Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1546
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 same time a drunken reveler. Before he departs, toward the end of the first scene, he sings a bawdy song (the verses in the play are quite decorous, but other stanzas are traditionally ribald). “One-Eyed Riley” may remind the audience of the fertility themes in The Waste Land (1922), or it may, as Eliot suggested, recall the heroic-absurd figure of Heracles from the Euripides play. Sir Henry is both savant and fool, gifted with insight but unsteady from too much gin.
The meaning of his actions is similarly ambiguous. In his professional activity as a psychiatrist, he becomes a parody of psychiatrists. Nobody lies on the analyst’s couch but Sir Henry; he collects “information” about Lavinia and Edward, without their consent, as part of his investigation of their marital condition; and he prescribes, when necessary, a cure that may require the patient to visit a hotel or a sanatorium. The hotel, a halfway house or retreat between the sane and insane world, is Lavinia’s first destination, before she returns to Edward. The sanatorium, still more mysterious, is intended to cure victims of illusion, unreality. Still other patients, like Celia, he urges to discover their own mental health by working out their proper salvation. No wonder Lavinia questions whether the psychiatrist is a devil or merely a practical joker. In fact, Sir Henry is called a devil several times in the play, but he more closely resembles a divine agent. Although he has no power to effect spiritual cures, he understands the maladies of human or spiritual deprivation and prescribes a course of action to remedy the problem. Those sick persons must, however, make a decision to reject or accept the psychiatrist’s advice. Gifted with prescience, Sir Henry does not control the moral choices of his patients. They have free will, and although their destinies can be predicted, they must resolve whether to follow the example of Peter Quilpe, who chooses to go to Boltwell—earthly corruption—or Celia, who chooses martyrdom as a means of salvation.
Celia, the moral center of the play, is also a difficult person to understand. Unlike Sir Henry, she has no metaphysical function in the drama, but her character seems inconsistent. In the first scene of act 1, she is a vapid young socialite who presses Julia to finish her inane story about Lady Klootz’s wedding cake. In the second scene, the audience discovers that Celia has been Edward’s mistress. Disappointed when her faint-hearted lover tells her that he is quite comfortable in his relationship with Lavinia and awaits his wife’s return, she comes to understand that he is mediocre and unworthy of her affections. In the third scene, she is further estranged from Edward but no longer annoyed with him. Rather, she dismisses him as an amusing little boy, ludicrous but not vexing. Like Peter, she announces her decision to go abroad. The audience is not fully prepared for the change in Celia’s character in act 2, where she appears to be intense, introspective, almost visionary. In her consultation with Sir Henry, the most touching and poetically effective part of the play, she reveals unexpected resources of strength and integrity. She is weary of herself, not because others have failed her, but because she has failed the world. Guilt-ridden for no specific cause, she confesses to sin. Her psychiatrist-metaphysician suggests a spiritual cure for her guilt. She must discover her own redemption—one that will lead to a kind of crucifixion on an anthill, an absurd but (from Eliot’s viewpoint) purposeful death.
Because Celia’s death, announced by Alex in act 3, usually comes as a shock to the audience, it should be understood in the light of Eliot’s theme. Although The Cocktail Party is superficially an elegant comedy of manners, it is a morality play. The theme of the play is that reality takes many guises. All of the characters attempt to approach the real—or what is real for their needs—but most continue to play out roles of illusion. Edward, a Prufrock-like lawyer, reconciles with his practical but unimaginative wife. At the end of the play, just as at the beginning, the Chamberlaynes prepare a cocktail party to amuse other bored, lonely people like themselves. Their reconciliation to the “building of the hearth,” the commonplace but necessary compromises of domesticity, is satisfactory for each partner. Edward cannot love anyone, but at least he does not have to dissemble his frailty to Lavinia. She, for her part, is unlovable, but her vanity will not suffer any insult from a complaisant husband like Edward. So each is content, understanding no other destiny.
For the few elect souls such as Celia, reality is not a casual entertainment like a cocktail party but the narrow path of Christian service. Her martyrdom (and, presumably, sainthood) is earned at the cost of terrible suffering. In Eliot’s first version of the play, her death was described even more terribly: She was a victim of devouring ants. The final version tones down most of the horror by alluding to a crucifixion “very near an ant-hill.” Eliot’s point, however, is to affirm, through the announcement of Celia’s death, the reality of divine interference in a world of the commonplace. Similarly, the transformation of comic figures such as Sir Henry, Julia, and Alex into spiritual Guardians of humankind reminds the audience that the real world itself is illusion, the unseen world real. It is significant to remember that the Guardians’ final blessing for Edward, Lavinia, and Celia is taken from the Buddha’s deathbed exhortation to his followers: “Work out your salvation with diligence.” That is the message of Eliot’s play.