Roses and Flames Not Quite In-Folded
Clark Studio Theater, LincolnCenter
11/08/2011 - & November 9, 10, 11*, 12, 2011
T.S. Eliot: Four Quartets
Ludwig van Beethoven: String Quartet No 15 in A minor, opus 132
Stephen Dillane (Narrator), The Miró Quartet
S. Dillane (© From “Welcome to Sarajevo”)
One has to feel sorry for the Miró Quartet this week. The four virtuosi arrive 85 minutes after the 75-minute reading of a poem which was never supposed to be read aloud, by an accomplished actor whose own virtuoso performance has nothing whatsoever to do with the ensuing music and who has moved around a bare black-lined fluorescent-lit stage without much purpose.
Don’t misunderstand me. Stephen Dillane, a fine character actor on both stage and screen, has performed a Herculean labor by memorizing the complete T.S. Eliot Four Quartets. But while the audience were attentive, and Mr. Dillane never missed a single word or beat of this, one of the great epic poems of the 20th Century, I never quite saw the point of it.
To be blunt, Four Quartets was never meant for the stage. (Nor, for that matter, were most of Eliot’s loquacious plays.) I wouldn’t presume to put enumerate its meanings or themes. But Eliot has so many cerebral subtexts, so many references to ancient words and events, and so many philosophical concepts, that it must be read initially in private, then with notes (and tomes have been written about it), and then perhaps in discussion with others.
But this is not made for the stage. When Wilde and Dickens and Mark Twain read from the stage, they moved about constantly. But they were reading stories and dramas which demanded movement. When Hal Holbrook depicted Mark Twain, it was an impersonation, not a poem.
Mr. Dillane does move, for no apparent reason. In his conversational tone, with his impeccable R.A.D.A accent, he wants you to understand the poems. He stands in a rumpled suit, unbuttoned shirt, on the bare stage. Moves to the left and looks at us, moves to the right and speaks to the other part of the audience, goes to the back of the stage for a drink of water.
All rather charming, but all inevitably faux-informal for a very formal poem.
One can imagine how Olivier or Gielgud would handle it (if they had to, which is doubtful). They would have a table, a table lamp. They would pull up a chair, they would sit with the poem on the desk (though they would know it by heart, as a conductor knows his score in memory), and we would attend to the words, attempting understanding without distraction.
Yes, Mr. Dillane does a nice job. He tries and tries, but the major words–about time (the beginning being the end etc etc), about the uselessness of the poet, about the uselessness of anything, with a few passing and very subtle thoughts about prayer and the Intercession of the Spiritual, with a few hints at Christianity.
But it is poetry, not drama Contemplation is a solitary affair, not to be shared with a large audience and an affable actor.
Then we come to the tenuous, questionable–what I consider the wrong-headed–mixture of Eliot and Beethoven. Eliot had written that he was influenced by a recording of Beethoven’s Opus 132 Quartet. But, unlike his colleagues Pound and Joyce–one an accomplished composer, the other with an encyclopedic knowledge of music–Eliot was confined to the rhythm of words.
Nor could any two artists be more different in their operations and results. Eliot was distant, elusive, morose, careful, elite, paradoxical, tortuous, resigned adoring the Eternal as he despaired of the mortal.
Beethoven was direct, passionate, flaming with inspiration. And while we know how much he labored on each measure, the music does not seem meticulous. It seems to be written because if must be written, because the notes were flashes and lightning, the words of...well, not God, of course. But a deity of inspiration. Not worshiping the Platonic Ideal, but identifying with the Aristotelian movement of time.
I imagine certain poets and certain music can go together. Blake and Scriabin, perhaps; Rabelais and Ibert...Wordsworth and Chopin...Auden and Stravinsky. (The latter found its way into Rake’s Progress, of course).
Yet last night’s unhappy merger of High Priest and Titan has been given here for several years. So why has nobody thought of actuallycombining them? A quartet by Eliot, a movement of Opus 132. Another poem, another movement. Perhaps the last measures of the Beethoven followed by the last lines of the Eliot.
That might work. The dramatic fortissimo of notes in unison, followed by the equally powerful, “All manner of things shall be well/When the tongues of flames are in-folded/Into the crowned knot of fire/And the fire and the rose are one.”
Yet, it might work. It might work, it might not. But they do what any art should do, taking the ordinary (words, tones) and making them extraordinary.
The Miró Quartet (© Courtesy of the artists)
After the reading, I was not ready for the Miró Quartet. My mind had not been inspired by Mr. Dillane; it had been gently hammered down with the soothing sound of his voice and the massive imagery of his poem. (I had mumbled to a stranger in the intermission that I felt this Eliot was not supposed to be read to an audience. She answered, “Oh, but he reads it so beautifully.” True, but I don’t think vocal beauty enhances Eliot.)
Still, Opus 132 does reach for the mystical, the unknowable, as much as Eliot does in the Four Quartets.
Eliot had longed for poetry to go “beyond poetry” , as Beethoven had gone “beyond music.” That wasn’t true. Eliot wrote poetry. Beethoven wrote music. If this quartet, played so passionately here, was “beyond music”, then it wouldn’t need a string quartet. It would need something “beyond” a string quartet.
The Miró didn’t need such an affectation. They are young, enthusiastic, they probed for the ineffable through their notes They performed their Beethoven with intimacy, fervor at times, and an unambiguous joy in their art.