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 comedies, going back at least to the tight, witty bantering Oscar Wilde gave his characters in such works as An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Ernest, half a decade before Eliot wrote. The drawing-room conversation bounces along cheerfully, from one unlikely subject to the next tigers, Lady Klootz, champagne, wedding cake, and even the hackneyed old symbol of faded English glory, the crumbling castle. All this presents audiences with a world that is non-threatening, comic because it is unbelievable. Julia Shuttlethwaite, the meddling, scatterbrained old dowager, is a character well familiar to audiences. Her inability to keep up with the conversation is funny because the characters on stage are not talking about anything that really matters.
When literary critics write that artists, starting around the 1920s, presented "alienation" as the basic human condition, they are basically addressing the idea of personality, applying the concept to both literary characters and the flesh-and-blood humans who create them. What is too often taken for granted is the extent to which the very idea of alienation affects the artist's approach to her or his own work. Comedy is, by necessity, alienating: audiences cannot identify with others' weaknesses and at the same time watch them hurt. It is only when seeing their problems (and our own) objectively, at arm's length, that they can be laughed at. If the characters in The Cocktail Party are comic in the opening scenes, it is because audiences are able to view them as objects, as the type of props that are always on stage in these sort of drawing-room comedies.
Throughout the twentieth century, audiences became more and more accustomed to this sort of distance from characters, not just in comedies but also in "serious" works of art. Once, an audience might have taken characters in a play as being just what they claimed to be, suspending disbelief, accepting the moment without dwelling on the circumstances that brought this artwork into being. The rise of modernism during the 1910s and 1920s is often studied in terms of how artists became aware of their freedom in choosing the forms they used to convey themselves, but it ended up with audiences being aware of form, too.
The role of the artist, and the artist's role in creating the character, became more conspicuous, making it harder to accept characters as what they claimed to be without looking at what they represent in the larger picture of the process. This carried forward, beyond Eliot's time, eventually touching all manner of popular...
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