REVIEW

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M.C. Gardner’s

The Man from Lloyd’s

Reviewed by Michael Rogalski

Chicago, Illinois

According to the playwright David Mamet, the dramatist

has two teachers: the audience and the empty page.

If so, what can the dramatist (or anyone) gain from a

consideration of his work in the limbo between page and

stage—that is, from a consideration of the script alone?

Perhaps little. And so a caution is in order: what follows

is a response to the bare text and not to a fully realized

production of M. C. Gardner’s ambitious and flawed play,

The Man from Lloyds.

Gardner imagines T. S. Eliot’s final hours: painful and

hallucinatory and filled with recrimination. The play is an

intense and surrealistic fever dream in which lines from

Eliot’s oeuvre are interwoven with the playwright’s own

to provide the dialogue among a handful of characters:

Eliot himself; Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the poet’s first wife;

Maurice Haigh-Wood, Vivienne’s brother; and Bertrand

Russell, the famed mathematician and friend who betrayed

Eliot.

Three other figures complete the cast of principals. First,

The Man from Lloyds is Death incarnate. Next, Texas

boozer and whoremonger Wild Cat Columbo is Eliot’s

doppelgänger, his secret self—a Mr. Hyde to Eliot’s public

Dr. Jekyll and the fount of Eliot’s bawdy Columbo and Bolo

verses. (The same actor is called to portray both Eliot and

Columbo.) Finally, there is the aching spectral presence of

Jean Verdenal, Eliot’s intimate during his Paris youth, who

was killed at the Battle of Gallipoli.

The thrust of the play’s argument is clear enough.

As Gardner tells it, Eliot is haunted by the lies that were

his life and by guilty memories of his abuse of Vivienne.

Called to account by The Man from Lloyds, who appears

as a looming shadow to take Eliot’s deposition on a “claim

of conscience,” Eliot writhes in remorse even as he makes

explanation. Summing up late in the action, The Man from

Lloyds presses his charge, speaking in Eliot’s recorded

voice: “You used the woman. . . . And then you used ‘Bertie’

to use the woman for whom you had no use. You used the

Mathematician to subtract Ophelia from your life. . . . We

wouldn’t want a woman’s nerves to interrupt the adulation

of the world.”

The Man from Lloyds prepares this indictment in a

carnivalesque rondo that sketches Eliot’s alleged deceit

and then vividly elaborates it. The play portrays Eliot as

psychologically damaged, given to auditory hallucinations,

and as a man of contradictions, weak and vacillating yet

heartless and deliberate. For example, there is a cartoon-like

portrayal of Russell’s seduction of the ready Vivienne and

of their subsequent affair. (Russell is outfitted as a wolf). We

learn that their duplicity hurt Eliot deeply, but we learn too

that the affair was a convenience for the poet and one that

he abetted. He tells The Man from Lloyds, “I put the two of

them together—we made a trinity of sin. They fell deep into

perdition, because I pushed them in.” Why?

Vivienne explains, “We had no children. Tom didn’t

fancy them—unless you count the danseurs of the Ballet

Russes,” and Wild Cat Columbo mocks ferociously, “Your

Tommy’s as queer as a Bourbon Street leer.” Meanwhile, the

memory of the lost Jean Verdenal hovers in the background,

his handsome face projected poignantly at selected moments

throughout the play, accompanied by the song of the sailor’s

lament from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which Eliot

famously incorporated into The Waste Land. It seems Eliot

too was lost at Gallipoli: helpless in his love, according to

Gardner, he continued to seek the fallen Jean Verdenal for

the rest of his days.

“Memory of loss is the most impossible of rivals,”

Vivienne tells Eliot, and she begins to disintegrate in the

face of his remove and under the pressure of guilt over her

affair with Russell. Eliot and Maurice plot successfully to

commit the frail Vivienne, victim of Eliot’s own spiritual

and psychological dysfunction, to a sanitarium, where she

remains until her death.

Very near his end, Eliot acknowledges his offense in

a simple statement of chilling clarity: “She was the only

one who knew me mad. . . . So my little Mary, Mary quite

contrary to the madhouse you must go. . . . I didn’t have

the courage to kill her—I buried her alive.” In the last

scene a doctor vainly attempts to revive the dying poet,

while Vivienne, Russell, Maurice, and Wild Cat Columbo

look on.

Despite its cockamamie argument, The Man from Lloyds

is not without its strengths as a piece of imagined theater.

It calls for multiple design elements: sound and lighting

and costuming, but also song and dance, masks, projected

images and text, voiceover, video, and shadow play. It

employs vivid, even outrageous theatricality that has the

potential to entertain and hold an audience, although it also

risks undermining itself in a welter of confused and overthe-

top effects amid a surfeit of images.

The most striking theatrical elements that Gardner

employs are song and dance and minstrel show, aspects of

vaudeville and music hall that Eliot enjoyed, and he mines

the repertoire of Al Jolson in particular. The play opens to

a recording of Jolson singing “April Showers,” while Eliot

performs a simple lilting dance. Early in their courtship

Eliot and Vivienne sing a cheerful duet of another Jolson

classic, “I’m Sitting on Top of the World.” And in a move

that would surely deliver jaw-dropping shock (but could

also provoke unintended guffaw), Eliot emerges on bended

knee in blackface mask to sing “Mammy,” Jolson’s famous

number from the movie The Jazz Singer. The play ends as

the principals appear in minstrel masks to sing “Toot, Toot,

Tootsie Goodbye” while they open Eliot’s casket . . . and

find it empty.

Lively and jolting as the play’s theatrical effects read

on the page, however, their riotous impact could obtrude

and become a production’s undoing. This seems especially

likely given the fluidity and cinematic character of the

dramatic structure, which incorporates flashbacks, jump

cuts, and dissolves. For example, while the script denotes

seven scenes in Act I, it also calls for the use of projected

date stamps and title cards no fewer than ten times and sends

the action reeling from 1963 to 1914 to 1947 to 1921 to

1963, and back to 1947—yet the scenes are also fragments

of the poet’s memory and imagination during his final hours

in 1965. An audience (a reader!) could become lost.

As further illustration of its surrealistic and troublesome

theatricality, the play’s scenes are bracketed between

symbol-laden reenactments of two historic assassinations,

the murder of Archduke Ferdinand and the murder of

President John F. Kennedy. The first casts Bertrand Russell

as the Black Hand killer who shoots the Archduke and his

helpless wife, clear stand-ins for Eliot and Vivienne. In

the second and truly bizarre reenactment, Eliot imagines

himself as the lone assassin who fixes the president in

his rifle’s sight and coolly pulls the trigger. The graphic

Zapruder film (made famous in Oliver Stone’s movie

JFK), which captured the assassination as it happened, is

projected in slow motion and in freeze-frame to pin the

wounded president in his death throes. The scene reads

as horrific, incomprehensible, and gratuitous. One wants

to ask the playwright, “What are you thinking of? What

thinking? What?”

This broaches another of Gardner’s techniques. In a

nod to Eliot’s use of intertextual references, Gardner lifts

lines from Eliot’s poetry and plays to provide much of the

dialogue. In fact nearly a quarter of the lines appear sourced

from Eliot’s work. (The script provides careful endnote

references to all these.) While it is doubtful that many in

an audience would appreciate how fully Eliot’s words are

used, some of his better-known lines could resonate and

provide a welcome sense of familiarity. On the other hand,

splicing the lines wholesale outside their context is arguably

a disservice, while exploiting Eliot’s own words selectively

to build such a damning case against him is unfair at best. It

would be surprising if Gardner could secure the rights to use

Eliot’s work in this way.

Whatever antipathy he may feel toward Eliot the man

M. C. Gardner clearly admires Eliot the artist. Dense in

its symbolism and imagery and vigorously theatrical to

the point of excess, The Man from Lloyds employs Eliot’s

work as well as his personal and artistic interests to create a

portrait that is disturbing but not without empathy. Should it

be produced, it will require the sure hand of an experienced

and very disciplined

director.

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