I heard the play Tom and Viv on Radio 4 on Saturday 14th. Written in 1984 by Michael Hastings, it vividly describes the relationship between T. S. Eliot and his first wife, the upper crust Vivienne Haigh-Wood.
It’s one of my favourite plays; so many issues held together so brilliantly in such a tight structure.
Some time in the 1980s I saw it at the Royal Court starring Tom Wilkinson, and I heard this radio version with shouty David Haig playing Viv’s chump of a brother last year.
Listening to it this time I realised that poor Vivvy is really an unknowing Dadaist. She behaved like those teenage girls you see in almost every current middle class play, on TV and stage; the shouting out of unconnected remarks, odd gestures and emotional interest in the world economy.
Her actions had a wild, distorted point to them; pouring copious amounts of chocolate through the letter box at Faber and Faber because her husband had become bitter and unpleasant. Chasing the Bloomsbury group ladies around London with a trick knife because she thought they had ruined his talent. Even throwing herself across her husband and grabbing the steering-wheel while he was driving, because she was upset that he was moving away from her.
Marinetti the Italian Futurist would have loved that one as she was harnessing the new technology to make her protest. Except of course he didn’t like women.
Her main problem was that she was a woman and an upper-class one, expected to behave very well in public. If she’d been a man, of the much loved Anthony Blanche or Boy Mulcaster type, she would have got away with it. But she could never see herself as an autonomous person; her self-consciousness was miles from that of what we would now call a “performance artiste.” She saw herself as a wife, and later as a mad one. With all the rigidity of her class background she let her enemies, and she’d annoyed many, many people, far more than Tristan Tzara ever did, to lock her away in a genteel loony bin. She spent most of her adult life shut away, unvisited, forgotten. Despite her vivacity, cleverness, promiscuity and desire to shock, she somehow managed to move from flapper to unwanted Victorian wife. Quite a performance in itself but much too tragic for Dada.