By Zachary Erickson
On December 5th, 2022, New York’s 92nd Street Y hosted Ralph Fiennes as he performed T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. The event marked the poem’s centenary and also commemorated a reading given by Eliot himself, on the same stage, on December 4th, 1950. Fiennes took about a half hour to read the poem, and, though he had the text before him, he performed it rather than provide the audience with the kind of reading delivered from a podium. His dramatic approach was successful, though he did little to enliven the poem’s different voices. In order to explain why Fiennes’ approach was a triumph, it would be useful to invoke Paul Muldoon, whose introduction framed the audience’s reception of Fiennes’ performance.
Muldoon made three illuminating points: that, post-Waste Land, one cannot unironically say that “God is in his heaven” and “[a]ll’s right with the world”; that the poem’s recurring “violet hour” shows the clear imprint of 1890s Decadence; and that Eliot identified his own psychological problem as abulia [aboulie]. The audience, then, was prepared for a performance that enacted the death of God with a dominant air of ennui.
That is the kind of performance that we got. Fiennes stood still, dressed in gray, his glasses on the tip of his nose. He trudged on from “The Burial of the Dead” through “What the Thunder Said,” maintaining an air of diffidence which did not exclude quiet intensity. Other than the adoption of a slightly higher timbre for characters such as Madame Sosostris (at whose “Look!” he pointed his index finger at the audience), he did not give much individuality to female characters in the poem, or to any characters, for that matter. He maintained a sort of “undead” persona, not inappropriate to the poem. (I have often suspected that The Waste Land’s debt to Dracula should be emphasized.) Fiennes seemed a bit like Phlebas the Phoenician, suspended between life and death. He even seemed to channel Eliot himself, “the most bank-clerky of all bank clerks.” At the end he bowed and put his hand on his heart, and that was that.
The evening, then, made a virtue out of boredom. My own instinct as a poet makes me, in all honesty, recoil at Fiennes’ accidental alteration to “the third who always walks beside you”; surely “walks always” is sonically superior, and so much of the poem’s “meaning” inheres in its music. Yet The Waste Land, a poem that makes beauty out of ugliness, was perhaps abundantly served by Fiennes’ flat and flawed approach. The audience was in fact not bored at all; Fiennes is not one of our century’s best-regarded actors for nothing, and his fully-realized embodiment of The Waste Land’s inner nerd cannot be argued with. It can only be accepted.In Eliot’s essay on Marie Lloyd, he writes movingly of her living relationship with her audiences. I think that we can compliment Fiennes by effecting a comparison. His curious life-in-death affect did in fact constitute a relationship between the audience that uncomfortably laughed at “and I’m glad it’s over” and the abused marionette on the stage who embodied their discomfort. That relationship was art, and it made the evening worthwhile. As for the peculiar art made of aboulie, the poets and actors of 2023 must continue their own struggle to chart the labyrinth of the dying heart. May The Waste Land continue to prove itself a valuable springboard.
Zachary Erickson is a poet and a scholar of global modernisms. As of May 2023, he will hold an MFA in Writing from Columbia University.