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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).

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Eliot and Comedy

In reviewing Eliot’s first comedy, The Cocktail Party, the critic John Peter remarked that “only the incidentals” were comical. The character with the highest comic potential is Julia Shuttlethwaite, a talkative and nosy old lady with a talent for creating confusion:

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

The situation and language is typical of drawing-room comedy, which Eliot chose as the element for his last three plays and is by definition light. He evolved from pageant (The Rock), to historical biographical drama (Murder in the Cathedral), tragedy with a ray of hope (The Family Reunion) and finally naturalistic and sophisticated comedy (The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman).

With The Cocktail Party, Eliot adopted a different genre because he was not fully satisfied with the tragic elements of The Family Reunion (the choruses, the Furies), because this second play had been coldly received, because he realised comedy could make the depth of his transcendent vision more palatable and, last but not least, because he was aware that it attracted audiences. And Eliot wanted his drama to be profound, yet popular, successful, commercial. Tragedy became comedy, but the aristocratic / bourgeois drawing-room remained as spatial and social setting.

Peter accurately suggests that Eliot’s comedy is Dantean in quality. Its heroes and heroines succeed in finding their ways to commune with the divine. Precisely in The Cocktail Party, Celia Copplestone achieves this union through martyrdom and sacrifice – so gruesome and inimical to comedy in its details, that it shocked early audiences and still baffles contemporary readers. Paradoxically, and in the context of the dramatist’s vision of the temporal and the timeless, Celia’s tragical death is comical.

In Eliot’s next comedy, The Confidential Clerk, Colby Simpkins’ existence intersects with the eternal in a more placid way. Comic relief tends to be provided by Lady Elizabeth’s absent-mindedness, whims and esoteric practices, in which she has been instructing one of the maids:

LUCASTA
I thought I heard someone singing in the pantry.
LADY ELIZABETH
Oh, I forgot. It’s Gertrude’s quiet hour.
I’ve been giving her lessons in recollection.
But she shouldn’t be singing.

The Confidential Clerk, because of its misunderstandings and mistaken identities, is reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest, although it lacks Wilde’s pungent satirical wit. Lady Elizabeth is no Lady Bracknell, Eliot’s humour is gentle, perhaps incidental – his priority is to lead Colby to his rose garden.