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Private Lives in Perspective

Cable from Noël Coward to Gertrude Lawrence:
HAVE WRITTEN DELIGHTFUL NEW COMEDY STOP GOOD PART FOR YOU STOP WONDERFUL ONE FOR ME STOP KEEP YOURSELF FREE FOR AUTUMN PRODUCTION STOP NOEL.
The lady replied:
HAVE READ NEW PLAY STOP NOTHING WRONG THAT CANT BE FIXED STOP GERTIE.
His reply:
THE ONLY THING THAT WILL NEED TO BE FIXED IS YOUR PERFORMANCE STOP NOEL.

And, of course, it was most memorably fixed by the time the play—Private Lives—opened at London’s brand new Criterion Theatre on September 24, 1930.

It remains for many people Noël’s most perfect play and it is currently the most revived play on Broadway—English or American. Its actual creation on a tour of Asia has become a theatrical legend in itself. And with its “cruelly deceptive moonlight” and “potent cheap music” it turned Noël and Gertie into “Noël & Gertie” for all time—two sides of the same coin. Noël would speculate in later years that Gertie had “spoiled” him for other leading ladies. “Sometimes I would look across the stage at her…and she would take my breath away.”

Many people assume that Coward and Lawrence played together regularly but, in fact, the Tonight at 8:30 sequence in 1936 was to be the only other occasion. Several later projects were discussed but none came to fruition. Still, the fact that Tonight at 8:30 consisted of nine separate one act plays (including Still Life, the inspiration for the 1945 film Brief Encounter) gave them the chance to play a whole range of different parts, as well as have “a bit of a sing,” something they both liked to do.

Alfred Lunt, Noël Coward and Joan Fontanne in Les Avants, Switzerland. 1963. Photo courtesy of the Noël Coward Estate.

In the years that have followed its initial success, Private Lives has been revived with great regularity. It has become Coward’s most well-known work, a staple of professional companies, as well as the amateur theatrical circuit in both England and America. And therein lies a problem. Its name is Noël Coward.

It is all too easy for too many leading men to affect the clipped Coward manner and rely on brittle bon mots to paper over cracks in their performance. The play can too easily end up all surface—easy, amusing and slight.

Playwright (and sometime director of Coward’s works) Harold Pinter was one of the first to articulate a deeper truth about Coward, something that had been there all along. Having seen a production of Private Lives, he said, “I realized that a character could stand on a stage and SAY one thing and the audience would KNOW he actually meant something ELSE.”

The scene he’s referring to is the Balcony Scene in Act 1. Elyot and Amanda talk carefully about the flatness of Norfolk; the relative size of China and Japan; the advisability of seeing the Taj Mahal by moonlight. What they are really saying is: “I still love you. Do you still love me?”

Noël Coward in Firefly, Jamaica. 1961. Photo courtesy of the Noël Coward Estate.

Noël effectively refined this device six years later in Shadow Play, when his character Vicky says, “Small talk, lots of small talk—with other thoughts going on behind.”

This insight—that elliptical dialogue can contain emotional subtext – profoundly influenced Pinter’s own development as a playwright. Modern audiences coming to Coward—those who are new to Noël frequently comment on his “Pinteresque” qualities, as though this were a revelation. They are wrong. Pinter was Cowardesque.

This latter-day rediscovery—this Coward Restoration—goes far beyond the use of words.

New directors, such as Maria Aitken, are finding that Coward remains strikingly contemporary. His plays continue to receive new productions, while those by his contemporaries—J.B. Priestley, Terence Rattigan and Emlyn Williams, to name a few—lie largely unproduced. Private Lives, it turns out, is not simply a play of clever badinage. It’s about the difficulty—the impossibility, even, of Love.

Elyot and Amanda can’t live without each other—but they can’t live with each other either. They leave smiling at the final curtain but they leave behind two people they’ve effectively destroyed. And they clearly don’t give a hoot. Implicit in the drama is the fact that they will go on and do the same thing all over again…and again. They are glamorous killers, emotional vampires.

Robert Sella, Gretchen Egolf and Tom Story in STC’s 2009 production of "Design for Living". Photo by Scott Suchman.

The same thing happens in Present Laughter…and in Hay Fever…and in Design for Living. The laughter in Coward’s plays covers inconvenient truths that his perceptive dramatist’s eye lays bare. We laugh in these plays because the ruthless behavior is not happening to us, but when Coward chooses to write plays without laughter, as in the case of Still Life, the results can be devastatingly powerful. The fact remains that Coward is commenting on aspects of the human condition that remain timeless. Time and again, in my experience, someone in the audience of a Coward play will buttonhole me and say—with pleasurable surprise—“Hey, he’s talking to me. What else did he do?” On some level, contemporary audiences recognize that Coward was talking about all of us.

Barry Day (O.B.E.) – After a high profile career in international advertising, Barry Day was on the team that rebuilt Shakespeare’s Globe playhouse on London’s Bankside. He became involved with the Noël Coward Estate in the early 1980s and is the Literary Advisor to the Estate as well as a Trustee of the Coward Foundation. In 2004 Queen Elizabeth awarded him the O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire) for services to British culture in the U.S.
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