It is unsurprising that the cocktail party of the title is a motif in the play, and also a symbol for the public lives of the characters. The beginning of the play shows the characters in a stilted, stereotypical "cocktail party" conversation, exchanging stories they have already told before. Each of the characters keeps up a certain amount of decorum and manners, as the cocktail party represents their public-facing selves. The cocktail party then reconstitutes itself at the end, but the hosts—Lavinia and Edward—are together again, and now ready to face their public.
"I Forgot Something" (Motif)
Another motif in the play is the excuse the characters use to return to Edward’s house, namely that they forgot something and wanted to retrieve it. This is nothing more than just an excuse for many want to return and find what really happened to Lavinia. This recurring scenario represents the way the characters are nosy and invasive about one another's lives, but want to hide into under a facade of social normality.
The Plot of the Play Itself (Allegory)
The play itself is allegorical, in that it examines social and romantic dynamics philosophically and psychologically in order to point to larger truths about the nature of the human condition. In some ways, the play is not strictly a realist play, but an allegorical one that presents characters that are archetypes more than as individuals. While Edward and Lavinia have specific qualities, they represent the figures of husband and wife, and the ways that husbands and wives misunderstand one another. Likewise, Reilly is not quite an individual or a literal doctor, but a mystical presence, a neutral stranger who can interpret precisely what is wrong in Edward and Lavinia's marriage. His thoughts and predictions have an omniscient quality, as if his insight is aided by the gift of prophecy, which signals to the audience that the play is more of an allegory than a literal account of events. It is almost a philosophical fable, a koan, or a morality tale.
The Glasses with One Lens Missing (Symbol)
In Act 1, Scene 1, Julia returns to Edward’s homes to look for her glasses. She describes them as having plastic frames and one lens missing. The glasses become here a symbol for the ways that Julia is always trying to get information out of people or figure things out. She is a highly evaluating and curious person, sometimes verging on invasive, and the glasses symbolize this quality.
Celia's Death (Symbol)
At the end we learn that Celia has been crucified by a group of indigenous people on the island where she was doing missionary and nurse work. She was trying to help people who were dying of disease in an English colony, but they ended up killing her in a ritual sacrifice. This demise represents the sacrifice that Celia has made as a Christian woman who chose the path of spiritual elevation. Within the logic of the play, Celia's sacrifice represents her goodness. To contemporary audiences, who might have more of a critique of English imperialism, Celia's death also represents the self-righteousness of colonial whiteness, the presumption that white colonists are helping their colonial subjects, when in fact that are meddling and justifying the violence of colonial regimes.
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.