I became acquainted with Four Quartets over twenty years ago. I recall picking up a pocket edition in a bookstore, although I don’t recall exactly what prompted me to do so. I carried it with me nearly everywhere. (I remember pulling it from my suit pocket for a moment during my sister’s wedding party back in 1991.)
Sometime in the mid-nineties I read a passage of Shakespeare criticism that held that one could profitably and enjoyably spend a lifetime reading, exploring, and discovering the inexhaustible depth of meaning in Shakespeare’s work. I was sure that was true. And a friend idly remarked one day that he had just acquired a first-edition copy of a book by Mark Twain to add to his library of Twain’s work, a library that he had begun to build several years before. He was fascinated by Twain’s thought and writing.
It occurred to me that I might enjoy exploring the work of a specific writer as well, and Eliot came to mind: I admired his work (what I knew and understood of it) and I was confident that the depth of his thought and craft would be as inexhaustible for me as Shakespeare’s.
And so I began to read Four Quartets in earnest. But it was really only in the last couple years that I entertained the idea of performing it. A signal experience occurred this way.
I enjoy listening to jazz, and naturally I have my favorite artists. One of them, Patricia Barber (Chicago-based jazz singer, pianist, song writer, and bandleader), was interviewed for a television program produced for broadcast on a local PBS station in 2009. I arranged to attend the interview as an audience member. The studio engineers set the microphones and asked Barber to speak a few lines by way of a sound check. She began to recite the Declaration of Independence! She remarked that after years of countless pre-performance sound-checks, she had decided that she might as well learn to recite some lengthy prose by heart rather than endlessly repeating the mindless “check – one, two, three – check.”
I borrowed her idea. Why not, I thought, memorize Four Quartets. At first I thought it simply a fruitful mental exercise, a parlor game with a serious bent. But I quickly found the exercise deepening my enjoyment and understanding of the work. I became convinced that my enjoyment and understanding would only grow through performance—through the pleasure of communicating and sharing the poem with others, through responding to an audience’s response.
A dinner conversation in early 2011 with Timothy Gregory, Founding Artistic Director of Provision Theater in Chicago, further energized the idea. He suggested I perform a couple of the Quartets by way of a workshop-like experiment. I rehearsed Burnt Norton and East Coker, assembled a small audience of friends and colleagues, and presented the pair of Quartets in a single performance at Provision Theater that July. Last summer I worked through all four Quartets, and in the fall I performed the entire work at the annual meeting of the T. S. Eliot Society in St. Louis.
I learned much… about the poetry of Four Quartets and about performing the piece.
Which brings me to this moment. September 26 marks the 125th anniversary of T. S. Eliot’s birth, and I am happy to mount this production of Four Quartets as a tribute to his life and work. More important, I am convinced that Four Quartets has much to offer us by way of sheer poetic enjoyment and by way of challenging questions and insights—into spirit, into our psychology and history and place in the world, into artistic endeavor, … and so much more.
I am delighted to share what I can. And I invite you to join me in exploration.