, The Confidential Clerk has a wonderfully optimistic feel to it. Perhaps, more than anything, it is the hope found within the play that separates Eliot from the younger, angry dramatists that would follow him. It would be tempting to say that Osborne, Beckett, Pinter, and others, knocked down Eliot and his conservative generation to bring a radically different message reflecting their contemporary world-view. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Even if Eliot had different intellectual ideas than the practitioners of the Theater of the Absurd and the “Angry Young Men,” he was a key stepping stone in the development of modern drama because he forced audiences and critics to look beneath the surface veneer of a play. He showed that, working within the confines of a popular theater, work of quality and meaning could arise, in effect “training” an audience to accept the use of popular entertainment techniques by artists intent on doing more than providing a fun evening. Beckett, in Godot, would use music hall, vaudeville, and slapstick in this way, and Osborne’s Look Back in Anger took the well-made play and, by transplanting the setting to the lower classes and using colloquial speaking patterns, drastically altered the play’s attitude. Paul Rogers, who played Sir Claude in the original 1954 London production of the play, would go on to star in Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, and there are interesting comparisons to be made between Eliot’s verse and Pinter’s language. Eliot buries his meanings and dresses the poetry down, but this makes it even more exciting to uncover.
There is more going on in The Confidential Clerk than there initially appears, something lost on a large portion of its original audience. E. Martin Browne, the play’s original director in both its London and New York versions, was well aware of this problem and saw it as the chief obstacle in his production. Whether audiences got it or not, the play was successful, running for a year in New York, although no doubt boosted by the star power of Claude Rains as Sir Claude and Ina Claire as Lady Elizabeth. Claire, making a comeback after several years off the stage, was almost uniformly praised by the critics and a considerable draw for the audiences. Since then, The Confidential Clerk has been largely overlooked, even within the body of Eliot’s own work where it is overshadowed by plays such as The Cocktail Party (TACT 1996/97) and The Family Reunion (TACT 1999/2000). Funny and light to the ear, but moving and provocative to the mind, The Confidential Clerk is long overdue for the attention it deserves.