As Ralph Fiennes begins a limited run of his extraordinary tour de force performance of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in London’s West End, Sue Casson explores the themes that resonate with The Human’s in the Telling.
The inspirational writing of poet and philosopher T S Eliot casts a long shadow over The Humans in the Telling.
Its’ logo, white on black with a dancing flame depicts the symbol conjured in the final lines of Little Gidding, the closing poem of Eliot’s monumental poetic meditation on time and salvation, Four Quartets – ‘the fire and the rose’ made one.
Dreams of Peace & Freedom, the song cycle at its’ heart, closes with a setting of lines by the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich quoted in the same poem, ‘All shall be well’, whilst the immersive performance opens with a quotation from Burnt Norton, projected on a photo of roses taken at Kew Gardens.
In this way, lines from Four Quartets clearly bookend our story of David Maxwell Fyfe’s journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg, a story we tell in his own words and through musical settings of poems he found inspiring. But as the writers who tell that story, T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, largely written whilst the world was at war, are an inspiration that stretches beyond the beginning and the end.
Eliot was a poetic contemporary of Maxwell Fyfe, living like him in central London through the chaos of the Blitz. His wisdom, and poetic vision of that time, with the spiritual struggle it induced in him, provide both atmosphere and a frame to our ghost story.
In Little Gidding, which in Section IV references the Battle of Britain in its’ imagery, Eliot tries to see an unseen, unknowable future.
‘History may be servitude / History may be freedom’Little Gidding III
The war through which he is living as he writes, its’ overwhelming physical and mental darkness, clouds his thinking and freezes expectation for the future. ‘Where is the summer’ he asks in Little Gidding, published in 1942, ‘the unimaginable, zero summer’. His spirit longs for salvation, purifying ‘pentecostal fire / In the dark time of the year’. The longing for spring in the depths of frozen, lifeless Midwinter.
Four Quartets documents a very personal struggle, but what happened after the war, which is the largest part of our story, needs to be seen in this context. The attempts made to reassert order out of chaos and attempt to put right what has gone catastrophically wrong.
As part of Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet, and the immediate post-war parliament, David Maxwell Fyfe was in the position of having the power to shape what happened next. First at the trials at Nuremberg, where he was part of the team identifying those culpable and establishing evidence to prove their guilt and the opportunity to confront their crimes in a courtroom. And later, as part of the United Europe Movement which ultimately led to the European Convention on Human Rights, which Fyfe championed and drafted.
‘History is a pattern / Of timeless moments’Little Gidding V
Here are two not taught in school, which is disturbing, for those who lived through these events are dwindling year by year and the result is they have become widely unknown and worse, misunderstood.
“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”George Santayana
Throughout his meditation on the nature of Time in Four Quartets, Eliot makes us aware that the consequences of our actions and decisions live on in the future they create. ‘In my beginning is my end’ he writes at the beginning of East Coker. Or in the very first poem in the sequence, Burnt Norton, published in 1936, three years before war broke out.
Time past and time future What might have been and what has been Point to one end which is always present. Burnt Norton I
Which is why Eliot’s words seemed a fitting beginning to our Dreams of Peace & Freedom performance, in which Maxwell Fyfe expresses his distress that ‘the hopeful enthusiastic beginnings’ of the European project ultimately dissolved into ’doubt, hesitation and pain’.
Footfalls echo in the memory Down the passage which we did not take Towards the door we never opened Into the rose garden. Burnt Norton
The Four Quartets centre on resolution and struggle, and the tension between these, has marked Britain’s recent relationship with Europe, which has been the unfortunate background to our telling. It may never have been ‘a rose garden’ (to use Eliot’s symbol), but in the wake of Brexit, the Convention that countries who had only recently been at war worked so hard to create together in its’ aftermath, has lost its’ significance. In such a political climate, can ‘All be well’, as Dame Julian of Norwich hopes, or has the ground shifted?
‘… what you thought you came for/ Is only a shell, a husk of meaning’Little Gidding I
Eliot, searching for reconciliation after a struggle of the spirit concludes Four Quartets with cleansing Pentecostal fire.
All manner of thing 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 Final lines of Four Quartets
The Humans in the Telling tells the story of how a lasting peace is wrought from the fires of war. That fashioning, with international co-operation and diplomacy, of what Fyfe called ‘a simple, safe insurance policy’ from the ashes of holocaust and barbarity, leading to 75 years of peace deserves to be celebrated by fortunate generations untouched by the trauma of war. Only by confronting the stories of the past can we hope to build a secure future.
What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from. Little Gidding V
A livestream performance of Dreams of Peace & Freedom is now available to watch on demand at C the Arts. Book tickets here.