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Grounds for Divorce in “The Cocktail Party”

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.

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The Economy of “The Rock”

The Rock (1934) contains choruses of great beauty, of which its author was justly proud. Most readers of Eliot are only familiar with these as some of his finest religious poems, ignoring that they were originally part of a pageant play characterised by its ecclecticism: allegorical characters, historical as well as contemporary scenes, comic interludes, even song and dance. The Rock was an ambitious project, not only as a dramatic text, but as a fund-raising activity.

During the interwar period, the Diocese of London became alert to the absence of worshipping communities in the city’s suburbs, and issued an appeal for public funding destined for the building forty-five new churches. Eliot involved himself in the initiative, The Rock being the result. Decisively, it launched the author’s career as a playwright and instigated a lasting collaboration with the director E. Martin Brown. Despite its shortcomings, The Rock was an achievement for Eliot and a source of profit for the Forty-Five Churches Fund, raising no less than £1,500.

The leitmotif of Eliot’s play is, not surprisingly, the building of a church in suburban London. Alfred, Edwin and Ethelbert, three cockney construction workers named after Christian Anglo-Saxon kings, discuss the necessity of the project and its difficulties. Ethelbert, a shrwed but charismatic foreman, defends co-operative economy, as opposed to the impersonality of the bank system: “That’s a bank, that is. It’s all profit what nobody gets and nobody knows ‘ow they gets it. Nah, then: you take a church. There ain’t no profit about that. It’s for you and me”.

In response to a trade-unionist (the “Agitator”) who accuses the three builders of “betrayin’ your class” and “prostitutin’ yourselves,” Ethelbert comically asks “What’s your view o’ Maynard Keynes’s theory o’ money?”. When the Agitator argues that society needs no churches but “decent ‘omes for the workers,” Ethelbert attributes this argument to “some antiquated theory of money.” Later in the play, Bishop Charles Blomfield, “builder of many churches” in nineteenth-century London, appears as a character and echoes the foreman’s view, in referring to “economic laws that are half superstition.”

Only a few years later, in The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), Eliot defended “a direction of religious thought which must inevitably proceed to a criticism of political and economic systems.” He denounced “the hypertrophy of the motive of Profit,” “the misdirection of the financial machine” and “the iniquity of usury.” This was after the Great Depression and immediately before the outbreak of the Second World War. The social thinker was, as The Rock evidences, also a social dramatist.

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Love, Sincerity and Lyricism

The Elder Statesman premiered in 1958, one year after Eliot’s marriage to Valerie Fletcher, when he was nearly 70. After a difficult first marriage and traumatic separation, after decades of frustrated relationships and celibacy, Eliot fell in love. It seems inevitable to read his last play as a reflection of the author’s recent biography: its protagonist, the ageing Lord Claverton, is redeemed by love, which he had previously seemed unable to experience.

The play was published with the dedication poem “To My Wife”: “To you I dedicate this book, to return as best I can / With words a little part of what you have given me.” A version of this love lyric would finally be included in Eliot’s Collected Poems, although it had been disparaged as self-conscious and unworthy of a master of poetic innovation. In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton finds peace of mind as his daughter Monica realises the intensity of her love for Charles. The lovers’ dialogues in the play and “To My Wife” are coherent in style.

Throughout his career as a dramatist, Eliot persevered in order to perfect his paradoxical concept of dramatic verse that would not strike a modern audience as crafted poetry: it should be rhythmic but natural. The Confidential Clerk (1953), where Eliot’s accentual lines (divided by their characteristic caesura) flow without ever attracting attention to themselves, comes closest to the ideal. The illusion of naturalism is broken momentarily in other plays: the choruses in The Family Reunion (1939), the occasional tone of disquisition in The Cocktail Party (1949), and Monica and Charles’ lyrical duets in The Elder Statesman.

In the couple’s dialogues, however, we also find exemples of verse applied to simple conversation and apparently trivial matters, as in the following verse lines from Act One, where Charles and Monica each speaks one half of the line:

CHARLES: Is your father at home today?

MONICA: You’ll see him at tea.

*****

MONICA: If you don’t like shopping with me…

CHARLES: Of course I like shopping with you.

In Act Three, the young lovers meet again. During their separation, Monica has been concerned about her father, plunged in abstracted gloom, and about her brother Michael’s unsettled life. During her fiancé’s absence, she has realised how much she needs and loves him. Charles also professes his love to Monica, with lyrical intensity that contrasts with ordinary tea and shopping, and with a rather unconventional simile:

Oh, my dear.
I love you to the limits of speech, and beyond.
It’s strange that words are so inadequate.
Like the asthmatic struggling for breath,
So the lover must struggle for words.

The lover is compared to the asthmatic, and the ineffability of genuine love harks back to Eliot’s dedication – curiously, in the Collected Poems version of “To My Wife,” lovers are said to “breathe in unison.” Charles and Monica’s love is sealed as Lord Claverton prepares for a good death. In its concluding climax, the focus of The Elder Statesman is on both divine and human love. Eliot’s fifth drama also displays unusual facets of his poetic talent: sincerity and lyricism, which we should perhaps learn to appreciate without prejudice.