A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Private Lives

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 Lives:"

Amanda:  What happens if one of us dies?  Does the one that's left still laugh?

Elyot:       Yes, yes, with all his might.

Amanda:  That's serious enough, isn't it?

 Elyot:       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.

 Elyot:       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 can.                  

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.