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So Inquisitive

Paul Pry, the comic character created by John Poole and John Liston

In Act Three of The Cocktail Party, we learn that Celia Copplestone, whose existential ennui causes her to refuse “the human condition,” became a missionary and was crucified by heathen insurgents. Her body, or rather “the traces of it,” was found “very near an ant-hill”. The gruesome details of a young woman’s death – even more so, as E. Martin Browne explained, in T. S. Eliot’s drafts of the play – seem incongruous with the tone of a West End comedy like The Cocktail Party.

Early in the play, Celia casually remarks that Julia Shuttlethwaite might be “her Guardian”. Julia, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly and Alex MacColgie Gibbs are the Guardians who protect and guide fellow characters in distress. Apart from this, with their concerted pulling of strings, their comings and goings, they inject comic energy into The Cocktail Party. In Act One, soon after leaving the party at the Chamberlaynes’ flat, Julia returns in search of a lost umbrella while Edward is confiding in the Unidentified Guest (Reilly):

Edward! How lucky that is raining!
It made me remember my umbrella,
And there it is! Now what are you two plotting?
How very lucky it was my umbrella
And not Alexander’s – he‘s so inquisitive!
But I never poke into other people’s business.

Julia will return yet another time, making a fuss of recovering her glasses, with “one lens missing,” but soon realising that they were in her bag all along. These appearances, which lighten up a relatively long and dense scene in Eliot’s first act, recall a famous nineteenth-century play.

Paul Pry (1825) is a comedy by John Poole whose eponymous anti-hero is “an idle, meddlesome and mischievous fellow consumed with curiosity […] an interfering busybody who conveniently leaves behind an umbrella everywhere he goes in order to have an excuse to return and eavesdrop” [*]. The character was first performed by the actor John Liston (1776-1846), who also played ageing, country or Cockney types. Liston’s creation became so popular that porcelain factories started to produce Paul Pry figurines.

Nevill Coghill considered “Julia’s maddening intrusions” just one among several “music-hall tricks” used by Eliot in The Cocktail Party [**] but they go further back, to 1830s farce. Be that as it may, Paul Pry, music-hall and “Guardian” Julia are all part of a continuum of comic tradition. Uniquely, Eliot added to it in order to connect with popular audiences and convey his transcendent preoccupations. It was these that did not allow him to soften Celia’s sacrifice, cruel but salvific.

[*] “Paul Pry (play),” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Pry_(play), accessed Sept 11, 2021.
[**] Nevill Coghill, “An Essay on the Structure and Meaning of the Play,” The Cocktail Party, by T. S. Eliot, London: Faber and Faber, 1974, pp. 253-291 (p. 260).