Eliot's Technique in Developing The Cocktail Party

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1731

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.

Illustration of PDF document

Download The Cocktail Party Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 art and even advertising with a shade of ironic distance that tries to acknowledge the artist's style while at the same time working within it. By the century's end, everything from potato chip commercials to weddings included a self-aware nod toward the tradition preceding it. The glib partygoers of The Cocktail Party, coming from a comic tradition of glib partygoers, draw their humor from the same device as a contemporary car commercial that presents a corny, fast-talking, deep-voiced announcer: both try to convey a message, while at the very same time telling viewers, "I know we both know I'm trying to convey a message."

The challenge for Eliot in The Cocktail Party was to transcend his own ironic distancing technique, to make his play about more than just his own awareness of himself, without producing a play with two distinct, separate, unreconciled moods. His transition from distant and lighthearted to somber is gradual. First, Edward discusses his marital problems with the Unidentified Guest. The subject of broken matrimony can be a serious one with life-shattering impact, as it does develop later in the play, but it is also the subject of the sort of light-hearted complications that drive romantic comedies. Adding to the level of safe distance for the audience is the stranger's claim that he can "bring Lavinia back.'' With no evidence of how or why he might be able to do this, his claim implies supernatural power. Modern audiences can have trouble taking a play's issues seriously if they feel that problems can be solved by intervention from some controlling hand

It turns out that the controlling hand here is the hand of science, not magic Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly is no magician, but a psychiatrist. By introducing him in the manner that he does, and by keeping mysteries about him up in the air, Eliot is able to connect the ancient world which was his inspiration with the modern one, providing a commentary on how little has really changed since mankind accepted magic as a fact of life. In addition, Sir Henry also offers good evidence of the ideas that were changing even as Eliot wrote. This play was first produced fifty years after Sigmund Freud first published his theories about psychoanalysis. The world had had about forty years since psychoanalysis was discovered by artists and intellectuals, when it soon began to appear in novels and dramas as the binding force that shaped personality and motivated characters in their actions.

The Cocktail Party plays with the audience's familiarity with the "psychiatrist" character who appeared frequently in twentieth-century plays, who was as often just an insightful person who could explain things as an actual, degreed professional. Eliot does offer the psychological explanation here, which was practically required in the modern work, but the context is that of magic, not science. Sir Henry's professionalism in this drama amounts to putting Edward and Lavinia into the same room and having them figure out what to do about each other, and in telling Celia to do whatever she thinks best. His main function, though, is to put audiences in a pre-rational frame of mind.

As a character, Sir Henry is easy for modern audiences to accept, because his relevance is clear: he hardly has any importance to the play except for drawing attention to the uneasy balance between reason and mystery. The true focus of the play, the center of what is important, is Celia. She is presented as a sincere person. If she were on stage by herself, without the drawing-room comedy and the state-of-marriage-today analysis that surround her, audiences would reject her earnestness as being a little too sentimental. If the play did not have Celia, though, it would amount to a clever little satire, and nothing more.

In act 1, Celia fulfills the part of the jilted mistress. Still, there is potential for her religious growth in her speech about realizing, upon hearing that Edward is a free man, that the dream she had been living is not enough any more. For the most part, her role as Edward's mistress is one that could have been left two-dimensional, with Celia representing the sort of woman who would get herself involved with that sort of man, to be dismissed in that sort of way. It is clear that she has little regret about the affair. What Celia does regret is the bored, witty, upper-crust lifestyle in general. Audiences who see this play, up to the second act, as taking place in a cartoonish world peopled by stereotypical characters, can imagine what it must be like to be a real person who finds that she has voluntarily participated in such a shallow life. This is Celia's dilemma.

Celia's death represents both types of reality that the play juggles: the exaggerated, self-aware one that audiences watch for entertainment, and the narrow, humane one that Eliot's Christian ethos requires. Caring for diseased people in poverty is the sort of unglamorous, brutal job that makes audiences uncomfortable, and if the play presented Celia's ministry onstage, attention spans would lag. As it is presented in the play, though, her kindness and self-sacrifice are wrapped in a cocoon of silly business drawn straight from a boys' adventure magazine. Monkey-worshipping cannibals may indicate symbolic things about primitivism and communion, but beyond symbolism they have more to do with the author's message about storytelling than they do with any person's actual life, even in the 1940s.

When Eliot wrote The Cocktail Party, the trend was toward art that sowed awareness of the traditions it came from, the tools that it used. The same trend occurs today, with films that mimic scenes from earlier films as "homage'' and with music that "samples" portions of earlier songs. For Eliot to introduce serious ideas to a popular audience, he had to work with this trend, but he also had to use the familiarity that it requires to bring something new to audiences. The tone does shift throughout the play, and main characters are conspicuously absent for long periods of time (Lavinia in the first act, Celia in the last). Still, this play shows Eliot achieving one of the most difficult feats in art: using two different styles without ending up with a fractured piece.

Source: David Kelly, Critical Essay on The Cocktail Party, in Drama for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
Kelly is an instructor of composition and creative writing at two community colleges in Illinois and has often written for educational publications.

Cutting Philomena's Tongue: The Cocktail Party's Cure for a Disorderly World

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4953

Although readers of T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party (1949) have long noted its connection to his 1940 tract The Idea of Christian Society, none have fully or critically explored the play's social agenda. Like Eliot's earlier treatise, The Cocktail Party presents a hierarchical world view that is alarming in its implications for both class and gender. Occasionally, the play's class implications have disturbed critics. For example, David Jones comments on the "Christian conspiracy"of the play's Guardians; this elite group, who as Jones points out "set themselves apart,"manipulate rather than aid, dictate rather than discuss. However, the implications of the play's violence against women have never been examined.

Of all Eliot's works, The Cocktail Party is his most sinister in its war on the educated, middle-class woman, that "modern woman"whose departure from the home threatened the exclusive rights of such male public spheres as the literary world. Given their discussion of T. S. Eliot's works in The War of the Words, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar would most likely reserve this dubious distinction for The Waste Land. However, The Waste Land merely mourns the loss of traditional gender roles, while The Cocktail Party seeks to restore them. A second act in Eliot's long-interrupted drama on gender, The Cocktail Party serves as The Waste Land's opposite: a triumphant play of order regained.

By play's end, Eliot has rendered all The Cocktail Party's literary ladies silent, exiling them permanently from the public sphere. Lavinia, who formerly ran a literary salon, is pregnant and longing for a retreat in the country. Celia, once a fine poet, has been martyred on an anthill. Left mute or dead, woman is no longer able to interfere in man's public sphere. The "cured"world of the epilogue, presented as harmonious and orderly, has come about through the restoration of traditional gender roles. What has been "sick,"we understand through that last act, is woman's desire to enter the world of words. A triumphant tour de force for the male playwright, The Cocktail Party returns the world of letters, and the power it holds, to men. Out of the chaos of a feminized world, Eliot resurrects an almost forgotten binary order in which woman returns as man's silent, submissive partner, his Philomela.

Surprisingly, the reactionary message of The Cocktail Party was not unpopular in post-war society. Performed 407 times in New York and 325 in London, the play was an important commercial success, especially for a verse drama. The play's positive reception is at least partially responsible for the inability of contemporary critics to identify its social agenda for women. One has to question why the mutilation of one woman and the complete domination of another went largely unremarked.

The answer would seem to lie in the ideology of domesticity prevalent in the post-war era. Eliot's play is only one of many social documents which sought to counter anxiety over changing gender roles by returning women to their traditional sphere, the home. Despite popular belief, women did not return to their homes after the war; the number of married women in the British work force more than doubled between 1931 and 1951. As Alan Sinfield points out, such changes caused great anxiety and frequently led to reactionary measures: "It is because all this undermined male control of public affairs and the household, and seemed to threaten women's roles in servicing the workforce and rearing children, that conservative institutions and individuals urged women back into the home."Eliot embodies this anxiety in his character Edward, who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown after his relationships with the strong-willed Lavinia and Celia.

One change in particular which alarmed Eliot and his contemporaries was the high divorce rate in the later 1940s. After all, the focus of the play is the marital crisis of Edward and Lavinia. Elizabeth Wilson explains that the rise in divorces was temporary, resulting from "hasty wartime marriages"and "lengthy separations that could not be repaired."But to many, the increasing divorce rate was the direct result of family decay, caused by women's changing place in society. As is made clear in The Cocktail Party, family decay leads to social anarchy and the dissolution of civilized behaviour. Eliot suggests that only a return to the Victorian family code can prevent the social crisis from worsening.

What is more remarkable than this rather predictable backlash is that the Left, and especially women of the Left, did not loudly protest Eliot's play or other similar social documents. The lack of resistance can be explained by the general view that the goals of the earlier feminists had been reached. According to Elizabeth Wilson, "Feminism led an underground or Sleeping Beauty existence in a society which claimed to have wiped out that oppression."

Those few critics who attacked the play' s social propaganda were disturbed not by its ideology of domesticity but by the rationale for that ideology. In the early 1950s, domesticity was beginning to be justified on the basis of pleasure rather than duty. That is, distinct gender roles should be preserved not because it was one's moral responsibility to do so but because such a distinction provided fulfilment for both partners. Although reviewers hardly mentioned Celia's violent demise, the lack of fulfilment in Edward and Lavinia's marriage did receive a great deal of attention. As one reviewer remarked,

One can have a pretty vivid sense of the horrors of marriage, as well as of the final isolation in which we are all imprisoned, but still one gags at these lines as representing the ultimate possibilities for human love. What comes to my mind immediately is that great poem of marriage, James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, which knows all the disgust and anguish of married life but also all its dear dirty joys.

Significantly, the reviewer remarks on the lack of sexual and emotional fulfilment in Edward and Lavinia's life, since the earlier 1950s marked the beginning of a period which emphasized emotional, and especially sexual, fulfilment for both partners. Such mild criticism hardly served as a corrective to Eliot's fable.

Eliot's fable is directed specifically against those educated, middle-class women who would leave the domestic sphere for his segment of the public sphere, the literary world. Celia and Lavinia are portrayed as talented, intelligent women, but they are lacking one important weapon: tradition. Through his superior literary knowledge and linguistic prowess, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly regains the literary world for men, just as Eliot uses his literary skills to vanquish real-world Celias and Lavinias. If The Waste Land was Eliot's "nightmare of gender disorder,"then The Cocktail Party is his daydream of paradise regained.

In order to find the paradigm to right the modern world, Eliot was to turn, as he had previously, to a past more imaginary than real In the texts of this prelapsarian past, whether it be Dante's Europe or pro-Civil War England, Eliot was to find his lost paradises. For The Cocktail Party, ancient Greece was to serve as one of these Edenic sites. Ignoring its more subversive elements, Eliot located his ideal gender story in Euripides' Alcestis, the story of a submissive and finally muted wife.

In his 1951 essay "Poetry and Drama,"Eliot explained that Alcestis was the source play for The Cocktail Party:

I was still inclined to go to a Greek dramatist for my theme, but I was determined to do so merely as a point of departure, and to conceal the origins so well that nobody would identify them until I pointed them out myself In this at least I have been successful; for no one of my acquaintance (and no dramatic critics) recognized the source of my story in the Alcestis of Eunpides.

From Euripides, Eliot was to take the idea of the faithful wife, willing to sacrifice her life for her husband. But Eliot was to replace a real death with a symbolic one: the assertive Lavinia of acts 1 and 2 must die so that her husband can regain his identity. In addition, Eliot must have been captivated by the idea of a wife who returns muted. In the original Greek play, Alcestis returns unable to speak for three days. Lavinia can still speak at the end of the play, but her showdown with Sir Henry mysteriously subdues her, leaving her the passive echo of her husband.

However, Lavinia was to depart from her Greek role model in significant ways Aware that Alcestis' eloquence and rationality in her death speech serves to undo the patriarchy of Euripides' play, Eliot was to severely limit Lavinia's heroism and rhetorical abilities. Lavinia lacks Alcestis' logical, tempered speech. Eliot's scaling down of the heroic wife suggests he did not want sympathy for the female character to undermine his political point, as it threatens to do in the Greek play.

Because Eliot called his main character Lavinia, it is also possible that he was thinking of another retelling of the Philomela myth, Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Lavinia, the story's Philomela, encounters a far more violent loss of her voice than Alcestis: she has her tongue cut out. The fact that Eliot uses the name suggests that he wants a permanent silencing, not the temporary one offered in Alcestis. Also, some of the violence against Shakespeare's Lavinia seems to spill over to Celia, who is mutilated at the end of the play.

That the male poet requires these stories of muted women to combat the chaos which modern woman has wrought is made clear in act 1 of The Cocktail Party. In the opening of the play, we the audience have fallen into the topsy-turvy world of Bakhtiman carnival. As Bakhtin has explained in Rabelais and His World, the carnival in medieval life subverted traditional patterns of order:

As opposed to the official feast, one might say that carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order, it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions.

In The Cocktail Party, it is the gender hierarchy that has been inverted, leaving woman's rule, not man's. Finding carnival terrifying rather than liberating, Eliot portrays such a world only to vanquish it, as is made clear by the final act.

According to Bakhtin, one of carnival's most subversive avenues is language. To challenge the language of domination is to challenge the very structure of a society. Woman's threat in The Cocktail Party is her attempt to wrest the monopoly on language from the male literati and insert herself into the literary tradition.

That the world of The Cocktail Party is clearly in trouble is signalled by Julia's importance in the first act She is in control of the discourse, and that suggests disaster. Although her stones are never completed, we hear enough to know that hers are not stories of tradition and order, but tales of subversion and mayhem. In a play which sanctimoniously champions traditional marital bonds, we begin, curiously enough, with a woman's story which undermines that very institution: the "extremely vital"Lady Klootz attends a wedding, only to rinse her mouth out with champagne after eating the wedding cake. We are not told why, but the rinsing action indicates a disgust for the cake and the very act it symbolizes. Her message, encoded in this simple image, threatens that of Sir Henry, a manipulative.

Yet it is not only the stories themselves that are subversive but the way in which they are told, since Julia's stories undermine conventions of discourse designed to keep power and authority in the hands of the male literati. Although Julia and Alex are both storytellers, their varying methodologies suggest entirely different roles for themselves and their listeners. Alex, on the one hand, sees the storyteller as the interpretive authority to whom the listener must yield. The play opens with Alex chiding Julia for "misreading"his story:

ALEX You've missed the point completely Julia, There were no tigers. That was the point

But has she missed the point? Her detailed question reveals she has been listening carefully. Alex, however, asserts his control over his story by abruptly ending her questioning,"I said there were no tigers."

While Alex's stories demand that his listeners function as the passive recipients of his "point,"Julia's stories are communal, requiring the participation of all the party members. Julia never really tells the story of Lady Klootz; others tell it for her:

CELIA .. It's your turn, Julia. Do tell us that story you told the other day, about Lady Klootz and the wedding cake

PETER And how the butler found her in the pantry, rinsing her mouth out with champagne

Julia eventually does enter into the story, but only to turn it away from Lady Klootz to Delia Vennder, thereby causing the story to lose its "point."For her, storytelling is oriented more towards process than product; its goal is to unite the listeners, not to enforce the authority of the teller.

While seemingly harmless, Julia's storytelling leads to a social crisis. As in The Waste Land, the entry of women into the discourse robs men of then-linguistic privilege and, as a result, their authority and their masculinity. The men of the play are drawn into a night world where they begin to see backwards, i.e. from the "Other's"site. The entire first act is full of negatives: Alex is never tired of the Lady Klootz story, Sir Henry has never heard it, and Edward does not remember it. Pulled into Julia's world, the men become feminized.

For Eliot, any disturbance in traditional gender roles signals role swapping, and thereby complete disorder. In this new world, Alex begins to function as Edward's wife, returning after the play to cook him dinner. Alex, world traveller and deal-maker, becomes feminine in his solicitousness "But you've got to have some dinner. Are you going out? / Is there anyone here to get dinner for you". He even goes so far as to appear in woman's garb when he comes out from the kitchen in an apron. Not only Alex but also Sir Henry exhibits new-found "feminine"traits. He quotes from Djuna Barnes's transvestite doctor, O'Connor, in Nightwood. In addition, Sir Henry's song is based on an obscene folk song, popular as both a collegiate and RAF drinking song that ends in a homosexual rape. The first act suggests that when women enter the discourse, men lose their heterosexual orientation and with it their authority and ability to enforce order.

This first act, as chaotic as the world of The Waste Land, functions as a reminder of women's supposed desire to control language and thereby control the public sphere, traditionally man's domain. As Virginia Phelan has pointed out in her dissertation on Euripides' Alcestis and The Cocktail Party, women are strongly influential in the first act-

The women's "domination"is signalled by the beginning of the play when, as the first cocktail party is progressing, they outchatter the men Of the six people present on stage, only two are women, yet Julia speaks one hundred and eighteen lines, while Edward, the host, has only twenty-eight. Even the relatively quiet Celia has thirty-one lines, more than any man in the party scene.

What Phelan does not note, however, is that, by the second cocktail party scene, women have lost their earlier strength. The male characters have 417 lines to the women's 224. In addition, it is the men who control the discourse; the women merely prompt by asking questions. In this last act, a significant difference has occurred: the threat of woman has been nullified. The men of the play recover from their feminized states as they regain control over discourse.

The character to make the difference is Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly. His masculinity survives the assault of woman, and by act 2, he is fully in control again. That Sir Henry is intended to be a figure of manhood, one who will eventually control the discourse, is made clear by his name. As John Rexine has pointed out, "Henry means 'Ruler of the enclosure,' reinforcing the idea of Sir Henry at the top of the hierarchy of this small world."And indeed, Sir Henry does end up the ruler of all characters, for he engineers Edward and Lavinia's reunion and Celia's death. His last name represents a perfect balancing of the qualities of masculinity. The name Harcourt, which as Rexine suggests has "intimations of his function as judge in a court", is a sign of his rationality, balance, and control. According to Rexine, the second part of Sir Henry's surname, Reilly, recalls that other Irish character of Eliot's work, Sweeney Therefore, Sir Henry represents the perfect balance of mind and body, rationality and physicality. He is the male dream hero, like Heracles whom he is modelled on.

Henry Harcourt-Reilly's quest is the same as that of the male characters of The Waste Land: to reestablish the binary order by reasserting that most fundamental of distinctions, male vs. female. This task involves silencing woman, for modern woman's attempt to use her voice has resulted in the supposed disorder of act 1. But Sir Henry can only succeed because Julia begins functioning as his other half, literally his other lens, in act 2. As many critics noticed, the wacky Julia of act 1 disappears. The "real"Julia appears to have been replaced by a pseudo- Julia, an occurrence which is hardly surprising in this play of disappearing women.

Of all the male characters in The Cocktail Party, Edward is the most enervated, the most in need of Sir Henry's masculine powers. In Edward's relationships with women, he has allowed himself to enact the image projected by his female lovers, rather than requiring their conformity to his images of femininity. Lavinia has fashioned him into a successful barrister, Celia a passionate lover. By allowing himself to become object rather than subject, he has lost that mark of human identity, the command of language. Edward, like so many of Eliot's other male characters, becomes animalized, unable to signify. Celia says of his voice:

I listened to your voice, that had
always thrilled me,
And it became another voice—no, not a voice'
What I heard was only the noise of an insect,
Dry, endless, meaningless, inhuman—
You might have made it by scraping your legs
together—
Or however grasshoppers do it I looked,
And listened for your heart, your blood,
And saw only a beetle the size of a man
With nothing more reside it than what comes out
When you tread on a beetle

For a lawyer, a man of language, to lose the word is a serious occurrence. His sentence, given to him by Sir Henry, is that he must go back to Lavinia. Because of his recognition of his inability to love her, he will no longer be in danger of merging with the feminine.

Edward's young counterpart, Peter, is also losing his hold on masculinity and the language ability from which it derives. Although Peter is not in immediate danger like Edward, his love for Celia reveals that he has a similar problem of losing himself in woman. Desirable as romantic union is for Eliot, it has its menacing aspect. To love, for Eliot, is to end in a state of all-consuming union, leading to a contentment which robs man of his subjectivity and his true duty in the public sphere. As Peter says, such a love develops into an all too perfect peace:

I had never imagined such quiet happiness
I had only experienced excitement, delirium,
Desire for possession. It was not like that at all
It was something very strange There was such...
tranquillity...

For a writer, peaceful tranquillity leads to the state of silence. In act 1, Peter does not seem to be working on any projects. Although we know he has written a film script and a novel, his relation with Celia seems to have stalled his work. His sentence is to be parted from Celia and sent to California to work on his "metier."Celia sends him off with this optimistic note: "But now you'll have a chance, /I hope, to realise your ambitions."

For Eliot, this world of silent, unambitious men is the outcome of gender disorder, for the men are not returned to their ambitions until the women of the play return to subservient roles. In order for the world to be righted, carnival must end. Woman's participation must cease, thereby restoring man to his position as dominator. With man firmly in control of discourse, woman's voice is no longer frightening and subversive, it is merely incoherent. Woman becomes recast as Philomela, who can only squawk bird noises, unintelligible to those who surround her. In Ovid, Philomela's birdsong is her compensation for her tragedy, but for Eliot, so obsessed by the Circe story, to become animal is to descend into inarticulation, as does the nightingale in "The Fire Sermon.'' Possessed by the beast more than once in his career, he would prefer to assign that role to woman. No longer is woman the Circe who forces man to "cry like a parrot, chatter like an ape," as she did in "Portrait of a Lady."

Celia, the story's Circe, is the most dangerous threat and therefore receives the most violent sentence. Unlike Lavinia, who only dabbles in the literary world through her salon, Celia is already an accomplished poet. Too powerful to be effectively subdued, she must instead be destroyed. She is sent off by Sir Henry to be a missionary, where she is condemned to the ghastly fate of being eaten by ants. For turning Edward into an insect, she is eaten by insects: a woman who would leave the sphere of nature for culture is returned—violently—to nature. In a part cut from the final script, reprinted in E. Martin Browne's The Making ofT. S. Eliot's Plays, her grave becomes a shrine where the natives bring food. Alex recounts:

There's one detail which is rather interesting
And rather touching, too We found that the
natives,
After we'd reoccupied the village
Had erected a sort of shrine for Celia
Where they brought offerings of fruit and flowers
Fowls, and even sucking pigs

If Celia had continued a poet, her shrine would have been language, but here her mutilated remains have become icon. Nature again, she is decorated with flowers. Once Circe, she is now Ceres. As Michael Selmon suggests in "Poetry and Drama in Eliot's The Cocktail Party,'' she has been fashioned into the iconic embodiment of sainthood.

Not only is she killed, but her story of martyrdom is erased. She will have no part in the tradition, even second-hand. Alex, who possesses her story, tells only the barest of details. It is the details of Peter and his new film, i.e. his triumph in art, that fill the place where her story is supposed to be; just as Alex begins to tell of Celia, Peter walks in and Celia is forgotten. Hearing nothing of Celia, we instead are informed that Peter has written two film scripts and has been taken on by the great Bela. Indeed, Peter has had a chance to realize his ambitions.

But Celia's story is not merely postponed. When Alex finally gets around to telling it, we realize that it is in fact the story Alex has already told, the comic story of the saffron monkeys. Celia has been one of those Europeans whose fate Alex had earlier described as something laughable "When these people have done with a European / He is, as a rule, no longer fit to eat."The setting of Celia's story within this earlier comic story turns Celia's gruesome and tragic death into an easily dismissed joke.

Lavinia, who has been more preoccupied with her salon than her husband, is also sentenced to lose her voice. But unlike Celia, she must remain alive as the silent complement to Edward. For without Lavinia, Edward does not know who he is:

Without her, it was vacancy.
When I thought she had left me, I began to dissolve,
To cease to exist

However, Edward must cease being her image and she must become his: the object to his subject. In order to do so, she must stop functioning as the strong Lavinia whom Edward calls "angel of destruction," "octopus," and "python." She existed as nature—octopus and python—but a frightening, slithering nature that threatened to subsume Edward's sphere of culture. Where she had once set out to establish herself in two spheres, Lavinia is returned to the domestic sphere. Lavinia, who had left Edward without sufficient nourishment, now keeps a well-stocked larder. The once social Lavinia has become pregnant, and is longing for the country. Glad that the party season is almost over and Edward will soon be free to vacation, she says: "And we can be alone. /I love that house being so remote."

Like Celia, Lavinia's story of transformation is erased, leaving us with no tale of her tragedy. Just exactly what happened to her in the three days she is at Sir Henry's is unclear. Mia insinuates some violence lurking behind Lavinia's absence, for she says, "Don't tell me you were abducted!" But Lavinia never gets to tell her story. Mia suggests that she has had a lapse of memory, and perhaps Lavinia has, for she never again mentions her absence.

The play ends with Sir Henry having succeeded at his cure Celia is dead, Lavinia has been rendered harmless. The women of the play have become silent Philomelas, no longer threats to masculinity. Shocked that Sir Henry is so pleased at Celia's death, Lavinia makes one last attempt to challenge him. As Julia says,"I believe she has forced you to a show-down. "In this confrontation, words are the weapons, however, and it is Sir Henry who emerges with the superior words. He quotes Shelley, showing the superiority of his tradition, and Lavinia falters. With Sir Henry's triumphant quotation from Shelley, Eliot casts woman as outside the tradition, and therefore unable to represent her position. Not surprisingly, Eliot had had his own problems with Shelley, feeling himself "invaded," and thereby feminized, by the Romantic forefather. But the action of putting woman in her place returns his confidence and allows him to quote, and therefore possess, the works of the father who had once terrified him.

After the showdown, Lavinia becomes less and less willing to speak, having lost the position from which to do so. Made to feel inadequate, she loses her confidence and, with it, her voice. Although Lavinia does not seem content with Sir Henry's explanation, she no longer has the self-assuredness to voice her doubts. Her language becomes more and more fragmentary. Unlike "A Game of Chess,'' it is woman rather than man who squawks the fragmentary good-nights:

And I have been thinking, for these last
five minutes,
How I could face my guests. I wish it was over
I mean... I am glad you came.. I am glad Alex told us
And Peter had to know

The only trace of her dissatisfaction exists in the gaps or ellipses in her statements; they are the last sign of her subversion. They suggest that she is not glad that Sir Henry and Alex attended the party, revealing their disturbing information about Celia. They, after all, might have prevented Celia's tragedy, which Peter would then not have had to know.

However, by the end of the play, even these silent reminders of Lavinia's discomfort have disappeared She transforms into Edward's echo:

EDWARD And now for the party.
LAVINIA Now for the party

The hierarchy has literally been resurrected, for Lavinia's words sit under Edward's. Echoing the sentence he begins, Lavinia has fallen victim to the binary order which casts her as the mere complement to man's linguistic prowess. Having been made to feel her inferiority through Sir Henry's knowledge of tradition, as exemplified by Shelley, she permits Edward to be the man of words and herself to become woman of nature through her pregnancy.

The Cocktail Party, therefore, ends with traditional order restored. Men and women have recovered their paradigmatic polarities, man functioning as the bearer of language and culture, woman serving as the embodiment of silent nature. No maker or user of symbols, she is reduced to mere subject.

Eliot's The Cocktail Party is a significant work because the third act is perhaps the most concrete representation we have of the hierarchical world Eliot yearned for, but could not summon, in The Waste Land. Eliot's desire to preserve the class system was certainly made clear in the 1940 tract Christianity and Culture, a work which, as David Jones has shown, has obvious connections to The Cocktail Party. But Eliot's attitude towards women was much less clear in that earlier work There were hints that women, like the lower classes, needed to keep their places: Eliot claimed his desire to return the world to the way the Christian fathers had seen it, and in a note, asserted that the "normal married woman" would, of course, prefer to relinquish the public sphere. However, it is not completely clear until The Cocktail Party that Eliot's hierarchical goals extend to gender as well as class. His treatment of Lavinia and Celia reveals that woman must be returned to the home or disposed of. Eliot's only way to accomplish this in a world where women were increasingly entering the public sphere of literature was to envision violence—the cutting of Philomela's tongue. As Virginia Woolf, one of the premier literary ladies, once said: "If you are anaemic as Tom is, there is a glory in blood."

Source: Laura Sevenn, "Cutting Philomena's Tongue. The Cocktail Party's Cure for a Disorderly World,"in Modern Drama, Vol XXXVI, No 3, September 1993, pp 396-406

Eliot's The Cocktail Party Comic Perspective as Salvation

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2529

T. S. Eliot's plays, like his poetry, have always inspired critical extremes, few writers have had such loyal disciples or such violent detractors. The Cocktail Party (1949), the first of his post-war comedies, is no exception. Its problematical nature, one feels, is largely the result of Eliot's ambitious attempt to reconcile two seemingly incompatible elements: high moral seriousness and "light'' comedy in the Noel Coward idiom. Thus, much of the discussion of the play has rightly centered on its comedy. In his final chapter to the third edition of Matthiessen's book on Eliot, C. L. Barber draws attention to the importance of the comic tone of the final argument between Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne in the consulting room of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, maintaining that it is instrumental in showing the audience the absurdity of the life of pretense, and that it ultimately conveys "the comic sense that life is larger than personalities." But there is another important function of the comedy— an "internal" one—which has not yet been recognized: the all-important "salvation" of such characters as Edward (a salvation usually discussed only in religious terms) depends directly on their ability to develop and sustain a comic overview of life and a sense of their own potential absurdity. As Eliot makes clear in the play, laughter can occur only where there is detachment and objectivity, and detachment from self is the first requisite to salvation—Christian or otherwise.

The close relationship between this sort of detachment and laughter is a familiar concept to students of comedy, and particularly if it is approached by way of Henri Bergson's famous essay Laughter (1900). Although Eliot heard Bergson's lectures during his European wanderjahr of 1910-1911, little has been made of his possible indebtedness to the French philosopher. Philip LeBrun, the only critic who has explored this relationship in depth, points out that Eliot himself has never acknowledged (or perhaps even realized) such a debt. And yet there are undeniable Bergsonian overtones in Reilly's first conversation with Edward. He explains Edward's discomfort at being deserted by his wife in this way:

You're suddenly reduced to the status of an object—
A living object, but no longer a person
It's always happening, because one is an object
As well as a person. But we forge! about it
As quickly as we can. When you've dressed for a party
And are going downstairs, with everything about you
Arranged to support you in the role you have chosen.
Then sometimes, when you come to the bottom step
There is one more step than your feet expected
And you come down with a jolt. Just for a moment
You have the experience of being an object
At the mercy of a malevolent staircase.

To the Eliot of The Cocktail Party this speech points in two directions. One immediate implication is the idea of the negation of ego—an idea fully compatible with the Christian meaning of the play. But the sort of objectivity which Reilly is describing has another context: comedy. Bergson makes this point in terms very much like those here formulated by Eliot: "We laugh every time a person gives us the impression of being a thing." The comedy of Sancho Panza's being tossed in a blanket results from the fact that he is a person and yet is treated as though he were an object. What I wish to maintain is that to Eliot these two implications were simultaneous, and that the comedy of his play is not merely intended to provide "relief" from the more serious theme of salvation, it is an integral part of it.

The audience is never allowed to forget that although Edward is sometimes able to produce cocktail-party wit, he is largely lacking in any fundamental comic sense. His wife laments having spent five years of her life "with a man who has no sense of humour", and rebukes his solemnity over Celia Coplestone's alleged elopement with Peter Quilpe in this way: "Really, Edward, if you were human / You would burst out laughing. But you won't". Reilly regards Edward's growing capacity to laugh at his own situation as highly significant— especially when he is able to see comedy in his wife's adultery:

EDWARD. Peter Quilpei Peter Quilpe! Really Lavinia!
I congratulate you
You could not have chosen
Anyone I was less likely to suspect.
And then he came to me to confide about Celia!
I have never heard anything so utterly ludicrous:
This is the best joke that ever happened

LAVINIA I never knew you had such a sense of humour.

REILLY It is the first more hopeful symptom.

It is indeed hopeful that Edward is now able to bear humiliation with laughter. Lavinia too has considerable vanity, and has to be reminded by Reilly, who she feels has insulted her, that in committing herself to his care she has "come where the word 'insult' has no meaning". Bergson maintains that laughter is the specific remedy for this highly unsocial vice of vanity:

A complete investigation into the illusions of vanity, and into the ridicule that clings to them, would cast a strange light upon the whole theory of laughter. We should find laughter performing, with mathematical regularity, one of its main functions—that of bringing back to complete self-consciousness a certain self-admiration which is almost automatic, and thus obtaining the greatest possible sociability of characters. We should see that vanity, though it is a natural product of social life, is an inconvenience to society, just as certain slight poisons, continually secreted by the human organism, would destroy it in the long run, if they were not neutralised by other secretions. Laughter is unceasingly doing work of this kind In this respect, it might be said that the specific remedy for vanity is laughter, and that the one failing that is essentially laughable is vanity.

Once Edward and Lavinia learn to join society (or the audience) in laughter at their own vanity, their vanity will have ceased to exist, and their "salvation" will be effected.

It is in this connection that the strong motif of solitude and isolation in the play becomes important. The supreme irony of life in the world of the Chamberlaynes is that despite their constant and even desperate maintenance of the social atmosphere, they are always alone. The superficial gregariousness of their cocktail-party existence does nothing to mitigate their essential isolation. The motif of solitude is obvious; it can be seen in such touches as the game of Patience that Edward pursues quietly in the stage directions. And, as he makes clear in a conversation with his wife, Edward himself recognizes this problem long before he is able to do anything about it:

There was a door
And I could not open it I could not touch the handle
Why could I not walk out of my prison?
What is hell? Hell is oneself,
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.

Solitude, according to Bergson, is inimical to the comic outlook: "Our laughter is always the laughter of a group". Thus Edward's ability to laugh is a "hopeful symptom" because it indicates his escape from isolation. It should also be recalled that the cocktail-party guests are invited (by mysterious telegrams) to the Chamberlaynes' house for the reunion of Edward and Lavinia: their salvation demands a social context. Fulfillment for the Celia Coplestones of the world may consist of rising above society, but for the Chamberlaynes it consists of assimilation into that society. Thus, summarizing the argument to this point, the Chamberlaynes (especially Edward) are suffering, because of their vanity, from the frustration of solitude; their "cure" is to take the form of a comic overview which will allow them to see themselves in perspective; and the result will be their acceptance of society and its acceptance of them.

An understanding of the play in these terms is especially relevant to the much-discussed matter of "one-eyed foolery," as W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., calls it. Eliot associates the phenomenon of one-eyed vision with both Reilly and Julia Shuttlethwaite. Julia's spectacles, which are identified by a missing lens, turn up repeatedly in the dialogue. She misplaces them constantly, on one occasion she discovers them (following Edward's suggestion) in her purse, and on another she leaves them at Edward's house. At her first mention of them (and of their missing lens), the unknown guest who is later identified as Reilly bursts drunkenly into song.

As I was drinkin' gin and water,
And me bein' the One Eyed Riley,
Who came in but the landlord's daughter
And she took my heart entirely.

The resemblance of his name to that of the figure in the song is unmistakable, and critics of the play have rightly assumed that Reilly is in some sense as one-eyed as Julia. There is no doubt that Eliot intended this mysterious symbol to carry a great burden of meaning—in fact, as his producer E. Martin Browne tells us, the play was originally called "One-Eyed Riley," and received its present title at a later stage of the composition William Arrowsmith explains the one-eyed vision of Julia and Reilly as a metaphor for their spiritual "half-sight" (as distinct from the blindness of Edward and the vision of Celia) So penetrating a critic as Denis Donoghue accepts this explanation, elaborating it slightly in the direction of the spiritual enlightenment and confusion suggested by the light-dark imagery of the play.

But of course the reduction of light is not literally a very significant attribute of monocular vision, and I doubt whether Eliot intended this meaning to predominate even symbolically (If dimness of vision had been intended, surely he could have contrived some disorder to weaken both eyes instead of eliminate one.) Also, there is a literary tradition of one-eyed characters reaching all the way back to Homer, and the traditional implications could hardly have been absent from Eliot's mind. The most significant disadvantage of monocular vision is the loss of perspective, the inability to see things three-dimensionally. This quality, no less than the matter of light and dark, is easily extended by metaphor to spiritual vision: one can "lack perspective" as well as be "in the dark." It may be going too far to attribute this shortcoming to the Cyclops of Homer; and yet their savage unsocia-bility may well be a function of their inability to see life in perspective—to see themselves "through the eyes of other people," in Edward Chamberlayne's words. At least one modern writer has made use of the metaphor in this way. The self-assured chauvinism of the Irish patriot in the "Cyclops" episode of Joyce's Ulysses is the result of just such a failing. He cannot see himself (or his nation) in context, and is thus as violent as the Homeric Cyclops with whom Joyce associated him. As Frank Budgen points out, life looks "as flat as cardboard" to Joyce's Cyclops, and the presence of such a whole and humane vision as that of Leopold Bloom can only provoke him to wrath. Bloom, like Edward Chamberlayne, is a decidedly human figure, and is committed to life in this world—he is neither heroic nor saintly. But unlike Edward, he has a broad, humane, and perspectival view of life—in a word, a comic view. Thus the single-minded Irish Cyclops fears and hates Bloom's larger vision, and their encounter is inevitably violent. "Two-eyed Bloom," says Budgen,"ventures into the cavern of one-eyed nationalism."

But how does all this apply to Reilly and Julia, who, unlike the Chamberlaynes, have attained a state of grace? In order to answer this question, we must realize, as many students of the play have pointed out, that despite their evident superiority to the Chamberlaynes, Reilly and Julia are far from divinity—or even sanctity for that matter. Celia provides the obvious contrast here: as Reilly is quick to confess, "when I say to one like her, / 'Work out your salvation with diligence,' I do not understand / What I myself am saying''. The very mortality of the "guardians," as they are called, suggests that they too have had to work out their salvation with diligence. In fact, the song that Reilly sings implies this progress—at least in the full version given by Eliot at the end of the play:

As I was walking round and round
and round in ev'ry quarter
I walk'd into a public house
and order'd up my gin and water
Too-ri-oo-ley, Too-ri-i-ley,
What's the matter with One-Eyed Riley

That something is indeed the matter with One-Eyed Riley is indicated by his aimless and alcoholic wanderings. In the second stanza, which we have already seen, the landlord's daughter enters Riley's life and takes his heart "entirely," thus presumably putting an end to his troubles. He is "saved" by a transfer of his attention to someone other than himself—by a love relationship. This is the very salvation prescribed for the Chamberlaynes; it is through a selfless love for each other and an objective view of themselves that their spiritual problems are eventually resolved.

Something of this sort must have happened to Reilly and Julia at one point, they have emerged from the prison of self, and now are able to help other people in the same endeavor. (Thus Julia's attempt to leave her spectacles with Edward may be seen as an effort to restore his"vision''—at least in his metaphorically blind eye). There is of course no proof that Julia and Reilly love each other in any way uncommon to two of God's creatures in a state of beatitude; and yet there are indications that they depend on one another heavily. Reilly's song about the entry of the landlord's daughter follows immediately upon Julia's entry into Edward's house. Also, their affectionate conversations at the end of the play reveal the intimacy of a close friendship. Wimsatt suggests a relationship which involves the matter of stereoscopic vision; referring them to the prophet-figure of The Waste Land, he says that "Teiresias.. has suffered a split, into the male half and the female, each blind in one eye, but seeing mighty well in concert". This reading accords very well with the Christian meaning of the play: in a state of isolation, man lacks perspective; when reconciled to his fellows, his vision is whole again. (The proposition can be reversed: when man's vision is lacking in perspective, he is isolated. This is of course the trouble with Edward.)

This, then, is Eliot's point: selfless and loving interaction with others is simultaneous with and indistinguishable from an objective and perspectival view of oneself. This condition—which is represented in the play by the metaphor of stereoscopic vision—is the highest degree of beatitude available to the Chamberlaynes of the world, and the test of its existence is the comic spirit: if one cannot laugh, he has not attained this state. The same two-eyed vision which brings laughter brings salvation from the prison of self.

Source: Gary T. Davenport, "Eliot's The Cocktail Party Comic Perspective as Salvation," in Modern Drama, Vol XVII, No 3, September 1974, pp 301-306.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial
Previous

Critical Overview