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Cocktail Party, The

Alcestis, The Cocktail Party, The Family Reunion

play eliot sir henry

a verse-play by T. S. Eliot, first produced in 1949 and published in 1950. Beginning and ending at a London cocktail party, the play traces the spiritual fortunes of Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne and the former's mistress, Celia Coplestone. Central to the thematic development is the presence of the uninvited guest who is later revealed to be the eminent psychiatrist Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly; the figure and his role in regenerating the Chamberlaynes' moribund marriage are obliquely modelled on Heracles in the Alcestis of Euripides. Sir Henry is the foremost of ‘the Guardians’, whose vaguely defined but benevolent functions are integral to the implicit theology of redemption around which the play is structured; through the agency of the Guardians, who provide the machinery of the plot, the principal characters are all led to greater self-knowledge and an increased awareness of the interdependence of individuals. The play ends with the Chamberlaynes awaiting their guests for another cocktail party, which promises to be a happier occasion. The Cocktail Party is notable for its apparently secular character, beneath the surface of which its moral and religious dimensions are unobtrusively adumbrated. While its verse is highly effective in suggesting the patterns and rhythms of speech, the play has less of the metaphoric life to be found in The Family Reunion, his earlier play, which led to Eliot's admission that it was ‘perhaps an open question whether there is any poetry in the play at all’.

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