Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
The Chamberlaynes are giving a cocktail party in their London flat. The atmosphere is somewhat strained because Lavinia, the host, is not there, and Edward, her bumbling husband, hastily invents a sick aunt to account for her absence. As usual, Alex has an exotic story to tell, for he travels widely and knows everyone. Julia, a sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued family friend, misses the point of his tale and wonders why Alex and the Maharaja are up a tree. Julia usually misses the point of stories she hears.
The assembly demands that Julia give her inimitable imitation of Lady Klootz and the wedding cake. They have all heard the story before, except possibly Edward, who forgets stories, and an unidentified and unintroduced guest. Somehow Julia goes off on a family who has a harmless son, and the story never gets told. The harmless son is a fascinating person: He can hear the cries of bats. Then Peter tells of a scenario that he wrote and that, unfortunately, never was produced.
To Edward’s relief, the guests prepare to leave. Only the stranger remains. He drinks gin with Edward for a while, and Edward is compelled to confide in him. Lavinia is not really at her aunt’s house; she simply left with no explanation. The stranger points out that her leaving might be a blessing, since she is demanding and practical, but Edward is uneasy, without knowing exactly why he wants her back. The stranger promises that the erring wife will return within...
(The entire section is 1161 words.)
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Act I Summary
The first act of The Cocktail Party is the only one divided into three separate scenes. The first scene opens on a party in the drawing room of the Chamberlayne home in London with all of the play's major characters—Edward, Julia, Ceha, Peter, Alex, and the Unidentified Guest—present. There is witty bantering about people not present, making this seem like many British drawing-room comedies. Lavinia Chamberlayne is missing, and her husband, Edward, a lawyer, makes up a feeble excuse for the absence of his wife, who has invited the guests. He tells them that she has gone to visit an aunt in the country, but most of the party guests are skeptical. They all leave except for the Unidentified Guest, whom Edward asks to stay and talk with him.
Edward tells the stranger that Lavinia left him the day before, and that he tried to cancel the party but could not reach the people who did attend. During the conversation, he expresses his concern over what his life will be like without her, and the stranger tells him that he will arrange for Lavinia to return the following day.
Julia and Peter return to the apartment with the excuse that Julia has lost her glasses. Julia leaves by herself, but Peter stays and asks Edward's advice about starting a romance with Celia. They are interrupted by Alex, who has come to make sure Edward has a dinner. While Peter discusses Celia with Edward, Alex goes into the kitchen to cook, interrupting sporadically to...
(The entire section is 619 words.)
Act II Summary
Act 2 takes place in the consulting room of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, a psychiatrist; he is the Unidentified Guest of the previous act. He goes over his instructions with his nurse, telling her to send in the first patient, then to wait until he rings the buzzer three times before sending in the second, then send the third patient in when the other two have left. Before he starts seeing patients, Alex enters and says that he was the one who arranged for Edward to see the doctor. He leaves by a back door, then Edward enters.
Edward immediately suspects, upon seeing the familiar face, that this meeting and Harcourt-Reilly's presence at the party were arranged by Lavinia. Harcourt-Reilly explains that there is probably nothing wrong with him, psychologically, and that it would not be worth being resentful because his marriage would have turned out the same whether Harcourt-Reilly had interfered or not. While Edward wants to be put into a sanatorium, so that he can have some time alone, Harcourt-Reilly does not believe that he needs such drastic treatment. He says that Edward needs to talk with another patient of his, a similar case, and he has the nurse send in Lavinia.
Lavinia is under the impression that Harcourt-Reilly had sent her to a sanatorium during the time that she was away, but he explains that it was actually a hotel. When Edward and Lavinia start bickering with each other about who is more mentally distressed, Harcourt-Reilly...
(The entire section is 450 words.)
Act III Summary
Act 3 takes place in the same place as the first one, two years later. Edward and Lavinia are preparing for another cocktail party. They act as a thoroughly domestic couple, worrying about which guests will be offended and whether the pictures on the walls are straight. Julia arrives early, and is soon followed by Alex, who has been out of the country, in an exotic island country called Kinkanja. Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly comes in. Peter arrives from Los Angeles, where he has become a writer for a movie company. When he says that he came to London to get Celia to do a screen test for his next movie, Alex breaks the news that she is dead. She was working as a missionary in Kinkanja when a plague broke out, and she stayed with the infected inhabitants during a social uprising, only to be crucified and cannibalized. Harcourt-Reilly expresses no surprise at the way that Celia died, nor any sorrow that she met such a gruesome end. He recites a poem about life and death and says that he knew she was destined to meet a violent end. All of the people leave, one-by-one, and Edward and Lavinia prepare to assume their formal social attitudes in time to greet the guests of their cocktail party.
(The entire section is 215 words.)