04 January 2024

TS Eliot Theatre
in Merton College
is a reminder of
his days in Oxford

The TS Eliot Theatre at Merton College, Oxford, facing onto Rose Lane Gardens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During a visit to Oxford last month, I walked across from Christ Church across Christ Church Meadow, one of Oxford’s most impressive settings, to Merton College in search of Dead Man’s Walk, and ended up at the award-winning TS Eliot Theatre, located in Rose Lane Gardens.

This new theatre in Merton College opened in June 2010 and is the most recent building in the 760-year history of the college, founded in 1264. The theatre was built in 2010 on a derelict former garden site, between existing buildings. The theatre has entrances from both the college and Rose Lane.

Merton is one of Oxford’s three oldest colleges, standing between Merton Street and Christ Church Meadow. But constraints of space had become an increasing problem. College bursars complained that while the college came near the top of most Oxford league tables, it was ‘at the absolute bottom of the league table for conference income.’

The £5 million multi-function lecture theatre became one of the biggest projects in the history of Merton College. The theatre is purpose-built facility equipped for lectures, conferences and musical recitals and enhances Merton’s conference facilities.

The theatre offers state-of-the-art conference facilities within the historic buildings and gardens and the traditional environment of Merton College. The facilities can accommodate a conference of up to 150 guests but are equally suitable for smaller events. There are three additional seminar rooms, a small office room, and a large foyer area used for lunches, refreshments, or for smaller groups.

The auditorium was designed by architects Ridge and Partners, whose previous projects include the 350-seat theatre at Radley College, near Abingdon.

Light fittings in the foyer pick out the shape of a constellation visible on the night of 14 September 1264, the day the college was founded.

A bust of TS Eliot by Jacob Epstein was presented to the theatre by Frank Brenchley, a former fellow, who also presented Merton College with his collection of Eliot first editions and ephemera, said to be the second largest collection of its type worldwide.

Eliot's room in Merton College had a view of Christ Church Meadow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The 150-seat auditorium is named in honour of the poet TS Eliot, who spent one academic year at Merton in 1914-1915 and left without receiving a degree or award.

Eliot was a PhD student at Harvard when he received a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship for the year 1914-1915 to study philosophy under Harold Joachim at Merton. The outbreak of World War I prematurely put an end to his stay in Marburg, Germany, where he had planned to attend a summer school course in philosophy and to improve his German before taking up his philosophical studies at Merton.

During a brief stay in London, Eliot first met Ezra Pound on 22 September 1914. Pound instantly decided that Eliot was ‘worth watching’ and introduced him to social events and literary gatherings. As Eliot wrote 50 years later, ‘in 1914 … my meeting with Ezra Pound changed my life.’

Eliot arrived at Merton on 6 October 1914. The college then had barely 50 students because many had already joined the military. Those 50 or students included six Americans, four Indians and two Canadians. Eliot's room was on staircase 2:1 in the Saint Alban's Triangle, from which he had a view of Christ Church Meadow.

There were so many American students at Merton at the time that the Junior Common Room proposed a motion ‘that this society abhors the Americanisation of Oxford.’ It was defeated after Eliot reminded the students how much they owed American culture. He did not, however, settle, and left after a year.

Escaping Oxford, Eliot spent much of his time in London. In a letter to Conrad Aiken on New Year’s Eve 1914, Eliot wrote famously: ‘Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.’

In that letter, he said: ‘I hate university towns and university people, who are the same everywhere, with pregnant wives, sprawling children, many books and hideous pictures on the walls ... Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead.’

While he was at Merton, Eliot also met his future wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, a Cambridge lecturer, and three months later they were married in a secret ceremony on 26 June 1915. That sudden, precipitous marriage was disastrous and plunged the couple into a miserable existence for many years. But to some extent it also inspired The Waste Land.

Meanwhile, it appears, Eliot was spending as little time as possible in Oxford and he left Merton after a year. By 1915, he was teaching English at Birkbeck College in the University of London. By 1916, he had completed his doctoral dissertation for Harvard, but he never returned for the viva voce exam.

Despite escaping Merton, Eliot returned to Oxford receive an honorary doctorate. It was interesting to see last month how he is still remembered with pride at his old college with the TS Eliot Theatre in Rose Lane Gardens.

TS Eliot once wrote: ‘Oxford is very pretty, but I don’t like to be dead’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

No comments: