E. Martin Browne, who directed the 1939 premiere of T. S. Eliot’s The Family Reunion, which opened in London to mixed reviews, later wrote: “It took the Second World War to make us aware how immediate are the truths the play tells.” Absent a Third World War, I admit to having scant ideas as to what this putative reinterpretation of The Eumenides of Aeschylus is about. That Eliot himself rejected it afterward is no consolation; he should have done so before he started.
Harry, Lord Monchensey, returns to Wishwood, his widowed and ill mother’s country estate, for what will be her last birthday, where her three younger sisters and her two brothers-in-law are also forgathered. He was away for eight years after his wife was swept overboard or jumped from an ocean liner; he now confesses that he pushed her. He is pursued by the Eumenides, whom only he, his chauffeur, prophetic Aunt Agatha (the Cassandra figure), and Mary, a distant relative and aborted love interest of Harry’s, can see. In the end, as his mother, Amy, dies, he takes off on some portentous journey, God, maybe, but certainly not Eliot, knows where. Not showing up are Arthur and John, two brothers involved in two separate car accidents, which is, depending on how you look at it, one too many or several too few.
We get endless palaver, sometimes in blank verse, sometimes in other verse forms without rhyme or reason. The two lesser sisters, Ivy and Violet, and Amy’s brothers-in-law, Gerald and Charles, form the chorus, and sometimes speak in unison. Their talk can be chattily casual – e.g., “We like to appear in the newspapers / So long as we are in the right column / We know about the sudden thrombosis / And the slowly hardening artery.” Harry is given to monomaniacal metaphysics, often about time – e.g., “I am the old house / With the noxious smell and the sorrow before morning / In which all the past is present … / Of the past you can only see what is past, / Not what is always present.” If you eliminated all this loony time-traipsing, the play would be a good bit shorter but not, for that, much better.
The Family Reunion attitudinizes, pontificates, mystifies, and bores; it is logorrhea without logic, action, development, or, ultimately, meaning. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s three-play visit to bam began with Adrian Noble’s production of it, which, though briskly directed and spiritedly acted, throws (understandably) no light on it. Harry’s “What have we been saying? … / Whether I know what I am saying, or why I say it, / That does not matter” just about says it all. This said, I liked all the extremely well-spoken and characterful actors except Greg Hicks (Harry), who grimaced weirdly, spoke affectedly, and moved like a cross between a provincial dance teacher and a spastic. Rob Howell’s set consisted of a few chairs and a tilted object upstage – a window, a mirror, the portal to Kafka’s Trial, or perhaps a jungle gym for the Eumenides. The occasional loud ticking of a clock was a welcome diversion, reminding us that this too shall pass.