“I have lived with the Muses
And on lofty heights:
Many doctrines have I learned;
But Fate is above us all.
Nothing avails against Fate….
None can come near to her altars,
None worship her statues;
She regards not our sacrifice.
O sacred goddess,
Bear no more hardly upon me
Than in days overpast!
With a gesture Zeus judges,
But the sentence is yours.
Hard iron yields to your strength;
Your fierce will knows not gentleness.”
These words come from the chorus in Euripedes’ Alcestis, a play that loosely inspired The Cocktail Party. It deals with a recurrent theme that is common throughout much Greek drama: the conflicting co-existence of fate and free will. King Admetus has struck a bargain with the gods; they will allow him to live past the determined moment of his death if he can find someone willing to take his place. Alcestis, his faithful wife, makes the sacrifice. The main action of the play takes place on Alcestis’ deathbed, and it is here that Admetus mourns his loss. Certainly, he gets to live, but there is a price involved. The fates will always win in the end.
In 1949, when The Cocktail Party premiered, the British public must have felt similarly, still reeling from the just-
ended war. In retrospect it seems inevitable that the allies would win, but in the moment, with the loss of France and regular air raids over London, those who lived and those who died truly seemed to be determined by fate. T.S. Eliot, the premier poet of his time, was born in 1888 and lived through two world wars. He had much to say on matters of fate and free will. By 1949, Eliot was already renowned as a brilliant poet, known to all schoolboys through his masterpieces The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land. He had solidified himself as the godfather of modernist poetry. Eliot was willing to break the rules in order to express himself without compromise. Those who know Eliot from The Waste Land know him as a despairing, disillusioned individual, one who doubts the world and man’s place in it.
Eliot never completely abandoned these doubts, and that is what makes The Cocktail Party such a fascinating play. While Eliot did become a devout Anglican in later life, he continually engaged in philosophical debate from his school days until the end of his life, reflecting upon and critiquing the major trends. Chief among these trends were the exponents of existentialism, popularized by Jean-Paul Sartre (Eliot has a direct jab at Sarte in The Cocktail Party when Edward says that “Hell is oneself,” as opposed to Sartre’s “Hell is other people” in No Exit). Man, Sartre says, is free to do as he will. No cosmic moral order exists, so man must take responsibility for his actions and the choices he will make. Since man is at the center, making free decisions, existentialism is by necessity an atheistic philosophy, and Eliot was no atheist. If we accept the existentialist notion of free will, we negate the idea of a supreme being, but if we accept a supreme being and the idea of fate, than why do our individual actions as human beings matter? It is the same quandary Euripedes wrote about – was King Admetus really free to choose, or was his fate determined for him?
Eliot’s genius was in taking these ancient philosophical questions, questions that had been largely confined to academics and scholars of Greek drama, and making them accessible. He did it by using the popular theater of his day and that form most despised by self-proclaimed “serious theater lovers,” the drawing-room comedy. In the British drama of 1949, gods no longer visited mortals to make bargains, and audiences would not accept wives who literally died in the place of their husbands. Instead, Eliot writes about other kinds of sacrifices, the deeply personal sacrifices that people were actually making in the world around him. These were sacrifices for love, for religion, for friendship, and even for the sake of social appearances. They are the same kinds of sacrifices we still make all the time. When people lie at a party to gain the favor of a co-worker, or when people must make a moral choice linked to a deeply held religious belief, or even when people engage in adultery for reasons of passion and not rationality, they are making choices. Yet are they? Are they really free to make these decisions, or are forces, whether spiritual or societal, pushing down upon them and swaying their actions?
The deep metaphysical conflicts in The Cocktail Party are debated at length by academics, but the surface of the play is highly enjoyable as comedy for its own sake. Eliot populates the play with characters of Wilde-like brilliance, such as the outspoken and flamboyant Julia Shuttlethwaite – a comic masterpiece. Eliot also creates a sense of mystery and suspense: he knows how to keep an audience’s attention with a dramatic story. It is true that others have done it before and some may say better, but no one else did it with the same philosophical undertones and, perhaps most remarkably, the same language.
It is not immediately obvious upon viewing the play, but it is written in verse. This hearkens both back to Greek and earlier English theatrical traditions, and it predicts the major watershed moments of 20th century drama. Eliot’s previous plays Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Family Reunion (1939) were also written in verse, but received some criticism for a heavy reliance on a Greek-style chorus and an overabundance of poetic language that some audiences found alienating. By contrast, in The Cocktail Party Eliot finally hit upon the right balance of poetry and everyday speech. Eliot was determined to follow a simple guiding principle: “I laid down for myself the ascetic rule to avoid poetry which could not stand the test of strict dramatic utility.”
While Eliot is taught in schools as a master-poet, few realize the extent to which he was devoted to the theater. Eliot’s plays were not simply poems to be read aloud; they were carefully and intricately crafted. That may seem common in theater now, but Eliot preceded Pinter, Beckett, and Mamet. Eliot made it permissible to include poetry in popular theater, and his stature as a father figure to other writers gave his message weight: if Eliot did it, it was permissible. Playwrights did not have to solely concern themselves with plot and character; they could also care about language, and use language in complicated ways. In Eliot’s hands and those of the dramatists who followed him, poetry on stage could be lush and expressive or short and blunt, warm and fuzzy or deeply disturbing. Speech patterns mattered, something Eliot understood perfectly well. This is something any playwright worth their salt strives for today – to take normal speech and make it extraordinary.
The Cocktail Party was given an initial week-long trial run by producer Henry Sherek at the Edinburgh Festival in August of 1949. The star cast included Alec Guinness, Irene Worth, Cathleen Nesbitt, and Robert Flemyng. The response was worthy of a complex and major new play. The Times wrote that it was “a brilliantly entertaining analysis of problems long since staled by conventional treatment.” The Daily Telegraph declared that, ‘this play is one of the finest dramatic achievements of our time.” While praise was not unanimous, even those faulting the play found it compelling theater; see the Daily Mail, which wrote that it ‘is a bewildering muddle of a play, but in many respects a brilliant one.” The response was supportive and enthusiastic, so Sherek decided to give the play a longer run in London. Finding an available West End theaters proved impossible however, so in the beginning of 1950 the play was instead taken to New York at Henry Miller’s Theater with the most of the Edinburgh cast intact.
The majority of the New York newspapers also praised the production – the Daily News, Journal American, and Daily Post all proclaimed it a “masterpiece,” and Robert Coleman of the Daily Mirror called it “one of the great plays of our time.” Many reviews also noted that Alec Guinness was quickly becoming one of the greatest actors of his generation. Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times was one of the few negative voices, describing the play as “verbose and elusive.” Atkinson goes on to say that he did not fully understand the play “but recognizes that it is genuine and worth understanding.” The subsequent London production did not occur until May of 1950, and by then a new cast had to be assembled, headed by Rex Harrison. At this point, much had been written about the play’s Broadway success, and the printed script was a best-seller, so the London production already had built-in interest. The Broadway production, meanwhile, ran until the start of 1951, one week shy of a year for a total of 409 performances. The production also won T.S. Eliot a Tony Award for Best Play.
Despite the enormous success of the initial production, the play has been infrequently seen outside of classrooms in recent years. The last major New York production was a 1968 Broadway revival starring Brian Bedford, Patricia Conolly, and Frances Sternhagen. That same year in London, Alec Guinness reprised his role of the Unidentified Guest and directed the production. Since then, the play has enjoyed the occasional revival in the UK, and in the last year the Donmar Warehouse hosted a major T.S. Eliot festival that included a full production of The Family Reunion and a staged reading of The Cocktail Party. There is no shortage of attention paid to T.S. Eliot by academics, which makes it even more shocking that his plays are so infrequently seen, especially on this side of the Atlantic. The time is right for a revival of interest in Eliot’s dramatic works, and they deserve to be seen in fully staged versions rather than read in an armchair. Eliot wrote them as living drama, which is why TACT feels it is vital to present them to a new audience.Yet, for the immediate future, we suggest that you relax and enjoy the play for what it is, an entertaining, mysterious, comedic story, and let Eliot’s poetry wash over you. The play’s deeper messages about philosophy and the human condition will find their way to you on their own.