The Cocktail Party (1949) was T. S. Eliot’s third play, the second – after The Family Reunion (1939) – dealing with “contemporary life.” In his lecture “Poetry and Drama” (1950), Eliot candidly analysed the shortcomings of the second play (verse that was obtrusive in failing to progress the dramatic action, lengthy presentation of the situation that was disproportionate to the subsequent development, an unconvincing transposition of ancient myth to the modern setting); these were to be rectified in The Cocktail Party.
In The Cocktail Party, Eliot applies the pattern of versification developed in his previous play (lines of dissimilar length with a caesura and three main stresses) more consistently and confidently. Although Act I, presenting the situation, is considerably longer than the second and third, the characters’ crises confront us from the beginning of the first scene – specifically, Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne’s marital crisis. Finally, the presence of classical drama is scarcely perceptible, and the danger of interference with a modern plot avoided.
As with The Family Reunion, Eliot found inspiration in a classical text: Euripides’ Alcestis (5th century B.C.). In Euripides’s play, King Admetus is to die unless someone sacrifices their life to save him. Only his wife, Alcestis, will prevent his death by offering her own life. While mourning the loss of Alcestis, Admetus receives, with exemplary hospitality, an untimely visit from Heracles, who feasts in ignorance of the king’s bereavement. On learning of Alcestis’s fate, the hero regrets his disruptive behavior and successfully fights Death in order to return the queen to life. The situation presented in Act I of The Cocktail Party echoes faintly the plot of Euripides: Lavinia (Alcestis) has left Charles (Admetus) on the day they were planning to host a cocktail party; Sir Henry (Heracles), a mysterious guest, will bring her back to her husband.
Lavinia and Edward, incapable respectively of being loved and of loving, are not alone in facing a life crisis: their younger friends Celia and Peter, guests at the cocktail party, are united by mutual attraction and artistic sensibility, but are both encumbered by a sense of ennui. The dissatisfaction becomes unbearable in Celia’s case, with feelings of sinfulness on her own part that she perceives as inappropriate in society. Peter, rather more mundanely, is frustrated by the dull realities of a career in the film industry and confused by Celia’s sudden estrangement from him.
Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, presented as a spiritual counsellor in Act II, not only propitiates Edward and Lavinia’s reconciliation to committed companionship in the “ordinary world,” which they will contentedly accept at the end of the play. He also “treats” Celia, preparing her for the consequences of her decision to embrace a life of sanctity and sacrifice, with tragic outcome in a mission in the imaginary Kinkanja. Peter’s fate is left open: he is not yet ready for a critical choice, although it is suggested that he will reach this state later in his life.
In his role of watching over the dissatisfied quartet of characters, Reilly counts on two efficient collaborators, also unsuspected guests at the Chamberlaynes’ cocktail parties: Julia is an intrusive but endearing lady, Alex, a resourceful and cosmopolitan young man. Reilly, Julia and Alex refer to themselves as “the Guardians.” They have been identified with the “Community of Christians,” defined by Eliot in his essay The Idea of a Christian Society (1940). Eliot’s “Community of Christians” crucially includes believers whose high powers of intellect and sensitivity permit both vigilance over ecclesiastical authorities and the provision of spiritual assistance to members of the community less capable or privileged.
The Guardians’ success in setting distressed characters on the right path is, essentially, what makes The Cocktail Party a comedy. More specifically, it can be considered a Dantean comedy in that the characters’ destinies – whether secular or transcendent – unfold according to divine plan. At a more superficial level, we can identify resources typical of drawing-room comedy in the development of dialogue and plot. After his disappointing choice of tragedy as a basis for The Family Reunion, Eliot resorts to comedy as a medium that may permit a wider audience to be reached. His intuition was correct. The Cocktail Party ran successfully on the West End Stage and on Broadway; Eliot finally achieved commercial success as a dramatist – and this without renouncing the spiritual dimension which characterizes and unifies his poetic and dramatic production.
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