Continuing in our #NPM2018 celebrating serialization of “The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot, it’s come time to perform the next section of the poem, which I call “Rats Alley.”
It just happens that this week I got a copy of Martin Rowson’s “The Wasteland” a 1990 comic-book riff on Eliot’s poem as if written by hardboiled-detective fiction writer Raymond Chandler and filmed like “The Big Sleep” or “The Maltese Falcon.” Rowson notes that in “The Long Goodbye” Chandler referenced Eliot’s “Prufrock” with a character quoting “In the rooms the women come and go, talking of Michelangelo” and having the character ask his detective Marlowe “Does that suggest anything to you sir?”
Marlowe replies, “Yeah—it suggests that the guy didn’t know very much about women.”
Though that's clever repartee, charges that Eliot was naïve about women or even misogynistic can be difficult to disentangle from his general misanthropy. A female Chandler character may be given more apparent agency than the women in Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” but both the male and female voices of “The Waste Land” are frankly damaged and the minor male characters, wraiths and zombies.
In any case, Rowson’s comic-book/graphic novel is a lot of fun for fans of Film Noir and Chandler, or Eliot and Modernist lit. His drawings have more in-jokes than a season of “The Simpsons” watched with a finger on the pause button. And from his notes Rowson supplies in my edition on dealing with Faber and Faber and the Eliot estate, it could have been even funnier if any of them had allowed the comedic-take to use any of the lines from the poem. I laughed often reading the Rowson, but never so much as when he recounts being refused the rights to use the ancient Greek and Latin quotes Eliot dropped into his poem, because Eliot’s rights now include them as part of a unique compilation. That may well be legally sound, but it’s also howlingly funny. Eliot as he wrote his “Waste Land” was clearly borrowing widely from other authors’ work, because he thought it would show us something new when he put them in another context—the same thing that Rowson’s book sought to do.
Which is also what we try to do here as part of the Parlando Project, show you familiar and unfamiliar words in the context of different music and performance styles.
“Rats Alley” is a dialog, and the two speakers are clearly broken vessels. The woman dissatisfied, depressed, afraid, maybe even unstable. The man, numbed, haunted, unable to express even the short expressions of discontent the woman speaks. When he (once in the poem, three-times in my performance) breaks into the cryptic “We are in Rats Alley, where the dead men lost their bones” I decided to alter the voice, to make it a third voice. She’s asking him to speak, to tell her what’s going on, but she doesn’t seem to have heard him say anything, other than a litany, literally, of “nothing.” And so, I’m portraying the “Rats Alley” line as his inner torment, his monster, that is heard loudly, but only in his head.
“Rats Alley” sounds like yet another reference to some dark Jacobean revenge play, samples from which Eliot has already peppered his poem with. If it is, no one has found that work. Some speculate it sounds like the darkly humored street-signs WWI trench-soldiers hung on their subsurface battle lines. If so, then the last voice, the fourth voice of the piece, an imaginary, comic ear-worm song Eliot has made up, “That Shakespearean Rag,” could also be an internal voice. It’s sometimes been considered to reference Irving Berlin and Ted Snyder’s “That Mysterious Rag,” a giant pre-WWI hit with lyrics that say “Did you hear it? Were you near it? If you weren’t then you’ve yet to fear it.” In the hit parade context, the lyrics turn out to be just bragging that this rag is a killer hook “because you never will forget it.” Eliot substitutes Shakespeare in his parody, but is this male voice a soldier, haunted by the trenches and dead comrades to whom old tunes now take on a new context, a sinister edge? It’s a bit of a stretch, but could Eliot have planned to use “That Mysterious Rag’s” mock-dangerous lyrics as a counterpoint to his scene—wouldn’t that have been a powerful sample!—but was enjoined by copyright issues?