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Coward’s fascinating rhythms

In June of 1921, Noël Coward made his first visit to New York City. Among the many things that impressed the then 22-year-old were Coney Island at night, Harlem’s cabarets, the writers and wits that lunched at the Algonquin Hotel, and theatrical impresario David Belasco’s purple silk dressing gown. The experience that had the most significant effect on the fledgling playwright, however, came on his first night in Manhattan: seeing a Broadway show. “I thought the production and acting good,” he recalled, “and the play poor, but what interested me most was the tempo. Bred in the tradition of gentle English comedy with its inevitable maids, butlers, flower vases, and tea tables, it took me a good ten minutes of the first act to understand what anyone was saying.”

Coward found the high-octane energy of New York exhilarating and the distinctive sound of its shows a revelation. He returned to London determined to incorporate them into his own theatrical work as a playwright and composer. Many characteristics of what we now know as Coward’s signature style of dialogue trace their roots that trip. Maria Aitken, the director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Private Lives, has also played a number of his heroines. In an interview conducted as part of a Coward centenary project in 1999, she reflected on an element that’s key to the emotional authenticity of acting in or directing his works:

“I think there’s an identifiable Coward music, an inescapable rhythm. Most of the plays are rooted in period, but not in a society that was ever real. Therefore you do have considerable leeway. I never feel there are all that many givens except for that essential music. You can’t bugger that up.”
Juliet Stevenson echoed the importance of Coward’s textual melodies in another interview in the series. She took on her first Coward role as Amanda after some hesitation, but was soon won over when she made a discovery about the script:
“The beauty and the difficulty, plaited together, of playing [Private Lives] is to observe the delicacy and precision of those rhythms. Coward’s ear is unbelievable—he has a kind of Mozartian clarity. You mess with that at your peril. The rhythms in the writing will take you to places you will not reach if you impose your own. It is more like a musical score than any play I’ve ever done, expect perhaps Samuel Beckett’s.”

What’s unsaid in a Coward play also marks his modernity as a writer. In the first act, Elyot and Amanda attempt to gloss over the initial awkwardness of their chance meeting with some chat about travel (“China must be very interesting.” “Very big, China.” “And Japan—” “Very small.”). For all its sparkle, the conversation is more than verbal postcards from a grand tour. They’re both vamping like crazy until their heads can catch up with their hearts. It’s the silences, not just the smart lines, that give the scene its real power. Coward scholar and editor Barry Day finds an unlikely but strong connection between Coward and Harold Pinter, one of a generation of postwar playwrights who eclipsed Coward and his contemporaries on Britain’s stages. For him, Coward was the true pioneer.

“Coward was one of the first—if not the first —to use words as a defense to what the character is really feeling,” says Day. “Pinter used it virtually nonstop and people have often said in recent years that Noël is ‘Pinteresque.’ The reality, of course, is that Pinter was ‘Cowardesque.’ ”

As entrancing as the sophisticated chatter may be for modern audiences, it can sometimes mask a prime facet of Private Lives: Coward’s unsparing examination of the emotional complexity of what romance means for Elyot and Amanda. “The play has, in a sense, suffered from being so closely associated with Noël’s perceived personal style,” observes Day. “So many productions in the immediate post-Coward period have settled for the clipped speech and the brittle badinage. Only relatively recently, with a new generation of directors, have we seen the revealing of another layer of meaning—one that was there all the time.”
Robert Sacheli is a columnist for Dandyism.net, where his work often explores the intersection of style and performance. He has written and spoken on Coward for The Smithsonian Associates, where he is the staff writer.
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