Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Chamberlayne flat. London apartment owned by the Chamberlaynes, in whose drawing room most of the play is set. Although the apartment has an offstage kitchen, there appears to be virtually nothing eat in the apartment, except for a few eggs. The lack of food for the party, or even ordinary meals, symbolizes the lack of provision for any life in this shell of a home. As the play unfolds, both Chamberlaynes prove to live hollow existences that each of them has come to loathe. Relationships that Edward starts with Celia Coplestone and that Lavinia starts with Peter Quilpe prove fruitless and unsatisfying. Once the pretenses of husband and wife are unmasked, they learn to love each other, and are at last “lain” in their “chambers,” as their last name suggests. The last cocktail party held in this home shows that Edward and Lavinia have grown closer together, and Guardians toast to the partial success they have had.
Harcourt-Reilly’s consulting room
Harcourt-Reilly’s consulting room. Office of the psychotherapist Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly. The office is arranged so that Sir Henry can manipulate the entrances and exits and meetings of people at his will. His consulting room functions like the central office for a spy network. Along with the other two Guardians, Mrs. Julia Shuttlethwaite and Alexander MacColgie Gibbs, these three function like the Greek Fates who shared an eye between them as...
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The Welfare State
After World War II ended in 1945, Great Britain was faced with paying off the bills that had been incurred during the fighting. Far fewer men had been killed during battle than in World War I— 250,000, as opposed to 750,000—but the machinery required to fight had been much costlier. Unlike America, where returning veterans could expect to find factories and places of business still intact, many of Britain's key industrial centers had been reduced to rubble by German air raids. During the war, the British economy had been propped up by American loans under the Lend-Lease program, which had been enacted in 1941 specifically to help out during the war. On August 21,1945, not even a week after the end of the war in the Pacific, American aid ended. In the following years, England was faced with an economic crisis.
In 1946, a National Health Service bill was enacted by Parliament, making medical services free to all citizens. That year began a series of actions that increased the government's involvement in the country's economy, nationalizing certain industries that were then put under the control of government agencies. The coal industry was nationalized in 1946, making the government responsible for the operation of what had been over eight hundred private companies with 1,634 coal pits across the country. Electricity and transportation were nationalized in 1947, along with airlines and radio stations. By 1948, about 20...
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While dramas are generally confined to more limited settings than other forms of literature, like novels, which play out in readers' imaginations, The Cocktail Party is particularly limited, with only two settings. Most of the action takes place in the drawing room of the Chamberlayne house. This setting draws viewers' attention to several important aspects of the situation that is presented here. It establishes the elevated social class of the characters, giving instant insight into their view of the world. It shows the sort of order that Edward and Lavinia are accustomed to in their lives, which helps to establish why, even with their difficulties, each is willing to renew their relationship. In the first act, this setting creates an automatic sense of dramatic tension since it is obvious that Edward's story about Lavinia going to visit an aunt is a lie. The audience is left to watch him stumble through the cocktail party that she organized, awkward and uncomfortable in his own house. Later, when the party has broken up, Edward's attempts at secrecy are just as strained, as characters continue to pass through while he is trying to have serious talks with Peter and Celia. He is a prisoner of his social image, and the constant presence of others in his home fortifies this idea.
The shift in setting from the Chamberlayne flat to Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly's office in act 2 changes the whole mood of the play. While all of act 1...
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Compare and Contrast
1940s: Psychiatrists treat their patients primarily by trying to understand their past experiences and by talking to them. This sometimes requires having patients committed to sanatoriums for intensive psychotherapy.
Today: Much of the field of psychiatry focuses on the ways that physical imbalances cause psychological problems. The greatest success comes from a mixture of psychoanalysis and drug therapy.
1949: A wealthy person who feels overwhelmed with the stress of life might commit herself or himself to a sanatorium for therapy and counseling.
Today: People often speak openly about their therapy. Wealthy people have a wider variety of retreats and spas to withdraw to when they need a rest from the stress of life.
1949: Divorce is rare and not particularly socially acceptable. As a consequence, marriage is often portrayed in literature as a trap that people are held in against their better instincts and interests.
Today: Divorce rates around the world have skyrocketed since the 1970s, with up to 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce in some industrialized countries. As a result, recent research has focused on the harmful effects of giving up too easily on marriage.
1949: Third-world countries, such as the play's fictional "Kinkanja," are seen as dangerous, hostile places where civilized people fall victim to savage lawlessness.
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Topics for Further Study
Research tribes that practice cannibalism and compare to Eliot's depiction of the people of Kinkanja. How accurate was he?
What kind of music would be playing at The Cocktail Party? Explore sophisticated dinner music of the 1940s and make a tape that reflects the mood in the Chamberlaynes' drawing room.
Write a short story featuring Sir Henry's nurse/ secretary, Miss Barraway. What does she do when she is off duty?
What Christian symbolism does Eliot use in this play? Refer to outside sources if you need help identifying it.
Eliot probably had somebody in mind when he mentioned Bela Szogodny, the movie studio boss, in this play. Do some research on the Hollywood studio system in the 1940s. On whom do you think Szogodny may have been based?
Cast this play as a movie, using current movie stars. Why did you choose the actors you did?
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Although there are no recordings of The Cocktail Party, there are ample recordings of T. S. Eliot reading from his own works. One recent release, recorded in 1955, is T. S. Eliot Reads, an audiocassette released in 2000 by Harper Audio Books. It includes chorus segments from Murder in the Cathedral.
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What Do I Read Next?
After the centennial of Eliot's birth, a number of new essays about his work appeared, giving a more contemporary perspective on his writing and its influence. The 1991 collection The Placing of T. S. Eliot, edited by Jewel Spears Brooker, shows what writers think with the benefit of distance over time.
Eliot writes on the subject of faith and its relation to art and culture in Christianity and Culture, comprised of two of his essays, "The Idea of a Christian Society'' and"Notes Toward the Definition of Culture," published in 1960 by Dimensions Books.
Murder in the Cathedral (1935), Eliot's play about the assassination of Thomas Becket in the twelfth century, is probably his best-known play.
Eliot's groundbreaking essays on literary theory are collected in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism- Studies in the Relationship of Criticism to Poetry in England. Harvard University Press reprinted this important work in 1986.
The master of the kind of witty British drawing-room comedy Eliot satirizes here is Noel Coward. Among Coward's most popular plays about upper-class characters socializing are Private Lives (1930), Hay Fever (produced 1925), and Blithe Spirit (1941).
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Donoghue, Dems, '"The Cocktail Party,'" in the Third Voice, Princeton University Press, 1959.
Goldman, Michael,"Fear in the Way. The Design of Eliot's Drama," in Eliot in His Time, Princeton University Press, 1973.
Headings, Philip R, "The Tougher Self," in T S Eliot, Twayne Publishers, 1964, pp 143-186.
Moody, A. D, Thomas Stearns Eliot Poet, Cambridge University Press, 1979, p 365.
Pinion, FB.,A T S Eliot Companion, Barnes and Noble Books, 1986, p 241.
Bush, Ronald, T S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style, Oxford University Press, 1983.
Mixing biography and literary criticism, Bush focuses on Eliot's poetry and his theory of art.
Cahill, Audrey F,T S Eliot and The Human Predicament, University of Natal Press, 1967.
This work primarily refers to Eliot's other plays but does give readers some background on his thoughts.
Crawford, Robert, The Savage and the City in the Works of T S. Eliot, Clarendon Press, 1987.
An analysis of Eliot's works in terms of archetypes— savages, devils, etc —is provided in this book. The Cocktail Party is fairly typical in its use of these elements.
Gardner, Helen, The Art of T S. Eliot, E. P Dutton & Co., 1959.
First published during Eliot's lifetime, this book contains a good overview of...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Arrowsmith, William. “Notes on English Verse Drama, II: The Cocktail Party.” Hudson Review 3 (Autumn, 1950): 411-430. The best available article on The Cocktail Party. Offers a lucid analysis of the play’s rich Christian implications and its intricate internal structure. Arrow-smith ranks the work as highly for verse drama as he ranks The Waste Land for poetry.
Jones, David E. The Plays of T. S. Eliot. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960. In chapter 5, Jones analyzes the play’s relationship to its Greek model, Euripides’ Alcestis, and explains the strengths of a verse drama that is easy to follow and yet profound.
Kari, Daven Michael. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Pilgrimage: A Progress in Craft as an Expression of Christian Perspective. Studies in Art and Religious Interpretation 13. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990. Examines Eliot’s steadily improving use of characterization, verse techniques, and stagecraft as an expression of his movement from ascetic to communal models of Christian faith. An innovative and readable critique.
Lightfoot, Marjorie J. “The Uncommon Cocktail Party.” Modern Drama 11 (1969): 382-395. A lucid and revealing article that analyzes the rhythms that make The Cocktail Party so successful on stage. Also...
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