The Drama of Old Age – Eliot’s The Elder Statesman


I have written about last poems, last novels, and now a last play.  There are many wonderful last plays, many of them directly relating to old age.  T.S. Eliot wrote The Elder Statesman in 1958 when he was about 70; I first read it when I was in my 50s, then again at 63, and now as I am about to turn 70 myself.  It is both a heartening and scary play.  On the plus side, Eliot uses the word love more in this play than in all his other drama combined; on the scary side, imagine arriving at the nursing home only to find it populated by all the people you have wronged in life, all the people who know your darkest secrets.

Eliot stated that he partially based his play on another play by an even older playwright.  Sophocles wrote Oedipus at Colonus when he was about 90.  Cicero tells a story about how Sophocles’ sons were not happy at how their elderly father was handling the family fortune.  They took him to court for incompetence and Sophocles defended himself by reading from Colonus.  So much for the sons.  But Elder Statesman is not a rewrite of Sophocles; it feels deeply personal.  One cannot help remembering that Eliot and his brother-in-law had locked his first wife away in an insane asylum; she had died there ten years before this play was written.  And here we have a play about the problems of the past, how to deal with regret for things that cannot be changed.  Any old person knows about this.

Much of Eliot’s late writing is religious (or spiritual) in nature, but there is no religion in Elder Statesman.  The protagonist, Lord Claverton, has just retired due to a failing heart and is facing the first period in his life with an empty appointment book.  He has a loving daughter and a renegade son.  And time to think.  But he does not have to dredge up his old sins; they come knocking on the door.  The youthful joyride where he ran over someone, the inappropriate love match that he let his father buy off, the younger friend whom he betrayed.  For most of us, these kinds of past sin just reside at the bottom of our consciousness; Eliot has them come to call.  The question to be answered is what to do about our past sins, our inner critic:

What is this self inside us, this silent observer,

Severe and speechless critic, who can terrorize us

And urge us on to futile activity,

And in the end, judge us more severely

For the errors into which his own reproaches drove us.

One of the things we sometimes do with our own faults is to project them on our children.  Lord Claverton does this with his son  Michael – always fearful that Michael has gotten into trouble with some woman or hurt someone while driving his sports car.  In the end, however, he realizes that the only lesson both he and his son have to learn is not to try to escape their responsibilities, the consequences of their own actions:

Come, I’ll start to learn again,

Michael and I shall go to school together.

We’ll sit side by side, at little desks

And suffer the same humiliations

At the hands of the same master.  But have I still time?

There is time for Michael.  Is it too late for me, Monica [his daughter]?

Is it too late?  The call, the question, the entreaty, the petition of the old – can I undo, can I atone, can I make restitution, can I learn the lesson?  This is a play and so the old man does learn a lesson and that lesson involves love – a very human kind of love.  Confession, yes, but not necessarily to a priest:

If a man has one person, just one in his life,

To whom he is willing to confess everything –

And that includes, mind you, not only things criminal,

Not only turpitude, meanness and cowardice,

But also situations which are simply ridiculous,

When he has played the fool (and who has not?) –

Then he loves that person and love will save him.

We all hope to be fortunate enough to have that person, to find that person.  For Claverton, it is his daughter.  But one has to be willing to confess.  In Colonus, Oedipus dies claiming he was not fully responsible for what happened to him and his family.  There surely is a sense in which our fates are ordained by circumstances – but almost never completely.  Oedipus says that old age teaches him acceptance:  “My experience and my length of days teach me to be content.”  I hope your old age has brought you acceptance and contentment.  If not, read The Elder Statesman and think about who you might not want to encounter in the rest home of your final years. 

Also, for a story about dealing with the sins of the past, try my story “Shrove Tuesday;” for more on T.S. Eliot, you might look at my blog from a year ago, “Eliot’s Gifts of Old Age.”

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