Themes in The Cocktail Party
The Cocktail Party is a play and as such it entertains; it has dramatic effectiveness. It is amusing and full of wit and humour. But it is a poetic drama and as such it also provokes thought and stimulates emotions. The light and the comic have a serious purpose. Like other plays of Eliot, the purpose of The Cocktail Party also is to communicate to larger audiences the themes of his poetry. It is also concerned with spiritual discipline in the life of the common man, as well as in the life of the saint.
Nature of Sainthood
Primarily, the play deals with the different levels of spiritual experiences, of the saint and of the ordinary mortal, “who is helped to establish his life by the power of the saint’s sacrifice to fertilise the lives of others” (Maxwell). Each is offered a choice, and the choice determines the future. The various characters in the play are concerned with establishing a secure foundation for their future lives. They are concerned with the working out of their own salvation. Edward and Lavinia, representing average humanity, are a married couple whose life is wretched and miserable because of mutual misunderstanding and indifference. Each considers the other incapable of being loved or loving. So they violate the sanctity of their marriage vows and turn to others for love and sympathy. Edward by loving Celia tries to prove to himself that he is capable of loving, and Lavinia turns to Peter to show that she is capable of being loved.
Their married life would have been wrecked, but for the Guardians-Reilly, Julia and Alex-who watch over and help the couple. Encouraged and abetted by Reilly, Lavinia disappears, ‘dies to Edward, so to say. This gives a shock to Edward and leads to self-exploration and heart-searching. He realises that he cannot live without Lavinia, that life has no meaning for him without his wife. Reilly, the psychiatrist, the modern counterpart of the Father Confessor, offers them a choice. They must either choose the ordinary humdrum life which alone is possible in the world, or the other way, the way of martyrdom. They choose the first way. They are advised not to expect over much from life, for Eliot accepts the Existential view that suffering is the necessary condition of human life. They must be tolerant and sympathetic, and instead of blaming and finding fault with each other, they must cultivate an awareness of their own faults. Act III shows them actually leading a life of such common routine. They make the best of a bad bargain. It is a world of, “lunacy, violence, stupidity, greed”, and in such a world, the life the Chamberlaynes have chosen is a good life.
Theme of Choice
The basic theme of the play is the way in which ordinary human life can be established on secure foundations, and the establishment of such a life is helped by the power of a saint’s sacrifice to fertilise the lives of others. Celia, like the Chamberlaynes, is also confronted with the necessity of making a choice. She must either choose the life of common routine, as the Chamberlaynes have chosen, or she must choose the other way-the way of the saint, Eliot makes it quite clear that neither of the two ways is better. Each is good in its own way at the level on which it is made.
Celia chooses the other way, and her choice is important, because it indicates a higher spiritual level, and it has the power to influence the lives of others. For this reason, her choice is irrevocable and her decision irreversible. Her spiritual problem is, “all the world I live in seems a delusion”, and consequently, she feels she cannot make a life with anyone. So she chooses the saint’s way, “the way of loneliness and communion”. In other words, she withdraws from ordinary. life. She finds an “occupation for a saint”. Sainthood assumes different forms, and in the case of Celia it takes the shape of her joining a nursing sisterhood, taking active part in its functions, and finally meeting a horrible death at the hands of the natives, in a far-off land.
Theme of Martyrdom
“Celia’s death”, says Maxwell, “is not an ending, the climax of a series of events important only to herself. It reverberates through the lives of others and marks afresh beginning”. For the natives, too, Celia’s death must have made a difference:
“Who knows, Mrs. Chamberlayne,
The difference that made to the natives who were dying
Or the state of mind in which they died.”
The impact of her death, imparts to the Chamberlaynes a fresh vision of life:
“Sir Henry has been saying,
I think, that every moment is a fresh beginning,
And Julia, that life is only keeping on;
And somehow the two ideas seem to fit together.”
The impact of her death brings about spiritual regeneration, and so makes the other characters more capable of adjustment with each other, with common human life, and with the Natural order of things. The self-assurance of Peter, and his adolescent pride, melt as soon as he hears of Celia’s death. Each of the characters has been trying to work out his own salvation, each is confronted with a choice, and is helped and sustained by the self-sacrifice of Celia.
Theme of The Past
“Thus one of the themes of the play is the levels of choice, the inter- action of character” (Maxwell). Another theme of the Cocktail Party, as of all Eliot’s work, is, “the pressure of the past on the present, both in the lives of individuals and in history”. The Chamberlaynes have a feeling of responsibility for Celia’s death, a memory that will sustain them in their lives. Reilly tells them:
“You will have to live with these memories and make them
Into something new. Only by acceptance,
Of the past you will alter its meaning.”
There is no escape from the past. It is Eliot’s burning awareness of the presence of the past which leads him to have some basis in the past for his contemporary situations. Thus the story of the Chamberlaynes has its basis in the story of Alcestis, a drama from the pen of the Greek dramatist Euripides. It is in the present that the past and the future meet, and the past, the present, and the future are inseparable. They form a single whole. All significant life is directed by consciousness of the permanent imminence of death, of the memories of one’s past which would be of a fluctuating character, and which cannot be evaded. There is no escape from the past, it lives on in the present, and determines the future.