Christian Spirituality in T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party


Summary: Apollo, who for an offense against the other gods is serving time as a shepherd of King Admetus, convinces the Fates to extend the king's life.   But for this to happen, another family member must take his place.  Admetus is disappointed that both his aging parents refuse to do so.  Alcestis, the king's wife, agrees.  After her death, a drunken Hercules arrives at the palace where he is received with hospitality.  Hercules agrees to wrestle Death for the soul of Alcestis.  He wins and returns with her.  Admetus is allowed to look at her unveiled but she cannot speak to him for three days so she may be unconsecrated.
T.S. Eliot

Question: How much of the plot has Eliot adopted in his version?  What has he changed?  Who plays the role of Alcestis?  What is different about the meaning of Eliot's play as compared with Euripides'?


Basis in the Comedy of Manners

Question: What typical elements associated with the comedy of manners are present in Eliot's play?  How does he work to expand or undercut these?


Illusions versus Reality

"Psychology has very great utility in two ways.  It can revive and has already to some extent revived, truths long since known to Christianity, but mostly forgotten and ignored, and it can put them in a form and a language understandable by modern people to whom the language of Christianity is not only dead but undecipherable. [. . .It] seems to me for the most part to ignore the more intense, profound and satisfying emotions of religion.  It must ignore their value because its function is merely to describe and not to express a preference.  But if this is true, it can never take the place of religion, though it can be an important accessory"-- "The Search for Moral Sanction"

"The aim of Western psychiatry is to help the troubled individual to adjust himself to the society of less troubled individuals -- individuals who are observed to be well adjusted to one another and the local institutions, but about whose adjustment to the fundamental Order of Things no inquiry is made [. . .] But there is another kind of normality -- normality of perfect functioning [. . .] Even a man who is perfectly adjusted to a deranged society can prepare himself, if he so desires, to become adjusted to the Nature of Things"
-- On Poets and Poetry

Question: What role does Sir Henry play in the overall plot? What is his purpose for Edward, Lavinia, and Celia?  Is his role a religious one?  Why or why not?  In the quote above, what does Eliot mean by "the Nature of Things"?  How is this expressed in the play?

Passages involving the theme of illusions and reality:

  • 307: The experience of being an object
  • 308: Edward's desire to have Lavinia back in order to discover who she really is.
  • 314-316: Celia's reality to Peter.  What is the purpose of memory in such a relationship or state?
  • 329-330: Edward a stranger to himself
  • 331: Edward and Celia seeing each other as human beings
  • 342: One is, in some sense, always alone.  "Hell is oneself."
  • 37-343: Edward and Lavinia's claims about each other in marriage. Trying to face the reality of the other.
  • 352-353: Both Edward and Lavinia are self-deceivers
  • 359-360: An awareness of solitude
  • 372: Edward and Lavinia alone together
  • 381-382: Peter comes to an awareness of his illusions

Question: What is the play's message concerning solitude and change?  How do we avoid the hell of ourselves?


Conditions for Sanctification

  • Waiting & Humiliation: (307-308, 324, 340)
    How do waiting and humiliation contribute to the sanctification of the self?  What do they offer Edward?
  • The Guardian: "the obstinate, the tougher self" (326)
    What exactly is the guardian?  In what sense do Alex and Julia serve as guardians?
  • Suffering & Sacrifice: 329-330, 367-368, 384-385
    What happens when we die to ourselves?  What relationship does Celia's suffering and sacrifice have to the others' lives?
  • Awareness of Sin & Atonement: 354-363
    Describe Celia's sense of sin and the need for atonement.
  • The State of the Good Life: "The best of a bad job" 356-357, 364
    What does the good life look like?  Are Edward and Lavinia living it out at the end of the play?
  • The Two Ways: 357, 364-366
    What are the two ways that are possible for salvation?  What does each offer?