Essays and Criticism
Eliot's Technique in Developing The Cocktail Party
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...
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Cutting Philomena's Tongue: The Cocktail Party's Cure for a Disorderly World
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...
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Eliot's The Cocktail Party Comic Perspective as Salvation
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 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...
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