Noel Coward is regarded as a national treasure
in England, and the centenary of his birth is a cause for celebration.
For over forty years, beginning with "The Vortex"
in 1923, Coward epitomized sophisticated comedy or "drawing
room comedy" in which
upper class men and women in impeccable dress -- usually including
a riding habit -- exchange witticisms in an improbable plot almost
always centering upon sex. "Private Lives" is
one of the best of this genre. Like all Coward's comedies,
it has an ingenious plot: divorced couple Amanda and Elyot ,having
chosen the identical hotel on the French Riviera (where else?)
for their honeymoons with their new spouses, appear at separate
times on adjoining balconies, cooing and loving with their
mates. Then they appear together and after the first shock,
exchange insults and barbed witticisms as only Coward could dream
up. It is inevitable that they will wind up running off
together. In the next act, in a wildly art deco version
of Amanda's Paris apartment, they bicker and make up, dance and
sing, throw things, and thrust and parry verbally and physically
until (inevitably) the wronged husband and wife show up.
"Heightened" but not "artificial"
is the best way to describe this work as well as the best of the
Coward comedies, like "Blithe Spirit," "Design
for Living," and "Present Laughter." To achieve
the right effect the actors must exercise perfect timing,
and Juliet Stevenson as Amanda and Anton Lesser as
Elyot are exactly right, not only in timing but appearance
-- tux and evening gowns, of course -- stance (a slight world-weary
slouch) and delivery of the punch lines, which come thick and
fast. Yet it is sometimes forgotten that under the
glossy surface, Coward could mock a serious subject, like death,
an attitude especially indicative of the period approaching
and during World War II . Here is some dialogue from "Private
Amanda: What happens if one
of us dies? Does the one that's left still laugh?
Yes, yes, with all his might.
Amanda: That's serious enough,
No, no it isn't. Death's very laughable, such a cunning
little mystery. All done with mirrors.
Amanda: Darling, I
believe you're talking nonsense.
So is everyone else in the long run. Let's be superficial
and pity the poor philosophers. Let's blow trumpets and
squeakers and enjoy the party as much as we
It is interesting to note that by the time
Coward died, in 1973, his plays were considered old hat and seldom
performed. The drawing-room comedy made way for the kitchen-sink
drama, in plays like John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger,"
also currently in repertory at the Royal National Theater.
The action of "Anger" takes place in a dowdy, disheveled
studio apartment, with Jimmy Porter haranguing his wife,
who stands in her slip at an ironing-board. Nowadays the
"angry young man" drama of the sixties seems old-fashioned,
while Coward's evocations of days gone by, especially when well
done, are a delight to watch.