THE new play in verse by T. S. Eliot, The Confidential Clerk (Harcourt, Brace, $3.00), is a farcical comedy whose plot hinges on what is possibly the rarest known source of disagreement between a husband and wife. The disagreement is about the parentage of Sir Claude Mulhammer’s new confidential clerk, Colby Simkins: Sir Claude and his wife, Lady Elizabeth, both say in effect, “No, dear, he is my bastard — not yours.”
The stage play received for the most part glowing notices in England and for the most part less than glowing notices in New York, perhaps because the London production, which
I saw last November, was much livelier and more sensitive than the Broadway interpretation. The principal complaint has been that Mr. Eliot has lowered his standards without really achieving “good theater.” For my money, the play—in book form as well as on the stage — is extraordinarily good fun, and it has its fair share of the higher qualities we expect of Mr. Eliot.
The plot, whose kernel I have indicated, is as full of improbabilities as The Importance of Being Earnest and as impossible to summarize briefly as Il Trovatore. The characters, however, have humanity and depth: Colby, the disappointed organist; Sir Claude, the tycoon - in his way, too, a disappointed artist; Lady Elizabeth, a moving creature despite her absurdly fluttery facade and her spiritual faddism; and two other young people of irregular origin - the beautiful Lucasta, who parades a flashy frivolity to hide her agonizing sense of not being accepted, and B. Kaghan, fast rising from the bottom to the top, whose perceptiveness and decency show through his somewhat staged vulgarity. Then there is the old confidential clerk, Eggerson — a delightful creation — full of tact and understanding and love for his garden. And finally there is Mrs. Guzzard, once an errant foster mother, now a Sybil from the suburbs who dispenses Revelation.
In this comedy of multiple bastardy and mixed-up babies, Mr. Eliot touches, with deep seriousness, on a variety of themes: the sources of human loneliness; the relation of son to father (and, by implication, of man to God); the raptures and limits of transfiguration through art; the acceptance of those terms which life imposes on us. One need not be in sympathy with the gospel according to Eliot to find in his play a profusion of sharp insights into the human heart and mind. And the language is superb—a continuous delight to the reader. With its spareness, its drypoint clarity, its startling directness, Mr. Eliot’s verse—though on stage it sounds deceptively like colloquial speech — refines the qualities of good prose to a point at which the effects achieved transcend the highest capabilities of prose.
Mr. Eliot has not, I think, lowered his standards. In The Cocktail Party and The Confidential Clerk, he has merely accented what is alter all the very essence of the theater: that element which the contemporary theater, corrupted by naturalism, has tended to ignore — the element of play, make-believe, extravagant invention.
Voices of freedom
In the world of books, these days, there is an expanding counterattack against the assorted infections suggested by the term “ McCarthyism,”against what has been so aptly characterized as a revolt of the primitives against intelligence. There are four titles in this month’s line-up — they encompass politics, the press, education, and cultural life in general — which speak up forcefully for freedom of the mind and for the independent spirit.
The Test of Freedom (Norton, $3.00) by Norman Thomas is an inquiry into “the state of liberty under the twin attacks called Communism and McCarthyism.”It has the triple merit of coming from it man who is scrupulously balanced in his appraisals; who is a stern critic of the doctrinaire liberal; and whose antiCommunist credentials are unassailable and hitherto have not been assailed.
Mr. Thomas’s soberly reasoned and carefully documented survey examines the Congressional Investigating Committees; the recourse to the First and Fifth Amendments; the Smith and McCarran Acts; loyalty and security tests; McCarthyasm at state and local levels; the problem of sccurity in the communications field; and the impact of McCarthyism on radio and TV.
This is the most solid, the most reliable report published to date on the inroads made in the past few years on civil liberties and freedom of the mind. That the “Minutewomen" of San Antonio, Texas, should include Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Dorothy Canfield Fisher’s Fables for Parents among six hundred black-listed titles cannot be dismissed as a bad joke when similar aberrations are becoming increasingly prevalent. Mr. Thomas is one of those who are convinced that today McCarthyism is a far greater threat to American liberties than Ameriean Communism.
This conviction is shared by Elmer Davis, whose calmness, reliability, and dry Hoosier wit have made him one of the nation’s most esteemed political commentators. His But We Were Born Free (Bobbs-Merrill, $2.75) is a collection of papers written for different occasions but animated by a common theme: the need to stand up boldly for independent thought. This is a hard-hitting and exhilarating book: crisply written, humorous, full of quietly murderous thrusts at the heresy-sniffers, the doublethinkers, the would-be thoughtcontrollers, the cowardly conformists, and at absolutists of various stripes.
Mr. Davis casts a scathing look at the pretensions and accusations of the “wandering minstrels" - the professional ex-Communists — “who think that because they were completely wrong twenty years ago they must be completely right now that they entertain diametrically opposite opinions.” (“It has apparently not occurred to them they could be wrong both times.”) To Whittaker Chambers’s hysterical assertion, “there is no middle ground,”Davis replies: “One of the most protuberant facts of the history of the past twenty years is that ... in America and Western Europe the people who hold that middle ground have defeated both extremes.”
These essays cut a fairly broad swathe. Mr. Davis takes issue with Toynbee’s dogmatically theological interpretation of history; discusses the damage done by the dogma of “objectivity” in the treatment of news; shows the baneful consequences of Congressional usurpation of the Executive’s powers, and defends the President’s treaty-making authority.
For the past four years, says Mr. Davis, we have been engaged in “a cold civil war — it is nothing less,”started by men who do not hate Communism as much as they fear the principles of freedom to which this nation was dedicated. Freedom, of course, has inescapable hazards. The crux of Davis’s message is that “this will remain the home of the free only so long as if is the home of the brave.”
From the academic sector, there comes a short book by Gilbert Highet dedicated to the proposition that the free pursuit and dissemination of knowledge is the verv basis of civilization. Professor Highet’s inspirational essay, Man’s Unconqnerable Mind (Columbia University Press, $2.75), admirably fulfills its missionary purpose. It should instill in at least some of the waverers a renewed awareness that the spirit of free inquiry is the essence of education; and I imagine it will give a welcome shot-in-the-arm to harassed teachers resisting the pressures of orthodoxy. Those not in need of such fortification may find that what Highet has to say here is on the elementary side, and his lone somewhat pedagogical. The erudite and witty author of The Classical Tradition is not quite in top gear in these pages.
Company Manners (Bobbs-Merrill, $3.00) by Louis Kronenberger is “a cultural inquiry into American life" written without that lowering pretentiousness which so often afflicts the highbrow when he contemplates the sins of the lowbrow and the middlebrow. Author of several books, drama critic of Time, Professor of Theater Arts at one university and of English at another, Mr. Kronenberger has the eccentricity to be a scholar and a gentleman, and also a spirited literary journalist. His learning is vast, his outlook supremely civilized, and his prose style graceful, aphoristic, allegro. He has written a critique of our culture that is consistently discerning and is leavened with originality. Inevitably, many of his complaints are far from new, but the familiar is freshly pointed up by pithy and suggestive phrasing, as when Kronenberger says of TV’s impact on our use of leisure: “From being mindlessly in motion, large numbers of Americans [are becoming] mindlessly motionless.”
The trouble with us, writes Kronenberger, “is not that the poetry of life has turned into prose, but that it has turned into advertising copy.” Ours is the Age of Publicity, and its Muse is Technique. Our culture suffers not so much from vulgarity as from insidiously plausible vulgarization. Shakespeare is streamlined, Chekhov is transferred to Mississippi. Everything is jazzed up, watered down, adulterated.
As for the highbrows, in Kronenberger’s opinion they are doing art a disservice by cultivating intellectual ingenuity at the expense of aesthetic response. Over-reacting to the middlebrow tendency to simplify and make things palatable, the highbrows weave labyrinths and make things parched. The creative is turned into the cerebral, soaring into delving.
The commercial theater gets a well-deserved whipping from Mr. Kronenberger. As commerce, he points out, it is an ignominious failure, and as theater it lacks courage, standards, and taste. What is worst about Broadway is not that so many of its offerings are third-rate but that the offerings it considers “superior so seldom rise above the second-rate. Their prevailing note is slick, showy, and Philistine.
Mr. Kronenberger writes about the decline of sensibility in manners and mores, and the decline of individualism. He writes about the cult of the specialist and the cult of the pseudocelebrity; about the “New NewRich” and the new young careerists, only too eager at twenty-two to prove themselves “sincere little conformists. He writes about our tendency towards extremism and our proneness to believe that what is successful must be good. In sum, his conclusion is that culture—“in the old-fashioned, well-rounded sense of something civilized and civilizing alike” — is fast fading as an ideal.
If Company Manners is pretty consistently critical, it is because, says Kronenberger, “as a people we go in for self-congratulation enough.”We could do with more critics who can puncture complacency and pretentiousness as penetratingly and as entertainingly as Mr. Kronenberger.
The Untidy Pilgrim (Lippincott, $3.50) — winner of the Lippincott Fiction Prize Contest for Young Novelists— is a Southerner’s refreshing riposte to what he calls “the Sad Cypress School” of Southern fiction. Eugene Walter has written a gay, whacky story about Mobile — “sweet lunacy’s county seat.” His unnamed hero, who comes from a small town in the cotton country, describes the year in which he was exposed to “Mobile Madness" and made a delightfully untidy pilgrimage from youth to man’s estate.
Mr. Walter has peopled his novel with a truly captivating set of eccentrics and spirited individualists: the hero’s landlady Miss Fiffy, nutty as a fruitcake, who quick as a flash hangs a doughnut on a guest’s little finger uncouthly sticking out from the teacup, and who keeps hidden away in an upper room a mysterious personage referred to as “Brother John"; kosta, an aging artist, ribald and fleshly, unable to paint since the death of his fifften-year-old poodle; young Lola “the talking-machine,” possibly bird-brained but certainly entrancing, especially when modeling a fur before the mirror, otherwise attired as nature made her; Philine, secretive and dizzying to the senses, an enthusiastic disciple of Eros. There are others, and each imparts his own splinter of truth to the pilgrim on his last lap of the journey through the brightly plumed world of youth.
The novel has its moments of great pathos and a vein of poetry, too; much superbly comic dialogue and comic incident. After the threequarter mark, the story loses some of its bounce, but all in all it is unusually good fun.