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 whom 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.