Pidgin English Productions

at Broadway Arts Center

Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,

Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?

The words come from J. Alfred Prufrock but the paralyzed energy is very much T.S. Eliot. Thomas Stearns Eliot was no poet to prefer the present when there was so much past to pounce on: alienated from the Age of Anxiety, he gradually retreated into a hidebound Christian orthodoxy that Samuel Johnson might have envied.

Eliot’s poems not only dissect, they loathe our century, its arid ideologies, its failure to inspire, its lack of tradition or belief. But there was a nearer reason for Eliot’s reticence and retreat, for his craving an art to improve upon life. Eliot’s disastrous first marriage explains, more than his readers could guess, the sheer desperation of his quest for moral certainty.

In 1915 Eliot married a vibrant English writer, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a promising painter, author, and dancer and the daughter of a family of faineant absentee Irish landlords. Living vicariously through her husband’s work (except for a brief fling with Bertrand Russell), “Viv” helped to edit, research, and, some say, write Eliot’s finest work, particularly The Waste Land.

But while Viv was acting the muse she was suffering from an ineptly treated hormonal imbalance; ignorant society doctors (like Sir Frederick Treves, discoverer of the “Elephant Man”) prescribed various starvation diets and mutually potentiating, addictive drugs loaded down with morphine and alcohol.

During drug-induced mood swings Viv set fire to hotel curtains, hurled herself onto the steering wheel of a moving car, poured chocolate into a publisher’s letter box (ruining valuable manuscripts), and picketed Eliot’s lectures carrying a placard proclaiming “I am the wife he deserted.” She was rumored to change her bed linen twice a day and carry a knife in her handbag (it was only a toy). Worse, at one point she even I tried to deny she was Eliot’s wife.

So did he. Eliot found Viv’s escapades embarrassing at best; his influential Bloomsbury friends attacked Viv as unbohemian (Virginia Woolf called her a “bag of parrots” and Katherine Mansfield exclaimed, “You’ve married an illiterate beast!”). By 1921 Eliot verged on his own nervous breakdown; on medical advice, he sought therapy in a Swiss sanatorium. He finally left Viv in 1933; she was committed to a mental home where she died in 1947 at age 59, not having heard from her husband for some 12 years. A decade later Eliot remarried and for the remaining eight years of his life knew a happy marriage.

Disarmingly subtitled “Scenes From a Bloomsbury Marriage,” Tom and Viv, by English playwright Michael Hastings, offers an exhaustive, progressively partisan Cook’s tour of this marriage between what “Tom” calls “two fugitives from each other.”

Despite a lack of direct evidence (the Eliot estate refuses to release Viv’s writings or any information about the marriage), Tom and Viv makes a persuasive case for Viv. In scenes stretching from 1915 to 1947, Tom, always drily “calm and precise,” evolves from a Yank poseur at Oxford (“I find it an enormous task to be trivial”) attracted to Viv’s fast reputation into a cold-blooded High Church banker-poet who, as Edith Sitwell put it, “went mad and promptly certified his wife.” (He lost no time grabbing power over Viv’s inheritance and held on to it for years after their separation.)

The Haigh-Woods, it seems, were just as eager as Eliot to sweep this family embarrassment into an institution. Only Viv’s mother puts up a show of anger, railing at Tom for what he “didn’t do.” But this very un-English passion passes quickly.

By process of elimination we’re left to feel for lonely Viv. Hastings paints her as intense and excitable–and throughout 32 years awesomely faithful to the man whose career she helped secure, the same one who put her away (while Tom is never for one moment shown defending his wife). She’s certainly the only character who shows passion, even in understatement–“Tom and I aren’t very good at being alone together.”

Characteristically Viv describes poetry as “a smashed vase”; it’s irony–she’s the one who was smashed while the poetry endures. By the end, presaging a later Frances Farmer, Viv plaintively tells her brother, “They want my mind.” The shame is they didn’t–they just threw it away.

Complex and careful, Hastings’s script nearly drowns in its detail, while being maddeningly (perhaps libel-minded) reticent. Whenever a scene threatens to overheat, Hastings seems to pull its plug. Viv’s fits occur offstage as if the playwright didn’t want to confront us with the outbursts Tom had to handle year after year. The characters even step out of character to supply Eliot-like footnotes to fill in gaps in the story. Tom’s torment, even his inner life, are simply inferred; he’s more stiff-upper-lip than the British (and just as hypocritical, mouthing platitudes like “Family is the root of culture”). His one plea for help sounds like he’s asking for the time.

Tom was, it seems, torn between visions of himself as both a glorified bank clerk and a poet too good for his benighted century. This ambivalence creates no small problem for actor John Gaynor, the linchpin in Kerry Reid’s earnest staging. Faced with a cold fish of a poet who’s both intellectually snobbish and emotionally insecure (and also, it’s hinted, racist, anti-Semitic, and fascist), Gaynor chooses to underplay. He rushes Tom’s lines to indicate insecurity or delivers them with a distracted disconnectedness. His reticence may be accurate but it creates a dramatic void only Viv can fill.

In a role that Sandy Dennis would have fidgeted to death, Terry Mamsch gives Viv a haunted look and a brittle strength; particularly in the absence of any competing energy onstage, she automatically wins audience sympathy. Jim Zulevic plays Viv’s conformist brother (“The bohemian life is dicey” and “Life is thin,” among his twitticisms). Jennifer Halliday is the hard-edged Haigh-Wood matriarch, Bob Wilde the ineffectual father, CeCe Klinger a kindly nurse (the play’s other sympathetic character), and Matthew O’Brien a doctor from 1947 who explains the errors of the earlier ones. However competent, their work must also suffer from the script’s lack of momentum and its scattershot scene building.

If half of what’s decorously implied in Tom and Viv is true, you don’t need to read T.S. Eliot’s verse to find the waste. It was those 14 years Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot spent in the booby hatch.