Symbolism in The Cocktail Party

Symbolism in The Cocktail Party

Symbolism in The Cocktail Party

The Alcestis-Myth

The plot of The Cocktail Party has its basis in the drama Alcestis of the Greek dramatist, Euripides, and its basic symbolism “of spiritual death and rebirth” derives from the Greek play. The plot of Alcestis runs as follows:

“Apollo, having been banished from Olympus and condemned for a time to serve a mortal, became herdsman of Admetus, King of Pherae, and found him a just and hospitable man. Apollo persuaded the Fates to prolong the life of Admetus as a reward for his righteousness, provided that he can find some one who will die in his place. The King appealed to all his kinsmen to die for him, but none was willing to die for his sake. However, his wife, Alcestis, agreed to die for him, and at the beginning of the play we find her preparing for her death. Immediately after her death, and before the body has been buried, Heracles, son of Zeus, arrives at the palace on his way to fulfil yet another of his heroic labours. Despite his grief (due to his wife’s martyrdom), Admetus carries out the sacred duties of hospitality and conceals the fact of his wife’s death. Left alone to entertain himself during the funeral, Heracles makes merry to such an extent that one of the servants can endure it no longer. and discloses the true situation. Heracles, touched by the fact that Admetus has shown him due hospitality in such circumstances, resolves to wrestle with Death and restore Alcestis to her home. He brings her back, a veiled figure, and persuades Admetus to take into his house that woman, whom, he says, he has won as a prize at a nearby game. Having also persuaded Admetus himself to lead her into the house-the play everywhere heavily underlines the weakness of masculine nature by contrast with the fortitude of feminine nature represented by Alcestis herself Heracles raises her veil and reveals her resurrected wife. Admetus is allowed to speak to her as much as he wishes, but he will not be able to answer him for three days, the length of time necessary for her to be ‘unconsecrated’ to the gods beneath the earth”.

-(D.B. Jones)

Eliot’s Originality

Though Eliot has taken his plot and his symbolism from Euripides, he has given it an entirely new interpretation and integration. Thus Reilly combines in himself both the drunken eccentric behaviour of Heracles, and the role of Pheres as truth-teller. In the case of Alcestis, he has taken the opposite course, and divided her into two characters. The wife in her is represented by Lavinia, and the martyr in her is represented by Celia. Eliot has transformed his borrowings and given them a symbolic significance.

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Reilly and the Guardians: Their Symbolic Significance

Thus Reilly gains in significance. He symbolises the spiritual saviour, as well as the psychiatrist. He also symbolises the priest, the father confessor, and his consulting room, the confessional box. In him, “the symbolism treated by an amalgam of classical sources with Christianity merges with symbolism from the modern scene, from the new science of psychiatry.” He is the magic doctor working wonders with his art, and bringing about spiritual salvation and change of heart. The Guardians-Reilly, Julia and Alex- symbolise the Divine or the Providence watching over erring mortals and setting them on the right path. They symbolise the supernatural always hovering round us and influencing our lives in some mysterious manner. Edward‘s consultation with Reilly is almost a parody of the accepted pattern of psycho-analysis. The libation at the end of Act II is very much like a religious ritual. Reilly’s being ‘one-eyed’ symbolises the limitation of modern science, the psychiatrist must be complimented by the “Christian Guardian”, Julia in this case.

Symbolism of Edward and Lavinia

Edward in the play is the counterpart of Admetus in Alcestis, and Livinia that of Alcestis herself. Lavinia, like Alcestis, dies to her husband, but it is not a physical death. It is a spiritual death, and Reilly, like Heracles, is the instrument of bringing her back to life, i.e. spiritual regeneration. Heracles uses physical force to restore Alcestis to her husband, Reilly fights spiritual death with the forces of the mind and the spirit. Lavinia’s return symbolises spiritual awakening and regeneration. Both Edward and Lavinia have to undergo a process of self-introspection, penance in Christian terms, like Admetus, before spiritual regeneration for them can become possible. The presence of the Unidentified Guest symbolises the irruption of unknown forces into our lives, disturbing our feeling of comfortable security.

Thus the basic symbolism in The Cocktail Party is one of spiritual birth and spiritual death. It is essentially a Christian play. The remedy suggested to the Chamberlaynes is the creative remedy of the Christian religion. “By Constant spiritual re-birth and renewal, we are preserved in the mystical body of Christ, through which a permanent communion or fellowship becomes possible.” Through this greater faith, our faith in one another is strengthened, and it is only through such faith that we can live.

Celia: Her Symbolic Significance

Celia symbolises the Christ who must be Crucified in every age to atone to God for the sins of humanity, and bring about spiritual regeneration. Her death, like that of Christ, reverberates, through the lives of others, and transforms them. There are two ways, the way chosen by the Chamberlaynes, and the way chosen by Celia, and says Eliot, neither way is better. These two ways symbolise the ways of spiritual regeneration, and that of ordinary physical existence. We must either accept the human condition with all its limitations, and be reconciled to it, or go to the sanatorium, i.e. choose the way of the saint, and die for the good of others.

The Second Cocktail Party: Its Symbolic Significance

The Chamberlaynes accept their past with all its memories. This acceptance is symbolised by their giving just such another cocktail party as they were holding at the beginning of the play, “The Cocktail Party”, says D.É. Jones, “is the secular counterpart of the Communion Service, if given in the right spirit, the tit bits and the short drinks, the equivalent of the bread and drink. The play is almost a piece of Metaphysical wit in its discovery of analogy in unlikely places.” Throughout the play, Eliot has assigned, “a spiritual dimension to physical facts”

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