In reviewing Eliot’s first comedy, The Cocktail Party, the critic John Peter remarked that “only the incidentals” were comical. The character with the highest comic potential is Julia Shuttlethwaite, a talkative and nosy old lady with a talent for creating confusion:
Edward! How lucky that it’s raining!
It made me remember my umbrella,
And there it is! Now what are you two plotting?
How very luck it was my umbrella,
And not Alexander’s – he‘s so inquisitive!
But I never poke into other people’s business.
Well, good-bye again. I’m off at last.
The situation and language is typical of drawing-room comedy, which Eliot chose as the element for his last three plays and is by definition light. He evolved from pageant (The Rock), to historical biographical drama (Murder in the Cathedral), tragedy with a ray of hope (The Family Reunion) and finally naturalistic and sophisticated comedy (The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman).
With The Cocktail Party, Eliot adopted a different genre because he was not fully satisfied with the tragic elements of The Family Reunion (the choruses, the Furies), because this second play had been coldly received, because he realised comedy could make the depth of his transcendent vision more palatable and, last but not least, because he was aware that it attracted audiences. And Eliot wanted his drama to be profound, yet popular, successful, commercial. Tragedy became comedy, but the aristocratic / bourgeois drawing-room remained as spatial and social setting.
Peter accurately suggests that Eliot’s comedy is Dantean in quality. Its heroes and heroines succeed in finding their ways to commune with the divine. Precisely in The Cocktail Party, Celia Copplestone achieves this union through martyrdom and sacrifice – so gruesome and inimical to comedy in its details, that it shocked early audiences and still baffles contemporary readers. Paradoxically, and in the context of the dramatist’s vision of the temporal and the timeless, Celia’s tragical death is comical.
In Eliot’s next comedy, The Confidential Clerk, Colby Simpkins’ existence intersects with the eternal in a more placid way. Comic relief tends to be provided by Lady Elizabeth’s absent-mindedness, whims and esoteric practices, in which she has been instructing one of the maids:
I thought I heard someone singing in the pantry.
Oh, I forgot. It’s Gertrude’s quiet hour.
I’ve been giving her lessons in recollection.
But she shouldn’t be singing.
The Confidential Clerk, because of its misunderstandings and mistaken identities, is reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest, although it lacks Wilde’s pungent satirical wit. Lady Elizabeth is no Lady Bracknell, Eliot’s humour is gentle, perhaps incidental – his priority is to lead Colby to his rose garden.