Characters in The Cocktail Party can be divided into two categories: those facing crises or difficult choices, and “the Guardians” who provide aid or guidance. The former (Lavinia and Edward Chamberlayne, Celia and Peter) are interconnected by bonds of friendship and (extra)marital love. All characters are present in the panoramic first scene except Lavinia, and this defines the opening situation: her husband, Edward, is hosting the cocktail party organised by Lavinia as well as having to excuse her unexpected absence. Edward seems unable to do either of these things satisfactorily, and the guests suspect that Lavinia has left.
In the next scene, cocktail party over, Celia (a self-confident and dynamic young woman) returns to Edward’s flat, and we find out that they are having an affair. Celia feels that the recent events “settle all our difficulties” in establishing a formal relationship, and explains why she has not pressed Edward, the respected barrister, thus far: “You know I accepted the situation / because a divorce would ruin your career; / and we thought that Lavinia would never want to leave you.” Since 1939 – the play premiered in 1949 – desertion, as well as adultery, were valid grounds for divorce in the UK. However, and despite its relative normalisation, divorce “remained uncommon enough to be a potential source of shame” during the first half of the twentieth century. [*]
Not surprisingly, divorce would take a heavier social toll on women. This explains why husbands would generally initiate the legal process, fabricating evidence of adultery if necessary. Celia scorns Edward for supposedly adhering to “that silly convention / that the husband must always be the one to be divorced” – a convention that would protect women and avoid scandal. She goes on to imagine Lavinia giving Edward “the grounds” – the hint is relevant, given Lavinia’s parallel affair with Peter (another young friend of the Chamberlaynes’), revealed in Act Two.
Spatial symbolism is also significant. Act One is set in “the drawing-room of the Chamberlaynes’ flat,” where the party’s guests – including Celia and Peter – gather. Celia calls on Edward later in the evening, assuming that he will be alone – incidentally, and conveniently, she has forgotten her umbrella. Their dialogue is tense because of Edward’s refusal to divorce, but also because the lovers seem aware of the implications of their encounter, alone in “the Chamberlaynes’ flat.” Celia disappears into the kitchen to check on Edward’s dinner when the bell rings. Refusing to leave or hide, she quickly thinks of a justification for her presence: “I’ll say I found you starving and helpless.” At the end of the scene, when it becomes clear that there is no future for Edward and Celia, she declares: “I shall never go into your kitchen again.”
We might think of this scene as purely transitional, but it is crucial in prefiguring the characters’ destinies: the Chamberlaynes will commit themselves to saving their marriage, whereas Celia (Eliot’s true heroine) will exchange human for mystical love.
[*] “Divorces Since 1900,” UK Parliament, https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/olympic-britain/housing-and-home-life/split-pairs/, accessed 22-08-2020.