The play was an instant hit when it opened in London in 1930. Noël Coward was already a celebrity entertainer in his prime, and his cast was sensational. Yet some called his play thin, tenuous and brittle. One reviewer, who enjoyed the performance, doubted the play would have any sort of afterlife: “Within a few years, the student of drama will be sitting in complete bewilderment before the text of Private Lives, wondering what on earth these fellows in 1930 saw in so flimsy a trifle.”
As it turns out audiences at Private Lives today are sitting with much the same delight as those fellows of fourscore years ago. You could still argue the play is a flimsy trifle. It is nearly plotless, and, as Coward himself wrote later, “as a complete play it leaves a lot to be desired.” It was written in only four days when the author was recovering from the flu in Shanghai. How could anything put together with such haste possibly have lasting merit?
The truth is speed — of thought, of language, and of life — was Coward’s modus vivendi. His idea for the play came to him during a sleepless night, and he let it marinate a year before sitting down to write. Then he wrote quickly, as he always did, and as perhaps you must when whipping up the perfect soufflé, a dish in which nothing can seem labored. He was deeply familiar with the play’s crucial ingredients, since they consisted mostly of himself and actress Gertrude Lawrence, who he had known and worked with for many years. They were highly developed and stylized personalities; both created the masks which became their faces — they were self-invented stars.
There’s a life mask made of Coward in the same year he wrote the play, where he looks like a work of art — almond eyed and perfectly groomed, serene, elegant, with traces of hard living in fancy places. The often beautifully photographed and well draped Gertrude Lawrence, like the play’s leading lady, was always “quite exquisite with a gay face and a perfect figure.” Extravagance was her natural habitat. Onstage and in life Noël and Gertrude were meant for each other. One famous and improbable visitor to a rehearsal, Lawrence (no relation) of Arabia, wrote to Coward after the show opened expressing admiration for the finished product, but also saying he found the rehearsal even more interesting, because watching the two leads “I could not tell when you were acting and when talking to one another.”
Neither Lawrence nor Coward were to their stylish manors born; they were creatures of the middle class and their highly realized public personas were lifetime achievements. Both were supreme egoists, as Coward confessed with characteristic charm and irony: “My own sense of importance to the world is relatively small. On the other hand my sense of my own importance to myself is tremendous.” Coward and Lawrence were supremely talented, their charm was both natural and cultivated, and they fought like crazy. Their partnership was imbalanced but not unequal — he was the cool intellect, and she was the actress, irrational but compelling. “What fascinates me about acting” Coward wrote, “is when a beautiful talented actress can come on stage and give a performance that makes your blood curdle with excitement and pleasure, yet she can make such a cracking pig of herself over where her dressing room is or some such triviality, for which you hate her. Intelligent actors never do that, but then they’re seldom as good as the unintelligent ones. Acting is an instinct. A gift that is often given to people who are very silly as people. But as soon as they come on to the stage, up goes the temperature . . .”
Temperatures certainly rise in the play when Amanda Prynne and Elyot Chase meet on the hotel balcony where they are honeymooning with their new spouses, but they are so perfectly poised they keep their lids on at all times. Well, to begin with — the lids pop off with a bang in the second act. Amanda and Elyot are not Romeo and Juliet — they are not children, they are a divorced couple, each newly remarried, and meeting quite by the chance that rules comic farce. As critics have pointed out, Elyot and Amanda are a case of like attracting (and repelling) like. In some ways they are as different as Coward and Lawrence — he is unflappably frivolous and she is, in her own words, highly “unreliable.” But they share a common intelligence, an ironic sensibility, a complete disregard of conventional morality, an abhorrence of cliché, and a visceral sexual attraction, what Amanda calls “our chemical what d’you call ‘ems.” They were married for two years and divorced for five and in love with each other all the time.
They are not like you and me, which is part of their allure. “I’m glad I’m normal,” says Victor, Amanda’s new husband. “What an odd thing to be glad about,” she replies. Amanda and Elyot make absolutely no attempt at normalcy. They are at once precocious children and sleek adults. They have perfect manners except when they don’t. They are full of romantic feelings which they instinctively play against, because they can’t abide sentimental jam and dislike losing control. We see at once they are meant for each other, and why they can’t be together. They are both hyper sensitive, self-obsessed, and reluctant to surrender an ounce of their individual freedoms. Elyot says they don’t know how to manage each other, but the truth is they are both unmanageable. Their hearts are “jagged with sophistication.” Marriage wasn’t good for them. As Amanda darkly explains to Victor, “we were like two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bubble.” Both are now wounded and bruised, seeking solace in more conventional marriages to more reliable partners, who are simply no match for them. Amanda and Elyot are comically and tragically paired: they can’t be together; they can’t be apart. Perhaps you have known marriages and divorces like this.
It is of course the comedy Coward sustains throughout, and his brilliant soufflé never sinks — he called this play “the lightest of light comedies.” The dialogue is effortlessly and wittily poised from start to stop. Each act is a small masterpiece of orchestration, building to a dramatic crescendo. The dialogue is so swift and felicitous you feel as if you’d been swept on to a dance floor with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers — it’s pure pleasure. But a further reason for the play’s continued appeal is the seething subtext below the brilliant conversation, erupting in a second act spat which certainly qualifies as domestic violence — with the abuse coming from both sides. T. E. Lawrence was certainly right when he told Coward, “the play reads astonishingly well. It gets thicker, in print, and has bones and muscles.”
Time has proved the play was not dependent on the performances of the original cast who were also sources of their characters. It’s a gift to a quartet of charming, skilled, polished and very human actors, as we think you will discover for yourselves, and it remains an incisive portrait of the pleasures and strains of personal relationships. Who has not had a perfect romantic date when the time for love was just right — and then suddenly it wasn’t? Who hasn’t been quite overcome by a passing remark or tiny gesture landing like little bird right out of the blue? How many wives have complained their husbands have had one drink too many when the husbands have wished their wives had one drink more? The volatile chemistry of love and the challenge of long term engagements have rarely been so accurately, so fiercely, and so amusingly put on display.
Like Elyot Chase, Noël Coward was also the master of a famously self-controlled demeanor, especially among naughty children. At a garden party, the young son of Humphrey Bogart snuck up behind Coward’s lawn chair and bashed him over the head with a silver platter. Coward remained entirely unruffled, remarking later that he would make a point of sending the child a chocolate covered hand grenade. In some ways, Private Lives is Coward’s chocolate covered hand grenade lobbed at grown-ups. It’s smooth, playful, sweet and explosive. It lightly tickles the ivories of the baby grand and then goes off with a bang. You’ll see.