A Hasty Kind of Genius: Noél Coward's Private Lives

"Noël Coward's signature wit and keen eye for human behavior make his plays vibrate emotionally. It's thrilling to have Maria Aitken, one of the world's greatest interpreters of Coward, here to bring his work to life." —Peter DuBois

On the decks of the S. S. Tonkin, traveling from Hong Kong to Hanoi in February 1930, Noël Coward composed a letter to an old friend: "Well, old cock," he wrote, "we stayed two weeks in Shanghai and I wrote a light comedy for Gertie and me in the Autumn. It's completely trivial except for one or two slaps but it will be fun to play."

All through his East Asia journey, Coward had been trying to come up with a vehicle for himself and actress Gertrude Lawrence. Nothing clicked until he arrived at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo where, Coward wrote in his autobiography, "The moment I switched out the lights, Gertie appeared in a white Molyneux dress on a terrace in the South of France and refused to go again until 4am, by which time Private Lives, title and all, had constructed itself." A few weeks later, as he recovered from a bout of flu in Shanghai, Coward committed the play to paper. The writing took four days — about average for the then 30-year-old playwright. Little wonder that upon meeting him, T. E. Lawrence wrote that Coward was "a hasty kind of genius."

The vision in the white dress became Amanda, a woman on her second honeymoon. While on the terrace, she encounters her first husband, also on his second honeymoon, and they decide to run away together. As the two lounge around Amanda's Paris flat, they embody what The New Yorker critic John Lahr calls, "the Coward myth of chic dressing-gowns and bitchy dressing downs." The pajamas-clad Elyot and Amanda are masters of verbal swordplay. They parry and riposte with élan, displaying wits that are not only quick but also succinct. Stinging one-liners litter the play ("Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs," "Don't quibble, Sybil,") bearing out critic Kenneth Tynan's assertion that Coward "took the fat off English comic dialogue."

As in all of Coward's best-loved "comedies of bad manners" (Hay FeverBlithe SpiritPresent Laughter), the characters are brisk and breezy, totally lacking in material concerns. They are determinedly superficial: "You musn't be serious, my dear one," Elyot warns Amanda. "It's just what they want." But the determined flippancy of the characters doesn't translate into a shallow play. As Lahr points out, "Only when Coward is frivolous does he become in any sense profound."

The underpinnings of the play consist of ever changing, ever repeating relationships. Critics have bemoaned the highly topical nature of Coward's plays, but the forces that push Elyot and Amanda together and then tear them apart again and again are universal. Their diametrically opposed love and hate are reflections of emotions that exist, in varying degrees, in every relationship. This universality perhaps explains the countless revivals of Coward's plays. As Edward Albee wrote in his introduction to a collection of Coward's work, "Mr. Coward's subjects — the ways we kid ourselves that we do and do not exist with each other and with ourselves — have not, unless my mind has been turned inward too long, gone out of date."

— Rachel Carpman

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