T. S. Eliot's last play, drafted originally in 1955 but not completed until three years later. Lord Claverton, an eminent former cabinet minister and banker, is helped to confront his past by the love of his daughter, his Antigone. The dialogue in The Elder Statesman, the love scenes in particular, contain some of Eliot's most tender and expressive writing for the theatre. The play was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1958.
The "elder statesman" of the title is the aging Lord Claverton, recently retired from an eminent career in politics and banking; his health failing, he moves to an upscale retirement colony with his daughter Monica. Yet he is pursued by old acquaintances, half-comical and half-menacing, who remind him of long-forgotten secrets from his past, and his relationship with his ne'er-do-well son Michael is becoming increasingly strained. Claverton's task in the play is to confront his past and set his troubled conscience at ease.
It takes no special insight to see autobiographical elements in this book; Eliot was in 1959 himself an "elder statesman" of English literature, and The Elder Statesman turned out to be the poet's farewell to the English language. Claverton began his life as Richard Ferry before marrying into a wealthy family and taking on his lordly persona; Eliot made a similar transformation from plain Tom Eliot of Missouri to the distinguished British poet T. S. Eliot. It is easy to imagine Eliot in old age trying to come to terms with his own past: his journeys from obscurity to literary eminence, from America to England, and from Unitarianism to Anglo-Catholicism. The dedicatee of the book is Eliot's second wife, Valerie (his disastrous first marriage, to the mentally unstably Vivienne Haigh-Wood, ended with her death in an asylum), and the beautiful lyricism of the love poetry in The Elder Statesman seems to reflect the happiness of their life together. Tenderness is not a word one would typically associate with Eliot's poetry, but there is no better word to describe the ending of Act III, which has a very different beauty from anything else in his output.
I have a hard time imagining this play (or any of Eliot's drawing-room verse dramas) holding the stage; nothing much happens, and the blank verse seems more composed for its poetic beauty than for its appropriateness in advancing the dramatic action. This may not be a great stage play, or Eliot's best writing, but fans of the poet shouldn't miss this, his last published work. Besides the considerable rewards of the play's uncharacteristically lyrical verse, it is satisfying to see that the tormented Eliot finally reached a sort of equilibrium at the twilight of his life.