24 March 2012

Noel, Noel

by Kirk Woodward

[Once again, my friend Kirk Woodward comes up with an interesting perspective on a familiar topic, this time the recently closed Broadway revival of Private Lives and its author, Noel Coward. I’ve known that Kirk has great admiration for Coward as a playwright—we’ve discussed both the writer’s merits and Kirk’s fondness for his work and interest in his life and career many times over the years—but what I didn’t know was that Kirk’s had those sentiments at least since we were in college together in the ‘60s. (For ROT readers who don’t already know the connection, Kirk and I were classmates at Washington and Lee University and met as participants in the university theater, Kirk a budding director and playwright and me a wannabe actor.) As you’ll see shortly, “Noel, Noel” had its origins that far back.

[It’s my practice, especially since I launched
ROT almost three years ago now, to write a performance report on plays that I see. I’ve gotten Kirk to do his version of that occasionally (see “Race,” 3 May 2010, and “The Scottsboro Brecht,” 12 February 2011)—he’s even done a little performance reporting on musical events he’s attended (“The Beatles and Me,” 7 October 2010, and “Bob Dylan, Performance Artist,” 8 January 2011)—and when he told me he was going to be seeing Private Lives and might have an article on it and Coward, I expected his take on the performance report again. I had no idea he’d reach back into our youths and come up with a very perspicacious and informative consideration of Coward’s dramaturgy—even if he was a college kid at the time! (Who knew? We were just theater geeks, I thought! Still waters and all . . . .)

[Since there won’t be a plain old report on
Private Lives, a play I rather like myself (though Blithe Spirit is my favorite Coward), I’ll fill in the bare details. The production opened at the Music Box Theatre for previews on 6 November 2011 and closed on December 31 after 12 previews and 53 regular performances. The revival, starring Paul Gross as Elyot and Kim Cattrall as Amanda, and directed by Sir Richard Eyre, was always intended as a limited run, but had been scheduled to run five weeks more. Of the production itself, which got mostly good reviews, Kirk wrote me:

Even for a funny, well-regarded show, it may be somewhat overexposed. And it’s not a show that lends itself to new and daring interpretation—you pretty much need to do Noel Coward’s Private Lives or do something else entirely. It was doing well enough in the holiday season, but the producers apparently didn’t see signs that that level of sales would continue once January arrived. In this economy, and with ticket prices as high as they are, there might not have been enough of a “hook” to let the show thrive after the holidays.

[In fact, that’s the explanation the producers offered, with one of them stating: “Despite fantastic reviews, ticket sales have been slower than we had hoped for and it would be irresponsible to continue running into the notoriously difficult January period.”

[So, have a look at Kirk’s elucidation of Noel Coward’s themes and ideas in his famously witty and seemingly light-hearted (not to say light-headed) plays.

In December 2011 my wife and I saw the latest Broadway revival of Noel Coward's comedy Private Lives. We wanted to see it because one of our favorite actors, Paul Gross, was playing Elyot, the male lead. Gross, a leading actor in Canada, also played the erratic theater festival director in the brilliant TV series Slings and Arrows, and the Mountie in the very entertaining TV series Due South, which was on U.S. television from 1994 to 1999. We also wanted to see the play because we'd heard that Kim Cattrall, best known as one of the four leads in Sex and the City, was outstanding in the role (she had played it in London, where this production originated, to acclaim), and she was.

But we also wanted to see it because Private Lives is a delightful play. It is continually revived; I saw it on Broadway in 1984 with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in the lead roles. (I remember that I worried about how Burton would get through the more physical parts of the play – he was having a lot of back and neck trouble – and that I thought Taylor was quite good in the role.) Alan Rickman played Elyot in another Broadway revival in 2002, which I would love to have seen, and all in all the play has been produced on Broadway seven times.

What accounts for the longevity of Private Lives? The story is lively, the humor character-based and genuinely amusing, the action continuous. Most of all, though, the play was written by Noel Coward, which means it was written by one of the greatest playwrights of all time.

I hope that last sentence is sufficiently provocative. Coward certainly never made any such claims for himself; when one of his characters sings, in the song "If Love Were All," that "the most I've had / Is just a talent to amuse," one can't help hearing a reflection of Coward's own attitude toward his work. He was proud of what he wrote, but he made no claims for its immortality.

But who are the greatest playwrights of all time? Comparisons, as one of Shakespeare's characters says, are odorous, but it may be easier to see Coward's standing if we ignore the silly prejudice that comedy is trivial, and look at the members of the Playwriting Pantheon in two categories, Dramatic and Comedic. Who are the unquestionable leaders in each category? Granting that many playwrights have written many remarkable plays, I'd say that the unarguable Greats are the following:


Shakespeare (again)

It's not a long list. Certainly it's open to argument. But whoever else you might put on your list, let me try to make the case a bit more that Coward belongs on it, not that I'm certain the case needs making any more. I'd like to call on my much younger self, in an article I wrote for Ariel, the student literary magazine of Washington and Lee University, in its Spring 1969 issue. I will present the article first, and then comment on it.


Noel Coward's fifty-so plays typically present the British upper- or upper-middle class, usually aristocrats, artists, or bohemians: persons who project elaborate public images. Noel Coward also presents a public image: wit, sophisticate, possibly a playboy, carrying the scent of a declining or recently-vanished decadent society. Popular opinion assigns Coward's personality and plays a personality it borrows from the characters in his plays. The word is that Coward writes "sophisticated farces, comedies, and musicals." This opinion is mistaken in its assumptions, but difficult to refute, since it uses a kind of code. "Farces, comedies, and musicals" indicate light entertainment. "Sophisticated" means that Coward has nothing to say.

Some of Coward's plays, however, have established reputations on their own. The most produced of these plays is Private Lives, in which a divorced and separately remarried couple cannot help causing themselves and their new spouses trouble when they rent adjoining rooms at the same hotel on their honeymoons. Another well-known play, Design for Living, presents a curious love-triangle: three best friends, two men and a woman, who continually find out that no two of them can do without the third. Amateurs often do Tonight at 8:30, a collection of nine one-act plays arranged in sets of three. In Blithe Spirit (1942), a novelist who remarried after his first wife died inadvertently materializes his first wife's spirit during a séance, and the spirit willfully refuses to dematerialize. (Beatrice Lily and Tammy Grimes played in a recent musical version of this play, High Spirits, which Coward directed.) In Present Laughter (1947), an actor cannot determine which of the people around him are genuine and which of them are acting, while his friends wonder the same about him. Waiting in the Wings, produced in 1960, concerns aging women (The Wings is a British home for retired indigent actresses) trying to learn to accept their increasing old age.


The first step in a proper evaluation of Coward's plays is to determine what kind of plays they are. They follow a pattern which is familiar to students of the modern drama. This pattern may be described using as an example Family Album, a play in Tonight at 8:30. This is the pattern: a closely-related group of people have an image of themselves, a claim to an identity (the family in Family Album acts properly; its members profess their respect and love for each other). At the moment the play begins, however, a crisis is also about to begin (father has just died and been buried and the will read), stirred by long-hidden resentments and desires (the relatives talk about distribution of property). Guilty secrets about the past come to light (father had a mistress, who went to his funeral) and the group attempts to obliterate the feeling of guilt by drinking, but liquor only sharpens the problem ("Papa liked wine – he liked it to excess – I expect this is hereditary"). At last something resembling the whole truth emerges (father wrote a will leaving all his money to his three mistresses; the butler burned the will with the relatives watching; the loving daughter hated and despised her father). The group, "guiltily awake" at last, finds a way of tolerating its knowledge (the butler says he is too deaf ever to hear a question about the will), but the illusory identity, the fiction of trust and honesty and innocence, is gone (as a character says, "This house was happy when there were children in it").

This pattern resembles that of Ibsen's later plays. Ibsen and Coward both begin their plays at a point where romantic illusions hover at the brink of collapse. Both playwrights see illusions about the past destroyed by confrontation with the real past. Coward's affinity with Ibsen is historically appropriate. Ibsen's spirit dominated the theater of Coward's youth; Bernard Shaw wrote his powerful book of introduction, The Quintessence of Ibsenism, less than thirty years before Coward wrote his first play.

The comparison with Ibsen holds even though Coward writes farces, as an examination of a Coward farce will reveal. Blithe Spirit concerns the clearly farcical situation of the ghost of a first wife returning to her now remarried husband. Even in this situation, however, the principle of the destruction of illusion, the unmasking of realities concealed by appearances, still operates. In Blithe Spirit, the "appearance” is the husband's happy remarriage after his first wife died. What is "unmasked" is his guilt over shifting his love so easily, claiming to love his second wife with body and soul while still retaining genuine feeling for the departed. The fun never overtakes the guilt which lies at the core of the play's action.


Coward's plays "typically present the British upper- or upper-middle class, usually aristocrats, artists, or bohemians: persons who project extravagant public images." Aristocrats, artists, and bohemians depend on their public images: without a Character an aristocrat loses his influence, an actor loses his ability to create illusion, a bohemian loses his standing as an independent spirit. Coward's characters depend on their Characters. Elyot, the husband in Private Lives, overpowers his new and ex-wives by force of personality. Garry, the actor in Present Laughter, dominates the lives of his whole circle of intimates as well as the lives of many people he has never seen. Gilda, Otto, and Leo, the bohemians in Design for Living, form and reform alignments at will because they do not have to think of themselves as being under the restraints of conventional morality.

But images, although they facilitate control of other persons, do not facilitate control of one's self. Garry, the actor, trained in creating illusion, cannot watch himself in an off-stage role, he can only do the role. He knows that everyone, not just actors on stage, must use techniques of presentation to communicate, and this knowledge intensifies the disgust he feels at living, and being rewarded for living, a life devoted to the creation of theatrical situations neither "true" nor "false since they exist but are not “life” as such. “I’m always acting,: Garry complains, but at that moment he may be posing; he may be telling the truth and posing.

Aristocrats, artists, and bohemians, in Coward’s plays or out of them, constantly do things which remind themselves that, if they want something, they have to put on a “show” to get it. On the other hand, persons who do not constantly face the fact of role-playing still form their personalities through roles. These persons may allow themselves to forget the fact. If one convinces himself that he is “just what he is,” and if events then throw up to him the truth that “what he is” has been constructed out of the deceptions of presentations, then he too is a potential subject for a Noel Coward play.


Awareness of role-playing leads to a search for the self and self-knowledge. Coward’s characters often make the search. In Design for Living, the two men and the woman they love try to understand why they find themselves so entangled. The answer depends on who they themselves are, and so they try to define themselves as well as their situation. Examples of their attempts:

“ . . a too loving spirit tied down to a predatory feminine carcass.”

“What’s the truth of it? The absolute, deep down truth? Until we know that, we can’t grapple with it. We can’t do a thing.”

“Chance caught us, as it was bound to catch us eventually.”

“It isn’t you that’s changed – it’s time and experience and new circumstances!”

The effort to define oneself is based on the premise that a person is an object consisting of a number of properties, but the premise collapses when one tries to identify what those properties are. Since Leo, Otto, and Gilda in Coward’s play are artists (Leo writes a play called Change and Decay), they should know that man defines himself, not as an object, but temporally, by creation: a painting, a deed, a baby. A man’s search for his own “design” resembles the attempt to turn around and see his own back; so "Design for Living," as Coward insists in his preface, is an ironic title. Perhaps in Design for Living the characters learn the fruitlessness of the search for a “self.” At play’s end, Ernest, Gilda’s present husband, makes a last attempt to define the trio:

It’s ludicrous to think that I was ever taken in by any of you – that I ever mistook you for anything but the unscrupulous, worthless degenerates that you are! . . . You’re shifty and irresponsible and abominable . . .!

Gilda, Otto, and Leo collapse in laughter, and Coward adds in his preface that he believes the characters are laughing at themselves.


Humor depends on an uneasy awareness of discrepancy. Great comic writers – Aristophanes, Swift, Moliere, Shaw, and others – have clear eyesight and strong stomachs. Coward’s humor, and he has a considerable eye for it, springs in his best works from the discrepancies revealed by his themes, discrepancies between past and present (Madame Arcati, the medium in Blithe Spirit, quotes Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth . . .”), role and reality (Madame Arcati announces just before the séance that “I had a sudden presentiment that I was going to have a puncture [on her bike] so I went back to fetch my pump, and then of course I didn’t have a puncture at all”), expectation and result (a maid for some reason can only move at a dead run). Most important, humor springs from the conflict between truth and the illusion that one can be profound:

CHARLES: It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.
RUTH: Write that down, you might forget it.
CHARLES: You underestimate me.

(Blithe Spirit)


Although Coward’s plays contain a kind of knowledge, they make no demands for change in the audience. Post Mortem (1930), an anti-war play and the principle exception to this rule, is bitter but not evangelistic. The dedication of Post Mortem to William Bolitho, who was already dead in 1930, indicates a tone characteristic for Coward:

If the world doesn’t seek you out, and find you out, so much the worse for the world. It can’t matter to you.

But Coward’s despair does not result from his membership in a passing dissipated generation, as his public image would suggest. It is the product of a penetrating intellect.

Resignation and humor are Coward’s weapons against despair. Waiting in the Wings, set in the home for aging actresses, has as its theme the necessity of resignation. The staff of The Wings has no reason to feel sorry for its wards; if the staff members live long enough they will find themselves in the same condition as their charges. Either the actresses in the home become bitter or they learn acceptance. Noel Coward is the Knight of Infinite Resignation. The plays he writes and the jokes he makes show his courage:

We pooled our money, spent the lot,
The world forgetting by the world forgot.
Now we haven’t got a penny for the you know what!
Has anybody seen our ship?

(Red Peppers, in Tonight at 8:30)

* * * *

At a distance of forty-two years, there's not too much I'd change in the article today. (I have altered a word here and there where Younger Me needed editing.) I am pleased that I championed Coward when he was still somewhat underappreciated in the United States. What he himself referred to as "Dad's renaissance" had begun in England in the early 1960's, but was still not fully underway in the U.S. when I wrote the piece.

I am also pleased that I identified Coward as the actual heir of Ibsen, a point that I have not seen made elsewhere (of course it may have been). The general assumption is that Shaw took on Ibsen's mantle, an assumption based on the fact that Shaw championed Ibsen's plays (his later ones, in particular). However, Shaw's dramaturgy has next to nothing to do with Ibsen's. Shaw resolutely looks to the future. In his principal exception, Heartbreak House, the characters look backward, but with nostalgia, not with Ibsen’s sense that the past is erupting into the present.

If I were writing the article today, I would put less emphasis on the theme of resignation. Partly I stressed it because I'd just read several of Coward's later plays, in which that theme is perhaps more prominent. (I'm always particularly interested in the plays that authors wrote after their most famous work was done). I also see that I was determined to demonstrate that Coward was a Serious Playwright. I wouldn't feel the same need today, not because there aren't "serious" issues in even the lightest of Coward's plays, but because there is wider agreement today that comedy handles the same material as apparently weightier drama, only in different ways.

In fact, a lasting strength of Coward's plays is that they express a world view, one that is amply expressed in Private Lives. (One of the virtues of the recent Broadway production is that it encouraged the audience to appreciate that world view.) Coward doesn't overstate his perspective, which can also be found in writings such as his diaries, but it hovers over his works. Life, he tells us, is evanescent, and is all that there is:

ELYOT: . . . Let's blow trumpets and squeakers, and enjoy the party as much as we can, like very small, quite idiotic school-children. Let's savour the delight of the moment. Come and kiss me, darling, before your body rots, and worms pop in and out of your eye sockets.

It's not a positive world view (and it's not mine) but Coward holds it consistently and it informs his plays, giving them a coherence and resonance that characterize the work of the greatest playwrights. Coward's characters maintain their lives bravely in the face of a universe that takes no notice of them.

It's noteworthy that this courageous and somewhat forlorn view of existence is embodied in the work of an author best known for writing light, brittle comedies. But this surprising juxtaposition, which only began to be clear after Coward's own generation had passed away, is another mark of his distinction. One even imagines, again, the grim countenance of Ibsen looming somewhere behind his plays. Can we call Coward superficial when his work points us to such depths?

[I happen to have seen the Broadway production of High Spirits with Tammy Grimes and Bea Lillie which Kirk mentions in “Noel, Noel.” (The actor, it seems worthy to note, who played Charles Condomine in the musicalizaton of Blithe Spirit was Edward Woodward—no relation, Kirk tells me, to the author of this article.) That was about 48 years ago, though, long before I was keeping notes or writing reports on plays I’d seen, so I can’t say much except that I’ve always liked that show and I was thrilled to have gotten to see Bea Lillie live, on stage in what turned out to be her last Broadway appearance. She didn’t die until many years later, but she seems to have retired after that show, at least as far as the States was concerned.) Some years ago, however, I made a trip to the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, and one of the plays in that season’s rep was Coward’s Design for Living, which Kirk mentions here, too. I’ve decided to publish a version of my report on that performance, just for the amusement of looking back at a connected article, and I’ll be posting it on ROT in several days. If you’re curious, keep an eye peeled.]

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