Enter the Guardians

29th August 1997 at 01:00
THE COCTAIL PARTY. By T.S Eliot. Edinburgh King's Theatre.

Written by perhaps the most famous and certainly the most prestigious English-language poet of the century, The Cocktail Party opened at the Edinburgh Lyceum during the 1949 Edinburgh Festival. Fittingly enough, it has now been revived by the Royal Lyceum Company to celebrate the 50th Festival, but at the larger King's Theatre.

This is an unfashionable but timely revival. Verse drama (even Eliot's free verse) is often deemed a thing of the past, just as his poetry is deemed too difficult or too "obscure" for Higher or Sixth Year Studies pupils (though it has long been a mainstay of English A-level courses). Perhaps Philip Franks's production will mark the beginning of a change in the dramatic fortunes of the shy Harvard student who became the High Anglican, arch-royalist, arch-conservative cultural spokesman of the English establishment.

Whatever else this production proves, it shows that Eliot was not simply a poet who dabbled in drama. His characters are complex and finely drawn, and though the tension between them may often seem spiritual or psychological rather than overtly "dramatic", it is a palpable tension all the same.

The Cocktail Party displays Eliot's obsession with things spiritual and moral, as it also reveals him worrying the bones of his deeply unhappy marriage to his first wife Vivienne, who died in 1947, incarcerated in a mental home against her will.

Those favourite Eliot themes of desire and patience, self-denial and suffering, darkness and enlightenment pervade the drama, rubbing shoulders with the yawning gossip and domestic squabbles of his upper-class characters.

There is a gentle social satire in all of this, though Eliot's ultimate goal is not to attack class, privilege or pretensions, but to expose spiritual aridity and suggest that even dull city bankers like himself (he worked for Lloyds Bank for eight years) can pursue a higher "reality".

In this respect, the central character of Edward Chamberlayne, a barrister locked in an unhappy marriage, is as close as we get to autobiography in Eliot's writings, and for all his protestations against "personality" ever intruding into his writings, he is clearly attempting to expiate his own gods or exorcise his own devils in this play.

As his characters seek, or are brought to seek enlightenment, we become aware of a mysterious class at work in society, the "Guardians" who function as a kind of guardian angel network, highly educated and highly motivated, yet not unpractised in swigging copious amounts of strong drink.

Can such potentially arcane matters be staged convincingly? Unequivocally, yes. And not just because these particular performances - from David Bamber's Edward Chamberlayne to Clive Merrison's Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly - are uniformly impressive, but because Eliot's words were written to be spoken.

Eliot is not one of the world's greatest dramatists, but Philip Franks's production shows that for all his supposed po-faced posturing he could also carve a fine comic line or three.

Until August 30.

Raymond Ross

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