“…He talks like they do in minstrel shows.”
“Say,” the third said. “Aint you afraid he’ll hit you?”
“You said he talks like a colored man.”
—William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
In times like ours, revisiting a poem as rich and as notoriously difficult as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land yields results whose contemporary resonances are valuable for the insight they provide into our own cultural and political moment.
The Waste Land, begun in 1914—the year T.S. Eliot sailed for Europe and eventually settled in London for good, and the year, of course, Gavrilo Princip’s killing of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg, in Sarajevo raised the curtain on the First World War (which, being a European war, had long been in rehearsal)—and completed in 1922, during and shortly after Eliot’s stay at a sanatorium in Lausanne, to which he had repaired in order to undergo treatment for a mental collapse suffered in London, has long been recognized as pronouncedly theatrical, even if it has not been thought of as primarily so. 
In Axel’s Castle, which appeared in 1931, Edmund Wilson wrote of the “essentially dramatic character of [Eliot’s] imagination,” noting in particular that The Waste Land “owes a large part of its power to its dramatic character, which makes it peculiarly effective read aloud.”  More recently, Craig Raine’s small 2006 introductory volume on Eliot in Oxford University Press’ Legacies and Lives series refers to The Waste Land as “Eliot’s greatest drama” —this in spite of the fact that Eliot wrote six (or, if you count the two fragments that constitute Sweeney Agonistes, seven) verse dramas specifically for the stage. Calvin Bedient’s 1987 He Do the Police in Different Voices, a study named after Eliot’s working title (itself taken from a line in Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend), makes repeated use of the term “theatre (in the nonpejorative sense)” to make its case that “all the voices in the poem are the performances of a single protagonist…performances of a distinctly theatrical kind.” 
“All of the voices of the poem,” of course, include Eliot’s numerous appropriations and quasi-appropriations. As Wilson notes:
Eliot had, in his early poetry, introduced phrases from Shakespeare and Blake for purposes of ironic effect. He has always, furthermore, been addicted to prefacing his poems with quotations and echoing passages from other poets. But now, in “The Waste Land,” he carries this tendency to what one must suppose its extreme possible limit: here, in a poem of only four hundred and three lines (to which are added, however, seven pages of notes), he manages to include at least thirty-five different writers (some of them, such as Shakespeare and Dante, laid under contribution several times)—as well as several popular songs; and to introduce passages in six foreign languages, including Sanskrit. And we must also take into consideration that the idea of the literary medley itself seems to have been borrowed from still another writer, [Ezra] Pound. We are always being dismayed, in our general reading, to discover that lines among those which we had believed to represent Eliot’s residuum of original invention had been taken over or adapted from other writers… . Yet Eliot manages to be most effective precisely—in “The Waste Land”—where he might be expected to be least original—he succeeds in conveying his meaning, in communicating his emotions, in spite of all his learned or mysterious allusions, whether we understand them or not. 
Of course, meaning and emotion are famously diffuse, or, at the very least, knotty entities when it comes to Eliot, especially in the case of The Waste Land. This the man, after all, who devised a complex (and gimmicky) contraption he termed the “objective correlative,” which he posited as a sort of algorithm by which a poet’s personal emotions might be translated into the impersonal emotions of a poem, and who, elsewhere in his critical essays, advocated for the extinguishing of the poet’s individual personality for the purposes of ensuring that the work of “the individual talent,” rather than being an unfettered expression of self in the Romantic tradition, would instead—if good enough—simply be the latest contribution to long the line of tradition which preceded him (knowledge of such tradition to be “acquired [only] through great effort”).  Still, Eliot’s cloaks of red herrings and smokescreens in his propaganda for his own poetry aren’t to be taken all that seriously as a means of getting to the bottom of that same poetry, and Wilson’s words above are persuasively illuminating, even if Edward Said’s claim that “Eliot’s Wasteland [sic] complete with notes…is a collection of voices repeating and varying and mimicking one another and literature generally”  is equally persuasive and illuminating. Said’s words come from his first book, Beginnings, in which he argues that adjacency is a more useful method for looking at modernist texts than is linearity of tradition (the “dynastic relationship”)—in other words, modernist works are best looked at as standing beside, and in relation, to all other literary works, rather than deriving in linear fashion from, and being the next step in, “the tradition.” This a synchronic (everything at once) rather than a diachronic (one followed by another followed by another) approach (which itself, the diachronic approach utilized by Eliot in his criticism, should be seen in contradistinction to his use of the synchronic approach—that is, the presence of all of literary history at once—in a creative work like The Waste Land.)
Said and Wilson can be seen, in a certain fashion, to represent two poles of ways of thinking about The Waste Land: on the one hand, Wilson offers a vision in which the poem forms a whole in which “meaning” and “emotion” can be understood if not necessarily entirely grasped in all of their permutations; Said, on the other hand, seems to suggest that “the collection of voices mimicking one another and literature generally,” creates a situation in which the words of Anthony Uhlmann—speaking about the “break in relation of relationships” in the works of Samuel Beckett—can be applied to the voices and numerous appropriations and allusions in The Waste Land:
They might be thought to hide or block things from the picture whose absence creates tension, which in turn can unleash energy. That is, they never clearly tell us exactly what they mean, and seem unable, to do this. There is always an excess of possible meanings attributable to them. 
And yet these two poles are, paradoxically, not irreconcilable; that is, there is a way to see The Waste Land as both a collection of voices and individual lines and words spoken by these voices whose possible meanings are nearly, or entirely, inexhaustible— owing to their allusiveness, direct citation, and often biblically inflected character —and as a work whose overall structure, or structuration, forms a powerful, meaningful, emotional, and coherent whole.
A few examples of how The Waste Land operates as a seemingly inexhaustible generator of meanings are in order here, before proceeding to the powerful way in which these meanings are contained within a larger dramatic structure (in the way, for example, and to make use of a scientific metaphor for very unscientific purposes, that the incessantly random movement of molecules in liquid in Brownian motion is ultimately contained within boundaries of some sort—first within the liquid itself, and second within a larger vessel: say, a bottle or a jar or an ocean’s limits).
Take the line “To Carthage then I came,” which is a direct quotation from St. Augustine’s Confessions, and which therefore carries the weight of any number of possible meanings deriving from the context in which Augustine wrote the line, or from some larger meaning, or meanings, Eliot sees inhering in the entirety of the Confessions, and the context, to the extent that there is only one (or two or three or four) to be identified, in which Eliot deploys the line. But the line, though Augustine’s, is also undeniably evocative, as John T. Mayer notes, of Aeneas’ stop in Carthage on his journey from the ruined Troy to the site where he would found Rome in Virgil’s Aeneid.  And so meanings deriving from the Carthaginian Dido and Aeneas episode in the Aeneid, or, again, meanings arising out of the entirety of the Aeneid, placed within the context of The Waste Land, such, again, as something stable and reasonably identifiable called “the context of The Waste Land” exists, are available to Eliot’s readers. But the many possible meanings that the quotation and evocation produce are joined by potential meanings that arise from a further potential evocation (which is not the final possible evocation, of course): “To Carthage then I came” might make a reader think of the Punic Wars, between Rome and Carthage, and their final resolution, when Rome came to Carthage and laid it waste, salting its soil,  and realizing the desire of Cato the Elder. “Whenever his opinion was called on any subject [in the Roman Senate], he invariably concluded with the words, “and furthermore it is my opinion that Carthage must be destroyed!” 
Or take the phrase “Unreal City” which appears throughout the poem. Bedient sees in this appellation a reference to Augustine’s sojourn in Carthage where he, Augustine, feels, and sees Carthage itself as, disconnected from God, thus rendering the city “Unreal” because spiritually alienated. Raine points not to Augustine but to Eastern religion, seeing the “Unreal City” as “ow[ing] a great deal to Buddhist ideas of maya or illusion.” 
Of course, there is a way in which the Unreal City—which is, after all, postwar London—is unreal in a sense more psychological than spiritual. Here Bedient is again useful, for, although his vision of the “Unreal city” also points to spiritual abjection, his insight into the psychology of Part I of The Waste Land provides a more secular way in which the entirety of the poem might be considered:
[The protagonist] comes further and further into voice, till voice itself grows shrill and he is breathing into the face of the reader his unbearable anxiety. 
Extending this claim to the entirety of the poem, and to its protagonist, allows for the possibility of thinking about the “Unreal City” in terms of the dissociation experienced by the sufferer of a full-blown panic attack. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, panic disorder, which is one of the forms anxiety disorder takes,
is characterized by sudden attacks of terror, usually accompanied by a pounding heart, sweatiness, weakness, faintness, or dizziness. During these attacks, people with panic disorder may flush or feel chilled; their hands may tingle or feel numb; and they may experience nausea, chest pain, or smothering sensations. Panic attacks usually produce a sense of unreality, a fear of impending doom, or a fear of losing control.
A fear of one’s own unexplained physical symptoms is also a symptom of panic disorder. People having panic attacks sometimes believe they are having heart attacks, losing their minds, or on the verge of death. They can’t predict when or where an attack will occur, and between episodes many worry intensely and dread the next attack. 
This dovetails with biographical insight which also produces worthwhile interpretive possibilities vis-à-vis anxiety and Eliot’s surreal wartime experiences.
If we cannot, because of fear of anachronistic labels, definitively say that Eliot suffered from panic attacks (though he most certainly seems to have suffered their symptoms), we can say he suffered from what used to be called “nerves” (it was a mental collapse, after all, which sent him to Lausanne), and so he would therefore have had knowledge of the dissociation that often accompanies full-blown panic attacks:
[In 1921, a]fter his mother left, Eliot collapsed. ‘I really feel very shaky’, he wrote to [Richard] Aldington, ‘and seem to have gone down rapidly since my family left.’ He felt as though he might lose self-control, but it was ‘impossible to describe these feelings even if one wants to’. When overstrained, he said, he used to suffer from a vague but acute sense of horror and apprehension. Clarence Gate Gardens without his family seemed no home, and his brother’s departure seemed ‘as unreal as death’. 
Further, as the above passage makes clear, Eliot’s use of the term “unreal” was not limited to his poetry. Consider too this passage from a 1917 letter to his father:
To me all this war enthusiasm seems a bit unreal, because of the mixture of motives. But I see war partly through the eyes of men who have been and returned, and who view it, even when convinced of the rightness of the cause, in a different way: as something very sordid and disagreeable… . 
Or this letter from the same year to his cousin:
If I have not seen the battle field, I have seen other strange things, and I have signed a cheque for two hundred pounds while bombs fell about me. I have dined with a princess and a man who expected two years hard labour; and it seems like a dream. 
This biographical evidence is put forward not to produce a potentially biographical meaning (although one could certainly follow this strand into a less interesting—because more limiting—but still somewhat illuminating potential interpretation of the meaning of “Unreal City”) but to show that Eliot’s experiences with anxiety and the surreality of a city during wartime would likely render him able to create meaning which had its roots in the biographical but was (and is) not limited to the biographical. Evidence from Eliot’s wife suggests the depth of these experiences: Vivien Eliot (whom he married in 1915) wrote of his wartime psychological troubles in a 1917 letter to her mother-in-law in America:
You, over there, do not realize the bad and dreadful effect war has on the character of young men (and old men), if they are nervous and highly strung (as Tom is…), they become quite changed. A sort of desperation, and demoralization of their minds, brains, and character. I have seen it so, so often. It is one of the most dreadful things. But how can they help it? 
And so, just as Eliot’s familiarity with the dissociation that comes with a panic attack would likely enable him to generalize to the anxious protagonist (whose anxious symptoms, in extremis, would be no different than Eliot’s symptoms, in extremis, because there aren’t that many symptomatic and experiential options to people suffering from anxiety, in extremis [Eliot might have written “Throat-Tightening City” or “Shortness of Breath City” or “Rapid Heart Rate and Sweats City” and, while less poetic, these lines would have been easily generalizable to the anxious protagonist]), Eliot’s mental experiences in a city at war and under bombardment would likely have enabled him to generalize these experiences in ways that would be familiar to any number of residents of cities which had come under bombardment, or under siege, from time immemorial (even if actual aerial combat did not begin until World War I). Certainly the twentieth century and early twenty-first century have produced a number of “Unreal Cities”: London, Dresden, Paris, Saigon, Hanoi, Tokyo, Warsaw, Downtown Manhattan, Baghdad, and so on, many denizens of which no doubt experienced feelings whose baseline or starting point must have been unreality and/or surreality. (At one point in the poem’s fifth part, Eliot lists a series of famous besieged and/or sacked cities from history:
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Further, “The City,” Lawrence Rainey notes, “is the name for the financial district…in London, located just beyond the north end of London Bridge.” And “Eliot’s note [at line 60, where ‘Unreal City’ first appears] invokes a poem by Charles Baudelaire…which recounts a ghostly encounter in the street that sets the pattern for the incident [that closes the first part of the poem.]” 
The cumulative point of all of this is to demonstrate that, in The Waste Land, a phrase as simple as “Unreal City” too has many possible, and always proliferating, meanings, which can be attached to it (as does, I might add, the single word “archduke” in the line “And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s,” which, as a result of its contexts, is a not-so-innocent singleword, evoking, as even a hasty consideration suggests, at least five possible immediate meanings: a specific woman’s youth [in the context of the words spoken by her individual voice], the particular historical era of that woman’s youth [in the context of the present day of 1922], the passing of that same woman’s youth [in the context of her individual voice], the passing of the historical era of her youth [in the context of the present—1922—reality of the passing of European aristocracies], and the assassination of Ferdinand and Sophie referred to above [in the context of the war—with its precipitating cause—just endured]).
The final Gordian Knot of possible meanings (which, unlike the Gordian Knot of mythology, resists solution and instead produces only more entangling loops, as do most of the individual Gordian Knots of The Waste Land) that I will examine here arises out of these lines:
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl—.”
—Yet when we came back, late from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, And I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Öd’ und leer das Meer.
Vis-à-vis the meaning of the hyacinth itself, Rainey notes:
In Greek myth Hyacinth was a beloved companion of Apollo. When the two engaged in a discus-throwing contest, Apollo’s discus inadvertently killed his friend. Where drops of Hyacinth’s blood touched the ground, a purple flower miraculously arose, resembling a lily. Apollo inscribed his grief upon the flower, which was said to have marks which looked like the letters AI, ancient Greek for a cry of woe. 
“Öd’ und leer das Meer” is, as Eliot and Rainey both note, from Act III, scene i, verse 24 of Tristan und Isolde by Richard Wagner:
Tristan is lying grievously wounded outside Kareol, his castle in Brittany, tended by his companion Kurwenal. He will die unless Isolde can come and cure him with her magic arts. Tristan wakes from his delirium; he is clinging to life only so that he can find Isolde and take her with him into the realm of night. For a moment he thinks that he sees Isolde’s ship approaching; but a shepherd who is watching with him pipes a sad tune: “Desolate and empty the sea.” 
“Od’ und leer das Meer” punctuates the hyacinth episode which is preceded, even introduced, by other lines from Tristan und Isolde (Frisch weht der Wind / Der Heimat zu, Mein Irisch Kind, Wo weilest du? which Rainey translates as “Fresh blows the wind / to the homeland; / my Irish child, /Where are you tarrying?”). 
Rainey’s annotation on the hyacinth above (along with the placement, by Eliot, of the hyacinth episode between the two Tristan und Isolde passages) seems to point towards the loss, through tragedy, of one dearly loved. But, too, to the loss of love generally. For, compare the lines of Eliot’s most recently cited above with these lines seemingly spoken by a wife to her husband later in the poem:
“My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak? Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”
So, perhaps in the hyacinth episode Eliot is hinting at lost love, or stale or disconnected love (as the passage just adduced shows that he does elsewhere in the poem), or the tragic loss of a loved one (although the homoerotically charged story of the death of Hyacinth by a discus, presumably to the head, has an element of over-the-top, Jean Cocteau-like, beautiful camp to it, too).
In any case, it’s about love of some sort, we know that at least. But really we don’t, because perhaps Eliot, with the image of the hyacinth, is representing, as Northrop Frye suggests, “god’s blood.” Why? Because:
Easter [which traditionally takes place in April, the “cruellest month” according to the opening of The Waste Land] represents the end of a long period of religious symbolism in which a “dying god,” a spirit representing the fertility of nature, was thought to die and rise again, usually in a three-day festival. The information about the cults of Adonis, Attis, Osiris and others collected in Frazer’s Golden Bough is referred to by Eliot in the notes. In these rites a red or purple flower was associated with the god’s blood: this appears in the hyacinths of The Waste Land and perhaps the “belladonna” [in the pack of Tarot cards]… . 
Or perhaps the hyacinth girl and the Hyacinth garden have meaning because, as Bedient rather opaquely puts it:
…[the protagonist’s] conscious mind, still that of a young man courting the hyacinth girl, recalls an incident a year in the past, the instant when, outside the Hyacinth garden, the supernatural seed fell into the soil of his soul, the moment when abjection was made speechless in him by a loving call from the infinitely eloquent Eternal Silence. 
Or another (but, again, by no means final) possibility is that the hyacinth girl has very personal meanings for Eliot deriving from Eliot’s relationship with Jean Verdenal, with whom some speculate Eliot engaged in a homosexual relationship in Paris while Eliot was there in 1910 and 1911. (Jean Verdenal, killed in World War I, is the man to whom Eliot dedicated The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “For Jean Verdenal, 1889-1915, mort aux Dardanelles”)
James E. Miller, Jr., for one, strongly implies that not only did Eliot and Verdenal have a homosexual relationship of some sort, but that close inspection of what Miller is able to reconstruct of Eliot’s relationship and outings (no pun intended) with Verdenal not only sheds light on the hyacinth garden episode, but also allows us to “reach the deepest levels of the poems origins, perhaps, and come face to face with ‘Jean Verdenal (1889-1915), mort aux Dardanelles[.]’” 
But just who was Verdenal? Miller notes that Eliot met Verdenal “at the Left-Bank Casaubon at 151 bis rue St. Jacques, near the Sorbonne” where both were tenants. Whether or not one buys what Miller is selling vis-à-vis Eliot and Verdenal and The Waste Land, he is worth quoting at length on Verdenal’s possible significance:
Verdenal was both attractive and charming (his picture appears in volume I of The Letters of T.S. Eliot), and he became the focal point of all the most profound memories Eliot carried away with him from Paris after his one-year stay. …
Theirs was an encounter that changed Eliot’s life and left a stamp on him and on both his prose and poetry…over his lifetime. 
After rehearsing some basic information on Verdenal that Miller was able to glean from George Watson’s 1996 article (entitled, rather unintentionally humorously, “Jean Verdenal: T.S. Eliot’s French Friend”)—namely, that Verdenal was a medical student, had right-wing political tendencies, was killed on May 2, 1915 while attending to a wounded soldier at the battle of Gallipoli ), was introverted as a child, and was deeply interested in literature—Miller goes on to write:
The only other information about Eliot’s friend and the close and complex nature of their relationship, except for the scattered references to Verdenal that Eliot made in a few of his letters to his mother and friends, is contained in a handful of letters written by Verdenal to Eliot.
Verdenal’s…letter…dated April 22, 1912…is perhaps the emotional climax in the correspondence: it conjures up vividly the happy time the year before when the two friends were together. Does the month of April, the beginning of spring, have a special significance for Verdenal? His opening paragraph reads: “My dear friend, a persistent blaze of spring sunshine prompted me to go out into the woods today. The little boat carried me gently to Saint Cloud between translucent green rows of tender young leaves drenched in light. …” We do not find out until paragraph two what seems to have been the principal determinant of Verdenal’s itinerary on this April day: “So, this evening, when I got back, I thought of writing to you, because you were especially called to mind by the contact with a landscape we appreciated together” (LTSE1, 34). A day in April, a visit to Saint Cloud to see alone what Verdenal and Eliot had seen together the year before, witnessing again that “explosion of spring” in the seemingly instantaneous appearance of a multitude of flowers of every species.
The Seine meanders through some of the most beautiful garden and park country in France to St. Cloud, a town on the left bank of the Seine with the Bois de Boulogne across on the right bank. “Picturesquely built on a hill-slope, St. Cloud overlooks the river, the Bois de Boulogne and Paris; and, lying amid the foliage of its magnificent park and numerous villa gardens, it is one of the favorite resorts of the Parisians. […] This contemporaneous description comes from the 11th edition of the Encyclopeadia Britannica, published in 1911, and describes what Eliot and Verdenal actually saw on their trip to St. Cloud (EB, vol. 23, p. 1019). What the description does not say is that the “villa gardens” are a multitude of flower gardens, which could have conceivably contained the lilac and the hyacinth.
[W]e might concentrate on the hyacinth garden episode as written originally in the manuscript: “You gave me hyacinths first a year ago; / ‘They called me the hyacinth girl.’ / —Yet when we came back , late, from the hyacinth garden, / Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not / Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither / Living nor dead, and I knew nothing, / Looking into the heart of light, the silence” (WLF, 7). No doubt when Eliot and Verdenal went to St. Cloud in April 1911, they came back late in the day to Paris. Did Verdenal pick the hyacinths at St. Cloud to give to Eliot? And when we turn in the Waste Land manuscripts to Part II (“A Game of Chess”), lines 49-50, we find: “I remember / The hyacinth garden. Those are pearls that were his eyes, yes!” (19). Here we find the garden linked to the “drowned Phoenician sailor” by a key line first from Madame Sosostris, the “famous clairvoyante” in the poem’s opening, referring to Phlebas in Part IV. Have we reached the deepest levels of the poem’s origins, perhaps, and come face to face with “Jean Verdenal (1889-1915), mort aux Dardanelles?” 
But really, this sort of biographical material is not so important for the poem’s effect except to the extent that it provides insight into attitudes Eliot might have adopted and put into The Waste Land as a result of these experiences. Or, to put it another way, the poem (like any work of art) has its effect and meaning outside of whatever it might personally mean for the artist who created it. And so as interesting (and, in some ways cheeky, humorous, and/or moving) as it is to think about Jean Verdenal as the hyacinth girl, we really don’t know all that much more about the poem if it turns out that Verdenal was the hyacinth girl, or if Eliot and Verdenal had a consummated homosexual relationship (“The awful daring of a moment’s surrender”?), or if Verdenal and Eliot had an unconsummated “affinity of hearts,” to use Robert Sencourt’s phrase,  or if Verdenal was romantically in love with Eliot and Eliot thought of Verdenal as a friend, or if Eliot was romantically in love with Verdenal but Verdenal thought of Eliot only as a friend, or if both loved each other, but only as friends with no romantic interest in each other, or if neither loved the other, though they were as close as friends can be without loving one another.
What is important about all of this, as the dedication of Prufrock makes clear, is that Eliot’s friend Verdenal’s death affected Eliot very deeply—and what is important about Verdenal’s death was that it was a First World War death. Mort aux Dardanelles. And what is important about Verdenal’s death being a First World War death is that it was, almost by definition, unnecessary, and would, one assumes, further embitter Eliot against the war he was enduring with limited success in London. 
By adducing these few several lines and passages from The Waste Land almost at random, I have been trying to establish the simple point that all of the lines, and many individual words, of Eliot’s poem seem to bleed out into countless interpretive possibilities. This does not, however, and as I have suggested above, preclude their working together to form something whole: what I will suggest is a sort of grotesque drama of profound meaning. And so, though, as Lyndall Gordon points out, “It was fashionable for long stretches of the twentieth century to read the poem as an intellectual game for scholars who could identify allusions,”  this is, in fact, the worst way to look at the poem. In 1956, some thirty-four years after the poem was published, Eliot himself lamented “My notes stimulated the wrong kind of interest among the seekers of sources. It was just, no doubt, that I should pay my tribute to Miss Jessie Weston; but I regret having sent so many enquirers off on a wild goose chase after Tarot Cards and the Holy Grail.”  Indeed, it is far more productive to think of The Waste Land as an affecting whole, both analogous to a piece of music that is emotionally coherent, or understandable, but vague in terms of definitive “meaning,” and not analogous to a piece of music because the elusiveness and vagueness of The Waste Land’s meanings do not render it too dull, as an instrument, to inflict its knife wounds upon its targets. To the extent that the musical metaphor is useful, however, Shostakovich’s thinly veiled works of sarcasm and sorrow, written under a regime he was made to serve, might be the most apposite aesthetic analogies. But, too, W.T. Stead’s description of Tolstoy’s Resurrection as a “shrapnel-shell of a novel” where “[t]he novel is but the containing case” is also, mutatis mutandis, a useful nonmusical metaphor. 
In any case, I myself do not mean here to posit one definitive—and thus limiting—meaning, but only to propose that the way in which Eliot arranged the fragments (“shored against [his] ruin”) of his text in the politico-historical context in which it was composed not only allows for the loose but coherent meaning I will present here, but, in fact, suggests it.
And, in point of fact, many of The Waste Land’s earliest readers interpreted the poem not as a difficult maze of endless, obscure, and abstruse allusions, but as a projection of their own disillusionment in the aftermath of the Great War. Eliot, always uncomfortable with, and eager to disown, The Waste Land—after it was written, that is—claimed not to have done any such thing.
But Eliot was ever outwardly timid, and so, even though, as Frank Kermode notes, Eliot had once written, in “Shakespeare and the Stoic Philosophy of Seneca,” that “the great poet…’writes his time’ and not himself,”
Eliot’s words in ‘Thoughts After Lambeth’ may seem to suggest that he was not ‘writing his time’, [but] at any rate his time thought he was: ‘when I wrote a poem called The Waste Land some of the more approving critics said that I had expressed the “disillusionment of a generation”, which is nonsense. I may have expressed for them their own illusions of being disillusioned, but that did not form part of my intention.” (Selected Essays, 368.) Usually he disavowed the author’s intentional control, as in his argument with [I.A.] Richards in The Use of Poetry. Of course to express unintentionally an illusion of being disillusioned may be to ‘write one’s time.’ 
Eliot’s disavowal of his poem in a way which seems to be, as Kermode notes, inconsistent with Eliot’s own thinking shows the grain of salt which we should take other remarks Eliot made in an effort to distance himself from its power: “to me it was only the relief of a personal piece of and wholly insignificant grouse against life…just a piece of rhythmical grumbling.” 
Pursuing this point further, consider Eliot’s own words on Alfred Lord Tennyson, which might easily have been written about Eliot himself:
Tennyson is not only a minor Virgil, he is also with Virgil as Dante saw him, a Virgil among the shades, the saddest of all English poets, among the Great in Limbo, the most instinctive rebel against the society in which he was the most perfect conformist. 
Eliot was, par excellence, and almost comically, the most perfect conformist, especially after his conversion to Anglicanism and his openly proclaimed adherence to “a general point of view [which] may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and anglo-catholic in religion.”  (Verdenal, not incidentally, was a Royalist.) Virginia Woolf once mocked Eliot’s stuffy demeanor in a letter to her brother-in-law in which she extended an invitation to lunch: “Eliot will be there in a four-piece suit.”  And Eliot’s later fashioning himself as the professorly and fastidious imparter of culture perhaps rightfully earned him the epithet “Tiresome Tom” from Theodore Roethke. 
But he was most certainly, at the time of the composition of The Waste Land, also a rebel, and an avant-garde one at that. “My friend, blood shaking my heart / The awful daring of a moment’s surrender” may, to the extent that we read it biographically, have less to do with Verdenal, as Miller suggests, and more to do with the cautious rebel-conformist Eliot’s grim representation of “the mind of Europe”  in The Waste Land.
In the “A Jazz-Banjourne” chapter of his 2003 book, T.S. Eliot and the Cultural Divide, David Chinitz examines Eliot’s identification with African Americans—or, at the very least, African-American popular culture. “Though often [only] vaguely apprehended,” Chinitz writes that “the conviction that Eliot’s work was, somehow, fundamentally connected with jazz in particular has been held with assurance, even taken for granted, by critics since the earliest years of Eliot’s career.” Further, “[Eliot] chose to depict himself as a kind of literary organ-grinder: a rude musician, inelegant, impoverished, unrefined, and American migrant worker in the rich but overcultivated aesthetic fields of the Old World.” 
Chinitz’ point is important, and his argument is worth quoting at length:
[In a 1919 letter to Mary Hutchinson, Eliot writes]: “I am glad to hear that you enjoyed yourself and didn’t get tired… . But it is a jazz-banjourne that I should bring, not a lute“ (Letters 357). While it is impossible to reconstruct the full context of this enigmatic remark, it appears that Hutchinson, addressing Eliot as a troubadour (i.e., poet), had invited him and his “lute” to a social occasion. … What is clear…is the denial in Eliot’s reply that he is the sort of poet who sings to a classic lute; it is rather the “jazz-banjourne” that suits him. Correcting his friend’s characterization of his poetry, Eliot bases himself in America rather than Europe, in the contemporary rather than the classical, and in the “jazz movement” of modernism rather than the Great Tradition.
And since the banjo was still best known as a fixture in the minstrel show, Eliot’s comment effectively cast him as a blackface comic—or even as the plantation “darky” such a comic would play. By consigning his talent to the banjo, Eliot is forgoing any claim to the bardic mantle in which Mrs. Hutchinson’s reference to the lute would wrap him. He is no troubadour, but merely, as he would describe himself to Herbert Read in 1928, a “southern boy with a nigger drawl” (qtd. in Read 15).
There is…[a] sense in which Eliot’s banjourne signifies a kind of modernist bravado. As Michael North has shown, Eliot and Pound’s assumption of African-American “trickster” personae (“Old Possum” and “Brer Rabbit”) in their correspondence, together with their appropriation of black dialect, functioned as a code, a “sign of their collaboration against the London literary establishment and the literature it produced” (Dialect 77). By “blacking up” in their communication with each other, the poets affirmed their mutual shame and pride in being American “savages” in exile. But in claiming to play the banjorine…Eliot is not only blacking up: he is also concealing his strength from his British correspondent while pretending to weakness. This is, of course, precisely the strategy of the trickster in African-American folklore, and in the enormously popular semi-authentic tales of Uncle Remus which functioned as the sourcebook in what North calls their “racial masquerade.” Meanwhile, by wearing blackface, Eliot again associates himself with the popular culture that was America’s most important export—for the African-American was always at the center of its development. 
Of what relevance is all of this to The Waste Land? Knowing now all of what I have set out above, are we simply locked into a room with a lot of loose ends of potential meaning? Have we “heard the key / Turn in the door once and turn once only”?
No, because Tiresias unlocks this door. I follow Bedient in believing that The Waste Land has a single protagonist, but whereas Bedient does not think this protagonist is either Tiresias or Eliot himself, but instead a nameless stand-in for Eliot, I believe that the protagonist is Tiresias, involved in a sort of combination melodrama, minstrel show, music-hall performance, and mock Greek tragedy ritualistically offered up to Western civilization in the wake of that same civilization’s mounting of its own most recent, groundbreaking mega-production: The Great War.
Tiresias’ appearance at line 218 (that is, at the center, or middle) of The Waste Land is elucidated in Eliot’s corresponding note:
Tiresias, although a mere spectator and not indeed a “character,” is yet the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest. …What Tiresias sees, in fact, is the substance of the poem. 
There is one obvious, literal sense in which Tiresias’ seeing anything is ironic, as he comes down to Eliot, and to us, from Greek mythology as a man blinded, and made half woman, by Hera for suggesting that women enjoy sex more than men. But too, as Bedient notes:
[I]n a rival version of the legend, Tiresias is blinded by Athena as punishment for watching her bathe… . Eliot’s Tiresias is the type of Oedipal voyeur theatrically developed into a sort of sour impresario of squalid sex scenes, brief fires of lust, poker and ash. 
(Tiresias as gossiping [because sharing this squalor with his audience, whose business it is not] peeping Tom [pun intended], ideas to which I return below.)
But beyond this literal irony, there is another irony, for Tiresias is also, of course, a prophet (this, the power of prophesy, the compensatory gift he received from Zeus for his blinding), and so, following the logic of Eliot’s note, the “substance” of The Waste Land is one of the seer Tiresias’ prophetic visions—and this is the second irony, beyond the first, for The Waste Land presents to its audience as a poetic reification of the present day. What Tiresias “sees,” then, is not a prophetic vision of the future: he is not, to take some examples from his resume, warning Oedipus into not looking too closely into who killed Laius (Oedipus’ father, whom Oedipus unwittingly killed); or telling Pentheus that only bad things will come of denouncing Dionysus,  or telling Creon he ought to just let Antigone bury Polynices lest the Gods take vengeance on him for his pride. No, instead he is bringing his powers to bear in anomalous, out-of-character fashion—rather than prophesying before the fact, and thus providing a warning to his auditors about the potential consequences of a course of action, he is prophesying the fact (or, perhaps, after the fact). That is, he is sharing his vision of the actual consequences of a course of action, but these consequences are ostensibly already known, and being endured, by the very people to whom he is addressing his “prophesy.” He is a sort of solemn Cassandra, calmly describing the results of the sack of Troy, rather than worrying about warning against allowing the Trojan Horse within Ilium’s walls.
Now, Tiresias’ “prophesy of the present” does provide something to a contemporary audience already well-situated in modern society, and that is a vision that is a more complete, more totalizing synthesis of the panoramic collection of elements The Waste Land comprises, and which not every denizen of the waste land may be privy to. For someone living in the waste land may know that “London bridge is falling down falling down falling down,” but may not know that “if Albert makes off, it won’t be for lack of telling.” That is, the kaleidoscopic and, in some ways, apocalyptic (but again, apocalypse as present, not apocalypse as prophesied) vision, reminiscent in some ways of the Book of Revelation (and, as has already been noted, of the Bible in general), though much funnier—in the many senses of this term—than the Book of Revelation (and the Bible in general), is, if not a wholly synthesized and complete representation of the waste land,  an awfully complete vision of the waste land presented to its dwellers by Tiresias. But one wonders how much all this needs to be known, that is, how much of Tiresias’ vision is what at first glance appears to be high-style lamentation of the turn to which things have come in the waste land, and how much is sordid gossip conveyed in the same, straight-faced, high style. One wonders further, beyond the presentation of all of these elements, just how appropriate (or fitting) it is for a Theban prophet to be dropping the dime on all this. Finally, one wonders if the presentation of all of these elements, be they an appropriate occupation for a Theban prophet or not, can be the primary reason behind Tiresias’, of all people’s, presence.
I don’t think it is.
What is Tiresias doing here, then? Who invited him? And, more importantly, who is this Tiresias?
Rainey includes this passage in his own annotation to Tireasias’ entrance at line 218:
Tiresias…figures prominently in Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex, in which he recognizes that the curse on Thebes has come about because Oedipus has unknowingly committed incest with his mother Jocasta and killed his father [Laius]. Thebes has been turned into a waste land, its land and people infertile. 
This is true, of course, and the Tiresias of Oedipus Rex is the most famous Tiresias of the extant Greek tragedies, and so it is not unreasonable to look for parallels between the sin that has led to the contemporary waste land of London (London a stand in for all of Western civilization), and that which has led to the Thebes that first greets the audience of Sophocles’ play. But this particular correspondence, to the extent that a particular analog exists, is not especially adequate. After all, the sin that Oedipus committed was visited upon him in the form of an inexorable fate he could not change. Thebes was turned into a waste land because of his sin, but his sin was more or less inevitable. It was fated. Oedipus’ real sin was his fulfilling the fate he was doomed (fated) to fulfill.  The cause of the land being laid waste in the Thebes of Oedipus Rex is different from, and not really analogous (except in the most general, or superficial—to use this term nonpejoratively—sense) to what has caused the waste land of Eliot’s “Unreal city,” though its connotative resonance is present in Eliot’s waste land.
But there is someone else’s Thebes, and there is someone else’s Theban waste land. After Oedipus has blinded himself with his dead (by suicide) mother’s brooches, after he has turned his kingdom over to his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, and after Eteocles and Polynices unsurprisingly vie for sole control of the throne and end up killing each other in fraternal hand-to-hand combat, Jocasta’s brother (and Oedipus’ uncle) Creon comes to the throne, and Sophocles’ Antigone opens with a scene in which its audience learns that Creon has forbidden anyone, on pain of death, from burying Polynices, Antigone’s brother. Antigone is quickly sentenced to death for attempting to defy this order,  and as all hell breaks loose in Thebes, Tiresias appears on the scene and issues the following warning to Creon:
And you must realize
that you will not outlive many cycles more
of this swift sun before you give in exchange
one of your own loins bred, a corpse for a corpse,
for you have thrust one that belongs above
below the earth, and bitterly dishonored
a living soul by lodging her in the grave;
while one that belonged indeed to the underworld
gods you kept on this earth without due share
of rites of burial, of due funeral offerings,
a corpse unhallowed. With all of this you, Creon,
have nothing to do, nor have the gods above.
These acts of yours are violence, on your part.
And in requital the avenging Spirits
of Death itself and gods’ Furies shall
after your deeds, lie in ambush for you, and
in their hands you shall be taken cruelly.
Now look at this and tell me I was bribed
to say it! The delay will not be long
before the cries of mourning in your house,
of men and women. All the cities will stir in hatred
against you, because their sons in mangled shreds
received their burial rites from dogs, from wild beasts
or when some bird of the air bought a vile stink
to each city that contained the hearths of the dead.
These are the arrows that archer-like I launched—
you vexed me so to anger—at your heart.
You shall not escape their sting. … 
To the extent that Eliot relies on a particular manifestation of Tiresias, rather than a more generally abstract conception of the mythical Theban prophet (he does both, it seems to me, but he does more of the former than the latter), it is likely that after the battles of Verdun (over 300,000 dead)  and the Somme (over 300,000 dead),  and the death of Verdenal aux Dardanalles, this is the Tiresias he is employing and deploying.
Or perhaps it is better to say that this particular Tiresias is Eliot’s starting point, because, again, there is this difference: the horrific vision presented to Creon in Antigone is prophesy whereas the vision presented to the audience of The Waste Land is presented as a fait accompli (“I had not thought death had undone so many”). And so again, again again, why is Tiresias there at all? To tell the audience what it already knows? Simply, as I suggest as a partial answer above, to fill in the gaps and complete the dim picture for the audience already living in the waste land? Or is there more to his presence than the evident irony inhering in a seer prophesying the present?
Remembering all the while the words Sophocles’ Tiresias utters in Antigone, it is worth quoting at length, and comparing, what Eliot’s Tiresias (“the most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest”) says upon his actually materializing in “personage” beginning at line 218 of The Waste Land:
I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives,
Old man with wrinkled female breasts, can see
At the violet hour, the evening hour that strives
Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea,
The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins.
Out of the window, perilously spread
Her drying combinations touched by the sun’s last rays,
On the divan are piled (at night her bed)
Stockings, slippers, camisoles, and stays.
I Tiresias, old man with wrinkled dugs
Perceived the scene, and foretold the rest—
I too awaited the expected guest.
He, the young man carbuncular, arrives,
A small house agent’s clerk, with one bold stare,
One of the low on whom assurance sits
As a silk hat on a Bradford millionaire.
The time is now propitious, as he guesses,
The meal is ended, she is bored and tired,
Endeavors to engage her in caresses
Which still are unreproved, if undesired.
Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;
Exploring hands encounter no defense;
His vanity requires no response,
And makes a welcome of indifference.
(And I Tiresias have foresuffered all
Enacted on this same divan or bed;
I who have sat by Thebes below the wall
And walked among the lowest of the dead.)
Bestows one final patronizing kiss,
And gropes his way, finding the stairs unlit…
She turns and looks a moment in the glass,
Hardly aware of her departed lover;
Her brain allows one half-formed thought to pass:
“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over.”
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.
Whatever else is not clear at this point, what is clear is that there is something very funny about all this. And by funny I don’t just mean odd, unusual, or queer (although I do mean all these things), I also mean humorous. The scene actually described by Tiresias depicts the pathos (or perhaps bathos) of the commonplace: it is quotidian, an evocation of anomie and urban sexual malaise. The woman is “assault[ed]”, but there is no resistance; there is only bored “indifference.” When “that’s done” she’s “glad it’s over.” Here the day-to-day ennui and sexual opportunism of the waste land, yes, and perhaps it is also worth noting what Rainey points out in his annotations:
It is difficult today to appreciate just how innovative Eliot was in making a typist a protagonist in serious poem. Prior to The Waste Land typists had appeared almost exclusively in light verse, humorous or satirical in nature. 
Rainey’s noting of Eliot’s innovation is duly noted, but while The Waste Land is undoubtedly a “serious poem,” and not light verse, the typist-in-verse is not entirely freed from her roots because the passage in which Eliot’s typist appears is both humorous and satirical in nature.
What is humorous is not the pathos of the scene Tiresias describes, but the bathos of Tiresias being so ostentatiously on the scene, expecting, observing, and foretelling the outcome of so mundane an unpleasant (at least for one of the participants) interpersonal encounter about which there is nothing particularly tragic—at least not in the classical sense; there are, presumably, many such scenes taking place at the same time all over the city, or the waste land, just after “the violet hour.” But Tiresias is (just by chance?) describing this one, as if it is of particular moment. The humor and satire in this come not, or not only, from the mythic treatment of the mundane (Leopold Bloom as Odysseus, for example), or even from the employment of the synchronic frame Said argues Joyce utilizes (“Joyce’s choice of the Odyssey…does not say, ‘Look at what has happened to the noble Greek idea when it descends to Dublin 1904,’ but rather, “Odysseus is like Bloom, Telemachus like Daedalus, Ithaca like Eccles Street, Chapter 18 like Chapter 1, and so on.” ), but also, and again, from the actual presence of Tiresias on the scene. This is what Eliot has reduced the Theban prophet to, this is what the Theban prophet is up to these days: gossiping in high style about eighth-rate sexual encounters; repeating his name in vocative style three times while describing the boring, demeaning night of a female typist; bringing not just his own tragico-mythic (but now also melodramatic) “personage” (“I who have sat by Thebes below the wall / and walked among the lowest of the dead”), but also “Sappho’s lines” (“Homeward, and brings the sailor home from sea”) to bear upon such a scene.
Again, it is important to distinguish what Eliot does with Tiresias from the simply mythic treatment one finds, most famously, in Joyce. Characters in Ulysses allude to characters from The Odyssey, but characters from The Odyssey don’t themselves appear in Ulysses. And in The Waste Land, Tiresias doesn’t just appear, he is the “most important personage of the poem,” whose entry in an over-the-top materialization at line 218 satirizes both him and, by extension, the tradition from which he springs. Eliot’s Tiresias is the blind prophet of Thebes who has been both male and female, and is now some combination of both, but is mostly male, a condition which would not make him out of place as a freak-show attraction, though at present he is engaged as a melodramatic, gossiping, and rather camp performer in Eliot’s The Waste Land, which is not quite a freak show, where he puts his prophetic talents to use in order to see all and tell all that takes place in the present.
To call Tiresias a gossip is not as scandalous as it might seem, or, in the context of the larger scandal-within-the-context-of-Western-culture that is The Waste Land, it is par for the course. As much as I hate to resort to this rhetorical device, I here adduce a strict dictionary definition of the noun “gossip,” which the OED defines in one of its entries as: “A person, mostly a woman, of light and trifling character, esp. one who delights in idle talk; a newsmonger, a tattler.”  If nothing else, Eliot’s Tiresias is a newsmongering tattler, and there is a great deal of newsmongering, tattling, and idle talk in The Waste Land that Tieresias both indulges in and reports on. “‘What shall I do now? What shall I do? / ‘I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street / With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow? / What shall we ever do?’” Or “Trams and dusty trees. / Highbury bore me. Richmond and Kew / Undid me. By Richmond I raised my knees / Supine on the floor of a narrow canoe.” And as for camp, if one follows an American Heritage Dictionary (just for variety) definition of the term (“to give a deliberately artificial, vulgar, or banal quality to” ), one has little difficulty coming to the conclusion that Tiresias has been camped up for his turn in The Waste Land. Eliot himself was no stranger to camp in his personal life, and, as Bedient (who, again, sees a single protagonist in The Waste Land, but one who is neither Eliot nor Tiresias) notes:
The protagonist is on the one hand as serious as a church and on the other perfectly consistent with the Eliot who, so gossip said, showed up at dinner parties at the time with green powder on his face and a touch of lipstick on his mouth. 
There is, therefore, I say again, something funny going on here. Odd and funny. No longer performing the functions he did in Greek mythology, but relying on the audience’s knowledge of these functions in order to establish his authority in The Waste Land, an authority which is immediately undermined by his behavior in The Waste Land, behavior by which he quickly outs himself as being something quite different than simply the Tiresias of Greek mythology, Eliot’s Tiresias is, in short, a send-up of the mythical Tiresias, and this send-up is the key to the dramatic totality of The Waste Land.
Approaching The Waste Land as an essentially dramatic text calls for some rudimentary discussion of how drama functions, or, to put it another way, how this rudimentary drama functions within the context of basic dramatic conventions.
First, vis-à-vis the words in a dramatic text, Martin Esslin writes, “the meaning of a dramatic utterance must always be understood in the light of the character from whom it emanates.” Further, “in drama the meaning of the words derives ultimately from the situation from which they spring.”  While Esslin distinguishes between dramatic texts and literary texts (The Waste Land is both),  and, more importantly for the purposes at hand, between performed and read dramatic texts (The Waste Land is both), these statements can be productively applied to any analysis of The Waste Land’s words as they are uttered, or somehow produced, by Eliot’s Tiresias situated in a postwar waste land of Western civilization’s own making. That is, all of the words in The Waste Land can be seen as emanating from the “personage” of Eliot’s Tiresias in the context of the present day of Eliot’s poem’s composition (which, it almost goes without saying, is not far removed in spirit from our own present day).
Second, with respect to ritual in drama, “The development of a society and of culture,” Esslin writes, “is a process of constant differentiation: In ritual, we have the common root of music, dance, poetry, and drama… .” Further:
In ritual as in the theatre a human community directly experiences its own identity and reaffirms it. This makes theatre a pre-eminently political, because pre-eminently social, form of art. And it is of the very essence of ritual that it not only provides its congregation…with a collective experience on a high spiritual level, but also in very practical terms teaches them, or reminds them of, its codes of conduct, its rules of social existence. 
To the extent that The Waste Land itself lays claim to belonging to ritual (Eliot’s mention of Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance and Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough—this latter work’s treatment of “vegetation ceremonies” being its primary contribution—in the preface to his notes, and the use of the Indian material in “What the Thunder Said,” all seem to point in this direction—though these are all, to a greater or lesser extent, different shades of red herrings, as even Eliot himself, with his “wild goose chase” statement adduced above, makes clear), it is ritual best viewed in the same ironic light in which we ought to view Tiresias’ presence. For The Waste Land, qua ritual, indeed “teaches [its congregation], or reminds them, of its codes of conduct, its rules of social existence,” but these “codes” and “rules” might strike one walking the streets of post-Great War, bureaucratized, increasingly technocratic, and soulless  central London as worth questioning. An encounter in the “Unreal city” with an amputee or two back from the trenches  of the Continent might make these “codes” and “rules” seem downright problematic. These “codes” and “rules,” as any early reader of Eliot’s poem would have well know, had lately left millions dead. The ritual of The Waste Land,then, is another send-up, a send-up of traditional ritual, or of the way ritual traditionally functions. As Bedient writes, “for the most part, The Waste Land is far from being ritualistic. It is too much a poem against.”
What sort of drama, then, is The Waste Land? I have bandied about some terms: Melodrama. Mock Greek tragedy. Music-hall performance. Minstrel show. In order to form a more definitive outline of what I have been moving towards, I will quote at length from Charles Sanders’s 1980 essay, “The Waste Land: The Last Minstrel Show?”:
[T]he American minstrel show and the British music-hall, decaying almost simultaneously, form…a “familiar compound ghost” behind the many-textured areas of The Waste Land. …
It is not advisable, nor would it be desirable, to point to one showboat, minstrel, or music-hall presentation as a model for all others that fall under the species. They were variety shows incorporating individual acts of entertainment, ranging from the absurdly comic to the patently melodramatic to the occasionally tragic; and for their variety, their preposterous combinations, their rapid succession, they should have appealed to a generation obsessed by “fragmentation”… .
[Eliot’s] American interests were transferred to the British music-hall. There was the division of performance into its acts, announced orally or by placards allowing the audience to read. We may initially doubt of anyone’s ever reading on those placards titles such as “The Burial of the Dead,” “A Game of Chess,” “The Fire Sermon,” “Death by Water,” or “What the Thunder Said”, but, then, if we recall Eliot’s working title [He Do the Police in Different Voices] as well as “In the Cage” (his Jamesian original for “A Game of Chess”), and remove the titles from the now-familiar text, we may also restore some of their sensational or melodramatic luster.
…the production of a currently popular melodrama, comedy, or tragedy—in parts or in whole, seriously or in burlesque or parody—was a specialty of the floating or stationary theatres here under discussion. In The Waste Land, by allusion or direct quotation, we may take our choices of plays within the “play.” If none of them was “currently popular” in the strictest sense, we need simply recall that we are under the spell of an artist for whom all tradition is eternally present. 
Here I must intervene and say that while I think it is obvious that Eliot was well-versed in the Western canon, there is an unpalatable, ingenuous, reverential quaintness about the last cited clause above. There is something more sinister, or sardonically mischievous about the fact, that is, that:
…in the world of The Waste Land we hear, but to cite only a few, echoes of Wagner’s Tristan or a parody of Gotterdammerung lines from Middleton’s Women Beware Women, Webster’s White Devil, Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and especially The Tempest. 
More than merely being the productions of a spellbinding and erudite impresario “for whom all tradition is eternally present,” they function on two levels. The first is to construct immediate meaning in the poem, rendering scenes or hinting at particular evocations or acting as choral commentary on scenes already rendered. The second thing—and here is where the mischief is—they do is, within the context of the theatrical grotesquerie, within the context of the theatrical mélange of melodrama, burlesque, music-hall performance, and (most prominently) minstrel show in which they are deployed, and over which Eliot’s Tiresias presides, is immediately send themselves up, and, in so doing, send up Western culture writ large.
(An aside: The mention of Tristan und Isolde recalls an episode in Louis Buñuel’s 1930 film L’Age D’Or in which the same piece is used in a similar way. A bureaucrat of some sort is torn away from his l’amour fou assignation at a party in a private garden as an exploding humanitarian catastrophe which appears to be leading to societal collapse requires his attention on the telephone. He grudgingly leaves his lover for a moment—she, while waiting for him in their secluded spot in the garden, busies herself with sucking a statue of Apollo’s toe—screams into the phone that he’s busy, pulls the phone cord out of the wall, throws the phone down to the floor, returns, his passions only heightened, to his paramour, into whose embrace he falls once more as chaos runs unchecked outside on the city streets. All the while, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde plays at a garden concert in the background, creating incidental music for the two on-screen lovers that is immediately undercut by the context in which the viewer hears it.)
Sanders is back on the right track when he says that “Tiresias functions, in addition to what other duties Eliot has assigned him, as a grand comic conceit”:
To justify such a remark we must go back and digress once more. Before the American minstrel show had begun to journey beyond its national boundaries…it had crystallized certain conventions and rituals. …The performers were seated in a semicircle on stage, with a tambourine player (Mr. Tambo) on one end and a performer on bone castanets (Mr. Bones) at the other. At the center of the ring sat Mr. Interlocutor, central not only in physical presence, but in interchange of words and deeds as well. Mr. Interlocutor, usually a large man with a voice large enough to be heard above that of all others, introduced all members of the company. “Uniformed” to establish his authority and superior intelligence, or else pompously and sumptuously attired in contrast to his endmen, he was the “feeder” to them, the master of ceremonies who strove to “play it straight,” who was charged with the burden of carrying most of the show in his memory, whose task it was to make the show unfold smoothly and successfully, and yet, unfortunately, who had to suffer indignities of the “intellectual” beset and frequently bested by his sometimes half-wit, sometimes gyrating company. [O the moon shone bright on Mrs Porter / And on her daughter / They wash their feet with soda water.]
…more than a suggestion of the traditions of popular entertainment is (at least subconsciously) echoed…in the assemblage of Tiresias, who is both figuratively and literally Mr. Interlocutor. 
I add only this obvious detail: Mr. Interlocutor, the minstrel show’s central character, or “personage,” was in blackface, or was himself black (and, perhaps, also in blackface).
In the end, then, we have Eliot’s Tiresias who is not only transformed from his mythic roots into a camp, gossiping, melodramatic, bathetic performer of dubious gender—he’s also Mr. Interlocutor in blackface (or a black stage player whose performance’s starting point is a dubious representation of blackness), putting on his minstrel show with acts drawn from little bits of Western culture’s greatest hits.
The Waste Land, then, is a black send-up of European culture by a white American writer who himself has not only “blacked up” in order to, “archer-like,” hurl his arrows, but whose central character, Tiresias, it is not unreasonable to infer, appears in blackface (or is actually black) both as Mr. Interlocutor of minstrel show fame and as that famous trickster of African-American folklore, the signifying monkey (who, in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s definition, “dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language” and who “exists in…the discourse of mythology not primarily as a character in a narrative but rather as vehicle for narration itself”) who is “signifying” upon the entirety of the western tradition. I follow Gates’ following of R.D. Archibald’s definition of “signifying”:
Signifying seems to be a negro term, in use if not in origin. It can mean any number of things; in the case of the toast about the signifying monkey, it certainly refers to the trickster’s ability to talk with great innuendo, to carp, cajole, needle, and lie. It can mean in other instances the propensity to talk around a subject, never quite coming to the point. It can mean making fun of a person or situation. Also it can denote speaking with the hands and eyes, and in this respect encompasses a whole complex of expressions and gestures. Thus it is signifying to stir up fights between neighbors by telling stories; it is signifying to make fun of a policemen behind his back; it is signifying to ask for a piece of cake by saying, “My brother needs a piece of cake.” 
Further into Gates’ essay, he writes, “Kochman…argues…signifying can also be employed to reverse or undermine pretense or even one’s opinion about one’s own status.”
Gates goes on to examine the Ishmael Reed novel Mumbo Jumbo, which Gates sees as a work which clowns (my term) on the Phaedrus of Plato. This section of Gates’ essay need not be rehearsed here, except to pull one sentence from it and note that, if “it is not too much to say that Mumbo Jumbo is one grand signifying rift on the Phaedrus, parodying it through hidden polemic,” it is also, to paraphrase Gates and put his work to my purposes, not too much to say that The Waste Land is one grand signifying rift on Western culture, parodying it through bitter, but hidden, black-masked polemic of indirection.
My claim that The Waste Land is, at bottom, a minstrel show, riffing and signifying and clowning on western culture, its roots in black culture, is further strengthened by the following passages from Chinitz:
Ralph Ellison paid tribute to the poem that, more than any other text, had launched him into a literary career:
…The Waste Land seized my mind. I was intrigued by its power to move me while eluding my understanding. Somehow its rhythms, more often closer to those of jazz than were those of the Negro poets, and even then I could not understand them, its range of allusion was as voiced and as varied as that of Louis Armstrong.
There are…deeper senses…in which popular culture penetrated The Waste Land. Because the song excerpts on the original first page are, as North notes, “the first examples in the draft of [Eliot’s] famous techniques of quotations and juxtapositions,” the minstrel or coon-song associations of three of those songs lead him to posit a connection between the minstrel show, and “art of mélange,” and the distinctive form of The Waste Land (Dialect 85086). Minstrel shows were in fact full of allusions—to Shakespeare, to melodrama, to opera. All genres, high and low, took on new meaning through their absorption into the minstrel setting, as they do in Eliot’s poem:
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of the bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.
A rat crept softly through the vegetation
Dragging its slimy belly on the bank
While I was fishing in the dull canal
On a winter evening round behind the gashouse
Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck
And on the king my father’s death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground
And bones cast in a little low dry garret,
Rattled by the rat’s foot only, year to year.
But at my back from time to time I hear
The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring
Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring.
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
Et O ces voix d’enfants, chantant dans la coupole!
This passage, a virtual dramatic performance in its own right, eerily invokes the minstrel context in its second line, where the phrase “rattle of the bones” conjoins two vastly different frames of reference: the phantasmagoric cityscape of the succeeding lines, with their drowned bodies, and the minstrel stage, where the ear-to-ear grin and the bones, qua percussion instrument, were essential elements of the act. … The whole generic crazy quilt that is The Waste Land is replicated on a small scale in these eighteen lines, tellingly under the sign of the minstrel show. … [T]he minstrel show leaves its trace in the form of Eliot’s profoundest innovations. 
But to what effect was Eliot putting all of this? Why a theatrical grotesquerie, a theatrical mélange, with the minstrel show as its foremost element?
Remembering that this was the poem written “in the teeth”  of World War I, the war in which Eliot was forced to endure “unreal” experiences and the war in which he lost Jean Verdenal, I suggest that Eliot was putting on a black mask and engaging in something very similar in its iconoclasm to what Jean Genet was later to do in Les Negres (The Blacks). Consider Martin Esslin’s description of the latter:
Here he presents a play labeled a clownerie (a clown show), which is entirely ritual and therefore needs no plot devices at all. A group of Negroes performs the ritual re-enactment of their resentments and feelings of revenge before a white audience.
… . The white audience in the theatre is confronted by a grotesque mirror image of itself on stage.
… . In ritual, meaning is expressed by the repetition of symbolic activities. The participants have a sense of one, of mysterious participation rather than of coherent communication. The difference is merely that here the audience sees a grotesque parody of ritual, in which the bitterness that is to be communicated emerges from clowning and derision. 
Or consider this passage from Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury:
That was when I realized that a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior; a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among. 
In both of these examples the figure of the stereotyped black person—a white creation—deployed as a device by white authors against white (and hence European or American) culture.
Eliot, like Genet after him, created, in The Waste Land, theatre like Genet’s which, in Martin Esslin’s words:
may lack plot, character, construction, coherence, or social truth. It undoubtedly has social truth. [His theatre is] not [an] intellectual exercise…but the projection of private myth, conceived as such in the pre-logical modes of thought that are the hallmark of the sphere of myth and dream… . In the world of pre-logical thought, dream, and myth, language becomes incantation instead of communication; the word does not signify [in the traditional sense of this term] a concept but magically conjures up a thing – it becomes a magical formula. … Incantation, magical substitution, and identification are the essential elements of ritual. …
Genet’s theatre is, profoundly, a theatre of social protest. Yet…it resolutely rejects political commitment, political argument, or propaganda. 
And just so the theatrical power of Eliot’s The Waste Land.
Two more issues must necessarily be addressed.
First, there are obviously racial implications too numerous to count whenever the spectres of the minstrel show or blackface are raised, especially when employed by a white author. I have thus far left them wholly unaddressed vis-à-vis questions of racism, except to the implicit extent that it almost goes without saying that the traditions of the minstrel show and blackface are, at the very least, floridly problematic pieces of American and European cultural history. What some may see as genuine and sympathetic identification with African Americans in Eliot’s use of the minstrel show and his “blacking up,” others may see as a disingenuous self-deprecation that amounts to little more than condescension. Still others may see a more nuanced and ambiguous mix of cultural sympathy and an artist’s opportunistic eye for an effective (and affecting) device. To the extent that Eliot, in The Waste Land and elsewhere, appropriates black voices in order to direct them against “The horror! The horror!” of recent Western history, the matter, it seems to me, is at its most complex.
One of the problems for Eliot, of course, is that he has been convincingly accused of bigotry before—most famously in his attitudes towards Jews and women.  (Though, vis-à-vis women, it is noteworthy that Gordon argues that:
[In The Waste Land], Eliot has replaced hatred of women with their pathos as the city’s—all loveless and without hope. With extraordinary attentiveness, he hears—as poetry—their silenced voices.) 
Therefore, when it comes to Eliot’s “blacking up,” or putting a blackfaced, minstrelized Tiresias on the stage, and whether or not this was, in addition to being a polemical gesture directed towards Western civilization, also a racist gesture (or, perhaps more to the point, just how racist this was), Eliot’s bigotry in other instances must be taken into account, and so too must the larger tradition and errands of the minstrel show in American popular culture be considered. Gary D. Engle’s survey of the history and errands of the minstrel show provides a valuable contextualization of the latter:
During the mid-nineteenth century the minstrel clown was America’s favorite fool. The figure was a grotesque and cruel caricature of American blacks.
If this had been the figure’s only function minstrelsy would have been nothing more than a monstrous and prolonged racial joke. Indeed it was that; but it was something more, for the humor of minstrelsy worked in two ways. When the blackface clown adopted any kind of highbrow pose, he not only made a fool of himself but somehow managed to taint the adopted pose as well. Thus, the perpetual effect of his presence on stage was the eradication of even the slightest hint of decorum. When for example he danced a simple pas grave in work shoes and tutu, sublimity vanished.
A tangible spirit of anarchy has always been one of the primary dynamics of American humor. The American common man…has persistently expressed in a kind of comic nihilism his essential distrust of the goals toward which the American dream has directed him. … [W]hen minstrelsy was in its fullest flower, this distrust took the form of a general playful hostility toward anything characteristic of the European cultural traditions from which America so chauvinistically wanted to divorce itself.
…minstrelsy inspired the laughter of cruelty as well as the laughter of affirmation. It offered, in the words of one English critic who visited America in 1869, “a humor that was often genuine if always grotesque.” 
Eliot being Eliot, one might investigate how ironically he deploys the minstrel clown vis-à-vis the continuum of blatant racism on one side and jujitsu-like overturning of the icon on the other. But that is not my purpose here. I simply want to note that numerous problems worth considering arise when a white author makes use of black traditions (especially when some of these black traditions are partially the creation of white mockery), problems I have only cursorily explored here.
It is perhaps an interesting incidental note that much has been made of Eliot’s initial intention to use a line from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (Kurtz’s “The horror! The horror!”) which was nixed by Pound, in favor of the epigraph about the Sibyl from the Satyricon,  but less has been made of Eliot’s later use, for his epigraph to The Hollow Men, of a black voice from the same volume announcing Kurtz’s death: “Mr. Kurtz. He dead.” Or, for that matter, the racial implications of Eliot’s interest in using epigraphs from Heart of Darkness in the first place, which, yes, presents Kurtz’s complex character on the verge of death (“Did he live his life again in every detail…”, but is also inextricably entwined with racial and colonial politics. (Just as an exploratory introduction into what I am getting at: Are the Africans in Heart of Darkness merely background scenery against which a Western story, interested only in Western people, is told, or does Conrad take account, however problematically and imperfectly, of the effect of the West on these Africans? And even if it does take account of this effect, does it render these Africans as humans, or as human as Western people? Much scholarship on Conrad Heart of Darkness explores these issues, among many others.  Similarly, is Eliot’s use of a minstrelized Tiresias, while a powerful device against Western civilizations depredations, also a gesture which furthers dehumanizing notions of African Americans? Or is it somehow a universal liberating gesture against “The horror! The horror”? Or, what is more likely, is there some more complex position?)
The second, and final, point I would like to make is that, yes, in The Waste Land, a send-up version of Tiresius sends up Western civilization by ironically deploying both caricatured fragments of that same civilization’s cultural heritage and by spreading contemporary gossip about its more mundane, in the present, goings on (“What you get married for if you don’t want children?”). And one cannot emphasize enough that context (“And when we were children, staying at the archduke’s”) in which the poem appeared was the recent wholesale slaughter of the First World War in which most of the constituent nations of Western civilization played scenery-chewing roles; here, then, are your “codes of conduct,” your “rules of social existence.” And here is your culture, too—in caricature.  Yes.
But, too, the poem is powerful, and often moving in a way that mere satire is not. In a way that, for example, L’Age D’Or, for all its brilliance, is not. The Waste Land’s fragments (and this includes Eliot’s direct citations, allusions, and lines of poetry not undergirded by either) do not produce a cohesive, or coherent, whole, but they do, for some, certainly for me, produce an emotionally affecting whole (“I’ll show you fear in a handful of dust.”):
Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?
And this is one of the remarkable features of the poem, that, that is, it can be both a biting send-up of the materials it treats (with the possible exception of the Indian material at the end—which is, nonetheless, more Christian than Indian; that is, Indian religious material put to use for the purposes of providing some sort of Christian finale, and so in that way a sort of inadvertent—and, I must say, half-assed—travesty of Eastern religious material)  and a piece whose moving lamentations are also present and deeply affecting. The melodramas treated in this show do actually move (as melodramas often do), and they do not do so cheaply (as melodramas often do).
In this way, perhaps, the poem does eventually achieve something like “liberation” and ritual rejuvenation. A blackfaced, or actually black, minstrelized, gossiping, camp Tiresias shooting his rhetorical arrows not at Creon, but at the very (violent) culture from which he himself has sprung, and with such a rapid-fire combination of irony, melodrama, bad manners, and showmanship, has something very funny about it. Biliously funny. But it also has something very sad, and, in the end, tragic about it; tragic in the classical sense of the term. Tragic, in the end, without any attendant irony. And by arriving at this fundamental tragedy underlying The Waste Land, the fundamental tragedy that is The Waste Land, the poem approaches, maybe achieves, its catharsis, just as all those old, great tragedies did.
Esslin. Op. cit. 232-33.