The Cocktail Party as a Poetic Drama

The Cocktail Party as a Poetic Drama

The Cocktail Party as a Poetic Drama

A Great Landmark

Eliot’s numerous essays on Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, and on the theory of poetic drama, indicate that before taking to play-writing he had pondered long and deep over the problems of poetic drama in the modern age. The Cocktail Party is a landmark in the history of poetic drama, because in the play Eliot comes very near to solving these problems.

Contemporary Setting and Characters

The main problems of poetic drama are two: the problems of a suitable theme, and of a suitable medium of communication. Traditionally, mythological and historical subjects were considered suitable for poetic drama. For his first play, Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot also had chosen a medieval subject. But he soon realised that if poetic drama is to be revived the present age, poetry must be brought into the world in which the audience lives and to which it returns when it leaves the theatre. It will not do, “to transport the audience into some imaginary world totally unlike its own, an unreal world in which poetry is tolerated.” Hence it is that for The Cocktail Party he took a theme from contemporary life, with characters of our own time, living in our own world, and demonstrated that poetic plays could be written with success on contemporary subjects. The Chamberlaynes, though they are aristocrats, live and move in a world with which we are all familiar.

Moreover, The Cocktail Party is a more ample play than The Murder in the Cathedral; for in it Eliot shows an awareness of a way of life different from that of the saint, and comes to the conclusion that both ways are necessary, and none of the two is better. The exceptional person, the saint, has been moved to one side of the play and the Chamberlaynes and their social group, with whose salvation the play is concerned, is in the centre. Ordinary experience is thus brought into the foreground, and the play is concerned with the spiritual well-being of ordinary men and women. The play’s relevance to the contemporary situation is significant.

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Versification: Its Flexibility

The other problem of poetic drama is the problem of a suitable medium of communication. Since contemporary audiences arc used to prose, the dramatist should follow the ‘ascetic’ rule of using the minimum of decoration. All decoration, imagery, etc., which does not have dramatic utility, must be strictly avoided. The use of prose also must be avoided, for the use of prose along with verse gives a jar and jolt to the audience and makes them conscious of the medium. In other words, his verse should be flexible enough to be used for every scéne and situation. Further, he must avoid echoing Shakespeare, because the traditional blank verse, after centuries of use for non-dramatic purposes, has lost the flexibility which blank verse must have, if it is to give the effect of conversation. In The Cocktail Party, Eliot solved this problem of a suitable medium of communication. He has gone back to the root principle of English prosody, organisation by stresses, and devised a line of varying length, but a fixed number of stresses, normally three. He has used a language and a verse which has grown out of contemporary idiom and rhythm. He has made it flexible enough to express every kind of metal state, every type of situation and character.) Says Raymond Williams, “his development of a flexible, lucid verse manner, based very closely on speech and yet capable of the greatest precision and distinction, is unquestionably a major achievement.” Moreover, he used extreme austerity in the use of imagery, so that, as he himself tells us “it is perhaps an open question if there is any poetry in the play at all.” In this way, he could avoid the use of prose altogether It is a remarkable achievement and hence the significance of The Cocktail Party in the history of poetic drama in England.

Rejection of Earlier Conventions

When Eliot took to writing plays, the naturalistic prose drama held the stage. Verse-plays were considered unnatural and artificial. He realised, “If the poetic drama is to reconquer its place, it must, in my opinion, enter into overt competition with prose drama.” With this end in view, he introduced no chorus and no lyrical duets, no soliloquies and no ghosts, in The Cocktail Party. All earlier conventions of the poetic drama have been discarded. The origin of the story in the Greek drama Alcestis has been so well concealed that the source could not be recognised until Eliot himself pointed it out. Even the Guardians have been made members of the Chamberlaynes’ social circle, and thus have been given reasonable and natural grounds for their presence. Poetry has been put on a very ‘thin diet’ indeed; the theme is contemporary,” and characters are very much like those of a prose drama, using telephones and motor cars and radio sets. Even the priest has been transformed into a psychiatrist. Like other poetic plays, The Cocktail Party does not transport us into an artificial world; it is the first poetic play to deal successfully with our own sordid, dreary, daily world, and to illuminate and transfigure it.

The Note of Comedy

In this way, “he countered the prejudice against modern verse-drama in the commercial theatre”. A play must entertain, primarily it must have dramatic effectiveness. No drama can be successful, or enjoy a long run in the commercial theatre, unless it can capture the attention of the audience and keep it engaged throughout. On the surface, The Cocktail Party is a Comedy of Manners in the modern style. There is plenty of false wit made fashionable by Noel Coward, and Julia is a masterpiece of comic characterisation, popping in, under one excuse or another, throughout the first Act to provide relief to the serious discussion. Alex backs her up in this respect with his pretention of being an expert cook. There is enough of plot, mystery and suspense, to keep the audience happy and engaged. There is also enough of romantic intrigue. There are two closely inter-linked love-triangles-Peter in love with Celia, Celia in love with Edward, Edward married to Lavinia, Lavinia in love with Peter

The Serious Under-plot

But behind this surface-comedy, there is the serious theme which provokes thought and stimulates the emotions. The superiority of poetic drama lies in the fact that it can appeal to a wider audience, and to people of most varied tastes and The Cocktail Party demonstrates this superiority, of poetic drama. Verse drama has a sort of, “doubleness of action”, a kind of under-pattern, less obvious than the theatrical one. There is not only the pattern woven by the characters themselves but another pattern, greater and more subtle, drawn by fate.” (Maxwell). This under-pattern is conveyed by imagery, simile and metaphor. Hence prose drama cannot convey it, and in this lies the superiority of verse drama. The Cocktail Party demonstrates this superiority. It creates the impression, “of the characters taking part in some series of action of which they are not entirely conscious, taking their position in patterns not of their own design.” This is clearly seen in the following:

“To approach the stranger,

Is to invite the unexpected, release a new force,

Or to let the genie out of the bottle

It is to start a train of events

Beyond your control.”


In short, through The Cocktail Party, Eliot shattered the various prejudices against poetic drama, showed that it can meet prose drama on its own ground, and also demonstrated that its range is much larger. In moments of intense emotional excitement, the human naturally expresses himself in poetry, and Eliot made such an expression possible once again by producing a dramatic verse which has grown from the contemporary idiom. In all these ways, The Cocktail Party is a remarkable achievement, a major breakthrough in the history of poetic drama in the 20th century

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