T. S. Eliot (August: Osage County)

“The Hollow Men” and a Prickly Pear of August: Osage County

Three years after the publication of Eliot’s landmark work, The Waste Land, “The Hollow Men” was first published in Poems: 1909-1925, and while the focus here is not on an explication of “The Hollow Men,” a brief overview of the poem and a discussion of a few key elements help inform the thematic connection between “The Hollow Men,” Beverly Weston, and August: Osage County.   Situated between Eliot’s emerging literary celebrity and his baptism in the Anglican Church, some literary critics suggest that “The Hollow Men” consists of remnants from The Waste Land, while others contend that it differs dramatically in style and stresses more vehemently the theme of modern corruption; still others believe it expresses a personal shift in Eliot’s philosophical perspective. Although critics hold diametrically opposed opinions about “The Hollow Men” (and Eliot) and create a sense of confusion about the poem in general, most concur, as pointed out by Venus Freeman, that “the theme of despair dominates” the poem. Accordingly, Beverly Weston’s recollection of this particular poem as he plans his suicide not only confirms Beverly’s despair but hints at its cause.

The epigraphs from “The Hollow Men” — “Mistah Kurtz – he dead” and “A penny for the Old Guy,” — suggest the themes of the poem and, in turn, inform some aspects of August: Osage County. The first epigraph contains a reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; the second refers to Guy Fawkes of the infamous Gunpowder Plot. Hugh Kenner states that Eliot had an “affinity with Conrad’s vision of subtle evisceration,” and the metaphorical connection between Kurtz and the “hollow men” accentuates the parallel between men like Conrad’s Kurtz, who live in pursuit of “things” without thought about the consequences of their actions on the world in which they live, and Eliot’s vision of modern man, in other words, a parallel between men focused on personal extrinsic value rather than the communal intrinsic value. And although the “hollow men” literally alludes to a line from Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, Craig Raine, among others, explains that the speaker(s), the “hollow men,” are “men without substance . . . without guts or integrity . . . men who are spiritually gelded.” Consequently, for Raine and Kenner, the “hollow men” represent a specific segment of individuals within the Western culture who exist without any substance, act without questioning their actions, and follow the status quo, men stuffed with the hollowness of their insincere financial pursuits.

When the audience first meets Beverly Weston, he bemoans the upkeep required to maintain the “traditional American routine” of “paying bills, purchase of goods, cleaning of our clothes or carpets or crappers,” and, as if quoting directly from Jean-François Lyotard, the professor-poet criticizes ritualistic consumerism when he comments on “the American-made behemoth parked in the carport,” and “all this garbage we’ve acquired.” The playwright’s chosen reference to “The Hollow Men” reinforces the challenge to the ritualistic American consumer culture in which Beverly participates, and, albeit partially, explains his psychomachia, and points to at least one cause for his deep despair.

According to Kenner, the Guy Fawkes epigraph (“A penny for the old guy”) invokes Fawkes as emblematic of the failed assignation of King James I. Furthermore, it operates as an intertextual reference that glosses the oft quoted final lines of “The Hollow Men”: “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.” As Harold Bloom comments, this line, partially quoted by Johnna at the conclusion of August, alludes to the violent, but failed Gunpowder Plot “that ended not with a bang but with an act of cowardice.” Here, from an illusionist perspective, the association of Beverly Weston with Guy Fawkes not only identifies the act of suicide but also Beverly’s life of conforming to the “status quo” — “the ritualistic American consumer culture” in pursuit of things that quantify life based on personal extrinsic rewards rather than the communal intrinsic – with an act of cowardice. Emblematically, it comments on the dissipation of the American middle class (arguably beginning in 1972) and of the possibility of “financial freedom and economic independence, which lies at the heart of the ‘American Dream” (Mohler 134).

In August, the three textual references to “The Hollow Men” consist of two lines spoken by Beverly Weston (“Life is very long” and “Here we go round the prickly pear”), which frame the prologue, and the final reference, delivered by Johnna — the final line of the play — (“This is the way the world end”).  These three references thus bracket the play with references to Eliot’s poem. Beverly attributes the first reference (the first line of the play), “Life is very long,” to Eliot although he readily acknowledges that Eliot was not the first to say it, but he receives the credit because he was the first to “write it down.” Beverly’s final words, which also close the prologue, “Here we go round the prickly pear/At five o’clock in the morning” parodies a nursery rhyme alluding to the carefree, yet mindless activity of children. Raine explains that the line is not “simply a nursery rhyme, but describes behaviour that is enigmatically empty. Why do we go round the prickly pear? It is a perfect, quasi-ritualized pointless activity that symbolizes the life fundamentally unlived” (20).  Recited at the end of the prologue and immediately before the audience meets the “prickly” Weston family, it provides ironic humor; however, it also comments again on Beverly’s despair about a life “unlived” and possibly his observation concerning the Weston family as a whole.

When Letts opens his play with an older, white male, mid-western college professor quoting Eliot while interviewing a Native American housekeeper and lamenting the burden of maintaining the “traditional American routine,” the playwright not only alludes to the character’s psychological state, but also foreshadows Beverly Weston’s suicide and suggests the demise of an era (Letts, August 11). He also prefigures the family’s struggle to define their existence, insulated within their “Weston world.” In characteristically postmodern fashion, despite having the Weston patriarch dismiss Eliot, Letts also exploits Eliot and his work to demonstrate that “The Hollow Men,” over 80 years after its publication, continues to represent a segment of American culture. The references likewise suggest, as the action of the play demonstrates, that the “hollowness” is not limited to “men,” but has pervaded the entire family and the surviving Weston women are as hollow as the men of the previous generation.

Furthermore, I would argue that Letts’s references to “The Hollow Men” reinforce the observations of Joseph Jonghyn Jeon and Craig Raine who maintain that “The Hollow Men” is situated between Eliot’s earlier conviction, as expressed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that the “poet might transform culture,” and his later position whereby Eliot “calls for poetry to serve orthodox values” (15). Similarly, Raine points out that “The Hollow Men” reflects the polarity between Eliot’s early “humanist” view and his later “theological” perspective (18). Thus, Beverly Weston, who admits “identifying” with Eliot “the poet” in his “role” as a professor and published poet, suggests an affinity with Eliot’s early humanist belief that the poet possessed the ability to “transform culture” through art (Letts, August 11). However, as life — this long life — continued and, ultimately, faded into the twilight years, Weston came to realize that he followed a path, perhaps not so far removed metaphysically and ideologically from that of Conrad’s Kurtz, whereby the pursuit of money and the collection of “things” shaped him into another one of Eliot’s “hollow men.” By having Weston bestow his book of Eliot’s poetry on Johnna, the Native American housekeeper who operates as the moral touchstone of the play, Letts divests Weston of his culture and transfers it to Johnna as a sort of “guidebook” from which to understand the dysfunctional family who now employs her as symbolic of the patriarchal ideology that usurped her cultural heritage. Eliot’s poetry in Johnna’s hands is ostensibly a foreign language, a commentary on a culture far removed from her own despite occupying the same land mass.

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