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Luis Escobar’s ‘Cocktail Party’

T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party was first staged in Spain in 1952, at the Teatro María Guerrero in Madrid. Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion had been produced in earlier years by amateur or “chamber” companies, but this particular production of The Cocktail Party was programmed by a national theatre, and its target was therefore a wide and general audience, not attracted a priori to what Eliot’s drama represented. Its directors were Huberto Pérez de la Osssa and Luis Escobar Kirkpatrick.

Luis Escobar belonged to an aristocratic and cultivated family. His father wished all his children to have a profession, and young Escobar found his vocation in the theatre: he wrote, directed, produced and acted. After the Spanish Civil War, as the manager of the Teatro María Guerrero, he decisively contributed to revitalising theatrical activity in the capital city of a devastated country, isolated by a totalitarian regime.

Together with Pérez de la Ossa, Escobar programmed Spanish drama (contemporary and classical) and introduced international playwrights to Spanish audiences. His productions of J. B. Priestley’s Time and the Conways or Thornton Wilder’s Our Town were landmarks. The María Guerrero was innovative in its comprehensive and ambitious season programmes, its artistic set designs (including one by Salvador Dalí) and its training of new generations of actors. In short, it established itself as a model of what a publicly funded teatro nacional should be.

Escobar referred to Eliot as a friend with whom he excahnged letters and whom he saw on his visits to London. Eliot, in turn, visited Madrid in 1951, and we may assume that he met the Spanish director, at that time busy with the rehearsals of Cocktail Party and concerned about their slow progress – its premiere would be put off to the following season. In retrospect, Escobar referred to Eliot’s play as the most challenging of his productions.

The unpublished playscript of Cocktail Party was by the reputed translator José Méndez Herrera (he preserved the English title, dropping the article); Escobar himself would produce a new translation, published in 1959 as part of the anthology Teatro inglés contemporáneo. The María Guerrero production was ambivalently received: a feat of verse drama but too dense, morally admirable except in its neutral treatment of the delicate question of adultery. The cast included young actors (Adolfo Marsillach, Berta Riaza, José María Rodero) who would afterwards develop successful careers.

Cocktail Party was one of Escobar’s last productions at the María Guerrero. His commitment to the best drama would continue. Evading a strict and erratic censorship, he was the first impresario to stage a play by García-Lorca (Yerma) after the Civil War; he produced Jean Paul Sartre’s Hui clos (to which The Coctail Party alludes) or Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming. To Escobar we also owe the most professional and polished production of Eliot’s verse drama in Spain.

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Endless Humility

Two of the most memorable verse lines in “East Coker” are: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” They belong to the second section, which opens with images of seasonal turmoil and astronomical warfare, criticised in the following stanza: “That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory.” The poet cannot evade “the intolerable wrestle / with words and meanings” – we find comparable passages at other points of Four Quartets.

When Eliot published the second of his Quartets (1940), he was also “wrestling” with dramatic verse, plot and structure. As David Chinitz puts it, he was “retraining himself as a playwright” [*]. Despite Eliot’s unquestioned reputation as a poet and critic, he learned to become a dramatist in a spirit of humility. His attitude is reflected in the notes of acknowledgement included in the first editions of his plays, and in his essay “Poetry and Drama” (1951).

In a “Prefatory Note,” Eliot presents The Rock (1934) as follows: “I cannot consider myself the author of the ‘play,’ but only of the words printed here.” He also explains that the Rev. Vincent Howson, who took part in the performance, “has so completely rewritten, amplified and condensed the dialogue [of his part] . . . that he deserves the title of joint author.” These observations evidence that Eliot thought of his task as contributing to a collaborative project.

In each of his notes, Eliot expresses his gratitude to E. Martin Browne – the director of all the original productions – whose suggestions were incorporated to the definitive text of the plays. Eliot admits that he “rewrote” The Rock for publication, being “submissive” to Browne’s “expert criticism.” John Hayward, one of Eliot’s closest friends, is also thanked for his critical reading of drafts. When he published The Cocktail Party (1949), Eliot acknowledged his “debt to both these censors,” Hayward and Browne.

The Cocktail Party was a commercial success in the West End and Broadway. It received a Tony Award for Best Play, and there was even a project for a film adaptation. Yet, in referring to his first comedy in “Poetry and Drama,” three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Eliot declares: “I have not yet got to the end of my investigation of the weaknesses of this play.” In the same essay, when he traces the process of composition of Murder in the Cathedral (1935), he refers to himself as “a beginner,” and when he considers The Family Reunion (1939), he finds it “defective” in different aspects.

In writing, presenting and assessing his plays, Eliot did show “the wisdom of humility,” which, needless to say, not all successful writers acquire.

[*] David E. Chinitz, “A Vast Wasteland? Eliot and Popular Culture.” A Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by David E. Chinitz, Blackwell, 2014, p. 68 (pp. 66-78).

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Bacon, Sweeney and the Furies

T. S. Eliot is popularly known as the poet of The Waste Land (1922), the voice of disillusion. Understandably, the association mortified him after his poetry veered to hope and his drama confirmed this tendency. Even though the artist Francis Bacon (1909-1992) found inspiration in Eliot’s dramatic texts, his style seemed incompatible with Eliot’s poetics of illumination.

Bacon’s Triptych 1967, inspired by Sweeney Agonistes, exemplifies his typical representation of bodies: lifeless, amorphous, objects of physical violence or engaged in sexual activity. We are reminded of Sweeney’s brutal fantasies: he will be “the cannibal” who “will gobble up” Doris “the missionary,” and he declares that “any man might do a girl in.”

Two decades earlier, Eliot’s drama had already influenced Bacon. His Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion (1944), also a triptych, came to be associated – by critics and the artist himself – with the Eumenides. Conventionally, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and John the Evangelist are represented at the foot of the Cross, but Bacon depicts three grotesque and threatening forms.

The artist admitted that the presence of the Furies in Eliot’s The Family Reunion (1936), which he saw staged, had stirred his imagination while working on Three Studies. Ironically, the text of the play gives almost no clue as to the appearance of the Furies; the emphasis is on Harry’s terror when he confronts the avenging creatures that other characters seem not to see. In “Poetry and Drama,” Eliot expressed his concern that the representation of the Furies was a daunting production challenge.

Yet, Sweeney has mystical inclinations and the Furies become “bright angels” who show Harry the way of purgation. In Sweeney Agonistes and The Family Reunion, however, Bacon saw (primarily) the sordid and disturbing, the terrifying primitivism of myth.

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Rhythmic Dialogues

T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (1949) opens with lively repartee. Characters discuss anecdotes that are not coherently told and reply to one another with direct, self-contained verse lines. The recording by the original West End cast is remarkably rhythmical. The following quote illustrates how Eliot relies on repetition to mark the scene’s rhythm:

CELIA: She’s such a good mimic.
JULIA: Am I a good mimic?
PETER: You are a good mimic.

In reviewing the play in 1965 (“A Theatrical Compromise”), Raymond Williams laid emphasis on its rhythmic repetition and connected it with Sweeney Agonistes (1926). These are the first lines of Eliot’s unfinished play:

DUSTY: How about Pereira?
DORIS: What about Pereira?
DUSTY: I don’t care.
DORIS: You don’t care!

The jazz inspiration for Sweeney Agonistes has been studied (by Kevin McNeilly or Christine Buttram) and is known. We can compare its dialogues to jazz instruments trading / repeating short musical phrases, suddenly introducing a slight variation. Eliot would have had his play staged to the rhythm of drums and bones, enhancing its syncopation.

Sweeney Agonistes was subtitled Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama, and The Cocktail Party was remotely based on Euripides’s Alcestis, where Heracles brings the dead Alcestis back to her husband, King Admetus (in Eliot’s play, Reilley persuades Lavinia, who has left her husband Edward, to return home). The opening scene in Alcestis, where Death confronts Apollo (an agon) is an example of stichomythia, consisting in the brisk exchange of single epigrammatic lines.

Whether Eliot had stichomythic dialogue in mind while writing Sweeney Agonistes or The Cocktail Party, few dramatists could have combined the beating of jazz drums with the rhythms of classical drama.