The Elder Statesman
T. S. Eliot once remarked: “A play should give you something to think about. When I see a play and understand it the first time, then I know it can't be much good.”
It was a self-adopted method for Eliot to start from the known and the familiar and work his way into the unfamiliar and the unknown. Eliot realized that the modern man, in the daily hustle-bustle of his existence, is unknowingly gasping for breath, looking for an escape from the quagmire of daily life, which is devoid of all meaning. Eliot’s drawing room drama The Elder Statesman, is the last of his drawing room plays in which he attempts to give a final expression to his vision of life. In many ways, therefore, The Elder Statesman marks the culmination of Eliot’s philosophy of life. Murder in the Cathedral deals with the theme of spirituality. The Cocktail Party deals with the theme of misplaced priorities and skewed spiritual visions. The Family Reunion shows us the process by which a man, pre-disposed to sainthood, is made aware of his destiny. In the last drawing room drama, Eliot shows us how no man is rich enough to buy his past, how no one can escape the memories of things gone by. One cannot flee from a guilt-ridden past and can only gain salvation from the same through admittance, contrition and expiation.
The Elder Statesman, as a play, is not particularly poetic or dramatic. But it’s written in powerful verse, which is apt for Eliot’s theme and expression. What Eliot wishes to tell us is something profoundly true and important: that we cannot flee the past or ‘retire‛ from responsibility. At best, we can off-load it by contrition. And that to find ‘the truth that shall set you free‛ you must strip yourself of all pretense, all ‘acting‛ and become again, a little child. Eliot also shows us that to enter into reality is only possible through others; so that totally shared love is the supreme road to reality, and that as such, love is capable of being self-sufficient, provided it is love which is founded on true confession, resignation and trust.
When the play opens, the setting is that of Lord Claverton’s drawing room. Lord Claverton is a man of distinction, who is well known and well respected in society, where he exerts considerable influence. As the play opens, we see Claverton’s daughter Monica, bantering with her beau, Charles Hemington. From their conversation, it becomes evident that Lord Claverton is fiercely possessive of Monica - a fact that Charles grudges. Through the course of the play, we see that Claverton has been forced to retire for medical reasons. He is hounded by revelations from his past - a man (Gomez), who as a student he led into bad company, a singer (Mrs. Carghill), with whom he had an affair and who was bought off by his father. These people unexpectedly make a comeback in Claverton’s life, and bring with them all the memories that Claverton has conveniently chosen to forget or overlook. Claverton and Monica’s first impression is that Gomez and Mrs. Carghill have returned to claim money from the wealthy Claverton. But it is made abundantly clear to the reader that Gomez and Mrs. Carghill are well enough off on their own account, and have not come back to blackmail Claverton for his money. They only want to spend their time with Claverton. Eliot’s underlying message is that these two people are the twin agents of conscience that have come back to constantly remind Claverton of his guilt, of how his public image does not match the real man underneath it. Back in his college days, Claverton had a hit and run incident, a fact which Gomez is privy to. As for Mrs. Carghill, she was the love of Claverton’s life but she was bought off by Claverton’s disapproving father. As a result, Claverton could not make good his promise of marrying Mrs. Carghill. Gomez, who has made a fortune since then and Mrs. Carghill, who is now a wealthy widow, have both come back to Claverton’s life as agents of Eliot’s message.
As the play progresses, we see that Gomez manages to lure away Claverton’s son Michael, according to whom his father never understood him. It is only Monica, who stands beside her father, offering all the support he needs. She is indeed the spiritual guide who brings Claverton to the light of self-knowledge. It is only by shamefully confessing to Monica that her father is able to gain salvation. Claverton confesses that he never told her about the past as he always wanted Monica and Michael to admire him. Monica assures him that her admiration for her father is irrespective of his past. As for Michael, he is given a farewell so that he may go with Gomez and chart his own destiny. They are both hopeful that Michael will either be successful in his pursuits, or will return home eventually, like the prodigal son.
After his confession to Monica and her re-assurance to her father, Claverton expresses his desire to go for a walk. It doesn’t take the reader too long to realize that Claverton dies off-stage, leaving Monica to Charles. The couple will together lead and be led towards the goal of spirituality and illumination.