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 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 Shuttlethwaite, 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 used 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...
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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.
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 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 they 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 Eunpides.
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 Bakhtiman 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 stones 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.
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...
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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...
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