Seven actors make up the cast of Wasteland—4 men (1 playing two roles) and 3 women (1 playing three roles). The fragmented unit set represents parts of rooms and streets in London and elsewhere, with bits of stairways, platforms, windows at various levels with assorted tables and chairs. Manikins are scattered about, some seated at tables. A DL table doubles as Eliot’s writing desk. Players may enter or exit from “just about anywhere” as the play flows like “a dream made of interconnecting fragments, like a puzzle made of flowing water.”
The play begins in darkness as we hear a “scratchy old record playing a stately and rather melancholy ragtime tune.” Lights come up on Eliot at the table as Vivienne, at the edge of the stage, as if in a small boat, trails her hand in the water. Other cast members simulate a party by the river and we hear girls laughing as Eliot and Vivienne speak in counterpoint before he leaves his desk and she stands, meeting him for the first time. When a new, livelier song starts, Eliot dances with her, “beautifully.” Ezra Pound leads Eliot downstage, talking about art and imagination and God being a palimpsest. Eliot says he may be going back to Harvard because he has been offered a teaching position. Pound says he should marry Vivienne, stay in London, and be a poet. Eliot sits at his desk as Pound urges Vivienne to keep him from going to America. He gives her a peach and encourages her to go to Eliot. She asks Eliot if he wants to lie down with her, takes a bite of the peach, and goes. Pound returns with two drinks and asks Eliot what he is writing. Vivienne comes back and Pound goes off to talk with Henry James. She complains that Eliot’s Bloomsbury friends are like “a herd of malicious, cannibalistic clothes dummies.” She asks him to tell her about his childhood and he says that they love each other but that perhaps they are allergic to each other, mentally and physically. Honking his bicycle horn, Pound rides in and hands Eliot a large brown parcel to give to James Joyce.
To the sound of French accordion music on an old, scratchy record, Joyce and Eliot meet in a Paris restaurant. Joyce opens the package and finds a very large pair of battered old brown boots. Joyce speaks of Pound and writers as assemblers of “rubbish, constructed from the wreckage of old books and wasted lives.” When Eliot says he has a wife, Vivienne, at the edge of the stage, talks of daughters lost and found, and we hear Mrs. Porter singing from the shadows. Vivienne tells us she got the chronology mixed up, that it was after the war that Eliot met Joyce. She moves to sit at the table with the Sitwell manikins as Eliot packs a suitcase. He asks her to come to America with him to meet his family. She declines the offer and he says that Bertie Russell will be happy to keep her company.
After Eliot leaves, she talks to the manikins and then sits for dinner with Bertie, “that lecherous little gargoyle.” They speak of Eliot and love and Bertie warns her that he is “a rather dangerous fellow,” and she says that in her dreams he’s the Devil. Eliot and Pound then enter a restaurant and Pound tells Eliot that Bertie goes out every night with Vivienne. Pound dozes off as Bertie joins Eliot and Vivienne tells the Sitwells that Bertie is ugly but fun. She sits with the men, saying that when they have tea, Bertie’s the Mad Hatter, Tom’s the March Hare, and she is Alice. After some conversation about time, God, and three sisters who lived at the bottom of the well, they all move one seat to the right and Eliot and Bertie try to stuff Pound head first into the teapot. We hear the sound of explosions and sirens as lights flicker and Bertie walks across the stage to sit in the shadows of prison bars. Vivienne says the sky is full of Zeppelins and the air on the island is thick with the dead. Vivienne tells the Sitwells that Bertie has left her for a twenty-year-old actress, and Eliot remarks that Bertie has been jailed for opposing the draft. Vivienne asks Eliot to hold her and when he does she notices his erection. They kiss and lights fade to the sound of explosions.
Lights then come up on Bertie talking to the Sitwells about Vivienne and Eliot watching two lesbians who live in the flat across from them, and lights come up on Eliot and Vivienne talking about having sex the previous night. Eliot suggests that Vivienne and Virginia Woolf might become friends. Virginia joins Vivienne and they play croquet with flamingo mallets and hedgehogs. (“Not real creatures, please,” Nigro notes.) The women talk about Eliot and writing as lights come up on Eliot and Pound walking by the Thames. Eliot says he has to get away from Vivienne so he can get his head examined and finish the long poem he’s been working on. Pound takes Vivienne to a restaurant to have dinner with Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Alice B. Toklas (a manikin). Lights dim on them and come up on Eliot talking to a manikin (Dr. Vitetel) as we hear, from the shadows, in imagistic counterpoint, the voices of Joyce, Vivienne, Pound, and Miss Stein. Lights fade on the others as Pound reads a manuscript with Eliot watching. Pound says it is a masterpiece but he needs to take out various parts. After Pound leaves, Vivienne says that it is very disorienting to be sleeping next to an absolute stranger, her husband, who is a very great poet. She wonders who she is as they look at each other and the lights fade out on Act One.
Lights come up on Vivienne alone with the other characters “all around her in the shadows.” She says Tom is quite famous with his own magazine which she helps edit. Eliot tells her that the horrible old man in the bowler hat is W. L. Janes who is trying to fix the cuckoo clock Eliot bought for Pound. Eliot suggests she talk with Janes who tells her he met Eliot in a pub. Janes works on the clock as Vivienne tells Virginia that she feels as if she’s drowning in quicksand. We hear the sound of a ticking clock as Eliot sits with Mother Eliot, talking about Vivienne, who enters and says that the cuckoo clock makes noises, burps, grunts, and farts. Mother assures her that she is not losing her mind and Pound rides in on his bicycle, honking the horn, and handing Mother a bag of walnuts. Janes enters and Mother hands him the walnuts as they both leave.
We hear the sound of a thunderstorm as Eliot tells Vivienne that he has taken a vow of celibacy. Vivienne starts shouting as their dinner guests—Pound, Virginia, and Joyce—enter. After another thunderclap, Joyce hides under the table and Vivienne says that she is as insane as Tom. Miss Stein comes on to say that she wants to discuss Vivienne’s sex life, and Joyce says he has lost his spare glass eye. Vivienne, saying she is mad, runs out. Eliot says that doctors told Vivienne’s mother that she suffered from moral insanity, which Miss Stein defines as a term used to describe a woman who has sex voluntarily. Eliot says he doesn’t know what to do, and Miss Stein leaves to comfort Vivienne as the lights fade.
Miss Stein sits next to Vivienne, telling her that one is lucky to have had the experience of love. Vivienne says that Tom is “really” driving her insane; Miss Stein replies that that is how we know it is love. Vivienne joins Janes who is still trying to fix the cuckoo clock and asks him if Eliot ever speaks of her, saying that Janes is her friend, her keeper, like “at a madhouse. Or a zoo.” Then she stands, with a book, in front of the desk where Eliot is signing copies. He signs hers and she asks him if he will come home with her. Mrs. Porter asks Eliot to sign her book, and we hear the sounds of airplanes and bombs falling as the lights flicker and fade. Eliot then talks with Joyce and Pound in a Paris café in the early thirties. Pound goes to find the waiter and Joyce tells Eliot that Pound is getting stranger and stranger and that war and darkness are coming. Light fades on them and comes up on Vivienne as Janes tells her that she is going to the country for a good, long rest. We hear birds singing as lights come up on Eliot visiting Pound at St. Elizabeth’s psychiatric hospital in Washington in the late forties. Pound says that he said terrible things on the radio and thinks it ironic that Eliot and others are promoting the plausible fiction that he is insane to save him from being hung. He says he has awakened from a dream to find himself old and in disgrace. Eliot tells him that Vivienne is in a madhouse. Light fades as we hear the sound of crows. We see Eliot at night, drinking, as Vivienne appears with flowers. Eliot tells her that her brother called to say that she had died in her sleep in the asylum. He says he did a terrible thing, not loving her back and writing a poem instead. She puts the flowers on the desk and stands behind him with her hands on his shoulders as we hear the scratchy old ragtime record we heard at the beginning. She says it’s true that we walk in the dark, lost, round and round. “But then finally we come to a door in the wall. We put the key in the lock. Open the door. And there are girls laughing in the leaves. This is the garden where all loves end. All the rest (she pauses), all the rest is merely literature.