The Cocktail Party as a Comedy of Manners
A Comedy of Manners is essentially a drawing-room comedy. It is called Comedy of Manners, for it mirrors realistically the social life and manners of fashionable upper class people. It is characterised by ample of wit and humour, and silly and meaningless talk. Some of the characters are witty, while others are bores or fops or witwoulds. Love intrigues and counter- intrigues play an important part, and form the basis of the plot
The Setting and the Characters
The main plot of The Cocktail Party bears close resemblance to a Comedy of Manners. It begins with a silly party given by the Chamberlaynes, a party which is a failure from the very beginning as the hostess has disappeared in a mysterious manner. The characters, the Chamberlaynes and their friends, are all members of the upper class society of London. They are aristocrats, Alex, over-helpful and interfering, is the conventional bore. Their drawing-room behaviour is correct, and they speak and act in character. The setting is urban, and the story faithfully mirrors the ennui, the boredom, and the many frustrations of life in the contemporary waste land.
The Silly Chatter
There is enough of silly chatter, and also flashes of pseudo-wit of the Comedy of Manners. There is the talk about Lady Klootz and the wedding cake, the tigers which are not there, monkeys and decayed mansions. There is also Delia Verinder and her son, the only man who could hear the bats’ cry. Here is an instance of the meaningless, silly talk which reflect the mental vacuity of the waste landers:
Julia. I have always wanted to go to California,
Do tell us what you were doing in California?
Celia. Making a film.
Peter. Trying to make a film.
Julia. Oh, what film was it? I wonder, if I have seen it.
“The opening scene”, says Denis Donoghue, “is packed with ironic stichomythia of this type, brought over from, A Game of Chess’, and comically flattened for the occasion”.
Julia and Alex: Great Comic Characters
Julia is a masterpiece of comic characterization, constantly popping in throughout Act I to give relief to the serious discussion. Now she forgets her spectacles, now her umbrella, and must come in to fetch them. She seems to be an obtuse, absent-minded old lady who thinks that she left behind her property, while in reality she has it with her. Similarly, the officious and over- helpful Alex is a bore in the convention of the Comedy of Manners. He claims to be an expert cook, is proud of his achievements in this art, insists that he will prepare egg-curry for Edward who must be hungry. But when it comes to brass tacks he is a miserable failure. He constantly comes from the kitchen into the drawing-room to interrupt the serious conversation, till ultimately the dinner under preparation is charred and spoiled. Then there is his pseudo wit, for example, when he says to Julia, “The young monkeys are extremely palatable: I have cooked them myself”. We must also take into account, “the hilarious scene of married bickering which follows on Lavinia’s return”.
Thrilling Events: The Love-Triangle
There is enough in this play to attract and retain the attention and interest of the audience. In the tradition of the Comedy of Manners, there is enough of plot. There are two closely interlinked love-triangles; Peter loves Celia, Celia loves Edward, Edward’s wife, Lavinia, loves Peter. The atmosphere of intrigue proper to Comedy of Manners has been created with light, skilful touches. Lavinia has disappeared. Has she eloped with any one of her lovers? What does Reilly, the unidentified guest, know about her? Was he in league with her? Then there is the arrival of Celia, quietly after the other guests have left, and her declaration of love for Edward. It looks like a sex-assignment. And why does Julia keep returning again and again? Does she suspect the illicit intimacy of Edward and Celia, and is out to prevent it? And then there is the mystery regarding the wires. Why did Lavinia send them? The atmosphere of intrigue thickens when Lavinia emphatically says that she had sent no wires.
The Difference: Serious Elements
“On the surface, the play is a Comedy of Manners in the modern style” (D.E. Jones).
But there is a difference. There is a more serious underpattern than is usual with this kind of play. A poetic drama must entertain, only then can it enter into overt competition with the realistic prose drama. But it must also provoke thought and rouse the emotions. The Cocktail Party is a comedy and as such it has much to offer by way of entertainment, but it has a serious aspect also. The humour in the play is in contrast to the serious themes, as in the sequence of Reilly’s interviews, and both elements meet in Reilly. He unites the comic and the serious, the comedy associated with the Chamberlaynes and the serious and tragic story of Celia.)
Even the light and comic story of the Chamberlaynes has serious overtones. Each of the characters is concerned with the working out of his or her own salvation. There is disillusionment, shattering of dreams, and the ultimate acceptance of reality. Each is confronted with a choice, and the choice determines the future. The comic has a serious purpose. And the comedy of the Chamberlanes is juxtaposed to the tragic story of Celia. “She chooses the saint’s way, and her martyrdom reverberates through the lives of others and marks a fresh beginning.” Her death makes a difference to the Chamberlaynes and their social circle, and they all feel that their lives will no longer be the same.
The Cocktail Party is a. Comedy of Manners but with a difference. It amuses and entertains, but it also instructs. Moral edification was always Eliot’s aim.