The Cocktail Party Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Ten years after T. S. Eliot presented The Family Reunion (1939) to mixed reviews, he completed his second verse drama, The Cocktail Party, which became more popular. In its first draft, sketched out in June, 1948, the play was in three scenes (or acts) with a projected epilogue and was tentatively titled “One-Eyed Riley.” According to Elliott Martin Browne, producer of all Eliot’s plays except Sweeney Agonistes (1932), the original draft with its revisions was based more closely than the completed work upon Euripides’ Alkstis, 438 b.c.e. (Alcestis, 1781). The “death” of Alcestis was to correspond with Lavinia’s departure from Edward before the party begins in scene 1. The services performed by Heracles, who descends into Hades to restore to Admetus his sacrificing wife, were to parallel to some extent those of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, the psychiatrist who later patches together the flawed Chamberlayne marriage. Celia Coplestone, whom Eliot later described as the major character of the play, is only a minor personality in the early drafts, and the roles of Julia Shuttlethwaite, Peter Quilpe, and Alexander MacColgie Gibbs (first called Alexander Farquhar-Gibbs) are unexpanded and mostly comic.

In the preliminary revisions of the manuscript, Alex does not appear between the party scene of the first act and the conclusion of the consulting-room scene, with its elaborate libation-ritual of the Guardians. That scene, however, was much more fully developed in the manuscripts. In the final version of The Cocktail Party, produced at the Edinburgh Festival in August, 1949, the scene was simplified and its poetic values were sharpened; it was offered in its present form, in three acts, with act 1 in three fully developed scenes, act 2 in one scene (Sir Henry’s office), and act 3 in a brief scene at the Chamberlaynes’ London flat.

Because The Cocktail Party changed so markedly during the early stages of its writing, the parts, which separately are effective, do not perfectly cohere as a whole work of stagecraft. The play is both a comedy of manners, much like the social satires of the eighteenth century, and a theological—specifically Catholic—drama of salvation. The lighter parts, especially the entire first act and most of the last, resemble the witty, tart, urbane plays of Richard Sheridan or the sophisticated comedies of Oscar Wilde, W. Somerset Maugham, and even Noël Coward. The serious parts—also (The Divine Comedy, 1802) “comic” in the sense that Dante’s epic may be called a commedia—resemble more closely the tragic farces of the novels of Evelyn Waugh. To satisfy the requirements of both light and serious comedy, Eliot’s characters play two kinds of roles. The Julia of the first act is a meddlesome, scatterbrained old gossip, but in the second act, she is a sober and indeed sanctified Guardian of spiritual destiny. Alex in the first act is a bumbling froth, an incompetent who concocts outrageous dishes and pops in and out of the action, much to Edward’s annoyance. Yet in the ritual scene at the end of act 2, he is another Guardian, perhaps even more mysterious than Julia, who has connections throughout the world—“even in California.”

The most difficult character to understand, because of his double function in the play, is Sir Henry, the psychiatrist. In the first act, he is described simply as the Unidentified Guest. A secretive but enlightened visitor to the Chamberlayne party, he apparently understands the nature of the quarrel between Edward and Lavinia; pulls the strings, so to speak, to arrange for her return to her husband; yet never reveals his own position. A confessor figure, he is at the...

(The entire section is 1546 words.)