Edward is a middle-aged man whose wife has left him. In the wake of this abandonment, he realizes that he wants his wife back, instead of the younger woman with whom he’s been having an affair. Only after consultation with a psychiatrist, spurred by the belief that he is having a nervous breakdown, is he able to accept that his main problem is that he believes himself to be incapable of love. After making this discovery, he is ready to return to his marriage.
Missing at the beginning of the play, Lavinia is Edward's wife, who has been seeing a psychiatrist, is engaged in an affair with Peter Quilpe, and believes that she has spent the last two months in a sanatorium. Her psychiatrist helps her to realize that Edward is the perfect mate for her precisely because he is not really capable of loving anyone. She can control him, therefore, and keep him from leaving her, as her main psychological hangup is the suspicion that she is unlovable.
Celia is a young woman who dreams of having a meaningful life, and wants to be an artist. She is hoping that Edward will divorce Lavinia so that she can marry him. When she finds out that Edward wants to stay with Lavinia, she goes on a quest, with Reilly's help, to become a more spiritually elevated person. This leads to her in the English colonies, getting crucified by the indigenous population there, and becoming a white martyr for the English empire.
Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly
An enigmatic doctor attending the initial cocktail party who turns out to be the psychiatrist in league with Julia and Alex to get the Chamberlaynes back together. He is almost supernatural in his presumptions and judgments, and often makes bold, general statements about other people's lives.
Alex is another party guest, who is working with Julia and Reilly. He ends up working for the British Empire on the same island where Celia ends up.
Peter is a young and bright-eyed film-lover who ends up as a Hollywood screenwriter. He has had an affair with Lavinia but is in love with Celia, though he is consumed with doubt that his feelings for Celia are unrequited. At the end of the play, he is heartbroken to hear that Celia has died, but throws himself into his work, going on a trip to do research for his new film, which is set in England.
Julia is a meddlesome older woman who turns out to be instrumental in the process of bringing about reconciliation between Edward and Lavinia. She is always scheming and seems to know everything, even before people have told her.
The Cocktail Party Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Cocktail Party is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.