The Theme of Martyrdom in T.S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party: Critical Analysis

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The American-English poet, playwright and literary critic, Thomas Stearns Eliot, was a leader of the Modernist Movement in Poetry. Though his fame rests with poetry, his influence in the field of Drama in the first half of the Twentieth Century is predominant. He brought “Poetic Drama” back to the popular stage which is in fact a continuation of his poetry. It was his attempt to carry out his themes of Poetry to a larger and wider audience.

Eliot came from a family that played a central role in the cultural, religious and social life of his birthplace, Missouri. His paternal grandfather was a devout Unitarian and built various churches and served for his community. Thus, Eliot inculcated these qualities of public service and social responsibility from an early childhood which are explicit enough in his writings. Through Poetic drama, he sought to display his Christian sensibilities and instil religious awareness among his audience and readers of the early twentieth century wherein the very foundation of Christianity was shaken. The age saw people inheriting this legacy of scepticism and becoming agnostics and atheists. He was very much concerned as well as dissatisfied about the fate of the Modern society moving relentlessly towards thoroughgoing secularism, spiritual slackness and the materialism which accompanies it. His writings can be seen as an examination of Contemporary society, particularly its cultural, moral and religious characteristics. He cautioned his readers that “secular humanism” was not enough and that the urgent need was some form of religious belief in God and Religion. Thus, he extensively dealt with “Religion” in his plays and sought to promote a Christian worldview. He thus propagated that Men should live more nearly by Christian doctrine in their personal and social life.

With these views in mind, T.S. Eliot sought to wrote his fourth play, “The Cocktail Party”. It was first staged at the Edinburgh Festival, Scotland in 1949. Though this play by Eliot is not an overtly religious play like his earlier plays, “The Rock” and his much celebrated “Murder in the Cathedral” and starts off as a traditional British drawing room comedy so as to attract the then audience, it is essentially “A Religious(Christian) Play” and ends with a Christian message-that of “Martyrdom” as a way of cleansing and the ability of Saint’s sacrifice to benefit the lives of others. Anyone acquainted with the plays of Eliot are aware that a recurring theme in them is that of “Martyrdom”. As an ardent Christian, Eliot was very much concerned with the question of “Sin” and “Redemption”. Christianity is based on the firm belief that the Son of God became man and died on the Cross in order to “atone” for the sin of the children of Adam and to earn salvation for them. This play too uses the same Christian imagery: that of the strait and difficult road that leads to salvation. The Biblical idea of this strait road is repeatedly found in his plays, in Reilly’s description of the sanatorium to which he proposes to send Celia. Due to these viewpoints, this play also at once gained commercial success and is also regarded as twentieth century “Morality play”.

Through this play, Eliot sought to expose the isolation of the human condition and there runs an air of unrelieved depression in the atmosphere which highlights a society on the verge of crisis, with its individual trapped miserably in their personal mazes. The plot structure is woven around a High class couple, the Chamberlaynes- Edward, the husband and Lavinia, the wife, and Miss Celia Coplestone who was once Edward’s mistress but in the due course of the play feels discarded, lonely and depressed. The most important thing that drives the domestic lives of the couple to the brink of tragedy is Edward’s ‘incapibility of loving’ and Lavinia’s ‘unlovableness’. As both the charactes are caught in a failed marriage, they take recourse to having an affair outside it. They suffer from a sense of spiritual inadequacy because:

“…both husband and wife are naggingly aware of the inseparable mediocrity of spirit.” (Fraser: 217)

Sir Henry Harcourt Reilly appears as a professional psychiatrist as well as a spiritual advisor to the three main characters of the play- Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne and Celia Coplestone. Like a ministering angel and a Christian conscious of his duty to his brethren, Reilly discerns the saint in Celia who is caught in a spiritual crisis by the failure of her love for Edward. He sends her along the right but torturous path with his loving benediction:

“Go in peace my daughter; work out your salvation with diligence.”

Thus like Eliot’s other plays, “The Cocktail Party” also resonates with the theme of Sainthood and Martyrdom, which in this play is introduced by Reilly. Eliot felt that martyrdom is the proper subject for a Christian dramatist. By dealing with the two themes along with contemporary issues and problems such as ‘failure in Love’, ‘ Failed Marriage hood” and “A sense of Unbelongingness and Alienation” with which almost all the characters in the play are grappled with, Eliot sought to show the relationship of sainthood and martyrdom to the lives of ordinary men and women of today.

In this play, there is little mystery about the Martyrdom of the heroine Celia Coplestone. She is certainly the most important character in the play and it is upon her that the mantle of sainthood descends. She is drawn in such a way that she appears quite distinct from the other characters that embody spiritual mediocrity. At first, she seems to exist at no higher level than the other guests at the opening scene in the titular cocktail party, but her spiritual greatness emerges at the end in her triumphant martyrdom. Though it is Celia’s own choice, she does not realise it at first of what actually constitutes of a life of potential sainthood. Her character evinces a marked difference from the character of the Chamberlaynes. Reilly, the psychiatrist cum spiritual advisor realizes that she has something that the others do not have. Celia with her capacity for great love and an almost visionless experience of a timeless love has caught almost an intimation of the higher goal before her. She at once becomes ready for this great goal by sacrificing her own “will” which in a way is her ‘first Martyrdom’. It alone can satisfy Celia’s innermost craving for a love that no human agency can satisfy. Thus showing courage in abundance, she takes on the journey blind through a risky path. Her ‘second Martyrdom” is her decision that she must “atone” and her subsequent death. Like Harry in Eliot’s “The Family Reunion”, Celia feels the urge for “expiation”. She has a “sense of Sin”. She confesses to Sir Henry that she has a feeling:

“... Of emptiness, of failure

Towards someone or something outside of myself

And I feel I must…. atone.”

In her passionate desire for atonement she readily embraces the goal pointed to her by Sir Henry. Her eager acceptance of the idea of the “sanatorium” suggested by Sir Henry shows her innocence. The path is indeed beset with difficulties and:

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“Terrors…suffering…On the way of illumination”

, as is suggested by Julia Shuttlethwaite who plays the role of Celia’s guardian in the play. Armed with this innocence and this humility, Celia goes towards her death, martyrdom in fact. She dies a cruel and painful death, for she crucified on an ant-hill in Kinkanja during an insurrection.

Now the pattern found in “The Family Reunion” and “Murder in the Cathedral” repeats itself. Celia’s martyrdom has a tremendous influence on the lives of the others. After the shock experienced by all except Reilly on the news of Celia’s death, there is a mood of tranquillity, of understanding and of acceptance. The other characters are spiritual gainers because of her martyrdom or self-knowledge. Though the Chamberlaynes at first feel guilty and are tortured of having been responsible for Celia’s terrible fate. But Sir Henry explains things to them thus:

“If we all judged according to the consequences

Of all our words and deeds, beyond the intention

And beyond our limited understanding

Of ourselve and others, we should all be condemned…

As for Miss Coplestone…her life was… triumphant.”

Thus it is not only the saint Celia that transforms but even Lavinia and Edward feel their bond strengthened. Celia’s crucifixion and the memory of it bring much benediction to the Chamberlaynes. Edward, along with Lavinia, is the recipient of the benefits occurring from Celia’s Martyrdom, just as the women of Canterbury in “The Murder in the Cathedral” receive the blessings of Becket’s martyrdom and sainthood. Lavinia feels it would do them good to talk about Celia. So she invites Peter Quilpe whom she earlier forces into the unwilling position of her lover but who on the contrary falls in love with Celia. His role in the play is seen as essential in connecting the love triangle of Lavinia, Edward and Celia and is thus connected with the main episode of the play. Thus Lavinia asks Peter to:

“Do try to come to see us.

You know, I think it would do us all good

You and me and Edward… to talk about Celia.”

This salutary influence of Celia’s martyrdom can be felt very much all through the last bit of the play. Thus, we see that, gone are the man and wife of frustrated longings and nagging tendency. In their place, we see the emergence of a new man and a new woman who have gained a spiritual stature. They start loving and caring for each other and are at peace with the whole world. That Lavinia is capable of feeling and giving positive happiness is clear from the scene of domestic happiness enjoyed by the Chamberlaynes and by her being excited and thrilled to host a “second Cocktail Party”.

Thus the theme of Martyrdom, Sin and Atonement broods over all the plays of Eliot. The hero always arrives at self-knowledge which is the first step towards salvation. Celia Coplestone, with the spiritual guidance of Sir Reilly gets the vision of that great love towards which her whole being had been yearning. It is not surprising that Eliot’s characters sometimes symbolize Jesus Christ. Celia’s resemblance to Christ is apparent in the manner of her death. Her death by crucifixion stresses her Christ-like quality. This links her with the other martyrs and potential saints of Eliot’s plays.

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The Theme of Martyrdom in T.S. Eliot’s The Cocktail Party: Critical Analysis. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from
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