The Cocktail Party as a Domestic Comedy
A Domestic Comedy is a comedy dealing with the married life of common people. It is essentially a play of private life. It dramatizes the ways in which family life disintegrates, and also suggests the ways in which a happy domestic life can become possible. The action moves on a common everyday level, the characters are ordinary men and women, like most of us, and it depicts what most of us have felt and experienced. A Domestic Comedy is essentially a play of the middle classes as distinguished from the Comedy of Manners which deals with the fashionable upper classes.
The Chamberlaynes: Their Domestic Life
The Cocktail Party has been called a Domestic Comedy, for its main plot is concerned with the family life of the Chamberlaynes. Its action has not been laid in some remote, far-off place, or in some remote period of time. The action is laid in contemporary London, and most of it takes place in the London flat of the Chamberlaynes. No doubt, they are not middle class people they are aristocrats-but still they are representatives of average humanity. Their experience, their joys and their sufferings, are those of ordinary men and women.
The Chamberlaynes have been married for five years, but their lives have been dull, unhappy and wretched. They are dissatisfied with each other, and find no pleasure in each other’s company. There is mutual bickering such as is common among married people. Each of them blames the other. Edward blames Lavinia that she is a woman whom nobody can love, and she blames Edward that he is a man incapable of loving. In order to prove to himself that he can love, Edward takes Celia as his mistress, and in order to prove that she can be loved, Lavinia turns to Peter. There is lack of understanding and sympathy, there is moral turpitude, and, as a result, the family is bound to disintegrate. Domestic life cannot continue for long under the circumstances.
In order to save their family life, Lavinia is persuaded to disappear for some time. Her disappearance gives a shock to Edward, and starts a process of self-exploration and self-examination. Edward realises that he cannot live without Lavinia, that life has no meaning for him without his wife. He longs for her return, and is glad when he is told that his wife will come back to him within twenty-four hours, if only he would promise to ask no questions. Edward is penitent and the first sign of change in him is that he gives up his relationship with Celia. Faithfulness to the wife or the husband is the first essential for happy domestic life, and henceforth Edward is to be faithful to his wife.
It is all a question of right attitudes, and the formation of right attitudes is made possible by the wisdom of Sir Harcourt Reilly, the psychiatrist. It is largely through his efforts that both the husband and the wife come to realise their own faults, instead finding fault with each other. Lavinia now says that she is a woman whom no man can love, and Edward realises that he is a man incapable of loving. Such awareness of one’s own weaknesses, such self examination and self-criticism, as the Chamberlaynes have now achieved, is the key to a successful and happy married life. They are offered a choice, either to choose the saint’s way, or the kind of life that the human condition offers. They choose the latter course, “to make the best of a bad job”, and to accept the inadequacies of the ordinary human life. The advice of Reilly to the Chamberlaynes is of universal application. He advises them to,
“Maintain themselves by common routine,
Learn to avoid excessive expectation.
Become tolerant of themselves and others
Giving and taking, in the usual actions,
What there is to give and take.”
A happy, domestic life can be built up on these foundations alone. The last Act of the play shows them living such a life. They are considerate to each other, and give a cocktail party together.
The Two Extremes: Celia’s Story
The Edward-Lavinia main plot is in the tradition of a domestic comedy, along with it, and as a contrast to it, is depicted not, “the ordinary human condition,” but the way of the saint, the consequences of making the other choice. Thus the play depicts two extremes and no middle way. One woman is sent to the, ‘montony and dross’, of human love, and the other has to take up the way of martyrdom. Surely, feel the readers, there must be a third way, a middle way, between the two extremes. Surely, domestic felicity is possible even in this world.
Some Other Defects
As a domestic comedy, The Cocktail Party suffers from other defects as well.
(1) The pain and suffering which is an essential part of common, human life has not been depicted.
(2) Nothing has been said of the ethical discipline which controls average life.
(3) There is no reference to the possibilities of joy and glory in ordinary domestic life. Rather, we are made to feel a sort of contempt for average family life:
“They do not repine,
Are contended with the morning that separates,
And with the evening that brings together.
For casual talk before the fire.
Two people who know they do not understand each other.
Breeding children whom they do not understand,
And who will never understand them.”
The impression created is that the life chosen by Lavinia is trivial and insignificant, and that the way of martyrdom is of supreme importance.