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Nov 19th, 2019

Drama assignment Essay

[Mohammad Ahsan]

[S. Id : 20186421]

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[M.A. English sem-III]

[Submitted to

Prof. Shubhi Abidi]

[Nov 13, 2019]

The Christian, Hindu and Buddhist Philosophy in The Cocktail Party

Introduction

Thomas Stearns Eliot [1888-1965] is a well-known literary figure. He without

doubt is amongst one of the most learned poets, playwrights and the critics. American

born English poet has made great achievements in owning the literature that holds impact

on both the eastern and the western readers of English Literature. He himself was a strong

Christian with a huge knowledge of Hindu Philosophy.

It was his inclination towards

eastern philosophy that made him study philosophy at Harvard from 1906 to 1909,

earning his bachelor’s degree after three years, instead of the usual four. After working philosophy assistant at Harvard from 1909–1910, Eliot moved to Paris, where from 1910–1911, he studied philosophy at the Sorbonne. He attended lectures by Henri Bergson and read poetry with AlainFournier. From 1911–1914, he was back at Harvard studying Indian philosophy and Sanskrit.

Stephen Spender in the Standard Literary Biography of T.

S. Eliot says that after

visiting Paris in 1911, Eliot joined Charles Lanman’s Philology Course, at Harvard.

Lanman was a distinguished Sanskrit Scholar and Orientalist. Eliot was with him for two

whole years and then went on to study the metaphysics of Patanjali for another two years.

Eliot summed up this whole experience rather cleverly by saying that it left him in a state

of ‘enlightened mystification’, he gained a thorough intellectual grasp of AdvaitaVedanta. He was also very much moved by early Buddhist Scriptures, which he said,

‘affected him as much as many parts of the Old Testament’. He also described the

Bhagavad-Gita as ‘the next greatest philosophical poem to the Divine Comedy within his

experiences. However, Eliot never left his vital essential Christian faith while applying

and enjoying these Eastern influences. As a result, we can see the Christian social

scenario imbibing the teachings of the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita in his plays.

Creation of The Cocktail Party

T. S. Eliot was at Princeton in 1948, during the days he received the letter of winning that

year’s Nobel Prize for literature. His literary reputation was built mainly on his proficiency as a poet and a critical theorist. In the later years of his life most of Eliot’s work was concentrated on writing drama that would display his Christian sensibilities combined with eastern philosophy like that of a much mature and secular literary icon who evolved out of a strong anglican man. My AIM is to analyze his Play The Cocktail Party in the light of the Christian and the Hindu and Buddhist Philosophy, which he studied during his graduation, and its influence is seen in most of his poems and plays in his latter years’ works.

The allusions in The Cocktail Party

1. The Christian martyrdom of the mistress character Celia is seen as a sacrifice that

permits the predominantly secular life of the community to continue. In his 1949 Spencer

Lecture, T. S. Eliot admitted to trying to conceal the source of the main theme of The Cocktail Party. He confessed that he took his theme of a wife who chooses to die for her

husband from the Alcestis of Euripides. He said, “I was still inclined to go a Greek

dramatist for my theme, but I was determined to do so merely as a point of departure, and

to conceal the origins so well that nobody would identify them until I pointed them out

myself. In this at least I have been successful; for no one of my acquaintance recognized

the source of my story in the Alcestis of Euripides”.

2. The impermanence and sufferings in the lives of all the leading characters and Celia

working for her own Nirvana reflect the Buddhist philosophy that says, “Life is

suffering”. According to other interpretations by Buddhist teachers and scholars, lately

recognized by some Western non-Buddhist scholars, the “truths” do not represent mere

statements, but are categories or aspects that most worldly phenomena fall into are

grouped in two: (i) Suffering and causes of suffering (ii) Cessation and the paths towards

liberation from suffering. Celia’s decision to work for the missionary and getting

herself killed was the only path she could choose to liberate her physical being from the

sufferings.

3. The attainment of still point–the Bindu where nothing can be altered by human hands

and everything seems to be out of human reach. Henry Harcourt Reilly explains this to

the chamberlaynes when they were worried on getting the news of Celia’s killing, thus

reflecting the Hindu philosophy. It also contains the message of Shree Gita, which tells

that we will get the fruit of our actions so one should not worry or regret for any

happening on the earth. It is all planned and executed by the almighty.

The plot of the play reflects the contemporary society of Eliot

In the play The Cocktail Party, a married couple, Edward and Lavinia

Chamberlayne, organizes the party. They suffer impermanence and separation after five

years of marriage due to their infidelity. Their marital problems are aggravated by the

pressure of having to keep up social appearances, portraying the modern society where

the structure lacks in sincerity and lives in mere showbiz where we find partially satire on

the traditional British drawing-room comedy and partially philosophical discourse on the

nature of human relations. Any how the play explores the modern human conditions of

love, marriage, post marital affair ,desire, infidelity and choosing of the right path after

the intervention of a spiritual advisor who can be a psychiatrist too in this modern urban

society thereby leading to realization, guilt, sacrifice and penance in search of salvation.

All these seem to have the impact of Eliot’s relation with his first wife Vivienne who

showed infidelity in their relation. He wanted to uplift the spirituality of such women and

men who lack loyalty in their relation, through his play.

The plot of the play reflects the contemporary society of Eliot

In the play The Cocktail Party, a married couple, Edward and LaviniaChamberlayne, organizes the party. They suffer impermanence and separation after five

years of marriage due to their infidelity. Their marital problems are aggravated by the

pressure of having to keep up social appearances, portraying the modern society where

the structure lacks in sincerity and lives in mere showbiz where we find partially satire on

the traditional British drawing-room comedy and partially philosophical discourse on the

nature of human relations. Any how the play explores the modern human conditions of

love, marriage, post marital affair ,desire, infidelity and choosing of the right path after

the intervention of a spiritual advisor who can be a psychiatrist too in this modern urban

society thereby leading to realization, guilt, sacrifice and penance in search of salvation.

All these seem to have the impact of Eliot’s relation with his first wife Vivienne who

showed infidelity in their relation. He wanted to uplift the spirituality of such women and

men who lack loyalty in their relation, through his play Eliot had pointed out that this play owes to Alcestis by the Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 B c). In the Greek tragedy, the title character sacrifices her life for her husband, King Admetus of Thessaly, but is rescued from Hades by Hercules. In Eliot’s version, a mysterious Unidentified Guest Sir Henry Harcourt Reilly brings Lavinia back in the same manner.

The spiritual advisor Reilly

In Eliot’s literature, we find that he always preaches to his readers taking allusions from

the Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita and the Buddhist philosophy. This can be seen in his

Wasteland, Murder in the Cathedral, and Ash Wednesday along with The Cocktail Party.

We can always find some advice to uplift the spirituality by reading his literature. Let us

now analyze the role of Reilly in The Cocktail Party as the spiritual advisor. Sir Harcourt

Reilly – a psychiatrist at the party, turns out in true twentieth-century form. Edward and

Lavinia both consult him. They learn that their life together, though hollow and

superficial, is preferable to life apart; a lesson that is rejected by the play’s third main

character, Edward’s mistress, who, with the psychiatrist’s urging, sets out to experience a

life of honesty and uncertainty. Edwards’s mistress Celia is filled with guilt and chooses

to go for penance and reconciliation with God through her services to the missionary. It

reflects the Christian elements of penance, sacrifice and martyrdom and the Buddhist

element of choosing the path of liberation through self-extinction. All this happens only

after every leading character of the play consults Reilly and chooses to follow the path of

righteousness.

The Life in the Play

The first act of The Cocktail Party is the only one divided into three separate scenes.

The first scene opens on a party in the drawing room of the Chamberlayne home in

London with all of the play’s major characters—Edward, Julia, Celia, Peter, Alex, and the

Unidentified Guest—present. There is witty bantering about people not present, making

this seem like many British drawing-room comedies. Lavinia Chamberlayne is missing,

and her husband, Edward, a lawyer, makes up a feeble excuse for the absence of his wife,

who has invited the guests. He tells them that she has gone to visit an aunt in the country,

but most of the party guests are skeptical. They had never heard of any such aunt of hers.

They all leave except for the Unidentified Guest, whom Edward asks to stay and talk with

him. As always, Eliot introduces a spiritual guide who shows the way towards virtues and

tells how to depart from the guilt as Amy does in The Family Reunion and Eggerson does

in The Confidential Clerk.

Edward confesses the stranger that Lavinia left him the day before, and that he tried

to cancel the party but could not reach the people who did attend. During the

conversation, he expresses his concern over what his life will be like without her, and the

stranger tells him that he will arrange for Lavinia to return the following day reflecting

the Greek element. Although Edward speaks alone with Celia Coplestone, his mistress,

and we learn that they planned to be together pending the breakup of his marriage. Yet

Edward now seems uncertain about Celia, as if he has a mind to return to his wife after he

talks to the unidentified guest. The next day the Unidentified Guest indeed brings Lavinia

home, and she and Edward discuss their marital problems, and especially Edward’s

indecisiveness. Edward becomes convinced that his indecision is a mental illness, and he

seeks treatment. One day ending up in the office of the Unidentified Guest, he finally

identified Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly, as a psychologist. Lavinia joins the session, and

reveals her own affair with Peter Quilpe – another frequent cocktail party guest. Through indirect means, including vague talk about a sanitarium, Reilly convinces the

Chamberlaynes to resume their marriage. Then Celia comes in to see Reilly, and she later

decides to do missionary work. In the final act, set two years later, the Chamberlaynes are

depicted as having a more tranquil marriage, and we learn that Celia has been killed

violently in Kinkanja, where she was doing her missionary work. In spite of some

characters’ shock on hearing the news, most accept her death as natural, perhaps even

noble.

This penance and suffering and the concept of self-extinction of Celia is drawn from

the Christian, the Hindu and the Buddhist philosophy. Everyone makes a choice, of one

kind or another. / And then must take the consequences. Celia chose / A way of which the

consequence was crucifixion (CP187). Clearly, this is the main idea of the play. Despite

Eliot’s own well-known Christianity, The Cocktail Party does not argue specifically for

Christian solutions to the human condition. Celia, endowed by her creator (Eliot) with

such characteristics as having been a poet and a nurse, is something of a martyr for

Christian ideals, as is made clear by her death being characterized as a crucifixion.

However, this is seen as one of several paths towards solution. The Cocktail Party is

simply an idea play, dramatizing the condition of man as a moral agent, a chooser.

Celia participated in an affair with Edward consequently committing adultery.

Edward too was guilty of cheating his wife. Then he finds himself alone with the astute

and slippery Unidentified Guest, who is a master of reverse psychology, and has the

mysterious power to bring his wife back. Had the Unidentified Guest not intervened,

Edward might simply have chosen to marry Celia. However, as usual Eliot wanted to

uplift spirituality amongst his crisis-ridden characters so he introduced a spiritual advisor

in the form of a psychiatrist reflecting the mood and temperament of the modern waste

landers. The Unidentified Guest’s pronouncements about Edward’s indecision stack the

deck against Edward choosing for himself. Edward is utterly criticized for his lack of

choice but soon he realizes his moral duty. Eliot fulfills his purpose to preach the society

lacking in religion and conduct. Julia, Alex, and Reilly form a bizarre conspiracy, whose

entire existence seems devoted to making people see that they must live with their

choices. Surely, few of us have encountered such benevolence as theirs. Julia sends

nearly all the characters mysterious telegrams to meet at the Chamberlayne’s, where she

has planted a de facto spy in Reilly. Reilly as psychologist freely discusses his patients’

problems with Julia and Alex, his co-conspirators. Because these three show human

motives, these characters exist as device in the machinery of the play, to show the other

characters their ultimate fates.

Eliot tries to show the illegitimate relationships as the hell in the modern society. He

writes, “And other people bring no comfort or companionship. Edward echoes Sartre’s

formula when he says, “What is hell? Hell is oneself, / Hell is alone, the other figures in it

/ Merely projections” (CP98). One senses that Eliot has a whole philosophy of choice and

selfhood lurking under here somewhere, one which he may have been better off writing

as a philosophical treatise but he employed these philosophies to show the fate of wrong

doings on earth. Eliot was always firm to philosophize his literature. Eliot owns

masterpieces such as the long poem The Wasteland -a poem that uses multiple languages along the way, the Biblical allusions and the Hindu philosophy and The Hollow Men,

which paints a dark vision of man as “broken” because of his lack of faith in God. There

are religious overtones in The Cocktail Party too that tells that religion is the right path.

Conclusion

As an idea play, The Cocktail Party has a few things going for it. It is a “well-made” play

in the sense that the conflicts spawned from Edward’s infidelity are introduced at the

beginning and resolved by the end of the play. There is a plot that develops. The

characters also speak a dry verse, the meter of which helps suggest the lifeless custom of

their lives, which was the aim of Eliot. He has a gift for this sort of dialogue, many of the

characters sound like the defeated narrator of Eliot’s early Love Song of J. Alfred

Prufrock. The dialogue sparkles with intelligence, and is what keeps the play going. As

usual, he picks up the themes of sin, guilt, penance, renunciation, suffering and search for

salvation. However, in The Cocktail Party he does not remain just an Anglican rather he

explains it through the Hindu and the Buddhist philosophy too as analyzed earlier in this

article.

Bibliography

[1]

[2] Kermode, Frank (2003). “Introduction” to The Waste Land and Other Poems, Penguin

[3] Eliot, T.S. The Cocktail Party. (1950).London: Faber, 1950; New York: Harcourt,

Brace.

[4] Eliot, T.S. (1951). Poetry and Drama. Faber and Faber: London. [Eliot’s lecture (the

Theodore Spencer Memorial Lecture at Harvard University]

[5] Gethin, Rupert (1998). Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press. p. 60

[6]Geddes, Dan. The Cocktail Party – Eliot’s Iceman Cometh Review

[7] Jacobs, Alan. T.S-Eliot-Vedanta-and-Buddhism. Review on “T.S. Eliot, Vedanta

and Buddhism”

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