It has been essentially argued since time immemorial of how an artwork is foremost a reflection and expression of the deeper emotions and values of an artist, which may sometimes be unfortunately suppressed in the artist’s life or unintentionally implied in the artwork. For that matter, any artwork is perhaps considered an artist’s personal drama set in a creative manner of expression. Sophie Treadwell’s play, Machinal, and T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, are be fitting examples of modern human drama relatively framed in a dark, lonesome, and tragic milieu of love, death, age, solitude, and despair in the twentieth century.
In Eliot’s poem, the narrator or speaker in his poem is a contemporary man who feels secluded brought by the fear of aging, and who is indecisive to act upon his crisis on love for a woman. The speaker Prufrock is rather an epitome of despair, frustration, and helplessness of the modern man toward a personal crisis. Prufrock positions himself as a symbol of disillusionment and dismay for failing to overcome his human weaknesses. What makes the poem or the speaker tragic is that his insecurity on a lot of things is holding his happiness in life and love. He remains to be brooding, dark, lonesome and awaits death in no time.
Eliot has always been a difficult read, and this quality of writing has put him in the level of other literary masters. For a non-Eliot reader, the poem may initially seem confusing to understand. However, the speaker Prufrock has been endowed by Eliot the style of repeating particular phrases and going back to his main sentiment while the poem develops into a whole new set of ideas. This style is reassuring the reader that he can understand the deeper emotions of the speaker as he slowly reads through it. On one hand, this repetition may also show the speaker’s inability to communicate well with the society, and he needs to repeat words such as vision and revision to be clearly understood.
Eliot possesses an ironic manner of writing that is very well implied on how Prufrock talks about his love for a woman but is coward enough to open up his feelings and of how he even contradictorily speaks of time as he would sense the urgency to capture life and love in his hands before old age and death take him away, but would also set it aside and reveal that there is still time to catch up on things.
The first two similar characteristics or qualities of Treadwell’s play with Eliot’s poem are the twentieth century setting and powerful themes of death and despair, even though the former’s work is based on a sensational real murder case and the latter is more of a personal struggle brought about by aging.
Machinal is also similar with Prufrock’s written image of pessimism and depression for things that they are incapable of having, but both end in different resolutions. Machinal’s main character, Helen, is unhappily married to a vicious man and yet happily having an extra-marital affair with a younger man. But, Helen being incapable of loving the younger man in the most proper ways as dictated by society’s conventions, murders her husband and releases herself from the wretched married life. In the case of Prufrock, he remains attached to his fears of opening up to his love and to the society.
Machinal is as powerful and intense as Prufrock in its presentation of despair over love. Machinal is desperately consumed with two kinds of love as previously stated. What makes Helen a tragic hero like Prufrock is their disparate heroism takes them not into the world of admiration, but into a world of utmost dismay and desperation – theirs is a tragic presentation of surrender to an inescapable human obstacle of frustrating emotions.
Treadwell is capable of repetitive rhythm like a strange poem – a quite tricky concept like Eliot – yet incorporated the theatrical lingo of any expressionistic writing during the twentieth century. To say expressionistic is to only define the attributes of human emotions, not necessarily placing it into an approach of realism. But, moreover, Machinal is an engaging, dark display of human wickedness doomed like Prufrock’s love song.
Treadwell, Sophie. Machinal (Royal National Theatre). London: Nick Hern Books, 1995.
“T. S. Eliot: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”