Defective Senses in Eliot's The Cocktail Party
T.S. Eliot's play The Cocktail Party, among all its banal or peculiar occurrences, is laced with images of defective senses and perception, particularly of sight. The muddle of reality and illusion confounds the main characters, and their attempts to escape drive the plot.
Within five lines of the play's beginning we are confronted with defective senses: "You haven't been listening," (p. 9) complains Alex to the confused Julia when she asks about the tigers in his story. Julia exhibits another confused faculty, that of taste: at first she claims "What's that? Potato crisps? No, I simply can't endure them," (p. 15), but later says "The potato crisps were really excellent" (p. 21). Soon she adds sight to the list: "I must have left my glasses here, / And I simply can't see a thing without them.... / I'm afraid I don't remember the colour, / But I'd know them, because one lens is missing" (p. 33). Even with her glasses, Julia's sight will be impaired. And the glasses turn out to have been in her handbag all along. Yet Julia's glasses, though often lost, through their very existence allow her to see better. The spectacles may indeed be a symbol for the play's theme of blindness, but for Julia they provide an excuse to "see" more -- to spy on her companions, as she admits when she says "Left anything? Oh, you mean my spectacles. / No, they're here. Besides, they're no use to me. / I'm not coming back again this evening" (p. 86).
The other characters of Eliot's play all exhibit their own failings of perception. Alex finds no mangoes or curry powder in Edward's kitchen, only eggs -- no exotic or intense tastes, only the bland and prosaic. Alex says of his egg concoction that "of all my triumphs / This is the greatest" (p. 48), but Julia later dismisses it with the warning that "anything that Alex makes is absolutely deadly" (p. 57). His tastes, presumably, do not agree with the majority of his friends -- they are "defective."
Julia, in turn, opens a champagne bottle (the stage directions specifically mention "a popping noise... heard from the kitchen" (p.58)), and then claims "I found some champagne -- / Only a half bottle, to be sure, / And of course it isn't chilled" (p. 58). Neither Edward nor Celia take any notice of the noise or of Julia's actions: they do not hear or connect reality with her lie. Edward's hearing also fails when he forgets Julia is waiting on the telephone (p. 69), and three times asks his "Unidentified Guest" if he wants whiskey, only to be told to get gin (pp. 23, 25, 30). And Harcourt-Reilly himself, of course, belts out his drinking song about badly-sighted "One-Eyed Riley" (p. 34).
Edward and Lavinia's first meeting in the play is full of mis-sensings. Edward does at last remember Harcourt-Reilly's gin and water (p. 70), only to be rebuffed. Lavinia refuses to listen to Celia, clouding the issue with diplomatic niceties, until Celia corrals her with...