Of all T.S. Eliot's odd plays, The Cocktail Party is quite possibly the oddest. At times the characters flourish an almost Wildean wit; at others they sit around quoting passages that sound like they were deleted from an early draft of the Four Quartets.. Needless to say, it is when Eliot is Wildest that the play is most interesting; only the drollery, in fact, makes it produceable at all.
The Cocktail Party is fashioned on the Alcestis legend (already the subject of a tragedy by one of Eliot's favorito writers). But in Eliot's play the fun has just begun when Alcestis--Lavinia returns from the dead. Lavinia and her husband realize that time's only issue has been grief and anxiety, and that their marriage in its present state cannot last. Celia Coplestone, Edward's quondam mistress (apparently considered to be another aspect of Alcestis) decides that she is also far from mental health.
All three of them visit the famed psychiatrist, Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly (Hercules, believe it or not) anl he prescribes different remedies, each more or less successful, each particularly appropriate. By the end of the play the classical trappings have been discarded, and Eliot emerges as the same old Christian pessimist we always knew he was.
Eliot divides his characters into two categories: those who are saints and those who are not. Only Celia Coplestone is canonized and she suffers martyrdom at the hands of the natives of Kakanji, in an unintentially Waughbegone fashion. For the unsainted remainder, Harcourt-Reilly declares that "the best of a bad job is all any of us can make it."
The characters find their salvations in their own ways, but for the script there is only one way to salavtion--to play all the humorous parts humorously, and some of the serious parts too. By using this felicitous method, the Charles Street production has come up with an interesting, funny, and only occasionally boring production.
Joan White as the inquisitive and omniscient Julia leads the cast in the merrier of its japes. Again and again, when the play begins to bog down in the cool of Mr. Eliot's emotions, Julia bustles in to start things going again. Priscilla Chamberlayne as Lavinia is also excellent, portraying with heavy sarcasm the role of the Alcestis of the hearth.
Leon Shaw played the Unidentified Guest (later identified as the famous Sir Henry H-R) the role that Guinness played in the Broadway production. Sir Henry should actually be the most important and obtrusive character in the play; but Mr. Shaw, though quite competent, let the lead slip from himself into the eager hands of the two middle-aged women. He unfortunately possessed absolutely no menace, and looked more like a night club comedian than a deus ex machina.
Regardless of these many drawbacks, and the flaws inherent in the script itself, enough humor remains in the production to make it well worth while. The Cocktail Party, after all, is a play not often produced.