Four Quartets by T. S. Eliot

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Saturday Drama on BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4, 18 January 2014
Although I have spent over three decades studying, writing and teaching literature, this was the first time I had ever heard T. S. Eliot's magisterial work read aloud.
My initial impression is that the poem places considerable vocal demands on the actor, who not only has to try and bring out its nuances, but has to introduce sufficient tonal variation to hold the listeners' attention.  In Susan Roberts' production, Jeremy Irons achieved this by reading the poem very close to the microphone; this did not seem like a public reading, but rather an intimate piece, almost as if we were sitting next to him in a small room.  Every breath, every pause, every tonal change was clearly audible: we felt that we were sharing Irons' dramatic journey through the poem.
If the poem's principal theme is that of time, and the progression of self, Eliot's use of repetition helped us evaluate the extent to which  (or even whether) the speaker had learned to adapt to changing conditions.  
In terms of dramatic mood, Irons began the first piece "Burnt Norton" in aggressively; this contrasted starkly with "East Coker" - possibly the darkest piece of the entire sequence - where Irons made the biblical references explicit.  "Little Gidding" assumed a more optimistic tone, with its references to gardens and roses, moving into apocalyptic mode with a vision of doves and fires.  The very end of the poem seemed almost intimate: although full of contrary imagery, Irons' tone suggested reassurance - we could rely on the speaker to help us make sense of what we were listening to.  Even if we did not quite understand Eliot's argument, it didn't matter: Four Quartets depends for its effect as much on sound as sense.
I applaud Radio 4 for giving its Saturday Play slot to such a piece: hopefully they will repeat the experiment in the future.