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Fringe Musical Takes On T.S. Eliot's Sexuality

A poster for the musical "T.S. Eliot"
William Roetzheim
A poster for the musical "T.S. Eliot"

Fringe Musical Takes On T.S. Eliot’s Sexuality
Fringe Musical Takes on T.S. Eliot Sexuality GUEST: William Roetzheim, playwright, "T.S. Eliot"

This is KPBS Midday Edition. I am worrying cap not. No doubt that T.S. Eliot author of the wasteland was dissatisfied and even tortured about many things in life. But was one of them sexuality? A musical called T.S. Eliot's opening try as part of the San Diego international Fringe Festival. It takes as it's central theme that Elliott was gay and his classes sexuality may have inspired his works. Joining me is William Roetzheim who wrote the book for the musical, T.S. Eliot. The question of T.S. Eliot sexuality is far from settled. He was married twice, historians have largely rejected the idea he was gay, saying there is a complete inability to prove it. Why do think it's important to define his sexuality? I think you had a big influence on his life and his work and I think it explains a lot of the depressing nature of some of his poetry. He is basically suppressing his sexuality in doing that and living a celibate life. It is causing an outlet in the arts for that pent-up energy. That otherwise he would have been using to live a normal life. Is it a problem for the whole idea of the show if indeed you are wrong or perhaps he was straight? Absolutely not although I think I'm right. Even if he was straight, I think that the issues that were bringing up initial are universal issues. Is that pertain to society as a whole. Western religion today says that if you are gay, you are supposed not take any action. You're not supposed to little somebody else you're not supposed to get married or have sex with anybody else. That is still the standard Western religion and so somebody who is living that is still going to be making the types of sacrifices where bring a part in the show. Let's very song from the show right now if we could. I blew -- believe this one is called sin and damnation. In the situation Elliott has decided he is going to live life the way he wants. He is going to ignore the societal pressures and so on and he is just going to basically enjoy life. And Reverend Hammond who is a character from his writings and correspondence comes in and Reverend Hammond is basically telling him that if you do this, it is a sinful life, that you are going to basically go to hell, and so you should not do this. That is the premise of the song. [ MUSIC ] That was sin and damnation from the musical T.S. Eliot performed by vocalists branched aroma and Andrew Fox on piano and thank you both. This is the fifth play you have written William about a poet's life but the very first musical so why make this one a musical? Every morning I woke up and I felt like T.S. Eliot was telling me this has to be a musical. And I thought it and thought it and eventually gave in and said okay I am going to try. I road the book and then a used that background to help write the lyrics and unlike a lot of other music I actually started with all the lyrics, and brought in a composer to write music to those lyrics. The musical T.S. Eliot opens 12 night and runs through June 30 at the tenth Avenue arts Center and as I said, it is part of the San Diego international Fringe Festival. I've been speaking with William Roetzheim. Thank you. Be sure to watch KPBS evening edition at 5:00 and at 6:30 tonight on KPBS television. Join us again tomorrow for KPBS Midday Edition at noon and the KPBS Roundtable at 12:30. I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Thanks for listening.

There's no doubt that Nobel Prize-winning poet T.S. Eliot, author of "The Waste Land," was dissatisfied — even tortured — about many things in life. But was one of them his sexuality?

A musical called "T.S. Eliot" is opening Friday as part of the San Diego International Fringe Festival. It takes as its central theme that Elliot was gay, and his closeted sexuality may have inspired his works.

Historians have debated the poet's sexuality for years, citing difficulties with his first wife that led to a vow of celibacy. But many argue that despite negative depictions of sex in Eliot's work, there isn't enough evidence to be sure of his sexuality.

"For Eliot bad sex was the symptom of a failure of civilization, and it is a fallacy to conclude that, because sex in his poems is disgusting, Eliot was disgusted by sex," Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker in 2002. "Eliot was disgusted by modern life, period."

William Roetzheim, author of the Fringe Festival musical, said the play's theme of internal struggle stands no matter where historians land on Eliot's life.

"The message here is about when you’re faced with very tough choices and both are losing options," Roetzheim said. "That’s going to be a source of misery in your life. Whether or not he actually went through that, numerous others have gone through that."

Roetzheim joins KPBS Midday Edition Thursday with more on Eliot's work and a selection from the musical.