Eliot as a grumbling puppet

March 11, 1992

Ask for the Captain
Written by Ljiljana Ortolja
Directed by David Baird
Performed by Handspan Theatre
Victoria Arts Centre
Reviewed by Peter Boyle

With a brave mix of puppetry, mime and acting, Handspan Theatre has tried to give some meaning to T.S. Eliot's epic poem "The Wasteland".

The poem is dense with literary allusions and its meaning has been the subject of much debate. It used to be a prized instrument of torture used by English literature teachers.

While Eliot denied that "The Wasteland" was his bitter comment on modern society, many readers have taken it just that way. Ljiljana Ortolja seems to have faithfully interpreted it as Eliot urged: as a very personal expression of Eliot's specific subjective experiences. Eliot insisted that "The Wasteland" was "just a piece of rhythmical grumbling".

Ask for the Captain is not a dramatisation of the poem (which is forbidden by the Eliot estate) but a play about the writing of "The Wasteland", with some of the images from the poem woven into eight scenes which seek to capture that slice of Eliot's life.

"The Wasteland" was written in 1921 while Eliot was on three months' sick leave from his job at Lloyds Bank in London — to recover from a nervous breakdown. Undoubtedly the poem is drenched with the breakdown, his deep personal unhappiness (centred on his marriage and the fact that he could not earn a living as a poet), but this "grumbling" seems banal when separated from the broader grumbles about modern society that emerge in the rest of Eliot's writing.

Traumatised and demoralised by the horrors of World War I, Eliot and many other writers of his generation were understandably repelled by the century that began so bloodily.

"That corpse you planted last year in your garden, Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?", he asks in "The Wasteland".

But his disillusionment with the capitalist age makes him glance nostalgically to a past when things might have had more certainty and when life not so alienating. Hence his revulsion at the "new middle class" of clerks (undoubtedly aggravated because he was forced to become one) suggests a hankering for the old days when the plebs knew their place and the ruling class theirs. His failure to find meaning in the 20th century drives him to a search for the elusive Holy Grail, a frantic hunt among the myths of antiquity.

These themes are tackled in unique way in Ask for the Captain, but the performance as a whole does not engage audiences that haven't read some of Eliot's work or don't at least go on to do so. By itself it comes across as an unsatisfying and disjointed mix of clever and often comic performances and the rather tedious grumbles by a misogynist with some awful hang-ups.

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