The Cocktail Party Summary

T. S. Eliot

The Cocktail Party

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The Cocktail Party Summary

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The Cocktail Party is a play by British playwright T.S. Eliot that first premiered in Edinburgh in 1949 and on Broadway one year later. Focusing on a troubled married couple that settles their problems and moves on with their life with the help of a mysterious stranger who attends a cocktail party with them, it explores themes that are common in many of Eliot’s works. These include the isolation of the human condition, and the power of Christian sacrifice to further the life of the community as a whole. Although it starts out seeming to be a satire of traditional British drawing room comedies, over the course of the play it takes on the tone of a darker philosophical study of human relations.

The play begins at the home of Edward Chamberlayne, who is hosting a cocktail party. It was arranged by his wife, Lavinia, but she is not present. Edward meets with a mysterious guest who arrives at the party, and their conversation leads to the revelation that Lavinia has recently left Edward. The two have been married for five years, but have no children. The guest first tries to convince Edward that the separation could be a good thing for both of them, but Edward makes clear that he is determined to get her back. The guest then promises to return the next day with Lavinia before he leaves. Edward is then met by another guest, Peter Quilpe, who asks for Edward’s help to speak to another guest, Celia Coplestone. Peter is deeply in unrequited love with Celia, and Edward agrees to help. In another scene, we learn that Edward and Celia have been carrying on an affair behind Lavinia and their friends’ backs. However, when Lavinia leaves Edward, he and Celia decide to end their relationship as well. Act one of the play ends with Lavinia returning to her old house with the rest of the guests. The unidentified guest steps in briefly before the other guests arrive, but then disappears as the rest of the party plays out.

In act two, we learn the background of the mysterious guest, who is now revealed as a man named Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly. He is in fact a therapist, who has been seeing both Edward and Lavinia for quite some time. He first sees another guest at the party, who tells the therapist that he has referred Edward. Then he meets with Edward, and the two carry on a long conversation about Edward’s goals for his life and how he feels about his relationship with his wife. He then welcomes Lavinia, who has been seeing him for some time. Edward and Lavinia have a joint session together, and they discuss their relationship, come clean with each other, and decide hesitantly to give their relationship another try. As they go home together, the psychiatrist meets with his final patient in this act, Celia. She is feeling deeply guilty over her sins, and Sir Harcourt-Reilly tells her that she can either accept the simple things in life and be content, or she can take a perilous journey to find her true purpose. Although she finds the Psychiatrist’s advice difficult to accept, she is able to take it and chooses the journey. She is able to move on towards a life of greater honesty and personal salvation as act two ends.

Act three begins with another cocktail party, once again set at the home of the Chamberlaynes. Edward and Lavinia are happy and together, having found contentment with each other and forgiven each other for any past trespasses. They are joined by their friends Julia and Alexander, as well as Peter, who has found success as a writer in Hollywood. They discuss Celia, who chose to go to Africa and become a missionary, but tragically died a short time later during a plague outbreak. She is now considered a martyr, and the psychiatrist believes that to have been her destiny and the way she found her purpose in life. The play ends with everyone seeming to be exactly where they belong.

T.S. Eliot is best known for his poetry and plays, and is considered to be one of the most influential British writers of his era. The Cocktail Party was considered to be his most popular play at the time, although today his 1935 play Murder at the Cathedral is best known. The Cocktail Party has had several successful productions, including its initial 1950 run starring Alec Guinness in the role of the unidentified guest that won the Tony Award for Best Play. Although Eliot’s plays remain well-regarded, his most significant legacy is his poetry collections, primarily The Wasteland and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. The latter was adapted into the Tony-winning Broadway musical Cats, which remains one of the longest-running Broadway musicals of all time. T.S. Eliot won the 1948 Nobel Prize in Literature for “his outstanding, pioneer contribution to modern day poetry”, and was awarded the 1964 Presidential Medal of Freedom.