The Cocktail Party – Eliot’s Iceman Cometh

  The Cocktail Party

The Cocktail Party

by T.S. Eliot

The Cocktail Party is a twentieth century morality play, one that argues that people must accept their burdensome roles as decision makers. Unlike medieval morality plays, which upbraided audiences to choose good deeds and shun evil, The Cocktail Party simply places its characters in the crucible of choice, and diagnoses their indecision as a malaise. Eliot means to demonstrate that it is the burden of the human race to face tough choices, and live with the consequences.

The play centers around the offstage infidelity of Edward Chamberlayne. As the play opens he is hosting his wife Lavinia’s cocktail party alone—Lavinia has discovered his affair, and has left him. After the party, Edward speaks with a character known as the Unidentified Guest, who seems eerily knowledgeable about Edward’s situation, and offers much superficially wise advice that only serves to confuse Edward. The Unidentified Guest even offers to bring his wife back to him. Later Edward speaks alone with Celia Coplestone, his mistress, and we learn that they planned on being together pending the breakup of his marriage. Yet Edward now seems uncertain about Celia, as if he has a mind to return to his wife.

The next day the Unidentified Guest indeed brings Lavinia home, and she and Edward discuss their marital problems, and especially Edward’s indecisiveness. Edward becomes convinced that his indecision is a mental illness, and he seeks treatment, one day ending up in the office of the Unidentified Guest, finally identified as Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, a psychologist. Lavinia joins their session, and reveals her own affair with Peter Quilpe, another frequent cocktail party guest. Through indirect means, including vague talk about a sanitarium, Reilly convinces the Chamberlaynes to resume their marriage. Then Celia comes in to see Reilly, and she later decides to do missionary work.

In the final act, set two years later, the Chamberlaynes are depicted as having a more tranquil marriage, and we learn that Celia was killed violently in Kinkanja, where she was doing her missionary work. Despite some characters’ shock on hearing the news, most accept her death as natural, perhaps even noble. As the busybody Julia Shuttlethwait sums up for us: “Everyone makes a choice, of one kind or another./ And then must take the consequences. Celia chose / A way of which the consequence was crucifixion” (187). Clearly, this is the main idea of the play.

Despite Eliot’s own well-known Christianity, The Cocktail Party doesn’t argue specifically for Christian solutions to the human condition. Celia, endowed by her creator (Eliot) with such character traits as having been a poet and a nurse, is something of a martyr for Christian ideals, as is made clear by her death at least twice being characterized as a crucifixion. But this is seen as but one of several paths; holding cocktail parties may be an equally valid path. No, The Cocktail Party is simply an idea play, dramatizing the condition of Man as a moral agent, a chooser.

As an idea play, The Cocktail Party has a few things going for it. It is a “well-made” play in the sense that the  conflicts spawned from Edward’s infidelity are introduced at the beginning and resolved by the play’s end. There is a plot that develops. Also, the characters all speak a dry verse, the meter of which helps suggest the lifeless routinization of their lives. Eliot has a gift for this sort of dialogue; many of the characters sound like the defeated narrator of Eliot’s early Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. The dialogue sparkles with intelligence, and is what keeps the play going. But its occasional wittiness almost seems out of place embedded within the more somber themes.

But the play suffers from numerous problems. It is difficult to picture Celia participating in an affair with Edward, and equally difficult to see Edward initiating such a liaison, especially if he is so passive. Even granting that, it doesn’t seem that Edward ever had time to make a conscious choice about whether to choose Celia the day Lavinia left him. He never has a moment to himself before he finds himself hosting a cocktail party. Then he finds himself alone with the sage and slippery Unidentified Guest, who is a master of reverse psychology, and also has the mysterious power to bring his wife back. Who knows? If the Unidentified Guest had not intervened, Edward might simply have chosen to marry Celia. But the combination of Lavinia’s pre-emptive walk-out, and the Unidentified Guest’s eerie pronouncements about Edward’s indecision stacks the deck against Edward choosing for himself. And then Edward is roundly criticized for his lack of choice.

The workings of the plot are also vague. Julia, Alex, and Reilly form a bizarre conspiracy, whose entire existence seems devoted to making people see that they must live with their choices. The three of them perform an esoteric chant at the end of Act Two (“Watch over her in the labyrinth / … Protect her from the Voices / Protect her from the Visions”), which convinces the reader that these characters represent an idea rather than function as human characters. Surely few of us have encountered such philanthropy as theirs. Julia sends nearly all the characters mysterious telegrams to meet at the Chamberlayne’s, where she has planted a de facto spy in Reilly. Reilly as psychologist freely discusses his patients’ problems with his Julia and Alex, his co-conspirators. Because these three seem lean on recognizable human motives, these characters exist as cogs in the machinery of the play, only to show the other characters their fates.

Still other developments strain one’s credulity. Lavinia’s affair with Peter is equally unbelievable; it seems to exist only so that the couples stay on a moral par. They have both sinned, so they both need to forgive each other. Similarly, the love foursome of Edward, Lavinia, Peter and Celia is too symmetrical.

I also am still not sure what to think of Reilly. The fact that he enters the play shrouded in mystery, runs a strange psychological practice, and apparently doesn’t shy from sending ordinary people to a sanitarium, made Reilly to seem a sinister character for much of the time, especially in light of Eliot’s own mental breakdown and suspicions of psychologists. And I wasn’t comforted by Reilly’s chanting “Protect her from the Voices,” or his admonishment to his patients to “Work out your salvation with diligence.” Even though he turns out to have a beneficent influence on the Edward and Lavinia, he remains a shadowy figure at the play’s end.

And why all this stuff about choices, about Man-as-Moral-Agent anyway? The Cocktail Party, first staged in 1949, seems to be Eliot’s reaction to the great intellectual fashion of the 1940s: Existentialism. Jean-Paul Sartre had achieved dazzling fame with such works as the short novel Nausea, and the play No Exit,  the moral of which is often summarized as "hell is other people". Sartre’s existentialism emphasized man’s freedom from the moral certainties of religion, but insisted that this freedom, while man’s glory, was also a terrible burden, one that few of us had the strength the bear. The Cocktail Party seems informed by a similar spirit. Its characters are indecisive to the point of needing professional help, and trapped in a social hell: none of them seem able to be alone for a few minutes. And other people bring no comfort or companionship. Edward echoes Sartre’s formula when he says: “What is hell? Hell is oneself,/ Hell is alone, the other figures in it / Merely projections” (98).

One senses that Eliot has a whole philosophy of choice and selfhood lurking under here somewhere, one which he may have been better off writing as a philosophical treatise (Eliot earned a Harvard Ph.D. in philosophy before he turned to poetry) or poem, rather than dramatizing as this dry drama. But Eliot was determined to philosophize in a literary mode. We associate Eliot with idea-heavy and nearly unreadable masterpieces such as the long poem The Wasteland (a poem that uses six languages along the way) and The Hollow Men, which paint a dark vision of man as "broken" because of his lack of faith in God. Eliot, born in St. Louis, went on to accept British citizenship, and convert to Anglicanism, but his faith in God never did translate into a rosier view of the human condition.

There are religious overtones in The Cocktail Party, suggestions that at least for some religion is the right path. That psychologists such as Reilly have taken the role of father-confessors from priests is a well-known twentieth century development. Celia, the play’s martyr, describes her plight to Reilly as having a “sense of sin,” and believing that something is wrong with the world itself, and that she must “atone” for it (137). During Celia’s confession to Reilly, they converse about the meaninglessness of the human condition, and it is here that Eliot is at his eloquent best. Celia: “[E]veryone’s alone…They make noises, and think they are talking to each other” (134). Reilly: “Both ways avoid the final desolation / Of solitude in the phantasmal world / Of imagination, shuffling memories and desires” (142)—an echo of the first lines of The Wasteland, “April is the cruelest month …mixing /Memory and desire.”

Perhaps Eliot’s distilled eloquence about Mankind’s Plight is best offered in poetry, where the reader is expected to caress every word in search of meaning. As a drama, the characters in The Cocktail Party feel like props for Eliot’s idea. Celia the martyr. Edward is Eliot’s stand-in, existentialist man. Reilly the Freudian father-confessor. Julia the busybody, who seems to have no life of her own other than to help the Chamberlayne’s (and perhaps countless others) seek out their “salvation” through Reilly. And Alex the world-traveler with mysterious global connections, always speaking with a knowing air. Peter exists to square off the Edward/Lavinia/Celia love triangle. The characters all speak with intelligence; they just sound too much like Eliot.

Eliot wrote at least one superlative play, his Murder in Cathedral. There he was able to follow the historical accounts of the murder of Thomas Beckett, and so he started with fully-formed and interesting characters such as Beckett and Henry II, and so his focus on writing verse drama paid off. Here Eliot’s craftsmanship of writing verse dialogue is impressive, but perhaps it was beyond his powers to create striking characters while writing in such a structured form.

The right theater company could probably stage an engaging production of The Cocktail Party. Certain actors could breathe life into the characters and suggest much of the emotion that is so muted during a reading of the play. In Act II, when the three principals visit Reilly, there is real suspense, (but mainly of how Reilly would treat them; was it all a trap to send a perfectly sane man packing away to the sanitarium?). But the fundamental problem with this play is with the conception itself. How do you dramatize man “wriggling on a pin?” This is the problem of so much post-war fiction: that anti-heroes who don’t do anything engage the intellect, but rarely the emotions. We understand the plight of these characters, but because their suffering is expressed only in couch-talk, we cannot empathize. Watching characters act —make touch choices, love, fight, defend their actions—stirs up our emotions, our memories of our lives’ crossroads. We inhabit the actors’ skins, and so participate more fully in the drama.

January 2000

The Cocktail Party, The Centenary Edition, Harcourt Brace