The Cocktail Party

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Editor: Elizabeth Thomason
Date: 2001
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 13. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 26
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Page 31

The Cocktail Party

T. S. ELIOT 1949

T. S. Eliot was at Princeton in 1948, working on the play One-Eye Riley, which would eventually develop into The Cocktail Party, when he received word that he had garnered that year’s Nobel Prize for literature. His literary reputation was built mainly on his proficiency as a poet and a critical theorist, but in the later years of his life most of Eliot’s work was concentrated on writing drama that would display his Christian sensibilities.

The Cocktail Party concerns a married couple, Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne, who are separated after five years of marriage. The first and last acts of the play feature cocktail parties held at their home where their marital problems are aggravated by the pressure of having to keep up social appearances. Part satire of the traditional British drawing-room comedy and part philosophical discourse on the nature of human relations, the play, like many of Eliot’s works, uses elements that border on the ridiculous to raise audiences’ awareness of the isolation that is the human condition.

Eliot himself had to point out to friends and critics the subtle debt that this play owes to Alcestis, by the Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 B.C.). In the Greek tragedy, the title character sacrifices her life for her husband, King Admetus of Thessaly, but is rescued from Hades by Hercules. In Eliot’s version, Lavinia is brought back by a mysterious Unidentified Guest at the party, who turns out, in true twentieth-century form, to be a psychiatrist Page 32  |  Top of Articlewhom Edward and Lavinia both consult. They learn that their life together, though hollow and superficial, is preferable to life apart; a lesson that is rejected by the play’s third main character, Edward’s mistress, who, with the psychiatrist’s urging, sets out to experience a life of honesty and uncertainty.


Many readers familiar with T. S. Eliot’s works do not realize that he was American by birth. In fact, he came from an old New England family. His grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, moved to St. Louis in the 1830s, where he founded Washington University and was instrumental in the opposition to slavery, decades before the issue was settled by the Civil War. His father, Henry Ware Eliot, was a local businessman who worked his way up to the presidency of the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company of St. Louis. His mother, Charlotte Stearns, was an author and a social crusader credited with great social advances in the then-novel field of juvenile justice. Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on September 26, 1888.

When he was eighteen he entered Harvard, where his studies focused on classical literature, which would influence the direction of his thought throughout his lifetime. He graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree in 1910, then studied in Paris for a year. He seldom returned to the United States after that, living in France and then Germany. He settled down in England in 1915, during the middle of World War I, and became a British citizen in 1927.

In 1915, Eliot published his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which was destined to become one of the most influential works of literature in the twentieth century. This, and his other poetry, did not earn him financial independence, however, so he took a position with Lloyd’s Bank of London from 1917 to 1925. His other major poem of that period, “The Waste Land,” was published in 1922.

Eliot is remembered as one of his century’s foremost poets, but as he matured he drifted away from poetry, first into literary criticism in the 1920s and then into drama. In 1939, he published a book of whimsical poems for children entitled The Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which was adapted in the 1980s to Cats, one of Broadway’s longest-running musicals. The reputation of his poetry grew as he wrote less of it. His last serious book of poetry, Four Quartets, which is considered to be his greatest work, was published in 1943. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948. His major dramatic works are Sweeny Agonistes in 1932, Murder in the Cathedral in 1935, and The Cocktail Party.

Eliot’s poetry and critical works are credited with redefining the role of the artist; his dramas, which he tried to use as a means to promote his Christian world-view, are respected but rooted in tradition. Eliot was considered one of the giants of literature during the last forty years of his life. His death in London in 1965 was mourned by writers and fans of literature across the globe.


Act 1

The first act of The Cocktail Party is the only one divided into three separate scenes. The first scene opens on a party in the drawing room of the Chamberlayne home in London with all of the play’s major characters—Edward, Julia, Celia, Peter, Alex, and the Unidentified Guest—present. There is witty bantering about people not present, making this seem like many British drawing-room comedies. Lavinia Chamberlayne is missing, and her husband, Edward, a lawyer, makes up a feeble excuse for the absence of his wife, who has invited the guests. He tells them that she has gone to visit an aunt in the country, but most of the party guests are skeptical. They all leave except for the Unidentified Guest, whom Edward asks to stay and talk with him.

Edward tells the stranger that Lavinia left him the day before, and that he tried to cancel the party but could not reach the people who did attend. During the conversation, he expresses his concern over what his life will be like without her, and the stranger tells him that he will arrange for Lavinia to return the following day.

Julia and Peter return to the apartment with the excuse that Julia has lost her glasses. Julia leaves by herself, but Peter stays and asks Edward’s advice about starting a romance with Celia. They are interrupted by Alex, who has come to make sure Page 33  |  Top of ArticleEdward has a dinner. While Peter discusses Celia with Edward, Alex goes into the kitchen to cook, interrupting sporadically to ask where things are kept. Alex and Peter leave together, and Edward phones Celia’s house at the end of scene 1.

Scene 2 takes place in the same room, fifteen minutes later. Celia enters, and it soon becomes apparent that Edward and Celia have been having an affair. She thinks that Lavinia’s departure has opened the door to their getting together, but he tells her that he has agreed to let the stranger arrange for Lavinia to come back. Alex phones, reminding Edward that he has left dinner on the stove for him, and when Celia goes to check on it, Julia shows up at the door. She assumes that Celia returned for the same reason she did: to make dinner for Edward. While Julia is out of the room, Edward explains to Celia that their affair is over. She says that she realized, as soon as she heard that Lavinia had gone, that it was not what she had wanted anyway.

Scene 3 takes place in the same room the following afternoon. The Unidentified Guest returns to see if Edward still wants Lavinia back. When he says that he has been tempted to change his mind, just to show that he is free to do so, the stranger tells him,

You will change your mind, but you are not free. Your moment of freedom was yesterday. You made a decision. You set in motion forces in your life and in the lives of others which cannot be reversed.

After the Unidentified Guest leaves, Peter, Celia, Julia, and Alex enter separately, saying that they have been invited by telegrams from Lavinia. Lavinia says when she arrives that she knows nothing about the telegrams. All of the party guests then exit together, leaving Edward and Lavinia alone. He tells her about the story that he concocted at the party the night before, and she says he should not have bothered, that it would not have fooled anyone. After a few minutes of their talking, exposing each other’s weaknesses, Edward decides that he regrets his decision to have Lavinia come back and feels like he is having a nervous breakdown. Lavinia goes about taking care of common household chores.

Act 2

Act 2 takes place in the consulting room of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, a psychiatrist; he is the Unidentified Guest of the previous act. He goes

T. S. Eliot T. S. Eliot

over his instructions with his nurse, telling her to send in the first patient, then to wait until he rings the buzzer three times before sending in the second, then send the third patient in when the other two have left. Before he starts seeing patients, Alex enters and says that he was the one who arranged for Edward to see the doctor. He leaves by a back door, then Edward enters.

Edward immediately suspects, upon seeing the familiar face, that this meeting and Harcourt-Reilly’s presence at the party were arranged by Lavinia. Harcourt-Reilly explains that there is probably nothing wrong with him, psychologically, and that it would not be worth being resentful because his marriage would have turned out the same whether Harcourt-Reilly had interfered or not. While Edward wants to be put into a sanatorium, so that he can have some time alone, Harcourt-Reilly does not believe that he needs such drastic treatment. He says that Edward needs to talk with another patient of his, a similar case, and he has the nurse send in Lavinia.

Lavinia is under the impression that Harcourt-Reilly had sent her to a sanatorium during the time that she was away, but he explains that it was actually a hotel. When Edward and Lavinia start bickering with each other about who is more Page 34  |  Top of Articlementally distressed, Harcourt-Reilly corrects them for both being dishonest with him. He mentions Edward’s relationship with Celia and then discloses the fact that Lavinia was having an affair with Peter. He determines that they are perfectly matched.

And now you begin to see, I hope, how much you have in common. The same isolation. A man who finds himself incapable of loving and a woman who finds that no man can love her.

When they leave, Julia comes in and announces that she has brought Celia. Celia does not think that she is worth the psychiatrist’s attention, that her life is interesting. She explains that she suffers from an acute awareness of solitude and “a sense of sin.” Harcourt-Reilly gives her two choices for dealing with her condition. She can become reconciled with the human condition, accepting the simple things in life and ignoring the terrifying extremes, or her life can be a treacherous journey to an unidentified place. She chooses the journey, and he sends her off, telling her, “Go in peace, my daughter. Work out your salvation with diligence.”

Alex and Julia enter, discuss the choices made by Celia and the Chamberlaynes, and recite a prayerlike poem for the success of all of them.

Act 3

Act 3 takes place in the same place as the first one, two years later. Edward and Lavinia are preparing for another cocktail party. They act as a thoroughly domestic couple, worrying about which guests will be offended and whether the pictures on the walls are straight. Julia arrives early, and is soon followed by Alex, who has been out of the country, in an exotic island country called Kinkanja. Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly comes in. Peter arrives from Los Angeles, where he has become a writer for a movie company. When he says that he came to London to get Celia to do a screen test for his next movie, Alex breaks the news that she is dead. She was working as a missionary in Kinkanja when a plague broke out, and she stayed with the infected inhabitants during a social uprising, only to be crucified and cannibalized. Harcourt-Reilly expresses no surprise at the way that Celia died, nor any sorrow that she met such a gruesome end. He recites a poem about life and death and says that he knew she was destined to meet a violent end. All of the people leave, one-by-one, and Edward and Lavinia prepare to assume their formal social attitudes in time to greet the guests of their cocktail party.


Miss Barraway

At the beginning of act 2, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly gives his secretary precise orders about when to bring each of his patients into his room, reviewing the code that he will buzz on the intercom system to let her know when it is time for the next. Miss Barraway appears briefly, bringing people onstage and ushering them off.

Caterer’s Man

In act 3, when Edward and Lavinia are preparing for their cocktail party, there is a man from the catering company around, setting things up. His function is to show that, even in their home, they are on their “social” behavior, and that they have no private behavior any more.

Edward Chamberlayne

Much of the play centers around the problems between Edward and his wife, Lavinia. Edward is a lawyer, a boring and unimaginative man who feels that he is being stifled by Lavinia. When the play begins he has been having an affair with Celia Copplestone, a fact that does not come out until later. Left in the awkward position of hosting a dinner party that Lavinia arranged before she left him, he makes up a flimsy excuse about her being away to visit a sick aunt—an excuse nobody believes.

Discussing his separation from Lavinia with Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, Edward is so uncomfortable at the change in his routine that he wishes for her back, and when Harcourt-Reilly says that he can arrange it, he asks him to do so. He worries about looking ridiculous, but Sir Henry assures him that a little humiliation would be good for him. Edward is jaded about love and tells Peter that Peter is lucky to have missed out on the affair that he had hoped to start with Celia, because it would turn boring after a few months.

Edward breaks off his relationship with his mistress, Celia, while other characters are walking in and out of his living room. The fact that he has to maintain such an awkward pretense during such an important, intimate moment says much about how he is a slave to his social image. He is aware of how ridiculous his situation is, and it makes him feel old.

Edward feels so much regret when Lavinia returns to him that he thinks he has had a mental breakdown. He moves out of the house and wants to Page 35  |  Top of Articlebe admitted into a sanatorium, but his psychiatrist, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, pairs him up with Lavinia, saying that they are perfectly matched. On the doctor’s advice, they stay together, and in the end they are seen as a couple preparing to host a cocktail party. Edward is a little more sympathetic toward Lavinia in the end, but their relationship is still cold and rational. He feels guilty about the violent death that befell Celia, but he is able to soon put it out of his mind.

Lavinia Chamberlayne

Lavinia is absent from the stage during the first two scenes and much of the third, having left her husband, Edward. It is not until later that the audience finds out that she has seen the psychiatrist for two months, that she had an affair with Peter, and that during the time she was gone, she checked herself into what she thought was a sanatorium. Lavinia is such a controlled and controlling person that her husband is entirely surprised by both her mental distress and her secret love life. Harcourt-Reilly explains that the end of her affair with Peter caused Lavinia to realize the truth about herself:

It was a shock. You had wanted to be loved; you had come to see that no one had ever loved you. Then you began to feel that no one could ever love you.

With this realization, Lavinia comes to realize that Edward, a man who is incapable of loving anyone, is the ideal mate for her, because he will not stray from her and will act kindly toward her to assure her continuing companionship. Whenever he tries to paint Lavinia as being pushy and demanding, she points out that he is indecisive and needs someone to tell him what to do. In the last act, two years after the start of the play, they are together again, functioning smoothly as a couple, but seeing herself without illusion has left Lavinia worn out and tired. Like Edward, she feels somewhat guilty about Celia’s death, but unlike him she realizes that it would be good for them all to try to understand Celia better.

Lavinia begins the last act tired and wishing that she did not have to host the coming cocktail party, but stirred up by her curiosity about Celia, she finds new enthusiasm. Her last line—“Oh, I’m glad. It’s begun”—shows more optimism than she previously had.

Celia Copplestone

At the beginning of the play, Celia does not appear to be a significant character, just one of the crowd; by the end, however, she turns out to have

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Although there are no recordings of The Cocktail Party, there are ample recordings of T. S. Eliot reading from his own works. One recent release, recorded in 1955, is T. S. Eliot Reads, an audiocassette released in 2000 by Harper Audio Books. It includes chorus segments from Murder in the Cathedral.

chosen to live in a free and giving way, giving her life the sort of meaning that all of the other characters have been hoping love would bring. She starts out as a poet interested in the art of film. The first time attention is brought to bear on Celia is when Peter asks Edward’s advice about how to express his love for her; the second time is when, after Peter leaves, she comes to Edward, and it is apparent that she and Edward are having an affair.

When Edward breaks off his affair with Celia, it brings her to the realization that their relationship was based on ignoring the future. The shock of their breakup wakes her, makes her look at life in broader terms, thinking about her place in the world. She then sees Edward as just a symbol of something vague that she aspired to, not as something that she actually wanted. In act 2, Julia persuades Celia to see the psychiatrist, Sir Henry.

Celia’s dilemma is rooted deeply in the nature of human existence. She has an acute awareness of her own solitude, the sense of “alienation” that is prominent in intellectual works of the mid-twentieth century. She feels alone in relationships and in crowds. In addition, she has a sense that she has not been as moral as a person should be; she suffers, as she puts it, “a sense of sin.” When Sir Henry gives her a choice between being complacent or traveling out into the unknown, she chooses the latter.

In the last act, when the characters gather together again, Alex brings news that Celia was killed in the uncivilized, remote island country of Kinkanja. By rational standards, her death was a Page 36  |  Top of Articlewaste: she was defending diseased people who were going to die anyway. But she died with the moral certainty that she lacked in life. Ironically, her sense of aloneness is defeated by the fact that her body is eaten by cannibals, dividing her physical existence up among others. Sir Henry, who understands Celia’s mind better than the others, takes satisfaction in her death, secure in the fact that she found meaning before she died.

Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly

Sir Henry is presented at first as a mysterious, almost supernatural character, showing up at the Chamberlayne cocktail party with no apparent connection to any of the other guests. By the end of the play, his relationship to several of the principal characters is revealed. It turns out that Lavinia has been seeing him for two months; that Alex is the one to arrange for Edward to consult with him as a psychiatrist; and that Julia is the one who brings Celia to see him. As the Unidentified Guest in the play’s first act, Sir Henry listens to Edward’s situation as if it is all unfamiliar to him and dispenses friendly, philosophical advice, even singing a foolish song as if Edward’s problems meant little to him. His first appearance as Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, in act 2, shows him to actually be a serious, well-organized man, explaining to his secretary the precise arrangement he has planned for his morning’s patients and his complex signal system for when they are to be admitted.

Although he pretends to be analyzing Edward’s case in act 2, the audience knows that Sir Henry has already decided what would be best for the Chamberlaynes because of the arrangements he made before their arrival. He refuses to send Edward to a sanatorium and tells Lavinia that the place that he sent her to previously was not a sanatorium. His refusal to isolate his patients, even when they ask to be sent somewhere to be alone, is consistent with the advice he later gives Celia. To her, he explains that there are two forms of treatment for dealing with life. The first one is to become reconciled with the human condition, to avoid excess, and to become tolerant; this is the one Edward and Lavinia follow. The second, which Celia ends up following, is more mysterious and involves taking a “blind” journey, with no knowledge of where one will end up.

When news comes at the end of the play that Celia has suffered a violent death in an exotic location, Lavinia notes that Sir Henry’s reaction seems to be not shock, but satisfaction. He explains himself with a complex poem filled with classical allusions, in contrast to the song he sang earlier. He then goes on to discuss the intuition that he had when he met Celia at the cocktail party in the first act, that she was destined to die a violent death.

Alexander MacColgie Gibbs

Like Julia, Alex is a character who at first seems to be a ridiculous stereotype, but who later is revealed to be a manipulator, working behind the scenes to control the lives of the main characters. At the original cocktail party, he holds a key position as a world traveler with tales to tell of his adventures. Later, after everyone has gone, he returns to Edward’s home, saying that he has been worried because Edward had nothing to eat. This concern for Edward gives him a reason to stay while Edward talks with Peter, interrupting every so often as he walks between the kitchen and the drawing room where they are talking. Alex brags about his adventures and about his ability to make a great dinner out of anything that he finds in the refrigerator, and in the context of the serious talks he is interrupting about matters of love and infidelity, his bragging makes him seem particularly superficial. “Ah, but that’s my special gift—concocting a toothsome meal out of nothing,” he says, when Edward tries to get rid of him by saying that there is hardly anything in the kitchen. In the next scene, however, Julia warns Edward,“Anything Alex makes is absolutely deadly. I could tell such tales of his poisoning people.”

In act 2, Alex goes in to see the psychiatrist before Edward goes in. From their conversation, it becomes clear that Alex, instead of being a fool, is actually a clever man who manipulated Edward to the psychiatrist’s office, scheming with Sir Henry to make Edward think that going there was his own free idea. At the end of act 2, he and Julia and Sir Henry talk about the fates of Edward, Lavinia, and Celia, speaking in poetic cadences, as if they are mythical beings who control the fates of people. In the last act, though, Alex is back in the social role of the world traveler, talking about the strange practices of the people in the remote country of Kin-kanja; he is a somewhat foolish, befuddled, small-minded Englishman who does not understand people beyond his own culture.


See Miss Barraway

Peter Quilpe

Peter is the play’s romantic figure. When the play begins, he has been to California, trying to Page 37  |  Top of Articlebreak into the movie business, with one script accepted by a studio but not used. By the end of the play, however, he is a success, with a famous producer counting on his suggestions for places to film and actors to cast. Peter is in love with Celia, having spent much time with her after they met at Lavinia’s party. He explains his interest in her to Edward and asks his advice, unaware that Edward has been romantically involved with Celia for months. He mistakes Celia’s awareness of her own alone-ness, which she later describes to the psychiatrist as a symptom of her mental disorder, for a need for someone like him, with similar artistic interests. For all of the time that they have spent together, going to films and concerts and dinner, Peter thought that a romance was developing, while Celia later explains to Edward that she never saw their relationship in that way.

Later, in Harcourt-Reilly’s office, it is revealed that Lavinia has been having an affair with Peter and that his attraction to Celia was the reason that Lavinia went to the psychiatrist in the first place, starting the whole chain of events in motion.

At the end of the play, Peter returns from California a success. He wants to make a film about the British aristocracy, using “the most decayed noble mansion in England,” but rather than use the actual thing, he plans to build a synthetic version in California, thus indicating his leanings toward artificiality. His plan includes taking Celia back with him and getting her into the movies, but he finds out that, while he has been working to impress her and offer her a chance at glamour, she has died while living a true, honest life.

Julia Shuttlethwaite

At first, Julia seems to be a stock character type, a scatter-brained matron who meddles in other people’s business and who cannot follow the details of a story, even though she loves hearing gossip and telling it. She is the most prominent figure in the first act, which is meant to resemble the typical British drawing-room comedy, with all of the characters talking cheerfully and wittily about matters that they are too shallow to understand. In this act, Julia is a catalyst, asking people to repeat and clarify what they have said, seemingly too slow to catch the fast pace of clever banter. She starts a story about Lady Klootz and a wedding cake, but later, asked to finish the story, does not recognize it, dismissing the request by saying, “Wedding cake? I wasn’t at her wedding.”

Julia comes back to the Chamberlayne apartment when Edward is talking with Sir Henry Har-court-Reilly, using the excuse that she forgot her glasses. At this time she seems to be just a nosy old woman who has made up an excuse to find out what is going on. She returns again when Edward is trying to have a serious talk with Celia to end their relationship. The intelligence behind her method becomes more apparent in this scene, which ends with Celia speculating that Julia might be something of a guardian to her, because having to take Julia’s glasses to her gives her a reason to end the conversation and leave.

In the second act, it becomes clear that Julia actually is Celia’s guardian, looking out for her without her knowledge. She arranges for Celia to meet the psychiatrist, without revealing that she and Sir Henry have a previous acquaintance. Sneaking into his office without Celia knowing, it becomes apparent that Julia is the unseen mastermind behind much of what has happened to Celia. In the cocktail party of the last scene, which mirrors the first, Julia’s questions are more pointed and focused, pushing each character to a greater understanding of him or herself.

Unidentified Guest

See Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly


Search for Self

In act 2, Edward seeks psychiatric help because, as he explains, “I have ceased to believe in my own personality.” Sir Henry answers this with the observation that it is a “very common malady. Very prevalent indeed.” The entire play traces the course of how three people—Edward, Lavinia, and Celia—find that the personalities that they had believed in fall short of the world’s requirements. It is significant that the first time Edward opens up to anyone and talks about the reality of his marriage is when he is left alone with a character whom he does not know, named “Unidentified Guest” by the playwright. To the stranger, Edward admits his uncertainty about a life without Lavinia, and when the stranger offers to bring her back, he accepts, despite the fact that he had previously felt she was forcing him into a life of falsehood. When she does come back, Edward realizes almost immediately that it is a mistake. He is not comfortable with

Page 38  |  Top of Article

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Research tribes that practice cannibalism and compare to Eliot’s depiction of the people of Kinkanja. How accurate was he?
  • What kind of music would be playing at The Cocktail Party? Explore sophisticated dinner music of the 1940s and make a tape that reflects the mood in the Chamberlaynes’ drawing room.
  • Write a short story featuring Sir Henry’s nurse/ secretary, Miss Barraway. What does she do when she is off duty?
  • What Christian symbolism does Eliot use in this play? Refer to outside sources if you need help identifying it.
  • Eliot probably had somebody in mind when he mentioned Bela Szogodny, the movie studio boss, in this play. Do some research on the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s. On whom do you think Szogodny may have been based?
  • Cast this play as a movie, using current movie stars. Why did you choose the actors you did?

himself, either with or without her, and so he believes that the best place for him would be isolated in a sanatorium where he would not have to put on any outward appearance at all.

Lavinia’s search for self, as Sir Henry explains it, started when she realized that her lover, Peter, was not only in love with another woman, but that the other woman was Celia, the woman with whom Edward was having an affair. Having lost two men to the same woman raises the question of her own desirability. She wants to be loved, and the fact that no one loves her makes her question whether this is a practical goal at all. To deal with this newfound knowledge, Sir Henry suggests that she throw herself back into the life that she had been leading, calculating that she could at least be comfortable with her husband because he would not stray from her, having proven that he is incapable of love.

After her affair ends, Celia comes to a pair of frightening conclusions about herself: that she is alone and that she is a product of sin. Sir Henry does not try to convince her that she is wrong in these conclusions, but instead treats them as her awakening to the truth about the human condition. While he suggested that Edward and Lavinia deal with their circumstances by staying together, which would at least give them company in their loneliness and keep them out of trouble, he shows more faith in Celia by presenting her with a choice. Rather than taking the tame, secure route, like them, she chooses to go on a quest to find herself. She ends up less alone when she learns to respect the disease-ridden natives of Kinkanja, and she fights her inherent sinful condition by giving her life for them with no hope of reward.

Duty and Responsibility

Before their separation at the start of this play, Edward and Lavinia look upon each other as a burden or responsibility. Edward, a lawyer, sees himself as being the practical one of the pair, but when he goes to see Harcourt-Reilly he does so because, as he puts it, “I can no longer act for myself. Coming to see you—that’s the last decision I was capable of making.” He wants to be locked away in a sanatorium where he will not be responsible for the decisions of his life. Lavinia, too, expects to be sent to a sanatorium when she has troubles. Instead, Harcourt-Reilly tells them to stay together, to be responsible for each other. They complement each other in social matters: as Lavinia points out, Edward has a practical mind for tasks like filling out an income tax form, but she herself is “practical in the things that really matter.” Their brief separation is a result of their hope for love and their desire to be free of responsibility. As long as they treat each other as a duty, instead of as lovers, their relationship works out just fine. The party that they are preparing for at the end of the play is not something that they look forward to, but it is something that they feel that they must do because of their social position, and this sort of responsibility brings Edward and Lavinia together.

Celia’s journey begins when she is cut loose of her relationship with Edward and is not allowed to be bound to him. She sees that their relationship was “a dream” and feels that she needs something more substantial. It ends in the jungle of Kinkanja, poised between the monkeys, who have no sense of responsibility and are merely destructive, and the English government, which is suppressing the local people Page 39  |  Top of Articleby trying to force them into Christianity. The locals put their fellow humans at risk by following their duty to take care of the monkeys, while the Christians also endanger human lives in the name of their religious duties. It is only Celia, who has no responsibility to the plague-ridden patients in the hospital other than her innate sense of humanity, who stays with them, losing her life in the process.

Love and Passion

True, romantic love has hardly anything to do with the events depicted in The Cocktail Party. The affairs that take place seem to the participants to be caused by love until they are over and can be examined more closely, and then they are seen as illusions. The first broken relationship that the audience is informed of is the marriage of Edward and Lavinia; from the questions of the other characters, it is obvious that she is not really at an aunt’s house, but that she has left him. He wants her back, but as he explains to the Unidentified Guest, “Why speak of love? We were used to each other.” His mixed emotions about Lavinia’s disappearance become even more confusing when it is revealed that he and Celia have been involved in an affair, but having decided that he wants Lavinia back, he is able to end the affair quickly. As Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly puts it later, he is a man incapable of loving.

When he breaks the news that he has asked Lavinia to come back, Celia sees Edward with newly-opened eyes, and he appears to her as a hollow shell of a man. The love that she thought that she had for him was an illusion. Her passion was transient, superficial.

Celia is completely uninterested in Peter’s desire for her. Peter expresses his excitement in grand, sweeping terms: “And I was so happy when we were together—so... contented, so... at peace: I can’t express it; I had never imagined such quiet happiness.”

Still, in spite of the passion he claims to feel, he does not make any move to approach Celia romantically until years later, after she is dead.



While dramas are generally confined to more limited settings than other forms of literature, like novels, which play out in readers’ imaginations, The Cocktail Party is particularly limited, with only two settings. Most of the action takes place in the drawing room of the Chamberlayne house. This setting draws viewers’ attention to several important aspects of the situation that is presented here. It establishes the elevated social class of the characters, giving instant insight into their view of the world. It shows the sort of order that Edward and Lavinia are accustomed to in their lives, which helps to establish why, even with their difficulties, each is willing to renew their relationship. In the first act, this setting creates an automatic sense of dramatic tension since it is obvious that Edward’s story about Lavinia going to visit an aunt is a lie. The audience is left to watch him stumble through the cocktail party that she organized, awkward and uncomfortable in his own house. Later, when the party has broken up, Edward’s attempts at secrecy are just as strained, as characters continue to pass through while he is trying to have serious talks with Peter and Celia. He is a prisoner of his social image, and the constant presence of others in his home fortifies this idea.

The shift in setting from the Chamberlayne flat to Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly’s office in act 2 changes the whole mood of the play. While all of act 1 has an air of superficiality, regarding an unhappy, henpecked husband who cannot make up his mind about whether he wants his wife to stay or go, the scene in the psychiatrist’s office is more intimate, concerned with serious matters of fate. In this case, Edward and Lavinia are brought to see the truth about themselves while Celia is allowed to admit a greater truth: that there are no answers, only the quest. Shifting to a different setting allows Eliot to bring audiences around to the serious mood of the deep, philosophical issues that are at stake here in a way that they would not feel so strongly if the action had stayed in the drawing room.


The “trickster” is a familiar figure in world literature, appearing in the myths of various oral cultures. The trickster is often an animal, such as a coyote in the stories of the Native Americans of the southwest and the Chaco in South America, or the tortoise of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. In many of these ancient tales, the trickster is a character who is threatened by those stronger and larger, but who defeats them by outwitting them. This primitive story structure has evolved in Western culture through the types of folk tales that were recorded by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century. While the older trickster tradition shows the trickster figure Page 40  |  Top of Articleusing cleverness to get out of a jam, more recent stories have the trickster coming into an established situation and upsetting it, taking advantage of the people and cheating them by cleverly manipulating their expectations.

The fact that Sir Henry is originally introduced in this play as the Unidentified Guest provides him with a shroud of mystery that could qualify him as a trickster figure. Throughout the first act, the secrets that he keeps hidden make audiences wonder what he is up to. When the second act reveals him to be a psychiatrist that each of the main characters has come to because of clever manipulation, he seems less dangerous but just as much a supernatural force. When she finds out the extent to which Sir Henry has been in control of her actions, Lavinia exclaims, “Are you a devil or merely a lunatic practical joker?” The devil, who often tricks people into doing things that they never would have done otherwise, qualifies as a latter-day version of the trickster, who is able to manipulate reality by manipulating the truths that people believe. In modern day, the trickster figure is presented most often as a practical jokester, making people believe falsehoods just for the sheer sport of it, without sinister purpose.


The word “repartee” refers to witty banter, marked by the kind of clever but hollow observations and retorts that are characteristic of this kind of social setting in plays. The cocktail party that begins this particular play has the standard, apparently meaningless kind of dialogue that marked the comedies of Oscar Wilde at the end of the nineteenth century. By the 1920s, the “sophisticated” comedy, marked by rapid-fire witticisms set among rich characters, became staples of the Broadway theater. Few of these comedies had enough insight to make them memorable, but the works of Noel Coward have withstood the test of time and can be just as entertaining when performed today. This kind of cocktail party repartee was performed most notably by the husband-and-wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fountaine, who starred together in sophisticated comedies from the 1920s through the 1950s.

The repartee of the typical drawing-room comedy often revolves around gossip, with the idle rich exercising their cleverness by commenting, sometimes in nasty ways, about people who are not present. In The Cocktail Party, the story about Lady Klootz and the wedding cake presents an example of the type of idle social chatter that is typical of these kinds of comedies, with Julia, who is telling the story, losing her place often, being interrupted by people who tell each other what a good story it is.

As with much about this play, the witty comedy of the first act is a false beginning, a parody of works that are much more superficial. The Lady Klootz story is mirrored in the last act by the story about Celia’s fate, which is told as gossip but is definitely not told to display the speaker’s wit. In the end, rather than engaging in witty repartee about social acquaintances, all of the characters become awkward and reflective, each considering how this death affects them.


The Welfare State

After World War II ended in 1945, Great Britain was faced with paying off the bills that had been incurred during the fighting. Far fewer men had been killed during battle than in World War I—250,000, as opposed to 750,000—but the machinery required to fight had been much costlier. Unlike America, where returning veterans could expect to find factories and places of business still intact, many of Britain’s key industrial centers had been reduced to rubble by German air raids. During the war, the British economy had been propped up by American loans under the Lend-Lease program, which had been enacted in 1941 specifically to help out during the war. On August 21, 1945, not even a week after the end of the war in the Pacific, American aid ended. In the following years, England was faced with an economic crisis.

In 1946, a National Health Service bill was enacted by Parliament, making medical services free to all citizens. That year began a series of actions that increased the government’s involvement in the country’s economy, nationalizing certain industries that were then put under the control of government agencies. The coal industry was nationalized in 1946, making the government responsible for the operation of what had been over eight hundred private companies with 1,634 coal pits across the country. Electricity and transportation were nationalized in 1947, along with airlines

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  • 1940s: Psychiatrists treat their patients primarily by trying to understand their past experiences and by talking to them. This sometimes requires having patients committed to sanatoriums for intensive psychotherapy.

    Today: Much of the field of psychiatry focuses on the ways that physical imbalances cause psychological problems. The greatest success comes from a mixture of psychoanalysis and drug therapy.

  • 1949: A wealthy person who feels overwhelmed with the stress of life might commit herself or himself to a sanatorium for therapy and counseling.

    Today: People often speak openly about their therapy. Wealthy people have a wider variety of retreats and spas to withdraw to when they need a rest from the stress of life.

  • 1949: Divorce is rare and not particularly socailly acceptable. As a consequence, marriage is often portrayed in literature as a trap that people are held in against their better instincts and interests.

    Today: Divorce rates around the world have skyrocketed since the 1970s, with up to 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce in some industrialized countries. As a result, recent research has focused on the harmful effects of giving up too easily on marriage.

  • 1949: Third-world countries, such as the play’s fictional “Kinkanja,” are seen as dangerous, hostile places where civilized people fall victim to savage lawlessness.

    Today: Although there is little fear that savages will cannibalize foreigners, the danger of political unrest is quite real to travelers. Citizens of the United States and Britain are sometimes targeted by terrorists in order to make a political statement.

and radio stations. By 1948, about 20 percent of all British workers were on the government’s payroll or working for public corporations.

The result of all of this government control of basic goods and services was that taxes paid by British citizens were raised to levels that Americans would find unthinkable, in some cases higher than 80 percent. Common working people could feel secure in the knowledge that they were protected cradle to grave for health expenses and that they would receive government payments even if they lost their jobs, but the country’s wealthiest citizens, who did not rely on government services, only saw this system as a drain on their income. Many in high-paying fields with international attention—in the movies, for example—emigrated to America, in hopes of holding on to their earnings. Others stayed, out of nationalistic pride, and paid their share of taxes. It was not until the early 1980s, when Conservative governments held power in major Western nations, that the British Welfare State was disassembled, reverting utilities and basic services back to private ownership on the theory that operating for profit would make them find ways to operate more efficiently.

British Drama

The 1940s represented a time of unusual blend on the British stage, with traditionalist elements fusing with abstract and experimental styles that had grown up during the modernist movement in the twenties. For a long time, British authors had attempted to write plays in poetic verse, an attempt to restore the tradition started in ancient Greece and continued through Shakespearean times. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote in the 1870s, was followed in this attempt at reviving verse drama by a number of writers from the turn of the century through the 1930s, including John Masefield, Lascelles Abercrombie, and John Drinkwater. The Page 42  |  Top of Articleproblem was that these writers had no reason for writing in verse, other than presenting homage to the authors of the ancient past. At the same time, most drama tended toward realism, which entailed letting the situations and language reflect the human experience as it was really lived, without drawing attention to the hand of the author. Young writers were gaining attention with the shock value of their works, not with their ability to copy the styles of centuries past.

Eliot was one of the dramatists who was able to write convincing verse drama with the style of writing handled carefully enough that it was not distracting. Others of his generation, most notably W. H. Auden and Christopher Frye, also helped raise readers’ awareness of the possibility of coherent drama with the language of poetry. In Eliot’s case, theory was especially important to his drama, because he was not only trying to use a particular, antiquated style, but he was also using his drama to express religious ideas. While drama was originally a tool for teaching religion, by the mid-twentieth century dramatists were concentrating more on exploring social behavior. Much about Eliot’s dramas seems stiff and artificial, unless audiences consider that the traditions that he based his work on were even more estranged from realism.


T. S. Eliot is best known today as a poet, even though his production in that area was relatively meager: he wrote less than four thousand lines of poetry, but volumes of groundbreaking literary criticism and seven plays. Today, Murder in the Cathedral, his 1935 drama about the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170, is probably his best-known play and the one most often performed. During his lifetime, though, Eliot achieved the most popular success with The Cocktail Party. The play opened at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival in 1949, with Alec Guiness in the role of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly. In America, it opened on Broadway in January 1950 and ran for 325 performances, taking in approximately one million dollars. It won the New York Drama Critics’ Award for 1950.

Both the London and New York productions were met with mixed reviews, particularly aimed at Eliot for the play’s similarities to his previous dramas. As time has passed, the play’s satire of the polite British comedy has become dated, making it less accessible to modern audiences, while its philosophical implications regarding the nature of human relations have made it a continuing favorite of critics. In the early 1970s, as part of a resurgence in critical attention toward Eliot following his death in 1965, Michael Goldman called The Cocktail Party

Eliot’s most successful play, because in it lies the vivacity of the author’s line-by-line response to his theatrical opportunities at its height. We feel this most strongly in two ways—first in the interaction of the characters, and second in the use of all the elements of the mise-en-scene (the arrangement or setting for a play) to advance the action and to intensify and render more subtle our experience of it, in particular to heighten our sense that the characters are haunted.

In other words, the play works on its own merits, without the extensive understanding of Greek myth or Christian ideology, which are practically required if one is to understand Eliot’s other dramas.

A. D. Moody sees The Cocktail Party as an advance over the author’s previous dramas, noting that

. . . here Eliot committed himself, for the first time, to making a play that would work in purely worldly terms. Certainly the worldliness is kept on a tight rein, by the artifice of the plot. .. and also to the seeding in of images, puns, and allegorical hints to intimate the existence of another world. Nevertheless, it was a great leap for Eliot to do without a saint or martyr.

While many critics note that the characters in The Cocktail Party are presented realistically, at least in comparison to those of Eliot’s other dramas, some are also apt to take a long look at their symbolic functions. Philip R. Headings, whose essay “The Tougher Self’ is one of the most comprehensively written to be focused on this one specific play, sees the characters in The Cocktail Party as being divided into two groups:

Each is indispensable to the central intent of the work, and each shows among its several characters a range of propensities, traits, and actions which are necessary to the unity. Following the precepts of Aristotle’s Poetics and the precedent of the great classical dramatists, Eliot has presented his characters only in the dimensions relevant to the life of the drama.

This is not, Headings explains, a bad thing, as modern readers might assume; it shows that Eliot’s sense of focus does not require the clutter of unnecessary details in order to develop a sense of reality in his work.

One more issue that critics have pointed out in reviewing The Cocktail Party is the author’s use of

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Simon Jones as Alexander MacColgie Gibbs, Clive Merrison as Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, and Maggie Steed as Julia Shuttlethwaite in the 1997 theatrical production of The Cocktail Party Simon Jones as Alexander MacColgie Gibbs, Clive Merrison as Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, and Maggie Steed as Julia Shuttlethwaite in the 1997 theatrical production of The Cocktail Party

poetic language. In his previous works, Eliot had his characters talk in a type of poetry that seemed to some audiences stiff and too unrealistic to ignore. This play is written in verse, but it is a free verse that does not draw attention to itself. “Whatever its technical or stage merits,” F. B. Pinion writes, “the verse is so plain that it does not linger as poetry; Eliot suspected he had put it on ‘a very thin diet.’” Few critics have expressed any remorse over this simplified language, in general noting that the complex word play of his first attempts at drama were too difficult and obtrusive for audiences to deal with when experiencing the play aurally.


David Kelly

Kelly is an instructor of composition and creative writing at two community colleges in Illinois and has often written for educational publications. In the following essay, he examines Eliot’s technique in developing The Cocktail Party, and how it relates to the theme of alienation that has been prevalent in postmodern literature.

Denis Donoghue, writing about T. S. Eliot’s popular play The Cocktail Party in his 1959 book The Third Voice, explained the play’s structure as sort of a trap that “ensnares” its audiences. The play starts out looking like a reflection on light, silly comedies that had been popular and had in fact passed their prime by the time that Eliot was writing. As it progresses, however, Eliot leads his audience into darker psychological territory. Donoghue points out that the play’s deceptive style is Eliot’s way of dealing with the issue that was addressed by almost all serious twentieth-century artists: that of alienation.

The silliness of the first few scenes is inviting to audiences precisely because it makes the characters into distant, abstract objects, which, though entertaining, limits the degree of seriousness that the author can use in writing about them. The artistic goal of revealing the human condition and the ways that humans behave amongst each other contrasts with the entertainment goal of laughing at the characters’ weaknesses. The shift in tone that The Cocktail Party undergoes from its first page to its

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  • After the centennial of Eliot’s birth, a number of new essays about his work appeared, giving a more contemporary perspective on his writing and its influence. The 1991 collection The Placing ofT S. Eliot, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, shows what writers think with the benefit of distance over time.
  • Eliot writes on the subject of faith and its relation to art and culture in Christianity and Culture, comprised of two of his essays, “The Idea of a Christian Society” and “Notes Toward the Definition of Culture,” published in 1960 by Dimensions Books.
  • Murder in the Cathedral (1935), Eliot’s play about the assassination of Thomas Becket in the twelfth century, is probably his best-known play.
  • Eliot’s groundbreaking essays on literary theory are collected in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relationship of Criticism to Poetry in England. Harvard University Press reprinted this important work in 1986.
  • The master of the kind of witty British drawing-room comedy Eliot satirizes here is Noel Coward. Among Coward’s most popular plays about upper-class characters socializing are Private Lives (1930), Hay Fever (produced 1925), and Blithe Spirit (1941).

last allows the play to balance both agendas: audiences feel comfortable with both the detached distancing that mirrors contemporary interest in alienation and the insight that Eliot required of his work.

The first scene presents a situation that would have been familiar to audiences from dozens of British comedies, going back at least to the tight, witty bantering Oscar Wilde gave his characters in such works as An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Ernest, half a decade before Eliot wrote. The drawing-room conversation bounces along cheerfully, from one unlikely subject to the next: tigers, Lady Klootz, champagne, wedding cake, and even the hackneyed old symbol of faded English glory, the crumbling castle. All this presents audiences with a world that is non-threatening, comic because it is unbelievable. Julia Shuttle-thwaite, the meddling, scatterbrained old dowager, is a character well familiar to audiences. Her inability to keep up with the conversation is funny because the characters on stage are not talking about anything that really matters.

When literary critics write that artists, starting around the 1920s, presented “alienation” as the basic human condition, they are basically addressing the idea of personality, applying the concept to both literary characters and the flesh-and-blood humans who create them. What is too often taken for granted is the extent to which the very idea of alienation affects the artist’s approach to her or his own work. Comedy is, by necessity, alienating: audiences cannot identify with others’ weaknesses and at the same time watch them hurt. It is only when seeing their problems (and our own) objectively, at arm’s length, that they can be laughed at. If the characters in The Cocktail Party are comic in the opening scenes, it is because audiences are able to view them as objects, as the type of props that are always on stage in these sort of drawing-room comedies.

Throughout the twentieth century, audiences became more and more accustomed to this sort of distance from characters, not just in comedies but also in “serious” works of art. Once, an audience might have taken characters in a play as being just what they claimed to be, suspending disbelief, accepting the moment without dwelling on the circumstances that brought this artwork into being. The rise of modernism during the 1910s and 1920s is often studied in terms of how artists became aware of their freedom in choosing the forms they Page 45  |  Top of Articleused to convey themselves, but it ended up with audiences being aware of form, too.

The role of the artist, and the artist’s role in creating the character, became more conspicuous, making it harder to accept characters as what they claimed to be without looking at what they represent in the larger picture of the process. This carried forward, beyond Eliot’s time, eventually touching all manner of popular art and even advertising with a shade of ironic distance that tries to acknowledge the artist’s style while at the same time working within it. By the century’s end, everything from potato chip commercials to weddings included a self-aware nod toward the tradition preceding it. The glib partygoers of The Cocktail Party, coming from a comic tradition of glib partygoers, draw their humor from the same device as a contemporary car commercial that presents a corny, fast-talking, deep-voiced announcer: both try to convey a message, while at the very same time telling viewers, “I know we both know I’m trying to convey a message.”

The challenge for Eliot in The Cocktail Party was to transcend his own ironic distancing technique, to make his play about more than just his own awareness of himself, without producing a play with two distinct, separate, unreconciled moods. His transition from distant and lighthearted to somber is gradual. First, Edward discusses his marital problems with the Unidentified Guest. The subject of broken matrimony can be a serious one with life-shattering impact, as it does develop later in the play, but it is also the subject of the sort of light-hearted complications that drive romantic comedies. Adding to the level of safe distance for the audience is the stranger’s claim that he can “bring Lavinia back.” With no evidence of how or why he might be able to do this, his claim implies supernatural power. Modern audiences can have trouble taking a play’s issues seriously if they feel that problems can be solved by intervention from some controlling hand.

It turns out that the controlling hand here is the hand of science, not magic. Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly is no magician, but a psychiatrist. By introducing him in the manner that he does, and by keeping mysteries about him up in the air, Eliot is able to connect the ancient world which was his inspiration with the modern one, providing a commentary on how little has really changed since mankind accepted magic as a fact of life. In addition, Sir Henry also offers good evidence of the ideas that were changing even as Eliot wrote. This

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play was first produced fifty years after Sigmund Freud first published his theories about psychoanalysis. The world had had about forty years since psychoanalysis was discovered by artists and intellectuals, when it soon began to appear in novels and dramas as the binding force that shaped personality and motivated characters in their actions.

The Cocktail Party plays with the audience’s familiarity with the “psychiatrist” character who appeared frequently in twentieth-century plays, who was as often just an insightful person who could explain things as an actual, degreed professional. Eliot does offer the psychological explanation here, which was practically required in the modern work, but the context is that of magic, not science. Sir Henry’s professionalism in this drama amounts to putting Edward and Lavinia into the same room and having them figure out what to do about each other, and in telling Celia to do whatever she thinks best. His main function, though, is to put audiences in a pre-rational frame of mind.

As a character, Sir Henry is easy for modern audiences to accept, because his relevance is clear: he hardly has any importance to the play except for drawing attention to the uneasy balance between reason and mystery. The true focus of the play, the center of what is important, is Celia. She is presented as a sincere person. If she were on stage by herself, without the drawing-room comedy and the state-of-marriage-today analysis that surround her, audiences would reject her earnestness as being a little too sentimental. If the play did not have Celia, though, it would amount to a clever little satire, and nothing more.

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In act 1, Celia fulfills the part of the jilted mistress. Still, there is potential for her religious growth in her speech about realizing, upon hearing that Edward is a free man, that the dream she had been living is not enough any more. For the most part, her role as Edward’s mistress is one that could have been left two-dimensional, with Celia representing the sort of woman who would get herself involved with that sort of man, to be dismissed in that sort of way. It is clear that she has little regret about the affair. What Celia does regret is the bored, witty, upper-crust lifestyle in general. Audiences who see this play, up to the second act, as taking place in a cartoonish world peopled by stereotypical characters, can imagine what it must be like to be a real person who finds that she has voluntarily participated in such a shallow life. This is Celia’s dilemma.

Celia’s death represents both types of reality that the play juggles: the exaggerated, self-aware one that audiences watch for entertainment, and the narrow, humane one that Eliot’s Christian ethos requires. Caring for diseased people in poverty is the sort of unglamorous, brutal job that makes audiences uncomfortable, and if the play presented Celia’s ministry onstage, attention spans would lag. As it is presented in the play, though, her kindness and self-sacrifice are wrapped in a cocoon of silly business drawn straight from a boys’ adventure magazine. Monkey-worshipping cannibals may indicate symbolic things about primitivism and communion, but beyond symbolism they have more to do with the author’s message about storytelling than they do with any person’s actual life, even in the 1940s.

When Eliot wrote The Cocktail Party, the trend was toward art that sowed awareness of the traditions it came from, the tools that it used. The same trend occurs today, with films that mimic scenes from earlier films as “homage” and with music that “samples” portions of earlier songs. For Eliot to introduce serious ideas to a popular audience, he had to work with this trend, but he also had to use the familiarity that it requires to bring something new to audiences. The tone does shift throughout the play, and main characters are conspicuously absent for long periods of time (Lavinia in the first act, Celia in the last). Still, this play shows Eliot achieving one of the most difficult feats in art: using two different styles without ending up with a fractured piece.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Cocktail Party, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.

Laura Severin

In the following essay, Severin explores Eliot’s portrayal of a “disorderly world”one where women are independentand his restoration of traditional gender roles by play’s end.

Although readers of T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (1949) have long noted its connection to his 1940 tract The Idea of Christian Society, none have fully or critically explored the play’s social agenda. Like Eliot’s earlier treatise, The Cocktail Party presents a hierarchical world view that is alarming in its implications for both class and gender. Occasionally, the play’s class implications have disturbed critics. For example, David Jones comments on the “Christian conspiracy” of the play’s Guardians; this elite group, who as Jones points out “set themselves apart,” manipulate rather than aid, dictate rather than discuss. However, the implications of the play’s violence against women have never been examined.

Of all Eliot’s works, The Cocktail Party is his most sinister in its war on the educated, middle-class woman, that “modern woman” whose departure from the home threatened the exclusive rights of such male public spheres as the literary world. Given their discussion of T. S. Eliot’s works in The War of the Words, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar would most likely reserve this dubious distinction for The Waste Land. However, The Waste Land merely mourns the loss of traditional gender roles, while The Cocktail Party seeks to restore them. A second act in Eliot’s long-interrupted drama on gender, The Cocktail Party serves as The Waste Land’s opposite: a triumphant play of order regained.

By play’s end, Eliot has rendered all The Cocktail Party’s literary ladies silent, exiling them permanently from the public sphere. Lavinia, who formerly ran a literary salon, is pregnant and longing for a retreat in the country. Celia, once a fine poet, has been martyred on an anthill. Left mute or dead, woman is no longer able to interfere in man’s public sphere. The “cured” world of the epilogue, presented as harmonious and orderly, has come about through the restoration of traditional gender roles. What has been “sick,” we understand through that last act, is woman’s desire to enter the world of words. A triumphant tour de force for the male playwright, The Cocktail Party returns the world of letters, and the power it holds, to men. Out of the chaos of a feminized world, Eliot resurrects an almost forgotten binary order in which woman returns as man’s silent, submissive partner, his Philomela.

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Surprisingly, the reactionary message of The Cocktail Party was not unpopular in post-war society. Performed 407 times in New York and 325 in London, the play was an important commercial success, especially for a verse drama. The play’s positive reception is at least partially responsible for the inability of contemporary critics to identify its social agenda for women. One has to question why the mutilation of one woman and the complete domination of another went largely unremarked.

The answer would seem to lie in the ideology of domesticity prevalent in the post-war era. Eliot’s play is only one of many social documents which sought to counter anxiety over changing gender roles by returning women to their traditional sphere, the home. Despite popular belief, women did not return to their homes after the war; the number of married women in the British work force more than doubled between 1931 and 1951. As Alan Sinfield points out, such changes caused great anxiety and frequently led to reactionary measures: “It is because all this undermined male control of public affairs and the household, and seemed to threaten women’s roles in servicing the workforce and rearing children, that conservative institutions and individuals urged women back into the home.” Eliot embodies this anxiety in his character Edward, who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown after his relationships with the strong-willed Lavinia and Celia.

One change in particular which alarmed Eliot and his contemporaries was the high divorce rate in the later 1940s. After all, the focus of the play is the marital crisis of Edward and Lavinia. Elizabeth Wilson explains that the rise in divorces was temporary, resulting from “hasty wartime marriages” and “lengthy separations that could not be repaired.” But to many, the increasing divorce rate was the direct result of family decay, caused by women’s changing place in society. As is made clear in The Cocktail Party, family decay leads to social anarchy and the dissolution of civilized behaviour. Eliot suggests that only a return to the Victorian family code can prevent the social crisis from worsening.

What is more remarkable than this rather predictable backlash is that the Left, and especially women of the Left, did not loudly protest Eliot’s play or other similar social documents. The lack of resistance can be explained by the general view that the goals of the earlier feminists had been reached. According to Elizabeth Wilson, “Feminism led an underground or Sleeping Beauty existence in a

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society which claimed to have wiped out that oppression.”

Those few critics who attacked the play’s social propaganda were disturbed not by its ideology of domesticity but by the rationale for that ideology. In the early 1950s, domesticity was beginning to be justified on the basis of pleasure rather than duty. That is, distinct gender roles should be preserved not because it was one’s moral responsibility to do so but because such a distinction provided fulfilment for both partners. Although reviewers hardly mentioned Celia’s violent demise, the lack of fulfilment in Edward and Lavinia’s marriage did receive a great deal of attention. As one reviewer remarked,

One can have a pretty vivid sense of the horrors of marriage, as well as of the final isolation in which we are all imprisoned, but still one gags at these lines as representing the ultimate possibilities for human love. What comes to my mind immediately is that great poem of marriage, James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, which knows all the disgust and anguish of married life but also all its dear dirty joys.

Significantly, the reviewer remarks on the lack of sexual and emotional fulfilment in Edward and Lavinia’s life, since the earlier 1950s marked the beginning of a period which emphasized emotional, and especially sexual, fulfilment for both partners. Such mild criticism hardly served as a corrective to Eliot’s fable.

Eliot’s fable is directed specifically against those educated, middle-class women who would leave the domestic sphere for his segment of the public sphere, the literary world. Celia and Lavinia are portrayed as talented, intelligent women, but Page 48  |  Top of Articlethey are lacking one important weapon: tradition. Through his superior literary knowledge and linguistic prowess, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly regains the literary world for men, just as Eliot uses his literary skills to vanquish real-world Celias and Lavinias. If The Waste Land was Eliot’s “nightmare of gender disorder,” then The Cocktail Party is his daydream of paradise regained.

In order to find the paradigm to right the modern world, Eliot was to turn, as he had previously, to a past more imaginary than real. In the texts of this prelapsarian past, whether it be Dante’s Europe or pro-Civil War England, Eliot was to find his lost paradises. For The Cocktail Party, ancient Greece was to serve as one of these Edenic sites. Ignoring its more subversive elements, Eliot located his ideal gender story in Euripides’ Alcestis, the story of a submissive and finally muted wife.

In his 1951 essay “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot explained that Alcestis was the source play for The Cocktail Party:

I was still inclined to go to a Greek dramatist for my theme, but I was determined to do so merely as a point of departure, and to conceal the origins so well that nobody would identify them until I pointed them out myself. In this at least I have been successful; for no one of my acquaintance (and no dramatic critics) recognized the source of my story in the Alcestis of Euripides.

From Euripides, Eliot was to take the idea of the faithful wife, willing to sacrifice her life for her husband. But Eliot was to replace a real death with a symbolic one: the assertive Lavinia of acts 1 and 2 must die so that her husband can regain his identity. In addition, Eliot must have been captivated by the idea of a wife who returns muted. In the original Greek play, Alcestis returns unable to speak for three days. Lavinia can still speak at the end of the play, but her showdown with Sir Henry mysteriously subdues her, leaving her the passive echo of her husband.

However, Lavinia was to depart from her Greek role model in significant ways. Aware that Alcestis’ eloquence and rationality in her death speech serves to undo the patriarchy of Euripides’ play, Eliot was to severely limit Lavinia’s heroism and rhetorical abilities. Lavinia lacks Alcestis’ logical, tempered speech. Eliot’s scaling down of the heroic wife suggests he did not want sympathy for the female character to undermine his political point, as it threatens to do in the Greek play.

Because Eliot called his main character Lavinia, it is also possible that he was thinking of another retelling of the Philomela myth, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Lavinia, the story’s Philomela, encounters a far more violent loss of her voice than Alcestis: she has her tongue cut out. The fact that Eliot uses the name suggests that he wants a permanent silencing, not the temporary one offered in Alcestis. Also, some of the violence against Shakespeare’s Lavinia seems to spill over to Celia, who is mutilated at the end of the play.

That the male poet requires these stories of muted women to combat the chaos which modern woman has wrought is made clear in act 1 of The Cocktail Party. In the opening of the play, we the audience have fallen into the topsy-turvy world of Bakhtinian carnival. As Bakhtin has explained in Rabelais and His World, the carnival in medieval life subverted traditional patterns of order:

As opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions.

In The Cocktail Party, it is the gender hierarchy that has been inverted, leaving woman’s rule, not man’s. Finding carnival terrifying rather than liberating, Eliot portrays such a world only to vanquish it, as is made clear by the final act.

According to Bakhtin, one of carnival’s most subversive avenues is language. To challenge the language of domination is to challenge the very structure of a society. Woman’s threat in The Cocktail Party is her attempt to wrest the monopoly on language from the male literati and insert herself into the literary tradition.

That the world of The Cocktail Party is clearly in trouble is signalled by Julia’s importance in the first act. She is in control of the discourse, and that suggests disaster. Although her stories are never completed, we hear enough to know that hers are not stories of tradition and order, but tales of subversion and mayhem. In a play which sanctimoniously champions traditional marital bonds, we begin, curiously enough, with a woman’s story which undermines that very institution: the “extremely vital” Lady Klootz attends a wedding, only to rinse her mouth out with champagne after eating the wedding cake. We are not told why, but the rinsing action indicates a disgust for the cake and the very act it symbolizes. Her message, encoded in this simple image, threatens that of Sir Henry, a manipulative Page 49  |  Top of ArticleProspero who insists on pairing off the reluctant Edward and Lavinia.

Yet it is not only the stories themselves that are subversive but the way in which they are told, since Julia’s stories undermine conventions of discourse designed to keep power and authority in the hands of the male literati. Although Julia and Alex are both storytellers, their varying methodologies suggest entirely different roles for themselves and their listeners. Alex, on the one hand, sees the storyteller as the interpretive authority to whom the listener must yield. The play opens with Alex chiding Julia for “misreading” his story:

ALEX You’ve missed the point completely Julia; There were no tigers. That was the point.

But has she missed the point? Her detailed question reveals she has been listening carefully. Alex, however, asserts his control over his story by abruptly ending her questioning, “I said there were no tigers.”

While Alex’s stories demand that his listeners function as the passive recipients of his “point,” Julia’s stories are communal, requiring the participation of all the party members. Julia never really tells the story of Lady Klootz; others tell it for her:

CELIA... It’s your turn, Julia. Do tell us that story you told the other day, about Lady Klootz and the wedding cake.

PETER And how the butler found her in the pantry, rinsing her mouth out with champagne.

Julia eventually does enter into the story, but only to turn it away from Lady Klootz to Delia Verinder, thereby causing the story to lose its “point.” For her, storytelling is oriented more towards process than product; its goal is to unite the listeners, not to enforce the authority of the teller.

While seemingly harmless, Julia’s storytelling leads to a social crisis. As in The Waste Land, the entry of women into the discourse robs men of their linguistic privilege and, as a result, their authority and their masculinity. The men of the play are drawn into a night world where they begin to see backwards, i.e. from the “Other’s” site. The entire first act is full of negatives: Alex is never tired of the Lady Klootz story, Sir Henry has never heard it, and Edward does not remember it. Pulled into Julia’s world, the men become feminized.

For Eliot, any disturbance in traditional gender roles signals role swapping, and thereby complete disorder. In this new world, Alex begins to function as Edward’s wife, returning after the play to cook him dinner. Alex, world traveller and deal-maker, becomes feminine in his solicitousness: “But you’ve got to have some dinner. Are you going out? / Is there anyone here to get dinner for you?”. He even goes so far as to appear in woman’s garb when he comes out from the kitchen in an apron. Not only Alex but also Sir Henry exhibits new-found “feminine” traits. He quotes from Djuna Barnes’s trans-vestite doctor, O’Connor, in Nightwood. In addition, Sir Henry’s song is based on an obscene folk song, popular as both a collegiate and RAF drinking song that ends in a homosexual rape. The first act suggests that when women enter the discourse, men lose their heterosexual orientation and with it their authority and ability to enforce order.

This first act, as chaotic as the world of The Waste Land, functions as a reminder of women’s supposed desire to control language and thereby control the public sphere, traditionally man’s domain. As Virginia Phelan has pointed out in her dissertation on Euripides’ Alcestis and The Cocktail Party, women are strongly influential in the first act:

The women’s “domination” is signalled by the beginning of the play when, as the first cocktail party is progressing, they outchatter the men. Of the six people present on stage, only two are women; yet Julia speaks one hundred and eighteen lines, while Edward, the host, has only twenty-eight. Even the relatively quiet Celia has thirty-one lines, more than any man in the party scene.

What Phelan does not note, however, is that, by the second cocktail party scene, women have lost their earlier strength. The male characters have 417 lines to the women’s 224. In addition, it is the men who control the discourse; the women merely prompt by asking questions. In this last act, a significant difference has occurred: the threat of woman has been nullified. The men of the play recover from their feminized states as they regain control over discourse.

The character to make the difference is Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly. His masculinity survives the assault of woman, and by act 2, he is fully in control again. That Sir Henry is intended to be a figure of manhood, one who will eventually control the discourse, is made clear by his name. As John Rexine has pointed out,“Henry means ‘Ruler of the enclosure,’ reinforcing the idea of Sir Henry at the top of the hierarchy of this small world.” And indeed, Sir Henry does end up the ruler of all characters, for he engineers Edward and Lavinia’s reunion and Celia’s death. His last name represents a perfect balancing of the qualities of masculinity. Page 50  |  Top of ArticleThe name Harcourt, which as Rexine suggests has “intimations of his function as judge in a court”, is a sign of his rationality, balance, and control. According to Rexine, the second part of Sir Henry’s surname, Reilly, recalls that other Irish character of Eliot’s work, Sweeney. Therefore, Sir Henry represents the perfect balance of mind and body, rationality and physicality. He is the male dream hero, like Heracles whom he is modelled on.

Henry Harcourt-Reilly’s quest is the same as that of the male characters of The Waste Land: to reestablish the binary order by reasserting that most fundamental of distinctions, male vs. female. This task involves silencing woman, for modern woman’s attempt to use her voice has resulted in the supposed disorder of act 1. But Sir Henry can only succeed because Julia begins functioning as his other half, literally his other lens, in act 2. As many critics noticed, the wacky Julia of act 1 disappears. The “real” Julia appears to have been replaced by a pseudo-Julia, an occurrence which is hardly surprising in this play of disappearing women.

Of all the male characters in The Cocktail Party, Edward is the most enervated, the most in need of Sir Henry’s masculine powers. In Edward’s relationships with women, he has allowed himself to enact the image projected by his female lovers, rather than requiring their conformity to his images of femininity. Lavinia has fashioned him into a successful barrister, Celia a passionate lover. By allowing himself to become object rather than subject, he has lost that mark of human identity, the command of language. Edward, like so many of Eliot’s other male characters, becomes animalized, unable to signify. Celia says of his voice:

I listened to your voice, that had
always thrilled me,
And it became another voice—no, not a voice:
What I heard was only the noise of an insect,
Dry, endless, meaningless, inhuman—
You might have made it by scraping your legs
Or however grasshoppers do it. I looked,
And listened for your heart, your blood;
And saw only a beetle the size of a man
With nothing more reside it than what comes out
When you tread on a beetle.

For a lawyer, a man of language, to lose the word is a serious occurrence. His sentence, given to him by Sir Henry, is that he must go back to Lavinia. Because of his recognition of his inability to love her, he will no longer be in danger of merging with the feminine.

Edward’s young counterpart, Peter, is also losing his hold on masculinity and the language ability from which it derives. Although Peter is not in immediate danger like Edward, his love for Celia reveals that he has a similar problem of losing himself in woman. Desirable as romantic union is for Eliot, it has its menacing aspect. To love, for Eliot, is to end in a state of all-consuming union, leading to a contentment which robs man of his subjectivity and his true duty in the public sphere. As Peter says, such a love develops into an all too perfect peace:

I had never imagined such quiet happiness.
I had only experienced excitement, delirium,
Desire for possession. It was not like that at all.
It was something very strange. There was such...

For a writer, peaceful tranquillity leads to the state of silence. In act 1, Peter does not seem to be working on any projects. Although we know he has written a film script and a novel, his relation with Celia seems to have stalled his work. His sentence is to be parted from Celia and sent to California to work on his “metier.” Celia sends him off with this optimistic note: “But now you’ll have a chance, /I hope, to realise your ambitions.”

For Eliot, this world of silent, unambitious men is the outcome of gender disorder, for the men are not returned to their ambitions until the women of the play return to subservient roles. In order for the world to be righted, carnival must end. Woman’s participation must cease, thereby restoring man to his position as dominator. With man firmly in control of discourse, woman’s voice is no longer frightening and subversive, it is merely incoherent. Woman becomes recast as Philomela, who can only squawk bird noises, unintelligible to those who surround her. In Ovid, Philomela’s birdsong is her compensation for her tragedy, but for Eliot, so obsessed by the Circe story, to become animal is to descend into inarticulation, as does the nightingale in “The Fire Sermon.” Possessed by the beast more than once in his career, he would prefer to assign that role to woman. No longer is woman the Circe who forces man to “cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape,” as she did in “Portrait of a Lady.”

Celia, the story’s Circe, is the most dangerous threat and therefore receives the most violent sentence. Unlike Lavinia, who only dabbles in the literary world through her salon, Celia is already an accomplished poet. Too powerful to be effectively subdued, she must instead be destroyed. She is sent off by Sir Henry to be a missionary, where she is Page 51  |  Top of Articlecondemned to the ghastly fate of being eaten by ants. For turning Edward into an insect, she is eaten by insects: a woman who would leave the sphere of nature for culture is returned—violently—to nature. In a part cut from the final script, reprinted in E. Martin Browne’s The Making of T. S. Eliot’s Plays, her grave becomes a shrine where the natives bring food. Alex recounts:

There’s one detail which is rather interesting
And rather touching, too. We found that the
After we’d reoccupied the village,
Had erected a sort of shrine for Celia
Where they brought offerings of fruit and flowers,
Fowls, and even sucking pigs.

If Celia had continued a poet, her shrine would have been language, but here her mutilated remains have become icon. Nature again, she is decorated with flowers. Once Circe, she is now Ceres. As Michael Selmon suggests in “Poetry and Drama in Eliot’s The Cocktail Party,” she has been fashioned into the iconic embodiment of sainthood.

Not only is she killed, but her story of martyrdom is erased. She will have no part in the tradition, even second-hand. Alex, who possesses her story, tells only the barest of details. It is the details of Peter and his new film, i.e. his triumph in art, that fill the place where her story is supposed to be; just as Alex begins to tell of Celia, Peter walks in and Celia is forgotten. Hearing nothing of Celia, we instead are informed that Peter has written two film scripts and has been taken on by the great Bela. Indeed, Peter has had a chance to realize his ambitions.

But Celia’s story is not merely postponed. When Alex finally gets around to telling it, we realize that it is in fact the story Alex has already told, the comic story of the saffron monkeys. Celia has been one of those Europeans whose fate Alex had earlier described as something laughable: “When these people have done with a European / He is, as a rule, no longer fit to eat.” The setting of Celia’s story within this earlier comic story turns Celia’s gruesome and tragic death into an easily dismissed joke.

Lavinia, who has been more preoccupied with her salon than her husband, is also sentenced to lose her voice. But unlike Celia, she must remain alive as the silent complement to Edward. For without Lavinia, Edward does not know who he is:

...Without her, it was vacancy.
When I thought she had left me, I began to
To cease to exist.

However, Edward must cease being her image and she must become his: the object to his subject. In order to do so, she must stop functioning as the strong Lavinia whom Edward calls “angel of destruction,” “octopus,” and “python.” She existed as nature—octopus and python—but a frightening, slithering nature that threatened to subsume Edward’s sphere of culture. Where she had once set out to establish herself in two spheres, Lavinia is returned to the domestic sphere. Lavinia, who had left Edward without sufficient nourishment, now keeps a well-stocked larder. The once social Lavinia has become pregnant, and is longing for the country. Glad that the party season is almost over and Edward will soon be free to vacation, she says: “And we can be alone. /I love that house being so remote.”

Like Celia, Lavinia’s story of transformation is erased, leaving us with no tale of her tragedy. Just exactly what happened to her in the three days she is at Sir Henry’s is unclear. Julia insinuates some violence lurking behind Lavinia’s absence, for she says, “Don’t tell me you were abducted!”. But Lavinia never gets to tell her story. Julia suggests that she has had a lapse of memory, and perhaps Lavinia has, for she never again mentions her absence.

The play ends with Sir Henry having succeeded at his cure: Celia is dead, Lavinia has been rendered harmless. The women of the play have become silent Philomelas, no longer threats to masculinity. Shocked that Sir Henry is so pleased at Celia’s death, Lavinia makes one last attempt to challenge him. As Julia says, ’ I believe she has forced you to a show-down.” In this confrontation, words are the weapons, however, and it is Sir Henry who emerges with the superior words. He quotes Shelley, showing the superiority of his tradition, and Lavinia falters. With Sir Henry’s triumphant quotation from Shelley, Eliot casts woman as outside the tradition, and therefore unable to represent her position. Not surprisingly, Eliot had had his own problems with Shelley, feeling himself “invaded,” and thereby feminized, by the Romantic forefather. But the action of putting woman in her place returns his confidence and allows him to quote, and therefore possess, the works of the father who had once terrified him.

After the showdown, Lavinia becomes less and less willing to speak, having lost the position from which to do so. Made to feel inadequate, she loses her confidence and, with it, her voice. Although Page 52  |  Top of ArticleLavinia does not seem content with Sir Henry’s explanation, she no longer has the self-assuredness to voice her doubts. Her language becomes more and more fragmentary. Unlike “A Game of Chess,” it is woman rather than man who squawks the fragmentary good-nights:

And I have been thinking, for these last
five minutes,
How I could face my guests. I wish it was over.
I mean... I am glad you came... I am glad Alex
told us...
And Peter had to know...

The only trace of her dissatisfaction exists in the gaps or ellipses in her statements; they are the last sign of her subversion. They suggest that she is not glad that Sir Henry and Alex attended the party, revealing their disturbing information about Celia. They, after all, might have prevented Celia’s tragedy, which Peter would then not have had to know.

However, by the end of the play, even these silent reminders of Lavinia’s discomfort have disappeared. She transforms into Edward’s echo:

EDWARD And now for the party.
LAVINIA Now for the party.

The hierarchy has literally been resurrected, for Lavinia’s words sit under Edward’s. Echoing the sentence he begins, Lavinia has fallen victim to the binary order which casts her as the mere complement to man’s linguistic prowess. Having been made to feel her inferiority through Sir Henry’s knowledge of tradition, as exemplified by Shelley, she permits Edward to be the man of words and herself to become woman of nature through her pregnancy.

The Cocktail Party, therefore, ends with traditional order restored. Men and women have recovered their paradigmatic polarities, man functioning as the bearer of language and culture, woman serving as the embodiment of silent nature. No maker or user of symbols, she is reduced to mere subject.

Eliot’s The Cocktail Party is a significant work because the third act is perhaps the most concrete representation we have of the hierarchical world Eliot yearned for, but could not summon, in The Waste Land. Eliot’s desire to preserve the class system was certainly made clear in the 1940 tract Christianity and Culture, a work which, as David Jones has shown, has obvious connections to The Cocktail Party. But Eliot’s attitude towards women was much less clear in that earlier work. There were hints that women, like the lower classes, needed to keep their places: Eliot claimed his desire to return the world to the way the Christian fathers had seen it, and in a note, asserted that the “normal married woman” would, of course, prefer to relinquish the public sphere. However, it is not completely clear until The Cocktail Party that Eliot’s hierarchical goals extend to gender as well as class. His treatment of Lavinia and Celia reveals that woman must be returned to the home or disposed of. Eliot’s only way to accomplish this in a world where women were increasingly entering the public sphere of literature was to envision violence—the cutting of Philomela’s tongue. As Virginia Woolf, one of the premier literary ladies, once said: “If you are anaemic as Tom is, there is a glory in blood.”

Source: Laura Severin, “Cutting Philomena’s Tongue: The Cocktail Party’s Cure for a Disorderly World,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3, September 1993, pp. 396-406.

Gary T. Davenport

In the following essay, Davenport explores how the “same two-eyed vision which brings laughter brings salvation from the prison of self’ in The Cocktail Party.

T. S. Eliot’s plays, like his poetry, have always inspired critical extremes; few writers have had such loyal disciples or such violent detractors. The Cocktail Party (1949), the first of his post-war comedies, is no exception. Its problematical nature, one feels, is largely the result of Eliot’s ambitious attempt to reconcile two seemingly incompatible elements: high moral seriousness and “light” comedy in the Noel Coward idiom. Thus, much of the discussion of the play has rightly centered on its comedy. In his final chapter to the third edition of Matthiessen’s book on Eliot, C. L. Barber draws attention to the importance of the comic tone of the final argument between Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne in the consulting room of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, maintaining that it is instrumental in showing the audience the absurdity of the life of pretense, and that it ultimately conveys “the comic sense that life is larger than personalities.” But there is another important function of the comedy—an “internal” one—which has not yet been recognized: the all-important “salvation” of such characters as Edward (a salvation usually discussed only in religious terms) depends directly on their ability to develop and sustain a comic overview of life and a sense of their own potential absurdity. As Eliot

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A scene from the 1997 theatrical production of T. S. Eliots play The Cocktail Party A scene from the 1997 theatrical production of T. S. Eliot’s play The Cocktail Party

makes clear in the play, laughter can occur only where there is detachment and objectivity, and detachment from self is the first requisite to salvation—Christian or otherwise.

The close relationship between this sort of detachment and laughter is a familiar concept to students of comedy, and particularly if it is approached by way of Henri Bergson’s famous essay Laughter (1900). Although Eliot heard Bergson’s lectures during his European wanderjahr of 1910-1911, little has been made of his possible indebtedness to the French philosopher. Philip LeBrun, the only critic who has explored this relationship in depth, points out that Eliot himself has never acknowledged (or perhaps even realized) such a debt. And yet there are undeniable Bergsonian overtones in Reilly’s first conversation with Edward. He explains Edward’s discomfort at being deserted by his wife in this way:

You’re suddenly reduced to the status of
an object—
A living object, but no longer a person.
It’s always happening, because one is an object
As well as a person. But we forget about it
As quickly as we can. When you’ve dressed
for a party
And are going downstairs, with everything
about you
Arranged to support you in the role you
have chosen,
Then sometimes, when you come to the
bottom step
There is one more step than your feet expected
And you come down with a jolt. Just
for a moment
You have the experience of being an object
At the mercy of a malevolent staircase.

To the Eliot of The Cocktail Party this speech points in two directions. One immediate implication is the idea of the negation of ego—an idea fully compatible with the Christian meaning of the play. But the sort of objectivity which Reilly is describing has another context: comedy. Bergson makes this point in terms very much like those here formulated by Eliot: “We laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing.” The comedy of Sancho Panza’s being tossed in a blanket results from the fact that he is a person and yet is treated as though he were an object. What I wish to maintain is that to Eliot these two implications were simultaneous, and that the comedy of his play is not merely intended to provide “relief’ from the more serious theme of salvation, it is an integral part of it.

The audience is never allowed to forget that although Edward is sometimes able to produce cocktail-party wit, he is largely lacking in any

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fundamental comic sense. His wife laments having spent five years of her life “with a man who has no sense of humour”, and rebukes his solemnity over Celia Coplestone’s alleged elopement with Peter Quilpe in this way: “Really, Edward, if you were human / You would burst out laughing. But you won’t”. Reilly regards Edward’s growing capacity to laugh at his own situation as highly significant—especially when he is able to see comedy in his wife’s adultery:

EDWARD. Peter Quilpe!
Peter Quilpe! Really Lavinia!
I congratulate you. You could not have chosen
Anyone I was less likely to suspect.
And then he came to me to confide about Celia!
I have never heard anything so utterly ludicrous:
This is the best joke that ever happened.

LAVINIA. I never knew you had such a sense of humour.

REILLY. It is the first more hopeful symptom.

It is indeed hopeful that Edward is now able to bear humiliation with laughter. Lavinia too has considerable vanity, and has to be reminded by Reilly, who she feels has insulted her, that in committing herself to his care she has “come where the word ‘insult’ has no meaning”. Bergson maintains that laughter is the specific remedy for this highly unsocial vice of vanity:

A complete investigation into the illusions of vanity, and into the ridicule that clings to them, would cast a strange light upon the whole theory of laughter. We should find laughter performing, with mathematical regularity, one of its main functions—that of bringing back to complete self-consciousness a certain self-admiration which is almost automatic, and thus obtaining the greatest possible sociability of characters. We should see that vanity, though it is a natural product of social life, is an inconvenience to society, just as certain slight poisons, continually secreted by the human organism, would destroy it in the long run, if they were not neutralised by other secretions. Laughter is unceasingly doing work of this kind. In this respect, it might be said that the specific remedy for vanity is laughter, and that the one failing that is essentially laughable is vanity.

Once Edward and Lavinia learn to join society (or the audience) in laughter at their own vanity, their vanity will have ceased to exist, and their “salvation” will be effected.

It is in this connection that the strong motif of solitude and isolation in the play becomes important. The supreme irony of life in the world of the Chamberlaynes is that despite their constant and even desperate maintenance of the social atmosphere, they are always alone. The superficial gre-gariousness of their cocktail-party existence does nothing to mitigate their essential isolation. The motif of solitude is obvious; it can be seen in such touches as the game of Patience that Edward pursues quietly in the stage directions. And, as he makes clear in a conversation with his wife, Edward himself recognizes this problem long before he is able to do anything about it:

There was a door
And I could not open it. I could not touch
the handle.
Why could I not walk out of my prison?
What is hell? Hell is oneself,
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to
escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.

Solitude, according to Bergson, is inimical to the comic outlook: “Our laughter is always the laughter of a group”. Thus Edward’s ability to laugh is a “hopeful symptom” because it indicates his escape from isolation. It should also be recalled that the cocktail-party guests are invited (by mysterious telegrams) to the Chamberlaynes’ house for the reunion of Edward and Lavinia: their salvation demands a social context. Fulfillment for the Celia Coplestones of the world may consist of rising above society, but for the Chamberlaynes it consists of assimilation into that society. Thus, summarizing the argument to this point, the Chamberlaynes (especially Edward) are suffering, because of their vanity, from the frustration of solitude; their “cure” is to take the form of a comic overview which will allow them to see themselves in perspective; and the result will be their acceptance of society and its acceptance of them.

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An understanding of the play in these terms is especially relevant to the much-discussed matter of “one-eyed foolery,” as W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., calls it. Eliot associates the phenomenon of one-eyed vision with both Reilly and Julia Shuttlethwaite. Julia’s spectacles, which are identified by a missing lens, turn up repeatedly in the dialogue. She misplaces them constantly; on one occasion she discovers them (following Edward’s suggestion) in her purse, and on another she leaves them at Edward’s house. At her first mention of them (and of their missing lens), the unknown guest who is later identified as Reilly bursts drunkenly into song:

As I was drinkin’ gin and water,
And me bein’ the One Eyed Riley,
Who came in but the landlord’s daughter
And she took my heart entirely.

The resemblance of his name to that of the figure in the song is unmistakable, and critics of the play have rightly assumed that Reilly is in some sense as one-eyed as Julia. There is no doubt that Eliot intended this mysterious symbol to carry a great burden of meaning—in fact, as his producer E. Martin Browne tells us, the play was originally called “One-Eyed Riley,” and received its present title at a later stage of the composition. William Arrowsmith explains the one-eyed vision of Julia and Reilly as a metaphor for their spiritual “half-sight” (as distinct from the blindness of Edward and the vision of Celia). So penetrating a critic as Denis Donoghue accepts this explanation, elaborating it slightly in the direction of the spiritual enlightenment and confusion suggested by the light-dark imagery of the play.

But of course the reduction of light is not literally a very significant attribute of monocular vision, and I doubt whether Eliot intended this meaning to predominate even symbolically. (If dimness of vision had been intended, surely he could have contrived some disorder to weaken both eyes instead of eliminate one.) Also, there is a literary tradition of one-eyed characters reaching all the way back to Homer, and the traditional implications could hardly have been absent from Eliot’s mind. The most significant disadvantage of monocular vision is the loss of perspective, the inability to see things three-dimensionally. This quality, no less than the matter of light and dark, is easily extended by metaphor to spiritual vision: one can “lack perspective” as well as be “in the dark.” It may be going too far to attribute this shortcoming to the Cyclops of Homer; and yet their savage unsociability may well be a function of their inability to see life in perspective—to see themselves “through the eyes of other people,” in Edward Chamberlayne’s words. At least one modern writer has made use of the metaphor in this way. The self-assured chauvinism of the Irish patriot in the “Cyclops” episode of Joyce’s Ulysses is the result of just such a failing. He cannot see himself (or his nation) in context, and is thus as violent as the Homeric Cyclops with whom Joyce associated him. As Frank Budgen points out, life looks “as flat as cardboard” to Joyce’s Cyclops, and the presence of such a whole and humane vision as that of Leopold Bloom can only provoke him to wrath. Bloom, like Edward Chamberlayne, is a decidedly human figure, and is committed to life in this world—he is neither heroic nor saintly. But unlike Edward, he has a broad, humane, and perspectival view of life—in a word, a comic view. Thus the single-minded Irish Cyclops fears and hates Bloom’s larger vision, and their encounter is inevitably violent. “Two-eyed Bloom,” says Budgen,“ventures into the cavern of one-eyed nationalism.”

But how does all this apply to Reilly and Julia, who, unlike the Chamberlaynes, have attained a state of grace? In order to answer this question, we must realize, as many students of the play have pointed out, that despite their evident superiority to the Chamberlaynes, Reilly and Julia are far from divinity—or even sanctity for that matter. Celia provides the obvious contrast here: as Reilly is quick to confess, “when I say to one like her, / ‘Work out your salvation with diligence,’ I do not understand / What I myself am saying”. The very mortality of the “guardians,” as they are called, suggests that they too have had to work out their salvation with diligence. In fact, the song that Reilly sings implies this progress—at least in the full version given by Eliot at the end of the play:

As I was walking round and round
and round in ev’ry quarter
I walk’d into a public house
and order’d up my gin and water
Too-ri-oo-ley, Too-ri-i-ley,
What’s the matter with One-Eyed Riley.

That something is indeed the matter with One-Eyed Riley is indicated by his aimless and alcoholic wanderings. In the second stanza, which we have already seen, the landlord’s daughter enters Riley’s life and takes his heart “entirely,” thus presumably putting an end to his troubles. He is “saved” by a transfer of his attention to someone other than himself—by a love relationship. This is the very salvation prescribed for the Chamberlaynes; it is through a selfless love for each other and an objective Page 56  |  Top of Articleview of themselves that their spiritual problems are eventually resolved.

Something of this sort must have happened to Reilly and Julia at one point; they have emerged from the prison of self, and now are able to help other people in the same endeavor. (Thus Julia’s attempt to leave her spectacles with Edward may be seen as an effort to restore his “vision”—at least in his metaphorically blind eye.) There is of course no proof that Julia and Reilly love each other in any way uncommon to two of God’s creatures in a state of beatitude; and yet there are indications that they depend on one another heavily. Reilly’s song about the entry of the landlord’s daughter follows immediately upon Julia’s entry into Edward’s house. Also, their affectionate conversations at the end of the play reveal the intimacy of a close friendship. Wimsatt suggests a relationship which involves the matter of stereoscopic vision; referring them to the prophet-figure of The Waste Land, he says that “Teiresias.. . has suffered a split, into the male half and the female, each blind in one eye, but seeing mighty well in concert”. This reading accords very well with the Christian meaning of the play: in a state of isolation, man lacks perspective; when reconciled to his fellows, his vision is whole again. (The proposition can be reversed: when man’s vision is lacking in perspective, he is isolated. This is of course the trouble with Edward.)

This, then, is Eliot’s point: selfless and loving interaction with others is simultaneous with and indistinguishable from an objective and perspectival view of oneself. This condition—which is represented in the play by the metaphor of stereoscopic vision—is the highest degree of beatitude available to the Chamberlaynes of the world, and the test of its existence is the comic spirit: if one cannot laugh, he has not attained this state. The same two-eyed vision which brings laughter brings salvation from the prison of self.

Source: Gary T. Davenport, “Eliot’s The Cocktail Party: Comic Perspective as Salvation,” in Modern Drama, Vol. XVII, No. 3, September 1974, pp. 301-306.


Donoghue, Denis, “The Cocktail Party,’” in the Third Voice, Princeton University Press, 1959.

Goldman, Michael, “Fear in the Way: The Design of Eliot’s Drama,” in Eliot in His Time, Princeton University Press, 1973.

Headings, Philip R., “The Tougher Self,” in T. S. Eliot, Twayne Publishers, 1964, pp. 143-186.

Moody, A. D., Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet, Cambridge University Press, 1979, p. 365.

Pinion, F. B., A T.S. Eliot Companion, Barnes and Noble Books, 1986, p. 241.


Bush, Ronald, T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style, Oxford University Press, 1983.

Mixing biography and literary criticism, Bush focuses on Eliot’s poetry and his theory of art.

Cahill, Audrey F., T. S. Eliot and The Human Predicament, University of Natal Press, 1967.

This work primarily refers to Eliot’s other plays but does give readers some background on his thoughts.

Crawford, Robert, The Savage and the City in the Works of T. S. Eliot, Clarendon Press, 1987.

An analysis of Eliot’s works in terms of archetypes—savages, devils, etc.—is provided in this book. The Cocktail Party is fairly typical in its use of these elements.

Gardner, Helen, The Art of T. S. Eliot, E. P. Dutton & Co., 1959.

First published during Eliot’s lifetime, this book contains a good overview of Eliot’s career as a dramatist.

Kirk, Russell, Eliot and His Age: T. S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the 20th Century, Random House, 1972.

Kirk’s study is particularly lively because he was writing at a time when traditional morality was breaking down.

Peacock, R., “Eliot’s Contribution to Criticism of Drama,” in The Literary Criticism of T.S. Eliot, edited by David Newton-DeMolina, The Athlione Press, 1977, pp. 89-110.

Peacock draws direct connections between Eliot’s studies of Elizabethan drama and his works for the stage.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693800013