An introduction to Eliot’s greatest play by Dr Oliver Tearle
The Cocktail Party (1949) was T. S. Eliot’s greatest success in the theatre. Loosely based (according to Eliot himself) on Euripides’ Alcestis, the play combines autobiographical aspects from Eliot’s own life with ideas derived from his Christian beliefs, as well as aspects of drawing-room comedy, family drama, and psychoanalysis and psychiatry.
In summary, The Cocktail Party focuses on the failing marriage between Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne. The play opens at the cocktail party which provides Eliot’s play with its title. Lavinia has walked out on Edward, leaving him to pursue a relationship with Celia. Chamberlayne, a lawyer, is present at the party, along with Celia; also in attendance are their friends Julia (a talkative older woman), Alex (a traveller who recounts a number of exotic tales of his adventures abroad), Peter (a screenwriter), and an Unidentified Guest (played by Alec Guinness in the original 1950 production). Edward and the mysterious stranger strike up a conversation, and Edward reveals that Lavinia has left him. The Unidentified Guest (who is later revealed to be Henry Harcourt-Reilly, a psychiatrist) says he can get her back for Edward, but on the condition that Edward doesn’t question Lavinia when she returns. Celia tries to convince Edward to sever all ties with Lavinia and strike up a proper relationship with her instead. But when Lavinia returns the next day, she and Edward have it out in the open and air their grievances. As a way of patching things up, Harcourt-Reilly gets Edward and Lavinia together to discuss their marriage, and the two of them confess to their extramarital affairs (Edward with Celia, and Lavinia with Peter). Although their marriage lacks passion and even true love, the two of them become convinced to make a go of it. Reilly also convinces Celia to go out and find herself, now that she is freed from her affair with Edward.
We then move forward two years for the third act, which is set at another cocktail party, also hosted by Edward and Lavinia – although this time Lavinia is present. Their marriage has settled down into a life of tranquillity, and they are happier than before, it would seem. But Alex (the explorer-friend) then drops a bombshell: Celia, doing missionary work as a nun on the fictional island of Kinkanja, has been brutally crucified by the natives there, on an ‘anthill’. The cocktail party then begins, with Edward and Lavinia prepared to meet the other guests.
The Cocktail Party might be analysed, or described, as ‘Alcestis in the drawing room’. Euripides’ play Alcestis is about a wife who sacrifices her life for her husband, only to be recalled from the dead and for husband and wife to be reunited. So it’s not hard to see a superficial plot parallel between the two plays. This aspect, too, draws on Eliot’s personal life: his first wife Vivienne had died in confinement in 1947, and many felt that Eliot’s long-term friend Emily Hale – with whom he had spent much time and shared a great deal of correspondence since the split with Vivienne over fifteen years before – expected that she and Eliot would marry. (Eliot didn’t share this expectation.) But then this biographical analysis raises important questions: why does Eliot ‘resurrect’ the wife in the play, when the emotional prompt for the story (from his own life) was the death of his own wife? Is this what he felt should have happened with him and Vivienne, but, owing to his own lack of resolve or inclination, couldn’t will into being?
It is reductive to see Edward in the play as equalling Eliot, Lavinia the absent wife being a direct reflection of Vivienne, and Celia as Emily Hale, but this does provide a way to approach the play as Eliot’s exploration of his own personal relationships. (‘Lavinia’ is close in sound to ‘Vivienne’, after all.) For the play, Eliot drew diagrams on a blackboard to work out how the characters should interact and what characters he needed to invent to make the plot ‘work’. It is, of course, the arrival of the Unidentified Guest – who later turns out to be a psychiatrist – that convinces Edward that he wants his wife, Lavinia, back, and that he should end the affair he has been conducting with Celia. This Unidentified Guest is really a priest for the secular age, whose intervention is designed to heal Edward and Lavinia’s relationship and offer them salvation following their sins. But is this a satisfying conclusion? Is the end of the play effectively saying that one should make the best of what one has, even if that entails a loveless marriage between two incompatible people?
Eliot’s plays are, in a sense, more clearly autobiographical than his poetry. Lyndall Gordon remarks in her biography of Eliot, The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot, that a play is a less personal form than a poem (for some reason we always assume a poem is about the poet, whereas we don’t do this with a piece of drama), and so – paradoxically – Eliot was able to make his plays more autobiographical precisely because people didn’t expect them to be personal.
A few troubling questions remain about The Cocktail Party – questions which cannot be neatly resolved by analysis of the text. Why does Celia have to die at the end? And what is the symbolic role of her death in the play? Why is she apparently crucified? Many original theatre-goers were shocked and repulsed by this part of the play, deeming it gratuitous. But Eliot clearly thought that self-sacrifice was a cornerstone of Christianity, and Celia’s immolation is loaded with significance. It remains a problematic revelation because, even for many Christian theatregoers, it probably smacks of over-egging the religious symbolism. And one can only shudder at what Emily Hale, the indirect model for Celia, must have felt when she saw it.
The Cocktail Party is by no means a perfect play, and suffers from a flatness of dialogue which we also find in T. S. Eliot’s other verse-dramas from Murder in the Cathedral onwards. (His earlier, abandoned jazz-drama Sweeney Agonistes is altogether more vibrant and exciting.) But here even that stilted quality is half-made into a virtue, given Eliot’s wish to poke fun at the chitter-chatter of drawing-room comedies of the time, by Noel Coward and others. In the last analysis, it’s Eliot’s most successful play for the stage, and manages to add something to the banality of the drawing-room by depicting a marriage in crisis, and the eventual, difficult road to that marriage’s rehabilitation.
Discover this gem among Eliot’s later work by getting hold of The Cocktail Party. For more about Eliot’s work, see our detailed analysis of The Waste Land and our short overview of Eliot’s fascinating life.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.