A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions

Noel Coward

   "Mr. Coward. . . is his own invention and contribution to this century." John Osborne

   "Work is always so much more fun than fun," quipped Noel Coward, whose centenary was celebrated in 1999 and 2000 with world-wide productions of his plays (he wrote over twenty), concerts of his music and lyrics, seasons of his films, revivals of his revue songs and sketches, and readings from his poetry and short stories. A busy and gratifying life indeed, or as Coward summed it up: "The world has treated me very well, but then I haven't treated it so badly either." Coward also claimed that his plays never received revivals - because they were always being performed somewhere in the world. That is certainly true of "Private Lives," with a hit London production starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan in the 2001-02 season, following a National Theatre production of the same play two years earlier.

   The dapper, suave, sophisticate who epitomized the high style, wealth, and clipped speech of what was know in England as the privileged class, was born on December 16, 1899, into a middle-class family in the unfashionable London suburb of Teddington. His love affair with the theater began when he was still in short pants, as a boy actor, about which he writes in his poem "The Boy Actor." November and December at that time, he says , were his favorite months; while other boys were on the playing fields, he aspired to be playing on the stage, attending auditions for pantomimes (Christmas musicals based on children's stories). As a touring child actor, he met another stage youngster, Gertrude Lawrence, and the two remained friends ever after. She starred with him in some of his best plays, like "Private Lives" and "Tonight at 8:30."

   Coward's films were as successful as his plays. "Brief Encounter," starred Ceila Johnston and Trevor Howard as the married housewife and doctor who fall in love on a train and whose assignations take place in the station tea-rooms. His wartime film "In Which We Serve," based on the story of Lord Mountbatten, won a special Academy Award in 1942; while "This Happy Breed," depicted two middle-class families coping with survival during the war. For the centenary, a five-part series at the New York Museum of Television and Radio was presented: "Noel Coward on Television."

   In England, where Coward is regarded as a National Treasure, the celebration of his centennial in 1999 was highlighted by a topnotch production of "Private Lives" (1930) at the Royal National Theater, with Juliet Stevenson and Anton Lesser as the madcap couple who cannot live with or without each other. An excellent revival of "Hay Fever" at the Savoy Theatre starred Geraldine McEwan as Judith Bliss, a mature stage star who invites a young male admirer for a weekend in the country with her family, who are as egocentric as she: her husband, a highly successful writer of popular novels, her son, an artist, and her daughter a free spirit, each of whom also invites a guest, respectively a flapper, a vamp, and a diplomat. The wild maneuverings by the self-centered family quartet result in change-abouts in their affections for the four guest, who quietly steal away, while the family, engrossed with themselves, fail to notice their departure.

   The majority of the critics attacked director Declan Donnellan's direction as over-the-top, but I personally found that this 1925 vehicle profited from his innovative directorial touches. I surmise that Coward would have loved the production. Unfavorable reviews were nothing new to Coward. He writes in his introduction to "Hay Fever" in Play Parade that "The press naturally and inevitably described it as 'thin', 'tenuous,' and 'trivial,' because those are their stock phrases for anything later in date and lighter in texture than 'The Way of the World,' and it ran, tenuously and triumphantly, for a year."

   Another splendid contribution to the Coward centenary was the production of Coward's "Easy Virtue" (1925) at the Chichester Festival Theater, in the picturesque English town of Chichester. "Easy Virtue," which made its debut on Broadway in 1925 before opening in London's West End, attacks the prejudices and narrow-mindedness of the upper class, while at the same time preserving their repartee which Coward admired and imitated. When John, the scion of the wealthy Whittakers {the Colonel ,his wife, and their religious daughter), marries Larita, an older woman who is also a divorcee, they are disapproving when she is brought to meet them. But they are even more stunned when a secret from Larita's past is discovered -- being named as culpable in a man's suicide. She is forbidden by the Whittakers to appear at their dance to which their socialite friends have been invited.

   You can count on Larita's ignoring their commands and making a spectacular appearance, and if you think Carol Channing created an effect at the top of the stairs in "Hello, Dolly!", you ain't seen nothing till you witness Larita in "Easy Virtue." Of the play, written when he was twenty-six, Coward writes, sounding like Oscar Wilde, "Women with pasts today receive far more enthusiastic social recognition than women without pasts." Greta Scacchi as Larita lit up the play in this scene, while the fine supporting cast, under Maria Aitken's direction, achieved the necessary ensemble effect that makes Coward revivals so enjoyable.

   Perceptive Coward fans will note that "Easy Virtue" and "Hay Fever" debuted the same year; Coward was a prolific writer and wordsmith. He says in his autobiography that he always loved words, even as a child, repeating nursery rhymes. He resented "Little Tommy Tucker" because of its false rhymes of "Tucker" and "supper" and "butter." (The medium uses -- and criticizes -- this verse when she summons the child Daphne in "Blithe Spirit.") Although he had already finished "Hay Fever" in 1925, Coward chose the theatrical "The Vortex" to make his stage debut as actor and playwright. And a spectacular debut it was.

   The twenty-five-year-old Coward (who had already been acting for fourteen years) wrote for himself the role of Nicky, who is "tall and pale, with thin, nervous hands" a pianist and the son of an aging beauty, Florence, who insists in holding on to her long-past youth by having affairs with younger men. After Nicky's fiancee turns out to have been a past lover of Florence's present one, Nicky has a showdown with his mother.

   Near a breakdown himself, and even having resorted to dope, he accuses her of neglecting him all his life, refusing to admit that she had a child and embarrassed by his age when he grew up. When she admits to a string of lovers -- something he had never known before -- he tells her, "You never love anyone, you only love them loving you." She throws his gold box containing his drugs out the window; he sweeps all her makeup off her dressing table: "You're not going to be beautiful and successful - you're going to be my mother for once. It's about time I had one to help me before I go over the edge, altogether."

   At the end, they confess their love for one another, tears roll down her cheeks as she strokes his hair "mechanically in an effort to calm him." Curtain. Heady, melodramatic stuff -- and the audiences loved it. The day after the opening, young Coward was pictured in the press having breakfast in an elaborate Chinese carved bed and wearing the silk dressing gown that would become his trademark. Silk dressing gowns sold out in all the better men's shops. A star was born that would not dim for the next sixty years.

   The centenary celebration included some of Coward's best-known works, as well as some less well known, offering audiences a rare opportunity to see a sweep of Coward's considerable canon. Two late plays are "A Song at Twilight," which opened in the West End with Corin Redgrave as Latymer and sister Vanessa Redgrave as Carlotta and on Broadway "Waiting in the Wings," with Lauren Bacall heading the cast. "A Song at Twilight" also offered on Broadway with Hayley Mills and Keir Dullea, treats the dilemma of an aging celebrity, probably based on the writer Somerset Maugham.

   In this late play, Coward again turns to his mood of moral indignation evidenced in his first work, "The Vortex." Sir Hugh Latymer is "an elderly writer of considerable eminence," who "has managed to keep his weaknesses concealed from the world, the price of warping his talent and cutting off his human sympathies," as Coward describes him. He is surprised when a former mistress calls. Their relationship came about because Latymer, who is married, once attempted to acquire heterosexual tastes, but evidently failed, because she has in her possession letters Latymer wrote to Perry, his former male secretary and lover, refusing him aid when he most needed it. The letters reveal Latymer as a cold-hearted betrayer.

   "Waiting in the Wings" is a delightful play that originally opened in 1960, starring Marie Lohr and Sybil Thorndike, aging actresses for whom Coward supplied a vehicle for their considerable talents. He wrote the play, he says in the introduction to it in Play Parade, "with loving care and absolute belief in its characters. . . . I consider that the play as a whole contains, beneath the froth of some of its lighter moments, the basic truth that old age needn't be nearly so dreary and sad as it is supposed to be, provided you greet it with humour and live it with courage." Opening in 1999 on Coward's birthday, December 16, at the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway, the revival of "Waiting in the Wings" boasted a stellar cast: Lauren Bacall, Rosemary Harris, Barnard Hughes, Elizabeth Wilson and Dana Ivey. Jeremy Sams (an outstanding British adaptor) updated the script.

   The play is set in an old-age home for retired actresses, two of whom have not spoken to each other for thirty years. Another interesting inhabitant believes she is still a star, and goes about delivering lines from her best-known stage hits. A third resident receives a visit from her prodigal son whom she has not seen for thirty years and who finally arrives to offer to take her away from the home. Does she accept? Read the play to find out.

   Another late play, "Sail Away," debuted on Broadway in 1961, with Elaine Stritch as Mimi, the social hostess on a luxury liner. The centenary revival had a special appeal: Miss Stritch repeated her original role in the musical comedy, which also played in the West End the following year at the art deco Savoy. There are two running plots, one concerning a teen-ager's crush on a would-be archeologist and the other, a young man in love with the hostess. A Conference on Coward was held at Birmingham University in England, in November of 1999.

   One of the many theaters in the English-speaking world presenting Coward during his centenary, was the Malvern Theatre Company in Melbourne, Australia, presenting "Present Laughter." The leading role, which Coward wrote for himself, is Garry Essendine, an egocentric leading actor to whose fashionable London flat gravitate his former wife, his agent, his manager, and an assortment of women, of whom two are in love with him, one being the wife of his producer, and the other an aspiring actress accompanied by her titled mother.

   Coward maintains at a steadily building pace the farcical goings-on, as one or another hides in the spare bedroom while Garry attempts to evade earlier promises by making new ones, all the while preparing to depart on a tour of Africa. Joanna, married to Garry's producer, throws herself at the actor, but winds up by telling him off: "I consider you...to be not only an overbearing, affected egomaniac, but the most unmitigated cad that it has ever been my misfortune to meet." Garry ignores the insult because he is appalled at the huge theater her husband has booked for their new play, promising Garry they will even "put a shower bath into your dressing room.

   Garry: "I don't care whether they've put a swimming bath [pool] in my dressing-room and a Squash Court and a Steinway Grand. I will not play a light French comedy to an auditorium that looks like a Gothic edition of Wembley Stadium."

   But Coward can laugh at himself as a star actor. When Garry claims he has been "the idol of the public for twenty years --," Morris reminds him:

   You're not the idol of the public. They'll come and see you in the right play and the right part, and you've go to be good at that. Look what happened to you in 'Pity the Blind.'

   Garry: "I was magnificent in 'Pity the Blind.'"

   Morris: "Yes, for ten days."

   Revivals continued well past the centennial year. In the spring of 2001 "Design for Living" was presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York, with Jennifer Ehle, Alan Cumming, and Dominic West in the play Coward originally wrote for himself, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt in 1933. At the 2001 Stratford Festival of Canada, "Private Lives" played from May to November, with Brian Bedford as Elyot and Seana McKenna as Amanda, the divorced couple who encounter each other in a French hotel where they are honeymooning with their new spouses.

   The summer of 2001 brought in a revival of "Semi-Monde," a play on the word "demi-monde" from the French for a domain peopled by those of questionable reputation. In the autumn of 2001, West End productions included Penelope Keith in the premiere of "Star Quality," based on a Coward short story, and the comedy "Private Lives." The latter starred Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, directed by Howard Davies, and received rave reviews for its deeply-felt characterization and its presentation that avoided the clipped, artificial delivery that sometimes defines a Coward play. Revealing the playwright in a new light, the play was praised for being not only funny, but touching and wise as well.