The publication of T.S. Eliot’s masterwork, The Waste Land, happened exactly one hundred years ago in 1922. Consistently lauded by other poets and critics alike it remains a powerful but enigmatic commentary on early twentieth century life while continuing to have relevance a century later. It’s a patchwork of literary allusions, cryptic crossword like references and snippets of dialogue which examine some of the “big themes” – life, death, sex, money, relationships, isolation, etc. The five parts contain a variety of voices which fade in and out much like those on a fledgling radio set – the BBC first began regular broadcasts in the same year – and it is this idea that forms the template to a dramatic audio recreation of the piece called He Do The Waste Land In Different Voices. One of Eliot’s original titles for the poem was He Do The Police In Different Voices – a line taken from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.
Like Dickens, Eliot is interested in distinctive modes of speech and it therefore seems entirely natural to reform the poem as dialogue spoken by a variety of characters. Although Caroline Raphael’s production uses nothing but Eliot’s words, assigning various sections to a collage of voices lends the piece a gripping unity which it can lack on the page and emphasises the dramatic nature of the piece. Various monologues intertwine to provide the aural equivalent of a collage which ranges across time and space. The central figure of blind Tiresias (David Calder) lends a mythical quality to proceedings which contrast baldly with the prosaic witterings of a woman in a pub (Tilly Vosburgh). A clairvoyante and a seer (Maggie Steed and Adrian Edmondson) prophesy an individual and collective future while an actor and a poet (David Haig and Paul Ready) hark back to the past. Haig in particular does a fine job of the pastiche of Enobarbus’s Cleopatra speech; Shakespeare is just one of many dramatists and poets quoted by Eliot in the text alongside Thomas Kyd, John Webster and Milton. Whether each element strictly follows Eliot’s own thoughts on who is speaking is not clear but as a way of making sense of a deliberately fragmented and often confusing text it gives the poem a unity which engages and resonates.
The sound design of David Thomas is fundamental to this presentation and brings many elements vividly to life. Snatches of Wagnerian opera jostle for attention with the lapping water of the Thames and busy commuters crossing the river’s bridges, the dry heat of a desert landscape is cleverly delineated by a soundscape. In the latter stages there are some news flashes of portentous events such as the Kennedy assassination which is the one concession to roaming outside of Eliot’s own text. A lengthy preface examines the work in more detail; if you are familiar with the poem it probably won’t tell you anything you don’t already know but if it’s all new to you, this is a useful listen too.
Following Ralph Fiennes’ recent touring onstage rendering of Eliot’s Four Quartets this is another dramatized version of a lengthy piece of poetry which works very well and goes some way to supporting the claim that Eliot was a conscious of the stage as he was of the poetic text. He did, of course, go on to try his hand with some poetic dramas of his own later in his career such as The Cocktail Party, Murder In The Cathedral and Cats. Well, at least he provided the words for the latter; I think there was probably someone else who had more of an influence on that particular show.