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THE THREE WORLDS OF THE COCKTAIL PARTY: THE WIT OF T. S. ELIOT ROBERT A. COLBY THE Cocktail Party, the first of T. S. Eliot's plays to reach anything approaching a wide audience, is noteworthy for its abandonment of the esoteric, lofty tone of his previous plays. This shift seems consistent with Eliot's growing concern, as revealed in The Idea of a Christian Society, with the religion of the hearth, rather than with the religion of the cloister-that mode of Christianity which "the great majority of the people" rather than recluses can practise. In The Cocktail Party, therefore, Eliot has endeavoured as before to restore poetic drama to its original religious context, but this time with an unobtrusiveness befitting a non-religious audience. Here he dramatizes a moral issue that arises out of a domestic crisis, and the character who represents the paragon of virtue arises from the same society as do the unregenerates of the play, is completely devoid of any ecclesiastical trappings, is, in fact, completely unaware of her function and influence over others. One of the fascinations of the play is the way in which Christiantity is made relevant and compelling to its characters given over to secular ways of life, and the way in which the poetic imagination is employed to integrate disparate realms of experience. I The relationship that Celia's fate is meant to have to the marital crisis involving Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne has been the crucial question in the interpretation of The Cocktail Party. Oddly enough, the ghastly death of Celia has been objected to by critics for diametrically opposed reasons. According to one, it introduces the . gruesome into a play that was intended to be a comedy, and in failing to keep Celia's fate in tone with that of Edward and Lavinia, Eliot produces an incongruous effect at his climax.1 A subsequent criticism of the play raises the objection that since Edward's and Lavinia's choice of ways of life is too trivial by comparison with Celia's, Eliot has failed to realize "the pains and the glories of the non-heroic life.'" Eliot, it seems, disappoints one reader because he didn't write a more thorough-going comedy, and another because his play is not lWilliam K. Wimsatt, "Eliot's Comedy," Sewanee Review~ LVIII (October, 1950), 666-7. 2Nathan A. Scott, Jr., "T. S. Eliot's 'The Cocktail Party'; Of Redemption and Vocation," Religion in Life (Spring, 1951),283. Scott quotes from Lionel Trilling, "Wordsworth and the Iron Time," Kenyon Review, XII (Summer, 1950) ,493--4. 56 Vol. XXIV, no. 1, Oct., 1954 THE COCKTAIL PARTY 57 more serious and elevated. But did he intend The Cocktail Party to fall into either of these extreme forms? The fact is that whenever Eliot writes about the verse play, he does not distinguish its forms, but tends to describe it simply as "drama." As for his practice, we need only recall The Waste Land with its alternation of slang and eloquence , jazz and incantation, to recognize the characteristic mercurialness of Eliot's thought and language. What about the intentional incongruity of his title Sweeney Agonistes: Fragments of an Aristophanic Melodrama, in which are fused at once farce, tragedy, comedy and melodrama? He affirmed explicitly in his homage to John Dryden, a fellow craftsman he greatly admired: "Drama is a mixed form; pure magnificence will not carry it through.'" Eliot really is not so much interested in isolating forms of the drama and their peculiar emotional effects as he is in the range of sensibility that dramatic poetry in general is capable of awakening. We recall from well-know essays of Eliot's how much he admired the agglutinative power of Donne and Herbert, who "possessed a mechanism of sensibility which could devour any experience.'" In the poet Marvell he found his great exemplar of wit, "this alliance of levity and seriousness .'" It is in wit that the abstract and the concrete, the sublime and the worldly, the tragic and the comic, find their point of juxtaposition. This equilibrium of wit-the balancing of seemingly opposed intellectual and emotional tones-is what Eliot especially emulates in The...


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