Lyric Drama: From Yeats and Eliot to Beckett and Pinter: Modernist Method and Technique


Although both W.B. Yeats and T.S. Eliot clung to outmoded themes of heroic transcendence and spiritual regeneration, their experiments with stage symbolism and exploitation of inarticulateness or concealment in dramatic dialogue mark a turning point in English theater and prepare the way for both Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter. All too often Yeats and Eliot have been seen as minor phenomena of modern theater whose influence to little more than the watery poetic drama of T. Sturge Moore and Gordon Bottomly, on one hand, or Christopher Fry, on the other. I should like to suggest, however, that in terms of dramatic method and technique, their work constitutes an important step in the development of twentieth-century theater, a step which is perfectly consistent with a prevailing movement in modern writing towards exploding the rational development of event, character, and setting in order to project the world as it is perceived subjectively, to reflect the quality of modern experience and comment upon it through a poetic restructuring or patterning of irreducible elements.


The common denominator for any comparison of Yeats and Eliot with Beckett and Pinter lies in their basic relationship to the Symbolist theater of Wagner and Villiers de Lisle-Adam, of Wilde’s Salomé and Ibsen’s Master Builder, but above all, to that of Maeterlinck, who held so central a position in turn-of-the-century drama.| 1 | The origins of Absurdist drama are, perhaps, also to be found in Maeterlinck’s juxtaposition of a more or less full bodied and solid reality with the projection of human experience as some sort of fantastic illusion, his use of dialogue which projects some profound and meaningful movement underlying the triviality of surface reality. His world hinges on dread of the great unknown which surrounds us, of the monstrous, invisible, and fatal forces that confront the problem of existence with the enigma of annihilation. Maeterlinck’s world is one of exhilarating possibilities and frightening indifference in which unremarkable characters face inexplicable malevolence. It is a static theater, schooled in silence; a drama of the interior, or of the soul. Stress is always placed on negatives in order to measure and express a sense of mysterious potentialities and unexplored faculties through distinctive images of absence, depravation, and inactivity as well as through verbal patterns of inarticulateness, hesitations, unfinished sentences, broken speech, helpless repetition, evasions, and silence. Human values are in perpetual conflict with the tenuousness of existence; the horrors of the unknown, threatening intruders, meaningless and accidental events. Yet Maeterlinck’s drama is highly musical, an orchestration of verbal forms and purposeful silences which challenged the leading composers of the period and confirmed the efficacy of musical phrasing and choreographed movement in expressing the interior life of modern sensibilities.

1 |  See Katharine Worth, The Irish Drama of Europe from Yeats to Beckett (Atlantic Highlands/NJ.; ?, 1978) who confirms my understanding as documented in 1976.

Theories of Drama and Artistic Method

The avowedly poetic or lyric underpinnings of Yeats and Eliot can hardly be doubted, since they are stated so explicitly, and the point of the present submission is to demonstrate that Beckett and Pinter exploit the material of their art in much the same way, despite their very different world-view. Early in his career Yeats commented:

I desire a mysterious art, always reminding and half reminding those who understand it of dearly loved things, doing its work by suggestion, not by direct statement, a complexity of rhythm,, colour, gesture, not space-pervading like the intellect but a memory and a prophecy. | 2 |

2 |  The World of William Butler Yeats, eds. Robin Skelton and Anne Saddlemeyer. rev. ed. (Seattle; ?, 1967), p. 72.

In 1951 Eliot wrote:

I have before my eyes a kind of mirage of the perfection of verse drama, which would be a design of human actions and of words, such as to present at once the two aspects of dramatic and musical order… For it is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther. | 3 |

3 |  Poetry and Drama (London; ?, 1951, pp.34-35.

Both Yeats and Eliot have recourse to a conception of drama which calls for transcendence of the human condition. In Yeats’s plays natural and realistic circumstance is usually interrupted by spiritual or heroic action which projects an ideal of personality as an imitation of absolute order in the universe. Yeats wished to restore an ancient tradition to modern Ireland and used symbolic characters as well as situations; mythical heroes on the one hand, archetypal seekers such as poets and beggars on the other. Eliot’s vision, however, is based on more everyday figures who pursue some kind of psychic or spiritual regeneration. Whether inspired by the vitality of the music hall and working class life or the decorum and compromise of upper-middle class comportment, Eliot elevates mundane activities and personal relationships to the level of a regenerating ritual. Whereas Yeats begins with a symbolic situation or allegorical action whose essential relevance to the lives of the audience must be recognized, Eliot creates a surface reality of seemingly mimetic imitation which must be broken through in order to perceive the underlying dramatic truth. On the one hand we have the example of the youthful Cuchulain and his heroic quest for the magical waters of the Hawk’s Well, a hero who is inevitably seduced and defeated by supernatural forces, on the other, the reenactment of Thomas Becket’s redeeming death in Murder in the Cathedral or Harry Monchensey’s regenerating confrontation of his own guilt and that of his father in The Family Reunion. In both cases the themes of mutability and ’becoming’ are central; reality seems to be layered, indeed overlapping; time past and time present are both compared and contrasted. Yeats gives us the fated fall of man from the heroic ideal of ‘Undivided Being’ while Eliot concentrates on the realization of heroic possibilities in fallen man, the regeneration of the individual through an understanding of the past and the acceptance of fate. Whether emphasis falls on tragic defeat at the hands of life or the promise of rebirth and regeneration in the spirit, the mythic intention of the world-view of the two playwrights coincide in the old-fashioned belief that there must be purpose and meaning in human existence.

In terms of dramatic conception or vision, both Beckett and Pinter are worlds away from Yeats and Eliot. Exhaustion of belief in an ordered universe, in a metaphysical or spiritual truth as motive force in modern thought, is apparent in their rejection of traditional assumptions about human experience. Like their contemporaries Beckett and Pinter reject conventional questions. They are no longer interested in suggesting meaning or significance in relation to supernatural existence, but rather are more concerned with the nature or character of life as we know it, the pain or anguish inherent in the human condition itself. The object is not to demonstrate the meaninglessness or absurdity of life, but rather to examine human existence as it is actually experienced.

Both Beckett and Pinter reject the idea that the individual has either the ability or responsibility for creating his own universe. Their characters are involved in exhaustive acts of self-awareness and their situation is unsparingly analyzed, but they do not transcend the human condition. Existence, not essence, is the central, metaphysical premise, and for Beckett man’s plight is determined by the inevitability of physical decay and mortality. Since there is no redeeming belief-system, his characters live in the body alone. However amusingly they cavort and temporize, they are impotent in the face of their common fate; Didi and Gogo killing time in Waiting for Godot, Ham and Clove faltering towards the relief of non-existence in Endgame, Winnie sinking volubly into the grave in Happy Days, or the characters of an eternal triangle rehearsing their struggle with life from beyond the burial urn in Play. The radical repetition and inclusiveness of each drama underlines the point, while the relieving feature of so bleak a view is the generosity of comic elements, a sympathetic understanding of even the grossest pretentions and predicaments, a profound compassion for the common condition. There is no perception of an interior self in Beckett’s work, but rather the self-conscious isolation of powerful fantasies and violent inauguration in a world without time or the distraction of outer movement. It is the audience who take in the truth of situations through dramatic irony. The basic vision is thoroughly Yeatsian in its preoccupation with the fallen state of man and the decay of the body; one has only to think of the late plays which concern themselves with physical decline and death: The words Upon the Window-Pane, The Death of Cuchulain, and Purgatory, for example. Beckett’s vision only differs in denying the possibility of transcendence, yet it emphasizes the same fierce and ironic comedy that enlivens such plays as The Green Helmet, The Cat and the Moon, or The Herne’s Egg.


Pinter’s dramatic vision tends toward a more interior and psychological investigation of the relationship between character potential and accepted social roles, between the stability of an individual’s control over his or her situation and the impingement of external or unsuspected forces. Pinter’s universe is less often, or perhaps less wholeheartedly, relieved by comedy, but it also avoids larger abstractions and exaggerations in favor of an Eliotic preoccupation with individual relationships in more or less normal circumstances. Unlike Eliot’s plays in which conventional, surface reality all but masks the dramatic truth, irrational and bizarre behavior intrudes. Pinter’s plays generally begin with a carefully created and very ‘real’ setting "so that the phantasy element, when it does make an appearance, is clearly identifiable as an outward projection, the concretization of these very real characters’ dreams and anxieties".| 4 | The prevailing concern in Pinter’s world is for individuals to establish their identity through a relationship with someone else, and the struggle generally ends in either dominance or dependence. The characters are individualized, but they are extreme and unstable figures who lend themselves to playing archetypal roles and the transferring or telescoping their potential being. Unlike Eliot he projects an almost total lack of saving grace. The open-ended nature of contemporaneity of Pinter’s conception is however, magnified by comparison with Beckett’s vision of existence versus non-being. Pinter creates a plastic and personal self rather than a fixed and representative one. A transfer of power or transition of roles is present in almost all of Pinter’s work as well as the manifest instability and potential menace of ordinary life-rituals. Gus, for example, is transformed from killer to victim in The Dumb Waiter, Stanly is stripped of his illusions and defenses in The Birthday Party, as is Davies in The Caretaker, and Ruth shifts from conventional wife and mother to harlot in The Homecoming. Often the change of roles is experienced retrospectively, the function of a repeating or repeated past as in Old Times, Landscape, Silence, and No Man’s Land, where earlier roles are recreated or resumed. Where Beckett’s vision is moving ,because of the evident compassion for human suffering — however total that might be, Pinter’s world is unsettling because of its barely suppressed violence and hostility. In both cases it is the quality of subjective experience which is expressed, not the author’s aspirations and values. Beckett and Pinter go far beyond Yeats and Eliot in coming to terms with the actual reality of modern life.

4 |  Martin Esslin, The Peopled Wound (London; ?, 1970), p. 37.