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12 • Kathleen Chalfant

The Voice of Four Quartets

We are now in the final days of rehearsal for Four Quartets, which premieres at the Fisher Center on July 6.  The dancers have been joined by The Knights, a Brooklyn-based contemporary music ensemble who are playing Kaija Saariaho’s score, and by Kathleen Chalfant, the legendary stage actor, who is reading Eliot’s poems live in our performances.

From our first conversations about the project, Pam and I knew that Four Quartets needed to be read by a woman.  All existing recordings of the poems are by British men – Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons, Alec Guinness, Eliot himself – and we were certain that a female voice would unlock a new experience of the text.  We were also thinking of Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century female mystic whom Eliot quotes in “Little Gidding”:  “Sin is behovely, but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

Kathy is one of the great performers of our time. She is probably best known for originating the role of Dr. Vivian Bearing in the stage play Wit, for which she one an Obie Award.  (She won another Obie, for Lifetime Achievement, earlier this year.)  She is bringing an incredible warmth and intelligence to Eliot’s poems; her voice, as the critic Hilton Als wrote last year in the New Yorker, “draws Chalfant’s audience close, like the voice you remember hearing in school during story time.” 


Kathleen Chalfant and Pam Tanowitz. Photo by Maria Baranova


Kathy has been fully immersed in Four Quartets with us for a number of months, and recently undertook the same pilgrimage to the four sites that Pam and I made last year.  She has created a strong partnership with the musicians and dancers in the production, and is doing extraordinary work integrating her reading of the poems with the choreographic and musical score. 

Last week Kathy and I recorded a radio interview for NPR in which she describes her experience of the project, and reads several sections of Four Quartets.  I think you’ll immediately hear the great qualities she brings to Eliot’s poems.