The 42nd International T. S. Eliot Society Annual Meeting took place last weekend, online for a second year. One of the peer seminars, coordinated by Fabio L. Vericat and myself, was dedicated to “Eliot’s Plays, the Stage and the Dramatic Arts”. The participants’ interests were wide-ranging, and included continuities/connections with the poetry, popular influences (crime plays, or the music-hall), Emily Hale’s role in familiarising Eliot with the practice of drama, hybridity and intermediality, ritual and dance, spiritual and emotional resolution, and more.
We started by considering whether Eliot’s drama could be regarded as a form of entertainment. The question is most relevant in connection with Eliot’s comedies (The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman), less so in the experimental Sweeney Agonistes (published as an “unfinished poem”), the devotional and historical Murder in the Cathedral or the sombre, existentialist The Family Reunion.
The Cocktail Party was Eliot’s first comedy, and the most commercially successful of his plays. It had long runs in New York and London, with casts led by stars of both stage and screen (Alec Guiness, Rex Harrison); it was awarded a Tony for best play in 1950, and its author was even approached with a proposal for a film adaptation. It was undoubtedly successful, but could we say that it entertained audiences?
The social role of theatre was essential for Eliot; he emphasised it from his earliest essays on drama and, as a playwright, he always longed to reach a wide, popular audience. In fact, this aspiration explains Eliot’s choice of drawing-room comedy as a medium to convey his worldview. In the late 1940s, he had become a social critic as well as a dramatist, and he advocated the benefits of Christian life against growing materialism and secularisation. This was his end (to proselytise, we could say, rather than entertain), and comedy was his means.
It is not impossible for contemporary audiences to identify with the characters in The Cocktail Party and their crises, although it may be harder to relate to the purgative and negative paths that Eliot offers to them. His comedies are rarely produced today, and this was another point discussed in the seminar. Is the validity of a play, generation after generation, the basic measure of its worth?
The Cocktail Party was last staged in 2015 at The Print Room of The Coronet Theatre (London). As one would expect, it was not a production for large audiences. However, in a review, Tim Hochstrasser argued that “this neglect [of Eliot’s drama] is clearly undeserved,” that “the philosophical issues under review [in The Cocktail Party] are very accessible,” and that this particular production was “a very well thought-through case for revisiting Eliot’s plays as a whole” [*].
[*] Tim Hochstrasser, “Review: The Cocktail Party, Print Room At The Coronet,” 23 Sept 2015, https://britishtheatre.com/review-the-cocktail-party-print-room-at-the-coronet-4stars/, accessed 3 Oct 2021.