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Rhythmic Dialogues

T. S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party (1949) opens with lively repartee. Characters discuss anecdotes that are not coherently told and reply to one another with direct, self-contained verse lines. The recording by the original West End cast is remarkably rhythmical. The following quote illustrates how Eliot relies on repetition to mark the scene’s rhythm:

CELIA: She’s such a good mimic.
JULIA: Am I a good mimic?
PETER: You are a good mimic.

In reviewing the play in 1965 (“A Theatrical Compromise”), Raymond Williams laid emphasis on its rhythmic repetition and connected it with Sweeney Agonistes (1926). These are the first lines of Eliot’s unfinished play:

DUSTY: How about Pereira?
DORIS: What about Pereira?
DUSTY: I don’t care.
DORIS: You don’t care!

The jazz inspiration for Sweeney Agonistes has been studied (by Kevin McNeilly or Christine Buttram) and is known. We can compare its dialogues to jazz instruments trading / repeating short musical phrases, suddenly introducing a slight variation. Eliot would have had his play staged to the rhythm of drums and bones, enhancing its syncopation.

Sweeney Agonistes was subtitled Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama, and The Cocktail Party was remotely based on Euripides’s Alcestis, where Heracles brings the dead Alcestis back to her husband, King Admetus (in Eliot’s play, Reilley persuades Lavinia, who has left her husband Edward, to return home). The opening scene in Alcestis, where Death confronts Apollo (an agon) is an example of stichomythia, consisting in the brisk exchange of single epigrammatic lines.

Whether Eliot had stichomythic dialogue in mind while writing Sweeney Agonistes or The Cocktail Party, few dramatists could have combined the beating of jazz drums with the rhythms of classical drama.