September 23, 2010

The Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot

Eliot and his second wife, Valerie, at the Theatre


Stearns and I were riding the metro last evening, and talking about The Cocktail Party, and I daresay we drew a few looks.  I assume most people thought we were actually talking about a party, which would have made the conversation very odd, indeed.

I have felt a bit bad about quoting it all week out of context, so I thought today I'd give a bit of context.  The Cocktail Party premiered on Broadway in 1950, with Alec Guinness in the leading role.  It starts with a dreadfully awkward cocktail party hosted by Edward Chamberlaine; awkward, because it was his wife's party, but she (Lavinia) had left him that morning.  While Edward tries to conceal that fact to the general crowd, he ends up revealing it to an "Unidentified Guest" (Guinness).

This "Guest"promises to bring Lavinia back the next day.  Edward, apparently, cannot live without his wife--though she is a stranger to him.  What Edward fails to tell the "Guest" is that he is having an affair with another one of the guests at the party, Celia Copplestone, a young socialite and patroness of the arts.

When Lavinia comes back, naturally, they fall into their old habits of argument and circles of hatred and misunderstanding.  "So here we are again, back in the trap."Edward says.

I don't want to give you a complete play-by-play, so the rest will be short: Lavinia and Edward go independently to see Sir Harcourt Reilly, a psychologist, who turns out to be the "Unidentified Guest".  Can he sow the seeds to a renewal of their marriage?  Meanwhile Celia is seeking for something greater, and turns to Reilly as well.  And the in background are Alex and Julia (my favorite characters)--seemingly silly and worldly, they are actually "guardians."

Julia, Reilly, and Edward
in the New York production
The play is really wonderful, and surprisingly funny.  It touches on the themes of infidelity and marriage and faith in a way I've never seen before, but that strikes me as profoundly real.  But it doesn't read well--privately that is.  Stearns, Emily and I went and saw it in New York, and it was so powerful and moving--we laughed and we nearly cried.  Recently we held a little cocktail party of our own, and read it aloud.  Since it is rarely performed, I think that would be the way to read it for the first time.

I have, sadly, been unable to capture the real humor of it in the quotes I've selected.  I tried, because I do find it very funny (in a mannered way, of course), but the humor is all in a situation and not really of dialogue.  But it is a comedy in the humor sense, as well as the final sense: God is in his heaven, and all is right with the world...so long as we don't make a mash out of everything and we remember to seek the good of others always.

1 comment:

  1. That was what really stuck out to me on this read--the humor! What a funny play! The octopus! The python!

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