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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The unpublished playscript of Cocktail Party was by the reputed translator José Méndez Herrera (he preserved the English title, dropping the article); Escobar himself would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.