Your Life and Mine: The Cocktail Party at the Print Room

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The Cocktail Party
Hilton McRae and Helen Bradbury in The Print Room’s production of T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party. Photo courtesy of Marc Brenner.

The Cocktail Party is a difficult play. It confounded contemporary reviewers with its mix of levity and seriousness, of Coward-ish quips and high Anglicanism. People asked why Celia had to die (and why – strung up by the “natives” in a kind of crucifixion – with such heavy-handed symbolism), how we are to take the mysterious workings of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly and why we should care about the worries of the unlovely Edward Chamberlayne. The best response to such criticism was written by William Carlos Williams: “The cocktail party, on the stage, with which the play begins and ends… is, darling, your life and mine.”

He is right. There are themes here which will have rung true with Eliot’s audience. But does the cocktail party with which the play begins and ends remain, darling, your life and mine? If we stripped away the cut-glass accents, the colonialist talk of faraway cannibalistic lands, the notion that Edward will somehow starve without Lavinia in his kitchen – if we were to take away all of these post-war peculiarities, would we find in this tragicomedy something to resonate with us today? Or should the play (and its now-defunct verse form) be consigned to the scrapheaps of history?

The idea of loving somebody incapable of loving you back is surely one with which we’re all familiar. It is the bread-and-butter of Hollywood movies, which capitalise on the common experience of unrequited love. The horrifying acknowledgement of loving in vain – la douleur exquise, as the French so succinctly put it – is one which has ensured the popularity of the plights of Violas, Orsinos, Young Werthers and Eponines throughout literature. Elena Ferrante’s much-touted Days of Abandonment scrutinizes this sensation with unflinching rawness. And it is at the heart of The Cocktail Party, which explains, in part, its continuing relevance.

What else can we recognise in Eliot’s party?

The idea of sin recurs throughout, an idea which no longer sits comfortably with us; nor does the redemptive Christian message that underwrites Celia’s role in the play, and her martyred end. But there is something in the Mephistophelean characterization of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, the Unidentified Guest (of whom Lavinia asks: “Are you a devil?”), which speaks to us. William Arrowsmith described the play as “the mask of the secular world in the service of a Christian society”. By this he means, I think, that Edward might not have swallowed Harcourt-Reilly’s advice if Harcourt-Reilly had appeared in the guise of a priest – for Edward is posturing as a modern man for whom the church can no longer provide reliable answers. And yet, the path he chooses, the triumph of marriage and rejection of betrayal, is a Christian one. “Put me into your sanatorium,” he pleads. He is desperate to be free of guilt; to be “fixed”, in some sense. And this cri de couer is one which continues to ring around our cities. Maybe we still live in a Christian society masquerading as a secular one. Perhaps, in this way, Eliot’s message persists.

These themes are brought to life in a slick new production at the Print Room in Notting Hill. Director Abbey Wright marries Eliot’s spare language with a simple set and economic use of light. Marcia Warren as Julia and Christopher Ravenscroft as Alex are particularly memorable for their shifts from comedy to the graver roles of the all-knowing, so-called ‘Guardians’. “I know you think I’m a silly old woman,” Julia says. “But I’m really very serious.” This confession seems to me to signify something greater than what is said, to hold within it an answer to the questions The Cocktail Party raises. For it is a play in which the idea of meaning is confused, in which things are rarely as they seem and conclusions hardly ever reached. “‘Nervous breakdown’ is a term I never use:/ It can mean almost anything,” Reilly says, and, later, “You have answered your own question,/ Though you do not know the meaning of what you have said”. Elsewhere, Celia wrestles with the meaning of “sin”; she explains to Reilly that “it’s much easier to tell you what I don’t mean”, and thinks of a time when “the word ‘happiness’ had a different meaning”.

Meaning, or lack of meaning, is explored throughout the play and beyond its fourth wall: Alec Guinness said of his part as Harcourt-Reilly: “I wasn’t sure what it meant. I still don’t know what it means. In fact, I don’t know what… meaning means anymore. What do you mean by meaning?” This question, which occupies characters, actors and critics alike, is at the heart of The Cocktail Party’s significance. It is this troubling of meaning – this rupture between speech and intention – which gives the play its lasting resonance, a durability it enjoys despite the rather archaic verse form it inhabits. While it had its admirers (“jazzy”, Stephen Spender called it), this style of verse drama dwindled in popularity after the war, despite Auden’s best efforts to maintain it. Our “formless age”, to borrow Eliot’s words, prefers glib back-and-forths to the carefully contrived, albeit “naturalized”, rhythms of verse dramas, it appears.

So, to turn again to Williams’ question: is it your life and mine that we find in The Cocktail Party? On the whole, I think it is. Notwithstanding the post-war trappings, the upper class Englishness, the carefully stressed versification, there is something here which remains relevant. It isn’t simply the common experience of unrequited love. It is the search for meaning – whether religious or linguistic – which we find threaded throughout Eliot’s work (“That is not what I meant at all,” Prufrock says, 2…It is impossible to say just what I mean!”), and continues to preoccupy us several decades later.

The Cocktail Party continues at The Print Room until October 10. Tickets are £10-£25.

Xenobe Purvis

About Xenobe Purvis

Xenobe is a writer and a literary research assistant. Her work has appeared in the Telegraph, City AM, Asian Art Newspaper and So it Goes Magazine, and her first novel is represented by Peters Fraser & Dunlop. She and her sister curate an art and culture website with a Japanese focus: nomikomu.com.

Xenobe is a writer and a literary research assistant. Her work has appeared in the Telegraph, City AM, Asian Art Newspaper and So it Goes Magazine, and her first novel is represented by Peters Fraser & Dunlop. She and her sister curate an art and culture website with a Japanese focus: nomikomu.com.

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