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The Cocktail Party Summary & Study Guide

This Study Guide consists of approximately 31 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of The Cocktail Party.
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The Cocktail Party Summary & Study Guide Description

The Cocktail Party Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Topics for Discussion on The Cocktail Party by T. S. Eliot.

“The Cocktail Party”, first performed in 1949, is a play by T.S. Eliot that is often considered one of his best works, and was his most popular play during the author's life. Though the author called it a comedy, the play is more accurately considered a morality play or a drama, with hints of comic relief provided from time to time. However, even the humor employed is dark rather than light-hearted. Parallels have been drawn between “The Cocktail Party” and the Ancient Greek play by Euripides called “Alcestis”, as both involve the idea of bringing a spouse back from the dead; however, the resurrection in Eliot’s play is figurative, or, at least, not clearly delineated.

The play mainly follows the story of Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne, a British couple who have been married for five years. The story opens in the drawing room of the Chamberlaynes’ apartment, where Edward is entertaining a group of friends. Lavinia is absent, and he explains that she is away tending a sick aunt. As the guests leave, one man named Peter remains behind to ask Edward to intervene for him with a woman named Celia, for whom he has feelings. Edward agrees. He asks one man—the “unidentified guest”— to remain behind, and reveals to the stranger that his wife has left him. The stranger says that he can bring Lavinia back to Edward if Edward will promise that he will ask her no questions and expect no explanations. Edward agrees and the unidentified guest leaves, though not before the conversation is interrupted a few times by returning party guests, most of whom the audience will later discover have ulterior motives.

The doorbell rings again, and it is Celia, the party guest whom Peter confessed his feelings for in the first scene. Through her conversation with Edward, it is clear that she is his mistress, and that she believes that now that Edward is free, he will want to be with her. Edward tells her that he wants his wife back, and this confession and his explanation for it leads Celia to see him differently. She leaves, saying that she wishes him well, but adds that her feelings for him are gone.

The next day, Lavinia arrives at the flat and she and Edward speak about their marriage. For the first time, they are honest with each other about their feelings for each other and their thoughts about their marriage. After an exchange that is rather intense and somewhat brutal, Edward begins to speak as if he is having a nervous breakdown. Lavinia suggests that he see a doctor, though no clear plans are made and Lavinia, in an abrupt return to normal routine, suggests they go out to dinner.

Act 2 opens in the office of Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, who is now clearly the unidentified guest from the Chamberlaynes’ cocktail party. Throughout the act, he sees and consults with Edward, Lavinia and Celia. Edward asks to be sent to a sanatorium, though Reilly refuses, suggesting that as another treatment, he bring in another patient to speak to Edward. The patient turns out to be Lavinia. Reilly then chastises them both for lying about the causes of their upset. He reveals that Edward has been having an affair with Celia, but that he has realized he didn’t love her, making him worry that he is incapable of love and so will be alone forever. Reilly then reveals that Lavinia has been having an affair with Peter. He goes on to say that it was not discovering Edward's affair that upset Lavinia, as she proclaimed, but instead it was the end of her own affair with Peter due to his falling in love with Celia. This made her feel that perhaps she was unlovable, and it was that fear that sent her into her own dilemma. He suggests that Lavinia and Edward are more suited for each other than they thought, and after some further discussion, the couple leaves. Celia then enters, saying that something is wrong with her because she suddenly feels more aware of her solitude and a sense of sin for her failures than she has ever felt before. Reilly tells her that she can go back to her old life and learn to forget these realizations, or she can engage on a challenging, terrifying journey and face and engage with these realizations. She chooses the latter, and Reilly agrees to help her. Finally, the conversations Reilly has with Julia and Alex before and after these consultations show that the three of them have been manipulating the actions of the other characters for some purpose, though it is not clear what it is.

In the final act, the scene once again occurs in the Chamberlaynes’ drawing room again as they prepare for another cocktail party. The couple is noticeably different, being congenial and even tender with each other. The same guests from the first cocktail party stop in, with the exception of Celia, though the reason is soon revealed by Alex. When Peter says he would like to have her be in a movie he is working on, Alex says that Celia has died. She had gone to Africa to work as a nurse for a plague-ridden village of “heathen natives,” and in the midst of social and political unrest, she was abducted and killed. Edward, Lavinia, and the others help Peter put her death in perspective and he soon takes his leave. Reilly says that he isn’t surprised by the news of her death because he has seen a “shadow” of the dead Celia at the first cocktail party, and that this was inevitable. The guests all leave to go to a party thrown by another couple that same evening and the action ends as Lavinia and Edward prepare to receive their guests.

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