Published in The Dial magazine
In 1921 and 1922 T.S. Eliot was the London correspondent to The Dial magazine published in New York by his Milton Academy and Harvard University schoolmate Scofield Thayer. The Dial published eight letters written by Eliot about the cultural scene in England. Although Eliot continued to have articles published in The Dial he no longer had time to keep up the London Letter series as he started editing his own publication, The Criterion, the first issue being printed in October, 1922.
The first four "London Letter" essays (the ones that were published in 1921) are also available in print in the book The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose edited by Lawrence Rainey (see below.) Rainey has added extensive notes on the people, books and events written about by Eliot.
In Donald Gallup's bibliography of Eliot's works this essay appears with the code C124.
For more information about T.S. Eliot and The Dial see the "Notes" section on the Table of Contents page.
The page numbers from the original edition of The Dial have been inserted into the HTML markup of this file. Use your browser's "view source" feature (or equivalent) to view them.
Additionally, information about linking to specific headers or paragraphs in this letter are supplied in the "Hyperlinking" section on the Table of Contents page.
Eliot, T.S. 'London Letter,' The Dial, New York, vol. LXX, no. 6, (June, 1921) pp. 686-691
Eliot, T.S. The Annotated Waste Land with Eliot's Contemporary Prose. Lawrence Rainey, ed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press (2005) ISBN 0-300-09743-3
Gallup, Donald. T.S. Eliot: A Bibliography, A Revised and Extended Edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World (1969)
Having been published in the U.S. prior to 1923, it is my understanding that this work of Eliot's is in the public domain in the U.S. but perhaps not in other countries (particularly in the U.K. and E.U.) Be careful about republication.
In my last letter I mentioned an approaching performance by the Phoenix Society of Ben Jonson's Volpone; the performance proved to be the most important theatrical event of the year in London. The play was superbly carried out; the performance gave evidence of Jonson's consummate skill in stage technique, proceeding without a moment of tedium from end to end; it was well acted and both acted and received with great appreciation.
Almost the only opportunity for seeing a good play is that given by a few private societies, which by reason of their "private" character are allowed to give performances (for subscribers) on Sunday evenings. These are not commercial enterprises, but depend upon the enthusiasm of a few patrons and the devotion of a few actors, most of whom have other engagements during the week. The Phoenix, which restricts itself to Elizabethan and Restoration drama, is an off-shoot of the Incorporated Stage Society, which produces modern and contemporary plays of the better sort--the better sort usually being translations. At the beginning of its venture, last year, the Phoenix was obliged to suffer a good deal of abuse in the daily press, especially from the Daily News and the Star. These two journals are, to my mind, the least objectionable of the London newspapers in their political views, but their Manchester-School politics gives a strong aroma of the Ebenezer Temperance Association to their views on art. The bloodiness of Elizabethan tragedy, and the practice of the Society in presenting the complete text of the plays, were the points of attack. The Daily News reviewed the performance of The Duchess of Malfi under the heading, Funnier than Farce! Mr William Archer mumbled "this farrago of horrors . . . shambling and ill-composed . . . funereal affection . . . I am far from calling the Duchess of Malfi garbage, but . . ." Still droller was a certain Sir Leo Money: "I agree with Mr Robert Lynd that 'there are perhaps, a dozen Elizabethan plays apart from Shakespeare's that are as great as his third-best work,' but I should not include the 'Duchess of Malfi' in the dozen. . . . I did not see the Phoenix production, but I hope that some fumigation took place." Sir Leo writes frequently about the Tariff, the income tax, and kindred topics. For my part, I am more and more convinced that the Phoenix is wholly justified in its refusal to admit any expurgation whatever. The sense of relief, in hearing the indecencies of Elizabethan and Restoration drama, leaves one a better and a stronger man.
I do not suggest that Jonson is comparable to Shakespeare. But we do not know Shakespeare; we only know Sir J. Forbes-Robertson's Hamlet, and Irving's Shylock, and so on. The performance of Volpone had a significance for us which no contemporary performance of Shakespeare has had; it brought the great English drama to life as no contemporary performance of Shakespeare has done. Shakespeare (that is to say, such of his plays as are produced at all) strained through the nineteenth century, has been dwarfed to the dimensions of a part for Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, Sir Frank Benson, or other histrionic nonentities: Shakespeare is the avenue to knighthood. But the continued popularity of Shakespeare perhaps has this meaning, that the appetite for poetic drama, and for a peculiarly English comedy or farce, has never disappeared; and that a native popular drama, if it existed, would be nearer to Shakespeare than to Ibsen or Chekhov. It is curious that the popular desire for Shakespeare, and for the operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, should be insatiable, although no attempt is ever made to create anything similar; and that on the other hand the crudest American laughter-and-tears plays, such as Romance or Peg o' My Heart, should be constantly imported. Curious, again, that with so much comic talent in England--more than any other country--no intelligent attempt has been made to use it to advantage in good comic opera or revue.
This is an age of transition between the music-hall and the revue. The music-hall is older, more popular, and is sanctified by the admiration of the Nineties. It has flourished most vigorously in the North; many of its most famous stars are of Lancashire origin. (Marie Lloyd, if I am not mistaken, has a bit of a Manchester accent.) Lancashire wit is mordant, ferocious, and personal; the Lancashire music-hall is excessively intime; success depends upon the relation established by a comedian of strong personality with an audience quick to respond with approval or contempt. The fierce talent of Nellie Wallace (who also has a Lancashire accent) holds the most boisterous music-hall in complete subjection. Little Tich, and George Robey (though the latter has adapted himself in recent years to some inferior revues) belong to this type and generation. The Lancashire comedian is at his best when unsupported and making a direct set, pitting himself, against a suitable audience; he is seen to best advantage at the smaller and more turbulent halls. As the smaller provincial or suburban hall disappears, supplanted by the more lucrative Cinema, this type of comedian disappears with it.
The music-hall comedian, however, can still be seen to perfection, whereas the revue comedian never is, because the revue is never good enough. Our best revue comedienne, Miss Ethel Levey, has seldom had the revue, and never the appreciation, that she deserves. Her type is quite different from that of Marie Lloyd or Nellie Wallace. She is the most aloof and impersonal of personalities; indifferent, rather than contemptuous, towards the audience; her appearance and movement are of an extremely modern type of beauty. Hers is not broad farce, but a fascinating inhuman grotesquerie; she plays for herself rather than for the audience. Her art requires a setting which (in this country at least) it has never had. It is not a comedy of mirth.
An element of bizarrerie is present in most of the comedians whom we should designate as of the revue stage rather than the music-hall stage: in Lupino Lane, in Robert Hale and George Graves; a bizarrerie more mature, perhaps more cosmopolitan, than that of Little Tich. But the revue itself is still lacking.
Baudelaire, in his essay on le Rie (qui vaut bien celui de Bergson) remarks of English caricature
Perhaps the best of the English caricaturists of journalism is H. M. Bateman. He has lately held a very interesting exhibition at the Leicester Galleries. It, is curious to remark that some of his drawings descend to the pure and insignificant funniness without seriousness which appeals to the readers of Punch; while others continue the best tradition from Rowlandson and Cruikshank. They have some of the old English ferocity. Bateman is, I imagine, unconscious of the two distinct strains in his work; Mr Wyndham Lewis, in his exhibition now on show at the same gallery, is wholly conscious and deliberate in his attempt to restore this peculiarly English caricature and to unite it with serious work in paint. Mr Lewis is the most English of English painters, a student of Hogarth and Rowlandson; his fantastic imagination produces something essentially different from anything across the Channel. I have always thought his design at its greatest when it approached the border of satire and caricature; and his Tyros may be expected to breed a most interesting and energetic race.
The disappearance of the Athenaeum as an independent organ, and its gradual suffocation under the ponderous mass of the Nation, are greatly to be deplored. It leaves the Times Literary Supplement and the London Mercury as the only literary papers. The former is a useful bibliographer; it fills, and always will fill, an important place of its own. This place it can only hold by maintaining the anonymity of its contributions; but this anonymity, and the large number of its contributors, prevent it from upholding any definite standard of, criticism. Nevertheless it possesses more authority than the Mercury, which is homogeneous enough, but suffers from the mediocrity of the minds most consistently employed upon it. Mr Murry, as editor of the Athenaeum, was genuinely studious to maintain a serious criticism. With his particular tastes, as well as with his general statements, I find myself frequently at variance: the former seem to me often perverse or exaggerated, the latter tainted by some unintelligible Platonism. But there is no doubt that he had much higher standards and greater ambitions for literary journalism than any other editor in London. When he is not deceived by some aberration of enthusiasm or dislike, and when he is not deluded by philosophy, he is the only one of the accredited critics whom I can read at all. There is Mr Clutton-Brock, whose attention is not focussed upon literature but upon a very mild type of philosophic humanitarian religion; he is like a very intelligent archdeacon. There is Mr Robert Lynd, who has successfully cultivated the typical vices of daily journalism and has risen to the top of his profession; and there is Mr Squire, whose solemn trifling fascinates multitudes; and there are several writers, like Mr Edmund Gosse and Sir Sidney Colvin, whom I have never read and so cannot judge.
I cannot find, after this muster, that there is any ground for the rumour current in the chatty paragraphs of the newsprint several months ago, that the younger generation has decided to revive criticism. There has been a brisk business in centenaries. Keats and Marvell have just been celebrated in this way. The former has been particularly fortunate. All the approved critics, each in a different paper, blew a blast of glory enough to lay Keats' ghost for twenty years. I have never read such unanimous rubbish, and yet Keats was a poet. Possibly, after the chatty columns of the newsprint have ceased to cheer the "revival" of criticism, they will get a tip to lament its decay. Yet the "revival" of criticism as a "form" is not the essential thing; if we are intelligent enough, and really interested in the arts, both criticism and "creation" will in some form flourish.
While the poetry lovers have been subscribing to purchase for the nation the Keats house in Hampstead as a museum, the Church of England has apparently persisted in its design to sell for demolition nineteen religious edifices in the City of London. Probably few American visitors, and certainly few natives, ever inspect these disconsolate fanes; but they give to the business quarter of London a beauty which its hideous banks and commercial houses have not quite defaced. Some are by Christopher Wren himself, others by his school; the least precious redeems some vulgar street, like the plain little church of All Hallows at the end of London Wall. Some, like St Michael Paternoster Royal, are of great beauty. As the prosperity of London has increased, the City Churches have fallen into desuetude; for their destruction the lack of congregation is the ecclesiastical excuse and the need of money the ecclesiastical reason. The fact that the erection of these churches was apparently paid for out of a public coal tax and their decoration probably by the parishioners, does not seem to invalidate the right of the True Church to bring them to the ground. To one who, like the present writer, passes his days in this City of London (quand'io sentii chiavar l'uscio di sotto) the loss of these towers, to meet the eye down a grimy lane, and of these empty naves, to receive the solitary visitor at noon from the dust and tumult of Lombard Street, will be irreparable and unforgotten. A small pamphlet issued for the London County Council (Proposed Demolition of Nineteen City Churches: P. S. King & Son, Ltd., 2-4 Gt. Smith Street, Westminster, S.W.1, 3s.6d. net) should be enough to persuade of what I have said.
T. S. Eliot