Introducing Four Quartets

If you already know T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, you probably remember where and when you first encountered these enigmatic and beautiful poems.  In my case I was an undergraduate, assigned to write a paper on Eliot. I vividly recall exactly where I was sitting in my college’s library when I read the opening lines, “Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.”  Their strange music affected me deeply, and has stayed with me since, though the meaning of the poems was beyond my grasp.

Only later did I realize that there is no way to understand the Quartets fully, for they grapple with experiences of time and spirituality that defy comprehension.  Eliot is attempting to find words for aspects of our existence that can’t be fully expressed (“Because one has only learnt to get the better of words / For the thing one no longer has to say,” he writes.) The poems’ subject emerges in fragments and sudden moments of illumination – “hints and guesses, / Hints followed by guesses” – and the power of Eliot’s writing lies as much in its rhythmic and tonal shifts as in the literal meaning of the words. Like the chamber music invoked by its title, Four Quartets is an auditory experience; it reaches full fruition when we hear it read.

The idea for this live performance based on the Quartets was born in 2015, when the Fisher Center at Bard first presented an evening by the choreographer Pam Tanowitz.  One of the works on that program was called “Broken Story (wherein there is no ecstasy)” and when I asked Pam about this striking name, she told me that it was partly a quotation from “Burnt Norton,” the first of the Quartets. We discovered our shared love of these poems, and I suggested that Pam should create a full-length dance performance with a reading of Eliot’s poems as the score.  The production premiered at the Fisher Center in July 2018, seventy-five years after the first publication of Four Quartets in 1943.

Eliot named the Four Quartets after four places that held special significance for him. As Pam began conceiving her performance, we decided to visit the four sites as a kind of pilgrimage in search of a deeper understanding of the poems. If you’d like to learn more about that journey and the creation of Pam’s dance, there is a blog about the development of the production here.

Over the course of three years Pam created the work in conjunction with a group of exceptional artists – the dancers of her company, composer Kaija Saariaho, painter Brice Marden, actor Kathleen Chalfant, and contemporary music ensemble The Knights. I hope you agree that their combined vision creates a fine complement to Eliot’s poetry, creating a rich dialog with his words without attempting to illustrate or explain them.

Dance and dancing are central metaphors in Four Quartets, and it is not surprising that several choreographers, including Martha Graham and May O’Donnell, have been attracted to the poems. This is the first time that permission has been granted to set a dance to the text, and we are deeply thankful to Clare Reihill and her colleagues at the T.S. Eliot Estate, who have been unfailingly supportive throughout the process.

—Gideon Lester, Artistic Director for Theater and Dance at the Fisher Center at Bard