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Grounds for Divorce in “The Cocktail Party”

Characters in The Cocktail Party can be divided into two categories: those facing crises or difficult choices, and “the Guardians” who provide aid or guidance. The former (Lavinia and Edward Chamberlayne, Celia and Peter) are interconnected by bonds of friendship and (extra)marital love. All characters are present in the panoramic first scene except Lavinia, and this defines the opening situation: her husband, Edward, is hosting the cocktail party organised by Lavinia as well as having to excuse her unexpected absence. Edward seems unable to do either of these things satisfactorily, and the guests suspect that Lavinia has left.

In the next scene, cocktail party over, Celia (a self-confident and dynamic young woman) returns to Edward’s flat, and we find out that they are having an affair. Celia feels that the recent events “settle all our difficulties” in establishing a formal relationship, and explains why she has not pressed Edward, the respected barrister, thus far: “You know I accepted the situation / because a divorce would ruin your career; / and we thought that Lavinia would never want to leave you.” Since 1939 – the play premiered in 1949 – desertion, as well as adultery, were valid grounds for divorce in the UK. However, and despite its relative normalisation, divorce “remained uncommon enough to be a potential source of shame” during the first half of the twentieth century. [*]

Not surprisingly, divorce would take a heavier social toll on women. This explains why husbands would generally initiate the legal process, fabricating evidence of adultery if necessary. Celia scorns Edward for supposedly adhering to “that silly convention / that the husband must always be the one to be divorced” – a convention that would protect women and avoid scandal. She goes on to imagine Lavinia giving Edward “the grounds” – the hint is relevant, given Lavinia’s parallel affair with Peter (another young friend of the Chamberlaynes’), revealed in Act Two.

Spatial symbolism is also significant. Act One is set in “the drawing-room of the Chamberlaynes’ flat,” where the party’s guests – including Celia and Peter – gather. Celia calls on Edward later in the evening, assuming that he will be alone – incidentally, and conveniently, she has forgotten her umbrella. Their dialogue is tense because of Edward’s refusal to divorce, but also because the lovers seem aware of the implications of their encounter, alone in “the Chamberlaynes’ flat.” Celia disappears into the kitchen to check on Edward’s dinner when the bell rings. Refusing to leave or hide, she quickly thinks of a justification for her presence: “I’ll say I found you starving and helpless.” At the end of the scene, when it becomes clear that there is no future for Edward and Celia, she declares: “I shall never go into your kitchen again.”

We might think of this scene as purely transitional, but it is crucial in prefiguring the characters’ destinies: the Chamberlaynes will commit themselves to saving their marriage, whereas Celia (Eliot’s true heroine) will exchange human for mystical love.

[*] “Divorces Since 1900,” UK Parliament, https://www.parliament.uk/business/publications/research/olympic-britain/housing-and-home-life/split-pairs/, accessed 22-08-2020.

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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.

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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.

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Endless Humility

Two of the most memorable verse lines in “East Coker” are: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.” They belong to the second section, which opens with images of seasonal turmoil and astronomical warfare, criticised in the following stanza: “That was a way of putting it – not very satisfactory.” The poet cannot evade “the intolerable wrestle / with words and meanings” – we find comparable passages at other points of Four Quartets.

When Eliot published the second of his Quartets (1940), he was also “wrestling” with dramatic verse, plot and structure. As David Chinitz puts it, he was “retraining himself as a playwright” [*]. Despite Eliot’s unquestioned reputation as a poet and critic, he learned to become a dramatist in a spirit of humility. His attitude is reflected in the notes of acknowledgement included in the first editions of his plays, and in his essay “Poetry and Drama” (1951).

In a “Prefatory Note,” Eliot presents The Rock (1934) as follows: “I cannot consider myself the author of the ‘play,’ but only of the words printed here.” He also explains that the Rev. Vincent Howson, who took part in the performance, “has so completely rewritten, amplified and condensed the dialogue [of his part] . . . that he deserves the title of joint author.” These observations evidence that Eliot thought of his task as contributing to a collaborative project.

In each of his notes, Eliot expresses his gratitude to E. Martin Browne – the director of all the original productions – whose suggestions were incorporated to the definitive text of the plays. Eliot admits that he “rewrote” The Rock for publication, being “submissive” to Browne’s “expert criticism.” John Hayward, one of Eliot’s closest friends, is also thanked for his critical reading of drafts. When he published The Cocktail Party (1949), Eliot acknowledged his “debt to both these censors,” Hayward and Browne.

The Cocktail Party was a commercial success in the West End and Broadway. It received a Tony Award for Best Play, and there was even a project for a film adaptation. Yet, in referring to his first comedy in “Poetry and Drama,” three years after receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature, Eliot declares: “I have not yet got to the end of my investigation of the weaknesses of this play.” In the same essay, when he traces the process of composition of Murder in the Cathedral (1935), he refers to himself as “a beginner,” and when he considers The Family Reunion (1939), he finds it “defective” in different aspects.

In writing, presenting and assessing his plays, Eliot did show “the wisdom of humility,” which, needless to say, not all successful writers acquire.

[*] David E. Chinitz, “A Vast Wasteland? Eliot and Popular Culture.” A Companion to T. S. Eliot, edited by David E. Chinitz, Blackwell, 2014, p. 68 (pp. 66-78).

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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.