From My Post Road Window / Nicholas Troilo
"The Cocktail Party" is a wonderful old comedy written by T.S. Eliot. It was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1949. In it, the protagonist, Edward Chamberlayne, is brought to mild despair when his wife, Lavinia, unexpectedly leaves him. She returns the next day and they attempt to reconcile.
Edward, you see, has been a bit naughty. He was frolicking about with Celia, a woman much younger then he. But Lavinia played a bit, too. She slept with Peter, a man much younger then she.
The play is not, however, about extramarital adventure. It is about the complexity of relationships -- not just the marital relationship. And although the play is more then 60 years old, it is fresher then a tweet from Twitter. It's as alive today as Ringo Starr.
"The Cocktail Party" would be an ideal production for the Darien Players at the Darien Arts Center. The house would fill, I would bet, as couples from Darien, married or not, identify with the Chamberlaynes -- Edward and Lavinia.
Edward, you see, simply cannot really love anyone but himself. Lavinia, on the other hand, simply cannot accept that she can be loved. And although their characters' psychological motives and physical activities are heightened for dramatic effect, I can see a bit of Edward at times and a bit of Lavinia at other times in me and lots of folks who pass my Post Road window.
The play is a comedy but not the ha, ha, ha kind of "SNL." It is comedy in the classic sense. But near the end of the first act, Edward poises the question to Lavinia, "I've often wondered why you married me."
Lavinia answers by telling him that she always thought him attractive and that he constantly told her that he was in love with her. Eliot writes for her:
"I always seemed on the verge of some wonderful experience
And then it never happened. I wonder now how you could have thought you were in love with me."
Harsh, sad words those. The drive, the concept of missed wonderment and failed love. But imagine how many marriages go on past jubilee years with that same sense of something amiss.
Then Eliot has Edward answer Lavinia's question about love. Eliot puts sadder words on the page for Edward. Why did he think he was in love with her?
"Everyone told me that I was; and they told me how well suited we were."
There's Lavinia waiting to be told that she is the most lovable human in the world and her husband tells her that his friends told him he loved her and that they had similar taste. Sad -- the saddest words in the play.
But now tell me, couldn't you hear that conversation going on today on Hollow Tree Ridge Road or Nearwater Lane or Birch Road or on any road in any town in any country in any continent. Well, maybe not exactly that, but I can tell you I've heard of a lot of guys who got married just because they thought it was about the right time, or they seemed ready or that's what everyone expected of them.
And I've heard many stories of women who enter marriage, as Eliot's Lavinia did, with the expectation that through marriage they would create or invent the husband that would take them on the "verge of some wonderful experience." And then it didn't happen.
And so, I have been thinking about this 1949 play for the past three weeks and reading it and rereading it and wondering about the greatness of a poet like Eliot.
Right now many of us are smiling at the TV characterizations of the men and women of the post World War II era. We think it odd that men have a bit of a fling with the office secretary and that everyone smokes or men wear hats and women wear summer gloves.
Eliot shows us the same sort of characters as "Mad Men" of Sunday night TV without the distraction of costumes and quirks that film provides. In "The Cocktail Party," our attention is focused on the words. And to read those words undistracted, I think any couple -- married or not, will find some point of their 2010 relationship laid out rather plain in a play written in 1949. It's a good summer read.