Russ Hunt's Reviews
The Cocktail Party
By T. S. Eliot

Theatre UNB
29 January 1998

Last night I went down to the Theatre UNB production of T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party. What a weird evening that was. It's a terrible production of a clunky, talky, undramatic and grotesquely long play, but somehow it was interesting and engaging anyway. The lighting was awful, the blocking was godawful, and the set changes and mechanics were beyond godawful (they had to change from an office to a living room before the last scene, and it took them, oh, at least eight minutes, working in the semidarkness and as far as I could see completely without organization. Like it had just occurred to them they were going to have to move these two desks and two couches and two end tables and a bar . . . And the bows were so outrageously unchoreographed that you absolutely couldn't figure out when the play was over (I'd thought it had ended twice or three times before, mainly because the lighting cues were so bad, so I kind of assumed it was a false alarm again).

And then the dialogue is a kind of tidal wave of T. S. Eliot's fake-profound psychobabble theology. And he keeps dinging and dinging it at you . . . you think, ah, well, we've got all these people's identities sorted out now, and then damned if he doesn't raise some other issue. And at the end there's this covert racism (lots of utterly unironic references to "savages" and "heathens" and eating Christians and monkeys).

And yet in spite of that I was involved in it. I saw the play ten years ago in London and I can remember everything about the evening -- what I had for dinner beforehand, what the marqee looked like, where it was (the Strand) -- except a single thing about the play. But I'll remember the play, now, after last night. Mainly, I think, it was because Dana Neilson, who played "the Unidentified Guest" (who turns out, in typical Eliot ersatz-British snobbery, to be named Sir Edward Harcourt-Reilly), and who does most of the interminable Eliotian explaining, was so astonishingly good that you forgot the other stuff.

Actually, there were a couple of other good actors, too -- Allison Surtees, who played Edward's wife, Lavinia, for example. There was only one, Joel Hunter, as Edward, who really seemed not to understand what he was saying. . . and even he was clear enough that you could figure it out. He did things like put the accent on the wrong word in a sentence. "I wouldn't want any live you would CHOOSE for me," for instance, when the accent should have been on "YOU." He did that, grotesquely, at least six times during the evening.But even so, I knew what he was on about, and even cared about it.

Ah, well, I don't know, it was an extremely peculiar experience. I wasn't actually bored at any point -- but I was, repeatedly, enraged when I realized (or maybe remembered) that bloody Eliot was going to keep onand on with it . . . and then I found myself being interested, anyway. Did I care about what happened to Peter Quilpe after he went off to California to make movies? Not a whit. But then when he arrived back, and I was over the irritiation of yet another surprise visitor, I found myself engaged at the story of Celia's sanctification by crucifixion ("near an anthill," Eliot tosses in, just to remind you of what Harcourt-Reilly's going to explain anyway, that martyrdom isn't pleasant).

Even the whole weird business with what the status of Harcourt-Reilly, Julia, and Alex is -- are they some sortof superhuman or supernatural "operatives," or something? What gives them the right, or the power,to oversee other people's lives and make judgements about whether they're "fulfilled"? -- even that seemed not entirely offensive. They were sort of like the chorus in a Greek play or something -- not exactly part of the action, but more like commentators on it. Except for Harcourt-Reilly, of course: the notion that psychiatrists are omniscient really did make me a little uncomfortable.

Still, I'm grateful that UNB put it on.

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