The Cocktail Party

by T. S. Eliot

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Places Discussed

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Chamberlayne flat

Chamberlayne flat. London apartment owned by the Chamberlaynes, in whose drawing room most of the play is set. Although the apartment has an offstage kitchen, there appears to be virtually nothing eat in the apartment, except for a few eggs. The lack of food for the party, or even ordinary meals, symbolizes the lack of provision for any life in this shell of a home. As the play unfolds, both Chamberlaynes prove to live hollow existences that each of them has come to loathe. Relationships that Edward starts with Celia Coplestone and that Lavinia starts with Peter Quilpe prove fruitless and unsatisfying. Once the pretenses of husband and wife are unmasked, they learn to love each other, and are at last “lain” in their “chambers,” as their last name suggests. The last cocktail party held in this home shows that Edward and Lavinia have grown closer together, and Guardians toast to the partial success they have had.

Harcourt-Reilly’s consulting room

Harcourt-Reilly’s consulting room. Office of the psychotherapist Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly. The office is arranged so that Sir Henry can manipulate the entrances and exits and meetings of people at his will. His consulting room functions like the central office for a spy network. Along with the other two Guardians, Mrs. Julia Shuttlethwaite and Alexander MacColgie Gibbs, these three function like the Greek Fates who shared an eye between them as they wove the tapestry of people’s lives. Sir Harcourt-Reilly sings about “One-Eyed Riley” and Mrs. Shuttlethwaite—whose name suggests weaving—is constantly looking for her glasses with only one lens. Alex completes this seemingly all-knowing trio with his globetrotting habits for gathering information about patients. Sir Henry ultimately sends Celia to her martyrdom, while salvaging the marriage of the Chamberlaynes, and trying to help Peter, whose future remains uncertain at the end of the play. For all of their insights and schemes, the Guardians prove limited in their ability to shape and direct lives.

Historical Context

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The Welfare State
After World War II ended in 1945, Great Britain was faced with paying off the bills that had been incurred during the fighting. Far fewer men had been killed during battle than in World War I— 250,000, as opposed to 750,000—but the machinery required to fight had been much costlier. Unlike America, where returning veterans could expect to find factories and places of business still intact, many of Britain's key industrial centers had been reduced to rubble by German air raids. During the war, the British economy had been propped up by American loans under the Lend-Lease program, which had been enacted in 1941 specifically to help out during the war. On August 21,1945, not even a week after the end of the war in the Pacific, American aid ended. In the following years, England was faced with an economic crisis.

In 1946, a National Health Service bill was enacted by Parliament, making medical services free to all citizens. That year began a series of actions that increased the government's involvement in the country's economy, nationalizing certain industries that were then put under the control of government agencies. The coal industry was nationalized in 1946, making the government responsible for the operation of what had been over eight hundred private companies with 1,634 coal pits across the country. Electricity and transportation were nationalized in 1947, along with airlines and radio stations. By 1948, about 20 percent of all British workers were on the government's payroll or working for public corporations.

The result of all of this government control of basic goods and services was that taxes paid by...

(This entire section contains 733 words.)

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British citizens were raised to levels that Americans would find unthinkable, in some cases higher than 80 percent. Common working people could feel secure in the knowledge that they were protected cradle to grave for health expenses and that they would receive government payments even if they lost their jobs, but the country's wealthiest citizens, who did not rely on government services, only saw this system as a drain on their income. Many in high-paying fields with international attention—in the movies, for example—emigrated to America, in hopes of holding on to their earnings. Others stayed, out of nationalistic pride, and paid their share of taxes. It was not until the early 1980s, when Conservative governments held power in major Western nations, that the British Welfare State was disassembled, reverting utilities and basic services back to private ownership on the theory that operating for profit would make them find ways to operate more efficiently.

British Drama
The 1940s represented a time of unusual blend on the British stage, with traditionalist elements fusing with abstract and experimental styles that had grown up during the modernist movement in the twenties. For a long time, British authors had attempted to write plays in poetic verse, an attempt to restore the tradition started in ancient Greece and continued through Shakespearean tunes. Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote in the 1870s, was followed in this attempt at reviving verse drama by a number of writers from the turn of the century through the 1930s, including John Masefield, Lascelles Abercrombie, and John Drinkwater. The problem was that these writers had no reason for writing in verse, other than presenting homage to the authors of the ancient past. At the same time, most drama tended toward realism, which entailed letting the situations and language reflect the human experience as it was really lived, without drawing attention to the hand of the author. Young writers were gaining attention with the shock value of their works, not with their ability to copy the styles of centuries past.

Eliot was one of the dramatists who was able to write convincing verse drama with the style of writing handled carefully enough that it was not distracting. Others of his generation, most notably W H. Auden and Christopher Frye, also helped raise readers' awareness of the possibility of coherent drama with the language of poetry. In Eliot's case, theory was especially important to his drama, because he was not only trying to use a particular, antiquated style, but he was also using his drama to express religious ideas. While drama was originally a tool for teaching religion, by the mid-twentieth century dramatists were concentrating more on exploring social behavior. Much about Eliot's dramas seems stiff and artificial, unless audiences consider that the traditions that he based his work on were even more estranged from realism.

Literary Style

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While dramas are generally confined to more limited settings than other forms of literature, like novels, which play out in readers' imaginations, The Cocktail Party is particularly limited, with only two settings. Most of the action takes place in the drawing room of the Chamberlayne house. This setting draws viewers' attention to several important aspects of the situation that is presented here. It establishes the elevated social class of the characters, giving instant insight into their view of the world. It shows the sort of order that Edward and Lavinia are accustomed to in their lives, which helps to establish why, even with their difficulties, each is willing to renew their relationship. In the first act, this setting creates an automatic sense of dramatic tension since it is obvious that Edward's story about Lavinia going to visit an aunt is a lie. The audience is left to watch him stumble through the cocktail party that she organized, awkward and uncomfortable in his own house. Later, when the party has broken up, Edward's attempts at secrecy are just as strained, as characters continue to pass through while he is trying to have serious talks with Peter and Celia. He is a prisoner of his social image, and the constant presence of others in his home fortifies this idea.

The shift in setting from the Chamberlayne flat to Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly's office in act 2 changes the whole mood of the play. While all of act 1 has an air of superficiality, regarding an unhappy, henpecked husband who cannot make up his mind about whether he wants his wife to stay or go, the scene in the psychiatrist's office is more intimate, concerned with serious matters of fate. In this case, Edward and Lavinia are brought to see the truth about themselves while Celia is allowed to admit a greater truth: that there are no answers, only the quest. Shifting to a different setting allows Eliot to bring audiences around to the serious mood of the deep, philosophical issues that are at stake here in a way that they would not feel so strongly if the action had stayed in the drawing room.

The "trickster" is a familiar figure in world literature, appearing in the myths of various oral cultures. The trickster is often an animal, such as a coyote in the stories of the Native Americans of the southwest and the Chaco in South America, or the tortoise of the Yoruba people of Nigeria. In many of these ancient tales, the trickster is a character who is threatened by those stronger and larger, but who defeats them by outwitting them. This primitive story structure has evolved in Western culture through the types of folk tales that were recorded by the Brothers Grimm in the nineteenth century. While the older trickster tradition shows the trickster figure using cleverness to get out of a jam, more recent stones have the trickster coming into an established situation and upsetting it, taking advantage of the people and cheating them by cleverly manipulating their expectations.

The fact that Sir Henry is originally introduced in this play as the Unidentified Guest provides him with a shroud of mystery that could qualify him as a trickster figure. Throughout the first act, the secrets that he keeps hidden make audiences wonder what he is up to. When the second act reveals him to be a psychiatrist that each of the main characters has come to because of clever manipulation, he seems less dangerous but just as much a supernatural force. When she finds out the extent to which Sir Henry has been in control of her actions, Lavinia exclaims, "Are you a devil or merely a lunatic practical joker?'' The devil, who often tricks people into doing things that they never would have done otherwise, qualifies as a latter-day version of the trickster, who is able to manipulate reality by manipulating the truths that people believe. In modern day, the trickster figure is presented most often as a practical jokester, making people believe falsehoods just for the sheer sport of it, without sinister purpose.

The word "repartee" refers to witty banter, marked by the kind of clever but hollow observations and retorts that are characteristic of this kind of social setting in plays. The cocktail party that begins this particular play has the standard, apparently meaningless kind of dialogue that marked the comedies of Oscar Wilde at the end of the nineteenth century. By the 1920s, the "sophisticated" comedy, marked by rapid-fire witticisms set among rich characters, became staples of the Broadway theater. Few of these comedies had enough insight to make them memorable, but the works of Noel Coward have withstood the test of time and can be just as entertaining when performed today. This kind of cocktail party repartee was performed most notably by the husband-and-wife team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fountaine, who starred together in sophisticated comedies from the 1920s through the 1950s.

The repartee of the typical drawing-room comedy often revolves around gossip, with the idle rich exercising their cleverness by commenting, sometimes in nasty ways, about people who are not present, In The Cocktail Party, the story about Lady Klootz and the wedding cake presents an example of the type of idle social chatter that is typical of these kinds of comedies, with Julia, who is telling the story, losing her place often, being interrupted by people who tell each other what a good story it is.

As with much about this play, the witty comedy of the first act is a false beginning, a parody of works that are much more superficial. The Lady Klootz story is mirrored in the last act by the story about Celia's fate, which is told as gossip but is definitely not told to display the speaker's wit. In the end, rather than engaging in witty repartee about social acquaintances, all of the characters become awkward and reflective, each considering how this death affects them.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: Psychiatrists treat their patients primarily by trying to understand their past experiences and by talking to them. This sometimes requires having patients committed to sanatoriums for intensive psychotherapy.

Today: Much of the field of psychiatry focuses on the ways that physical imbalances cause psychological problems. The greatest success comes from a mixture of psychoanalysis and drug therapy.

1949: A wealthy person who feels overwhelmed with the stress of life might commit herself or himself to a sanatorium for therapy and counseling.

Today: People often speak openly about their therapy. Wealthy people have a wider variety of retreats and spas to withdraw to when they need a rest from the stress of life.

1949: Divorce is rare and not particularly socially acceptable. As a consequence, marriage is often portrayed in literature as a trap that people are held in against their better instincts and interests.

Today: Divorce rates around the world have skyrocketed since the 1970s, with up to 50 percent of marriages ending in divorce in some industrialized countries. As a result, recent research has focused on the harmful effects of giving up too easily on marriage.

1949: Third-world countries, such as the play's fictional "Kinkanja," are seen as dangerous, hostile places where civilized people fall victim to savage lawlessness.

Today: Although there is little fear that savages will cannibalize foreigners, the danger of political unrest is quite real to travelers. Citizens of the United States and Britain are sometimes targeted by terrorists in order to make a political statement.

Media Adaptations

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Although there are no recordings of The Cocktail Party, there are ample recordings of T. S. Eliot reading from his own works. One recent release, recorded in 1955, is T. S. Eliot Reads, an audiocassette released in 2000 by Harper Audio Books. It includes chorus segments from Murder in the Cathedral.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Donoghue, Dems, '"The Cocktail Party,'" in the Third Voice, Princeton University Press, 1959.

Goldman, Michael,"Fear in the Way. The Design of Eliot's Drama," in Eliot in His Time, Princeton University Press, 1973.

Headings, Philip R, "The Tougher Self," in T S Eliot, Twayne Publishers, 1964, pp 143-186.

Moody, A. D, Thomas Stearns Eliot Poet, Cambridge University Press, 1979, p 365.

Pinion, FB.,A T S Eliot Companion, Barnes and Noble Books, 1986, p 241.

Bush, Ronald, T S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style, Oxford University Press, 1983.
Mixing biography and literary criticism, Bush focuses on Eliot's poetry and his theory of art.

Cahill, Audrey F,T S Eliot and The Human Predicament, University of Natal Press, 1967.
This work primarily refers to Eliot's other plays but does give readers some background on his thoughts.

Crawford, Robert, The Savage and the City in the Works of T S. Eliot, Clarendon Press, 1987.
An analysis of Eliot's works in terms of archetypes— savages, devils, etc —is provided in this book. The Cocktail Party is fairly typical in its use of these elements.

Gardner, Helen, The Art of T S. Eliot, E. P Dutton & Co., 1959.
First published during Eliot's lifetime, this book contains a good overview of Eliot's career as a dramatist.

Kirk, Russell, Eliot and His Age- T S Eliot's Moral Imagination in the 20th Century, Random House, 1972.
Kirk's study is particularly lively because he was writing at a time when traditional morality was breaking down.

Peacock, R., "Eliot's Contribution to Criticism of Drama," in The Literary Criticism of T.S Eliot, edited by David Newton-DeMolma, The Athhone Press, 1977, pp 89-110.
Peacock draws direct connections between Eliot's studies of Elizabethan drama and his works for the stage.


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Arrowsmith, William. “Notes on English Verse Drama, II: The Cocktail Party.” Hudson Review 3 (Autumn, 1950): 411-430. The best available article on The Cocktail Party. Offers a lucid analysis of the play’s rich Christian implications and its intricate internal structure. Arrow-smith ranks the work as highly for verse drama as he ranks The Waste Land for poetry.

Jones, David E. The Plays of T. S. Eliot. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1960. In chapter 5, Jones analyzes the play’s relationship to its Greek model, Euripides’ Alcestis, and explains the strengths of a verse drama that is easy to follow and yet profound.

Kari, Daven Michael. T. S. Eliot’s Dramatic Pilgrimage: A Progress in Craft as an Expression of Christian Perspective. Studies in Art and Religious Interpretation 13. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 1990. Examines Eliot’s steadily improving use of characterization, verse techniques, and stagecraft as an expression of his movement from ascetic to communal models of Christian faith. An innovative and readable critique.

Lightfoot, Marjorie J. “The Uncommon Cocktail Party.” Modern Drama 11 (1969): 382-395. A lucid and revealing article that analyzes the rhythms that make The Cocktail Party so successful on stage. Also discusses why Eliot’s verse drama is seldom understood.

Tydeman, William. “Murder in the Cathedral” and “The Cocktail Party.” Houndmills, Basingstoke, England: Macmillan, 1988. A simple and straightforward interpretation of the plays as dramas. A good choice for directors and actors wishing to perform the play.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide