Books Editor Annie Muir heads to the Anthony Burgess Foundation for a musical production of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’, a poem that is better heard than read
At the Anthony Burgess Foundation on Friday I saw a musical production of T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’, a collaboration between the Foundation and Psappha. It began abruptly; the lights went off and came back on and the narrator was in character (first as Burgess, who wrote the music) describing when he first read the poem when he was fifteen and “didn’t understand it, but recognised that it was important.” So he copied it out and learnt ‘the big railway terminus of a poem’ by heart, which meant that by the time he got to Manchester University he knew the poem better than any of his lecturers. And then he started making musical versions of it.
This production had a flute, oboe, piano and cello, as well as the narrator and a soprano singer who wandered around the stage barefoot, singing and looking lost. As well as the music there was a photo slideshow projected onto the brick walls behind the performers. I preferred the more abstract images but couldn’t help sometimes being reminded of those photo-montages people sometimes make when they put songs on Youtube.
The musical score was fragmented and fickle like the poem itself, which features multiple voices which Martyn Hampton describes as “span[ing] millennia and nations, encompassing the tragedies of classical antiquity, the ritual chants of the Upanishads, and the vernacular of London pubs and typing pools.” The narrator really played with this, sitting at his desk of books and spitting out cockney and Latin and French and Italian one after the other.
The performance made me realize it was a poem that was meant to be heard, and I felt sorry for people all over the world sitting in libraries trying to read it. It seems Burgess believed that all literature was better heard than read: As the evidence in the museum downstairs showed, he had attempted transforming other difficult texts such as Joyce’s Ulysses and his own A Clockwork Orange into musicals too.