The Cocktail Party

Definition

Theater

  • T. S. Eliot's verse drama about marital illusions.It was first performed at the 1949 Edinburgh Festival with Alec Guinnessas the Harley Street psychiatrist Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly and openedin London the next year with Rex Harrison. Guinness playedthe role with austerity and Harrison with warm charm. When Harrisonconfessed to the director, Martin Browne, that he could not graspwhat some of Eliot's lines meant, Browne told him not to worry becausethe audience would not understand them either. Eliot himself was deeplyconcerned about the play's symbolism, even asking that Harrison keephis arms down to 45 degrees to "avoid the crucifixion suggestion."

    Based in part on the Alcestis of Euripides,the play is set at a cocktail party hosted by Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne,both of whom have lovers. The psychiatrist shows the couple and Edward'slover, Celia, how they have all lived an illusion. Following his advice,the Chamberlaynes are reconciled and Celia seeks salvation as a missionaryin the East, where she is crucified on an anthill by tribesmen. Thepsychiatrist sees the death as a predestined event and does not blamehimself at all:

    You will have to live with these memories and make them
    Into something new. Only by acceptance
    Of the past will you alter its meaning.
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