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It began in a dream.
In late 1929, Noël Coward set off for an extended trip to the Far East. Planning to meet his traveling companion in Tokyo, he settled into the Imperial Hotel for an early night and recalled that “the moment I switched out the light, Gertie appeared in a white Molyneux dress on a terrace in the South of France, and refused to go again until 4 a.m., by which time Private Lives, title and all had constructed itself.”
That Coward’s vision had as its star one of London’s most ravishing performers, Gertrude Lawrence, makes perfect sense. He and Lawrence had been the closest of friends since they met as child actors, and their relationship was a source of rambunctious joy and creative inspiration—to say nothing of occasional but very real aggravation—throughout their lives. That Gertie had materialized gloriously costumed in a gown by a leading couturier is also no coincidence. Winding down a decade of groundbreaking successes, Coward and his plays had come to represent the last (and very witty) word in up-to-the-minute sophistication. It seems only natural that the stage of his unconscious was as elegantly designed as any of his West End hits.
A few weeks later, with 27 pieces of luggage and a gramophone in tow, Coward was laid up with the flu in Shanghai’s Cathay Hotel. His memoirs describe a convalescence spent “sweating gloomily” and polishing off the writing of Private Lives: “The idea by now seemed ripe enough to have a shot at, so I started it, propped up in bed with a writing-block and an Eversharp pencil, and completed it, roughly, in four days.”
The work that enjoyed such a brief gestation has proven to be among the most enduring and frequently revived of Coward’s plays. Its lead characters Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase are the most iconic couple in the Coward canon…The play was unlike any Coward had written. Its genesis in a dream underlies a plot and characters fueled by a logic farremoved from the everyday. Though Elyot and Amanda are remarkably rich roles, in some key ways they’re the least clearly drawn of any of his leading characters. Coward’s career-defining works of the 1920s—The Vortex, Easy Virtue, Hay Fever and his lushly romantic operetta Bitter Sweet—were populated with characters that live in specifically delineated and identifiable worlds. They have, to a greater or lesser degree, families, social circles and often professions. Their actions are measured against defined norms of conduct—which for the most part, they flout.
Elyot and Amanda’s theatrical world is a gorgeous but oddly hermetic one. An actor undertaking one of these characters is unlikely to find much in the script from which to build a back story. Has he ever worked? How does she afford that Paris flat and her evening gowns? Except for a few scattered references to friends, do we know anything at all about the “real” life they lead? Who exactly are these charming people?
Coward’s grand achievement in Private Lives—informed by his unerring instincts as a showman and dramatist—is that we’re simply too delighted and dazzled to raise questions like these at all. Since the play was conceived and constructed as a vehicle for him and Lawrence, its leading roles were tailored to their talents with as much attention to fit as one of his bespoke dinner jackets. By the time Private Lives premiered in the autumn of 1930, he could count on audiences bringing to it a familiarity with the personas that he and Lawrence had so assiduously crafted as stars. For them, Noël and Gertie and Elyot and Amanda were interchangeable. (Coward even incorporated Lawrence’s mercurial nature into Amanda’s captivating but sometimes-maddening personality.)
If the details of their characters were deliberately a bit undefined, Coward and Lawrence would give them depth and individuality through the power of their glamour—a quality that was theirs to lavish with abandon. It was the currency of their fame, and Coward makes it clear that it is also a touchstone of Elyot and Amanda’s powerful romantic attraction. “No sense of glamour, no sense of glamour at all” is Elyot’s wounded response when his after-dinner advances are rebuffed.
Coward needed to deploy the full force of that glamour because Private Lives marked a radical departure from his earlier works. Despite the modernity of their themes, pace and language, Coward’s plays of the 1920s still shared some of the basic good manners of the period’s glossy society comedies and dramas, such as those of Somerset Maugham. Much of what we cherish today about the surface of Private Lives—its polish of visual style and setting and behavior— weren’t what its first viewers and critics found remarkable.
The play caused a sensation instead by embodying the truly shocking notion that a pair of 30-year-olds can thoroughly enjoy sex, talk about it with frankness and wit, and even come to physical blows over it and still remain characters an audience can care about—if not want to emulate. Listen closely to what Coward has Elyot and Amanda say about themselves and each other and we learn that they’re impulsive, unreliable and undisciplined. They’re ruled by chance, “chemical what d’you call ‘ems,” and selfishness. What their jilted spouses say is considerably worse.
We cheer behaviors in Elyot and Amanda—fueled by sexual impulsiveness and the ability to wreck two fresh marriages without remorse—for which characters in the well-pedigreed plays on the London stages prior to Coward would have been plunged into remorse, shame-drenched social ostracism, or a prolonged exile to one of the empire’s farther-flung corners.
Why do they get away with it and why do we love them for it? In the play’s original runs in London and New York, the answer was simple: It was Noël and Gertie being exquisitely ill-mannered up there. But Private Lives has been seducing audiences without its original stars for more than 80 years. Its longevity and its power are rooted in Noël Coward’s polished craftsmanship, one that allows us to understand that there are two very real and very vulnerable hearts beating beneath those evening clothes.