- The Phoenix Society. To the Editor of The Athenaeum
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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[ 193 The Phoenix Society To the Editor of The Athenaeum The Athenaeum, 4687 (27 Feb 1920) 285 Sir, – The Phoenix Society, which has recently produced a play of Webster and a play of Dryden, is appealing to its subscribers, of whom I am one, to endeavour to secure more subscribers at reduced rates for the remaining three performances of the season.1 It appears that the receipts from subscriptions have been inadequate to the expenses of production. The so-called cultivated and civilized class is not expected to relieve the necessities of either literature or painting. It is assumed that poetry only pays if it is bought by thousands of people one has never heard of;2 and that painting only pays if it is bought by some rich people whom one is not otherwise anxious to know; but a Society like the Phoenix can appeal only to the intelligentsia, and at a price quite within the intelligentsia’s means. Here then was an opportunity for the intelligentsia to declare its convictions : but the sounds are forced, and the notes very few.3 Whether the performances have been good or bad has nothing to do with the matter. Apathy is more flagitious than abuse; we can almost condone the offence of Mr. William Archer, whom we never supposed to be a member of the intelligentsia; we cannot excuse the torpor of people who would despise Mr. Archer.4 The performance of Dryden’s play seemed to me praiseworthy, and the actors had devoted hard work to a production which certainly could not add to their popular notoriety.5 But the point is that Dryden is a great poet and a great dramatist, and the Civilized Class has not supported the people who would support him, the Civilized Class has not supported Dryden against Archer. If, at the next performance of the Phoenix, the Civilized Class has not taken advantage of the reduced rates, I shall no longer be able to stifle my suspicion that the Civilized Class is a myth. I am, Sir, Your obliged obedient servant, T. S. Eliot 1920 194 ] Notes 1. The Phoenix Society was an independent London theatre group founded in Sept 1919 to produce English plays from the Elizabethan and Restoration periods. Co-founder Montague Summers wrote in the first circular that the society “intended to present each play, not in a spirit of pedantic antiquarianism, but nevertheless with due regard to the actual conditions of the theatre for which it was written.” Named for the seventeenth-century theatre in Drury Lane also known as the Cockpit, the Phoenix Society operated nominally under the auspices of the Stage Society and produced twenty-six plays in six years. The first season began in Nov 1919 with Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi and Dryden’s Marriage A-la-Mode (8-9 Feb 1920); the remaining three performances included Heywood’s The Fair Maid of the West (11-12 Apr), Otway’s Venice Preserv’d (28, 30 Nov), and Jonson’s Volpone (30 Jan, 1 Feb 1921). For TSE’s review of the first production, see “The Duchess of Malfi at the Lyric: and Poetic Drama” (170). 2. Literary critic and future contributor to the Criterion H. P. Collins responded on 5 Mar 1920: “Will you kindly allow space for one of ‘the thousands of people one has never heard of ’ to protest against the careless arraignment of the intelligentsia contained in Mr. T. S. Eliot’s letter on the Phoenix Society? . . . Without being a disciple of Mr. Archer, one may consider that the production of plays by Webster or Dryden is not an essential of culture” (315). 3. TSE adapts the final line of Blake’s “To the Muses” – “The sound is forc’d, the notes are few!” – which he also quoted in “The Romantic Generation, If It Existed” (79) and “William Blake” (188). 4. William Archer’s condemnation of Elizabethan drama and its revivals had stirred controversy in autumn 1919, when he delivered a series of lectures at King’s College, London (published in 1923 as The Old Drama and the New) denouncing the plays for their haphazard construction and implausible conventions. Archer continued his campaign in the Observer (12 Oct 1919), where he asked, “Why revive old rubbish?” (8), as well as in the Star (25 Nov) and the Nineteenth Century (Jan 1920). TSE wrote to his mother on 22 Feb 1920: “I must write a number of letters this evening to try to...