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PostPosted: Thu Apr 27, 2023 1:11 pm 
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RALPH FIENNES IN T.S.ELIOT'S FOUR QUARTETS

Ralph Fiennes' theatrical performance of Eliot's meandering philosophical poem is a challenging watch

Ralph Fiennes' dramatic stage performance of T.S. Eliot's difficult, lengthy poem Four Quartets, revealed in this 85-minute film made to show on BBC4 mby his younger sister Sophie, a documentary filmmaker, is not exactly an easy watch. It is an example of a famous actor using his prestige to put across a difficult work.

The stage production, a challenging monologue for the actor, is comparable in difficulty to Vanessa Redgrave's virtuoso performance a few years ago of Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking - except that the Didion adaptation had a clear and compelling story to tell. Nonetheless Fiennes seems to have succeeded: critics heralded his performance as "captivating" (Clive David in The Times) and "magnetic" (Dominic Cavendish in The Telegraph).

Dan Elnav in the [url="https://www.ft.com/content/cd9ebb83-5fed-4b8e-9168-a888e2580053"]Financial Times[/url] wrote about how the film, while losing the immediacy of the theater, gains personal identification. He hailed the "convincing spontaneity of Fiennes's delivery." But he admitted it was "almost inevitable that the viewer will get lost in nearly 7,000 words of ever-changing imagery, ardent religiosity, social commentary and cyclical metaphysical abstraction (unlike Fiennes, who doesn’t miss a beat)." Indeed, one doesn't usually turn to television - or to the stage either - for a dose of "cyclical metaphysical abstraction." You will get lost pretty often. You may be lost all along.

My personal romance with T.S. Eliot's poetry began with listening over and over as a child to my parents' disc of the poet intoning, in his evocative, sepulchral voice, "The Hollow Men" on one side and "Gerontion" on the other. Later Eliot's reading of "Marina" turned up, equally re-listenable for me. These recordings were my first appreciation of the value of hearing poets read or recite their own poems. This was especially true of Eliot and two others: Dylan Thomas, with some of his finest works on one or two discs; and Robert Frost, heard "saying" his poems every winter at my college and in the rooms of a classmate where he was invited once. Another childhood delight was Edith Sitwell's recorded Façade. How different from each other those four forever sound. What a difference it makes to hear their voices when one reads their poems.

But Four Quartets was never a favorite, and it's surprising that this difficult poem was made the subject of a London stage production and a BBC4 film of it. First of all one had thought that Eliot, who was once so important, had long been downgraded in the public eye - attacked for being a right-wing fogey, "classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and Anglo-Catholic in religion," as well as for the anti-Semitism that slips out in the phrases in some of his poems. More recently he has been the subject of some book-length attacks.

It seems however that Eliot still has a sizable devoted and devout audience. There is a 1999 essay by Roger Kimball forcefully defending the poet in [url="https://newcriterion.com/issues/1999/10/a-craving-for-reality-ts-eliot-today"]The New Criterion.[/url] Ralph Fiennes' performance is simply a further proof that in fact not only is Eliot still admired, but Four Quartets has become an iconic work. There are numerous YouTube videos of lectures extolling its virtues and seeking to tease out its meanings. In on of these a nattily bow-tied emeritus professor begins by ranking it in stature with Chartres cathedral, Van Eyk's Ghent alterpiece, Bach's B Minor Mass, and the Mozart Requiem. Another says he has kept it by his side for decades and consulted it like scripture.

Ralph Fiennes' "convincing spontaneity" captures the often matter-of-fact, prosy aspect of the language of Four Quartets (each of which "quartets," however, in its five parts, has different locations, moods, and focuses; the film provides landscape glimpses). But Fiennes' readings, despite their sudden, startling changes of mood and physical movements (because the actor jumps about sometimes, not always explicably), tend to lose the music and rhythm of the poetry, turning it to prose - or material for a performance, and an explication: for certainly by dramatizing the lines, Fiennes seeks to tease out their meanings. How well he does this is another question.

There are two simple, straightforward (oral) readings of the Four Quartets available on YouTube that you should listen to. The first is that of Eliot himself, who delivers that habitual droning, intoning quality of his along with the rhyme, the rhythm, the music, the specialness of the deceptively colloquial language, which is really very wonderful, providing much the same pleasure as those recordings of "The Hollow Men," Gerontion," and "Marina" I listened to in my youth. Four Quartets is less accessible in this way, however. It is too long, too lacking in any one discernible theme, except the repeated one of the mysterious sameness of time stated in the opening lines:

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.


For simultaneously understanding Four Quartets' (or trying to) and gaining an appreciation of its value as poetry, the best source is the reading by Alec Guinness made in 1971, also found on YouTube. The lines make more sense as he speaks them than when Eliot does, while still sounding more musical and beautiful than Fiennes makes them. Guinness is the best reader of all. The lines emerge from Guinness' reading as words of wisdom, which is how they may best be seen - even if that wisdom remains just beyond our reach. A source of comedy and virtuoso impersonation in his younger days, the mature Guinness knew well how to embody a sage. He did not become the Star Wars wise man Obi-Wan Kenobi by accident. Long before that, in 1950, he played Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, the psychiatrist-oracle in Eliot's play The Cocktail Party (another of my youthful enthusiasms, acquired through a boxed set of vinyl records given me for Christmas). In the play, Sir Henry enunciates the poet's acquired wisdom in lines comparable to Four Quartets. Guinness is reading the poems in essentially his Sir Henry voice, and it works perfectly, for him and for us. (The recorded readings of the poem are half an hour shorter than Fiennes' performance, and hence easier going for an audience.)

Neither Ralph Fiennes, nor even Guinness, can necessarily convert one to Four Quartets. But Fiennes' performance will have value if it arouses new interest in T.S. Eliot, whose other works still appeal. Now that I've learned the significance still attached to this ambitious poem, I've put "Understand Four Quartets better and appreciate it more" on my "to do" list.

T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, 82 mins., debuted on BBC TV Oct. 16, 2022. Shown Feb. 9, 2023, Santa Barbara Festival. US theatrical release by Kino Lorber April 28, 2023. Opens May 26 in Los Angeles.

(See the Wikipedia entry [url="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Quartets"]Four Quartets[/url] for details about the whole cycle and its origins during WWII in London.)

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