This article by T S Eliot reflects on the death of the music hall performer Marie Lloyd (1870-1922). Titled ‘London Letter’, it was published in the December 1922 edition of The Dial.
Who was Marie Lloyd?
Marie Lloyd was born in the working-class area of Hoxton in East London. She found fame early on as a performer in what was then the most popular form of mass entertainment, music hall. Performers delivered comic songs about the realities of contemporary life, and audiences often joined in with the choruses. Lloyd was particularly famous for her mastery of the double-entendre; the winking inclusion of what was often sexually suggestive material by means of wordplay and gesture. Her difficult personal life included an abusive third husband, and she died on 7 October 1922 at the age of 52, having been taken ill on the stage. The caricaturist and writer Max Beerbohm (1872–1956) described her funeral as the best-attended in London since that of the Duke of Wellington (1769–1852), the victor at the Battle of Waterloo.
Eliot and music hall
In this article Eliot expresses a sincere appreciation for Lloyd’s work:
whereas other comedians amuse their audiences as much and sometimes more than Marie Lloyd, no other comedian succeeded so well in giving expression to the life of that audience, in raising it to a kind of art.
He continues to make such high claims, arguing that ‘her superiority over other performers [was] in a way a moral superiority’, and was based on ‘her understanding of the people’. We are reminded occasionally that Eliot, who was born in America, is experiencing London partly as a foreign culture. At one point, he comments ‘she represented and expressed that part of the English nation which has perhaps the greatest vitality and interest’.
Eliot’s seminal work, The Waste Land, published earlier that year, bears traces of his love of music hall. As the critic Katherine Mullin has written:
Music hall shadows The Waste Land's overall construction. Variety entertainment involved a sequence of disconnected acts: a sentimental love-song might give way to a comic turn, a psychic, or a magician. The Waste Land, switching rapidly between scenes and registers, and with star turns including Madame Sosostris and her 'wicked pack of cards', and Lil's malevolent interrogator, resembles the music hall stage in both its structure and its diverse voices.
In the article Eliot also discusses the class division of English society. He suggests that the middle classes are destroying the aristocracy even as they attempt to emulate them, and that any remaining vitality resides in the lower, working classes. But that, too, is probably disappearing.
A significant moment in English history
Eliot argues that the death of Marie Lloyd ‘is itself a significant moment in English history’. Among other things, it marks a shift away from music hall as a genre, towards the ‘revue’ mixture of songs, sketches and dances, but also towards the cinema. At the end of the article, Eliot particularly laments this move towards recorded, technologized entertainment, fearing it is the path to ‘pure boredom’. Finally, he admits it has had a ‘depressing effect’ on him, and he is ‘quite incapable of taking any interest in any literary events in England in the last two months, if any have taken place’.
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