In the years between 1939 and 1949, T.S. Eliot’s task was to enshrine Christian martyrdom and to restore poetic drama. His most popular drama was “The Cocktail Party,” a comedy which develops dramatically into a philosophically darker spiritual trial and wrestles with the theme of atonement.

In one of his manifesto letters to William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound opines “wot a lot of dead cod about a dead god.” Whether “Old Possum” Eliot directed a response to Pound is unknown, but one can imagine a side-long pickerel grin and his intent to fare forward shoring up fragments to cure our cultural soul with a living God’s love, serenity, and quiet joy. What he was about was a lot about a living “God”; it was about atonement, confession, prayer, and penance, supported by the doctrine that the atoning person can come to redemption ransomed by Christ’s death.

Eliot had earlier established a “theistic” position informed by philosophy, wide-reading in the classics, and his dissertation interest in F.H. Bradley, a British neo-idealist who rejected the utilitarian and empiricist trends in the generation prior to Eliot’s own. After The Waste Land, Eliot’s task was increasingly to enshrine Christian martyrdom and to “urge the mind to aftersight [sic] and foresight” as he wrote in “Little Gidding” in 1942. Eliot did so in the years between 1939 and 1949 when he labored to restore poetic drama, the most popular of which was The Cocktail Party, a comedy which develops dramatically into a philosophically darker spiritual trial.

The play opens with a cocktail party—the first of two—arranged by Lavinia but hosted by her husband, Edward Chamberlayne. The culture is modern and the dialogue is gossipy, frothy, and freighted with evasion, reflecting vanity. The audience is led to believe the characters are primed to come to terms with their “real selves” if they do so with honesty. The dramatic question is “how?”

When the curtain rises, the audience is placed in media res; stories are being told but no one is listening. If this is culture, and if these characters are cultural elites, Eliot’s point is that the party is an ephemeral mingling of atomistic personalities whose hapless self-absorption is lampooned, much like the young man in a “Conversation Galante” giving “vagrant moods the slightest twist”—but inane.[1] And modern characters struggle with their self-created humiliation, “[b]lindly and vainly,” not knowing that “man is a vain thing, and man without GOD is a seed upon the wind: driven this way and that, and finding no place of lodgment and germination.”[2]

The characters might be good-natured, pleased with what they are, but suffering from “dis-ease,” the cause of which is evident. One should reference R.H. Tawney at this point: “Culture is not an assortment of aesthetic sugar plums for fastidious palates, but an energy of the soul.”[3]

Alexander MacColgie Gibbs, an exotic traveler of some sort, has been recounting the story of one of his adventures which has something to do with tigers and finding himself up a tree with a Maharaja.

Julia, Mrs. Shuttlethwaite, seems to have missed the point because she has been half-listening. Celia Coplestone asks one and all to stop wrangling and bids Julia to tell the story of Lady Klootz and the wedding cake and how the butler found her in the pantry rinsing her mouth with champagne.

Apart from Celia, Alexander and Julia are “secular” characters vaguely defined as “Guardians” whose presumed role is to lead other characters to greater self-knowledge and honesty. Between Act One and Act Two, they become less bumbling and more sober “Guardians” of Edward’s, Lavinia’s, and Celia’s destiny. The “Uninvited Guest,” a secretive kind of figure, also serves as a “Guardian” and “confessor.” It’s a comedy of manners surrounded by a mystical halo whereby the secular presumes a cure for the “dis-ease.”

There’s modest cause for argument here since the role of these “Guardians” raised as much puzzlement in Eliot’s own time as now. Are they, for example, heavenly hosts, guardian angels of a sort, or as Russell Kirk suggests at one point, “they may stand for a divine providential impulse working upon intellect and feeling [but] in arcane ways.” Kirk does not “fudge” the issue but notes that Eliot leaves the various avenues of approach unobstructed.[4]

One issue is certain and that is how they manipulate the cocktail protagonists from the outside and less through prayer and meditation and more through the sort of positivism one finds through the modern social sciences. When the “Unidentified Guest,” for example, makes his entrance, his urgings have the quality of superficial wisdom but spoken with all the warmth of an “iceman” who has “cometh.”

As the comedy progresses, then, Peter Quilpe remarks that he likes the Lady Klootz story; others nod in agreement. He longs for California, which is like his longing for Celia. The one guest who has never heard the story is again known only as “Unidentified Guest.”

With urbanity but one that is culturally thin, persons are isolated one from another, and it’s this pattern of human relationships underscoring Eliot’s theme that “[m]an is a joined spirit and body” and living is to “learn the joyful communion of saints.”[5] Edward is sulking; Lavinia has walked out leaving a note and no explanation. The married pair own grievances which in time emerge as affairs, Edward with Celia and Lavinia with Peter. The modern word, “affair,” is a quieter word than infidelity or betrayal of trust or cheating or the less modern word, “adultery.” There is disillusionment, then, “dis-ease,” and a desire on the part of characters to “regenerate” some kind of fulfillment in their lives.

The first act thus makes clear their lives are understood as the sham of personality, psychological tendencies brought to the forefront by the “Uninvited Guest,” that ambiguous player and a therapist who presumes to illuminate the other characters about their illusions. This “confessor” does not offer redemption, but rather cynicism. Psychoanalysis might be a fascinating social science but in the “session” the “Uninvited Guest” holds with his “patient,” Edward, the healing is flawed and hardly an antidote to his humiliation.

Edward wishes to relieve his mind, an intimate disclosure which the “Guest” believes will “release a new force” and a beginning to Edward’s “independence,” making life “cosier and cosier.” In the meantime, the one thing is “to do nothing” since the best advice the “Guest” offers is for Edward to resign himself “to be the fool [he is].”

If this is the language of atonement, well, perhaps for the modern, the word has become too theological to comprehend. Rather, the language of the therapist is freighted with pesky platitudes, a language not shared with the biblical language of atonement, peace with God through faith: “More than that we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5: 3-5).

Edward, however, is more possessed of an enigmatic imagination and finds it difficult to remain “with a mystery”: “I must find out who she [Lavinia] is, to find out who I am / And what is the use of all your analysis / If I am to remain always lost in the dark?”

What’s then debated with the “Uninvited Guest” suggests that Edward desires to “atone” for a previous wrongdoing on his part, his adulterous affair with Celia. He cannot undo the wrongdoing but it’s evident that his feeling of remorse is a portion of his psychology or, perhaps better to say, a spiritual anguish of the heart.

Unknown to Edward, Lavinia has also been seeing the same therapist, the “Uninvited Guest.” And there’s an additional complication: Lavinia has been having an affair with Peter Quilpe, who desires a relationship with Celia and confesses the same to Edward.

Aware of his “dis-ease,” Edward argues to Celia that he would “need someone greater than the greatest doctor / To cure this illness.” It’s a pointed moment in this comedy pre-figuring some kind of character of whom Edward thinks as a kind of “guardian” to enable his cure but which “can only flourish / In submission to the rule of the stronger partner.”

The irony in The Cocktail Party is now prescient: Rehabilitation is not a synonym for atonement and the “Unidentified Guest” is not the “stronger partner” to reconcile someone with the mystery of sin and forgiveness. With the “Unidentified Guest,” there is “[k]nowledge of words,” but “ignorance of the Word” and no “nearer to God” or able to make perfect one’s will.[6]

How deeply perverse has Edward’s sense of himself become? Near the end of scene two, Celia poetically suggests that in his humiliation he has become a “beetle the size of a man / With nothing more inside it than what comes out / When you tread on a beetle.” Edward responds, “Perhaps that is what I am. / Tread on me if you like.”

If this were Camus or Sartre or Kafka, we would believe the ethics of atonement are being given absurd treatment. But we know that Eliot endeavored to author plays of atonement even if audiences were uncomfortable with moral probing. The comedy is a challenge to one’s life and one’s culture by suggesting that, as Russell Kirk has written, “one must strip away shams of personality” and “be reminded that the highest end of mankind is sanctity, to be achieved through renunciation, suffering, and grace in death—that whoever would have his life must lose it.”[7]

Celia responds saying that she will not tread on him; rather with his humility she sees another person “whom [she] had never seen before. / The man I saw before was only a projection.” It’s a slight moment in the play but Celia then says, “And I ask you to forgive me.” To which Edward responds, “You… ask me to forgive you!”

At this moment the audience might sense an atoning change, but the phone rings and triviality resumes; Julia is still searching for her lost spectacles with one lens. But there are, still, mysterious workings in the play, especially with Celia, and which prevent this play from becoming an example of the theater of despair and absurdity, and as if characters were waiting for either that iceman or a Godot.

But there is also fear in the way represented ambiguously by the ghost-like “guardians” who could effect a spiritual dead-end and where the language of the therapist is not the language of the heart.

Near the end of Act Two, Edward and the now returned Lavinia are in “honest” dialogue. Lavinia argues that she “shall always tell the truth now. / We have wasted such a lot of time in lying.” It’s an intimate husband-and-wife conversation, but Edward’s change the past day or so is more profound. He says,

There was a door
And I could not open it. I could not touch the handle.
Why could I not walk out of my prison?
What is hell? Hell is oneself,
Hell is alone, the other figures in it
Merely projections. There is nothing to escape from
And nothing to escape to. One is always alone.

Lavinia is practical and believes that her husband is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But Edward’s fears are constricting; he fears living with damnation. Lavinia tries to make him laugh and then demands that Edward fetch the porter to gather up her luggage which is “in the hall downstairs.”

But Edward is not rising to a greater spiritual consciousness akin to what one finds in St. John of the Cross and The Dark Night of the Soul. In spite of the anguished relationship with his wife, it’s clear Edward is attempting to exorcise his own demons but not for atonement and sacrifice. It’s also clear that Edward is not a “soul” midway on life’s journey who has lost his way forward. If so, his thoughts would reveal the paradoxical nature of the pathway to a Christian life one finds embedded in Four Quartets where the pursuit is to find the “still point of the turning world:” “The release from action and suffering, release from the inner / And the outer compulsion,” and to find oneself “surrounded / By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving.”[8] If so, the result would be a profound and numinous depth of change in Edward’s soul.

How, then, is atoning reconciliation to be effected?

The irony lies in the role of the “Uninvited Guest,” later identified in Act Two as Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, that secular therapist who offers marital counseling to Edward and Lavinia. It’s a challenge choreographed by Reilly when husband and wife confront each other—bitterly.

Reilly’s conversation to the two is replete with words like “self-esteem,” “impotence,” “emotional strain.” He urges them to go on a retreat to his “sanatorium.”

But that might beget horror beyond their imagining since Lavinia and Edward can go neither backward nor forward, which suggests they cannot alter their condition. “Lavinia,” Edward says, “we must make the best of a bad job.”

As the session concludes, Reilly disposes of Edward’s problems by suggesting, “Your business is not to clear your conscience. / But to learn how to bear the burdens on your conscience. / With the future of others you are not concerned.” Such advice would seem to violate the goal declared in 1 Timothy 1:5: The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. To make confident assertions apart from such doctrinal correction is to wander away into “vain discussion.” The advice is not the advice the Christian finds in Matthew’s Gospel, or Leviticus, or Deuteronomy, which is to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and to love our neighbors as ourselves: the language of the heart and the language of atonement.[9]

As husband and wife leave to make their way home and to what awaits them, Reilly lifts his hand and says, “Go in peace. And work out your salvation with diligence.” The allusion is from Philippians 2:12 but a misleading misquote: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling”: the doctrine of atonement.

It’s not a moot point. Reilly is consigning Edward and Lavinia to a life of narcissistic isolation. Diligence is not the same as fear and trembling, albeit a biblical word. Reilly is not suggesting the pair use diligence to obey God with fear and trembling. His therapeutic suggestion is to exercise diligence by making the best of a bad lot. He does not mean diligence as in Old English which means “to love.”

There’s an issue here generally misunderstood about the play which is that Reilly’s “guardianship” is theologically sound but subliminal. Edward and Lavinia can “work,” but that vital plank in traditional Christian notions of atonement and salvation is that God works through us in a way that we too work. Edward and Lavinia cannot be the first cause of their own redemption.[10] Diligence is not the same as fear and trembling, which own numerous Old and New Testament references. Nothing that Reilly suggests depicts Christ’s incarnate life of obedience which goes all the way to the cross.

Eliot’s comedy of manners would be a failure if the conclusion centered on Edward and Lavinia living out their married lives like the ghosts one might find in Ibsen. But as Act Two comes to a conclusion, Reilly’s nurse-secretary ushers in Celia Coplestone who has been absent throughout Act Two and will be so in the final Act Three.

She needs no hand-holding but Reilly asks her to describe her state of mind, his usual attempt at a confessional; he asks her to describe her “symptoms.” Celia responds, “That’s stranger still. / It sounds ridiculous—but the only word for it / That I can find, is a sense of sin.” She finds it difficult to perceive whether such a “sense” is normal or abnormal, moral or immoral. Reilly, much the Freudian, asks her about her family. But Celia has been thinking and says that the “sense” is more real than anything [she previously] believed in.” “It’s not the feeling of anything I’ve ever done, / Which I might get away from, or of anything in me / I could get rid of—but of emptiness, of failure / Towards someone, or something, outside of myself; / And I feel I must… atone—is that the word? / Can you treat a patient for such a state of mind?”

Reilly’s therapeutic suggestion is that Celia maintain herself “by the common routine, [and] / Learn to avoid excessive expectation.”[11] He ends this session with Celia as he did with Edward and Celia: “Go in peace, my daughter. / Work out your salvation with diligence.”

There’s satire abounding, but Celia is—unlike the other characters—something more than a lively socialite. Her more intimate revelations, as in her sense of “sin,” point her toward a different kind of deliverance. But it’s a demanding quest which also shows her determination to “atone.” Eliot knows it’s the via negativa, the apophatic way to sanctity, and the “occupation for the saint… [hints] in a shaft of sunlight… followed by guesses; and the rest / Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action [because] the gift half understood is Incarnation.”[12]

Act Three allows for two years of time passing. We are back in the Chamberlayne’s London flat. A caterer’s man is busily arranging a buffet for the second of the play’s cocktail parties. Julia is the first to arrive and she’s brought Alex who is back from one of his mysterious expeditions. Peter Quilpe arrives, flying from California to New York and then London. The caterer announces Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly and Julia’s head is fairly spinning.

Peter wishes to ask about Celia Coplestone to introduce her to a casting director. Alas, she’s not in the telephone directory, or, as Julia says, “in any directory.”

The exchange goes as follows:

Alex: “I’m afraid you can’t have Celia.”
Peter: “Oh… Is she married?”
Alex: “Not married, but dead.”
Lavinia: “Celia?”
Alex: “Dead.”
Peter: “Dead. That knocks the bottom out of it.”

Their conversation about Celia’s death lacks pious speculation as to whether hers was an atoning death. It’s Alex who tells the story of three “sisters” at a native village nursing natives dying of pestilence. There was an insurrection; two of the sisters escaped but Celia was taken and when they “found her body, / Or at least traces of it…. It would seem that she must have been crucified / Very near an ant hill.”

As the play nears its end, it’s clear the Chamberlaynes have recovered some secular order in their lives as have Peter and Alex. They have not come to a place in time to live their lives for others. Edward’s comment on Celia’s death is callous: “And just for a handful of plague-stricken natives / Who would have died anyway.”

Only Reilly offers a suggestion that her “life was triumphant,” but no explanation why except to say that “She paid the highest price / In suffering. That is part of the design.” Psychologically “design” is an interesting word but leaves no room for worship, a prime need of the human soul.

Over the two-year span, Celia, possessed by her sense of sin, had with “diligence” obtained a discipline of spirit while not renouncing ties to humankind. The life she has chosen is not agreeable to the modern spirit, if that’s the right phrase.

But the true principle is more likely found in Eliot’s atoning belief that in our end is our beginning. Like Christ, Celia dies the agonized death that martyrdom signifies. Of the other characters, they remain characters of good will but privately confused. At the end their hope is that the cocktail party will be a success. The doorbell rings and it begins.

Only Celia has faced the problem all of us confront which is whether or not we offer our lives for the sanctity of others as a “sin-offering” garnishing the altar of atonement. The others would be baffled by it. There’s a passage in The Imitation of Christ that bears mentioning at the end here: “When shall I at full gather myself in Thee, that for Thy love I feel not myself, but Thee only, above all feeling and all manner, in a manner not known to all.” Striking testimony from St. Thomas à Kempis; Celia yearned for it.[13]

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Notes:

[1] “Conversation Galante” is an early Eliot poem from his 1917 Prufrock; the poem continues the tone of “Prufrock “ with a gallant but hapless young man who is something of a pretentious muser.

[2] See Eliot’s “The Rock,” the seventh chorus; portions of this poem are suggestive not only of Murder in the Cathedral but also the texture and tone of Four Quartets. The “Rock” is St. Peter, the cornerstone forgotten but who preaches the need to make perfect one’s will and share the work of the humble. The poem is a religious pageant in ten choruses questioning whether “Faith has conquered the World” and whether modern man loves the church, the representative “Body of Christ incarnate.” The “Rock” argues that the “Church must be forever building” and wonders whether there is more security by living next to a bank or a police station or a church.

[3] R.H. Tawney “Halley Stewart Lecture,” pp. 98-118; quoted in Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age, p. 322.

[4] Russell Kirk, Eliot and His Age: T.S. Eliot’s Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century, p. 345. Thus whether ghosts or spooks, saints or martyrs, or even guardians of a classical humanism, the argument is whether the “work” of the Guardians hinges upon a priori or metaphysical speculations or confined more simply to the data of experience and therefore utilitarian, secular and this-worldly—even anti-theological.

[5] “The Rock,” the ninth chorus.

[6] “The Rock,” the first chorus.

[7] Eliot and His Age, p.338.

[8] Four Quartets, “Burnt Norton.”

[9] See Matthew, 22: 36-40, Leviticus 19:18, Deuteronomy 6:5.

[10] St. Thomas’ brief synopsis is key here: “Free-will is the cause of its own movement, because by his free-will man moves himself to act. But it does not of necessity belong to liberty that what is free should be the first cause of itself…. God, therefore, is the first cause, Who moves causes both natural and voluntary. And just by moving natural causes He does not prevent their acts [from] being natural, so by moving voluntary causes He does not deprive their actions [from] being voluntary: but rather is He the cause of this very thing in them; for He operates in each thing according to its own nature (Summa Theologicae, Article 1, Reply to Objection 3).

[11] Celia’s responses to Reilly suggest that for her to follow his diagnosis would be “like a betrayal.” She says she has a “vision of something,” though she doesn’t know what it is; but she wants to live with it and cherish it. But if there is no other way, she will feel hopeless. Reilly’s answer is framed as a last resort: “There is another way, if you have the courage….[It’s] unknown, and so requires faith— / The kind of faith that issues from despair.” He adds that it’s a terrifying journey.

[12] Four Quartets, “Dry Salvages.”

[13] Book III, chapter xxiii.

The featured image is “The End of Dinner” (1913) by Jules-Alexandre Grün (1868-1934) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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