Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

T. S. Eliot is best known today as a poet, even though his production in that area was relatively meager, he wrote less than four thousand lines of poetry, but volumes of groundbreaking literary criticism and seven plays Today, Murder in the Cathedral, his 1935 drama about the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170, is probably his best-known play and the one most often performed. During his lifetime, though, Eliot achieved the most popular success with The Cocktail Party. The play opened at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival in 1949, with Alec Guiness in the role of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly. In America, it opened on Broadway in January 1950 and ran for 325 performances, taking in approximately one million dollars. It won the New York Drama Critics' Award for 1950.

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Both the London and New York productions were met with mixed reviews, particularly aimed at Eliot for the play's similarities to his previous dramas. As time has passed, the play's satire of the polite British comedy has become dated, making it less accessible to modern audiences, while its philosophical implications regarding the nature of human relations have made it a continuing favorite of critics. In the early 1970s, as part of a resurgence in critical attention toward Eliot following his death in 1965, Michael Goldman called The Cocktail Party

Eliot's most successful play, because in it lies the vivacity of the author's line-by-line response to his theatrical opportunities at its height We feel this most strongly in two ways—first in the interaction of the characters, and second in the use of all the elements of the mise-en-scene (the arrangement or setting for a play) to advance the action and to intensify and render more subtle our experience of it, in particular to heighten our sense that the characters are haunted

In other words, the play works on its own merits, without the extensive understanding of Greek myth or Christian ideology, which are practically required if one is to understand Eliot's other dramas.

A. D. Moody sees The Cocktail Party as an advance over the author's previous dramas, noting that

here Eliot committed himself, for the first time, to making a play that would work in purely worldly terms Certainly the worldliness is kept on a tight rein, by the artifice of the plot .. and also to the seeding in of images, puns, and allegorical hints to intimate the existence of another world. Nevertheless, it was a great leap for Eliot to do without a saint or martyr.

While many critics note that the characters in The Cocktail Party are presented realistically, at least in comparison to those of Eliot's other dramas, some are also apt to take a long look at their symbolic functions. Philip R. Headings, whose essay ' "The Tougher Self' is one of the most comprehensively written to be focused on this one specific play, sees the characters in The Cocktail Party as being divided into two groups:

Each is indispensable to the central intent of the work, and each shows among its several characters a range of propensities, traits, and actions which are necessary to the unity Following the precepts of Aristotle's Poetics and the precedent of the great classical dramatists, Eliot has presented his characters only in the dimensions relevant to the life of the drama.

This is not, Headings explains, a bad thing, as modern readers might assume; it shows that Eliot's sense of focus does not require the clutter of unnecessary details in order to develop a sense of reality in his work.

One more issue that critics have pointed out in reviewing The Cocktail Party is the author's use of Simon Jones as Alexander MacColgie Gibbs, Clive Merrison as Sir Henry Harcourt-Reillv, and Maggie Steed as Julia Shuttlethwaite in the 1997 theatrical production of The Cocktail Party poetic language. In his previous works, Eliot had his characters talk in a type of poetry that seemed to some audiences stiff and too unrealistic to ignore. This play is written in verse, but it is a free verse that does not draw attention to itself. "Whatever its technical or stage merits," F. B. Pinion writes, "the verse is so plain that it does not linger as poetry: Eliot suspected he had put it on 'a very thin diet.'" Few critics have expressed any remorse over this simplified language, in general noting that the complex word play of his first attempts at drama were too difficult and obtrusive for audiences to deal with when experiencing the play aurally.

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