There is no question that Noël Coward is a giant figure in twentieth-century theatre. In writing this short review, I make no claim to be either thorough or balanced, or to mention more than a fraction of the literally dozens of plays, musicals, and film scripts that he penned from 1918 to the late 1960s. His prolificacy encompassed a range of styles and genres: epic, intimate drama, sentimental romance, satire, and nearly-slapstick farce. For my part, I like him best when he is funniest, which is very funny indeed; but the sheer variety can be disconcerting, since the qualities that stand out in one play and make it attractive might be completely inverted in the next. Throughout this variety runs a commitment to skewering the conventional hypocrisy of society, combined with a virtuosic command of the theatre medium.
Working as an actor and director as well as a writer, Coward knew how to use the whole breadth of technical possibilities that the theatre offers. Some plays, like Still Life (1936), don’t require a single set change, showing the joys and griefs of human experience as they unfold within a railway station café. Others can best be described as extravaganzas. The ambitious Cavalcade, which was considered a celebration of patriotism when first produced in 1931 but over time seems increasingly like an indictment of it, required specially built electric installations, hydraulic lifts, and dozens of performers for both speaking and chorus roles. Between these two extremes, the technical effects in the ghost story Blithe Spirit (1941) are as much fun for amateur and professional companies today as they were more than eighty years ago.
Since I live in a city with few live theatre options, most of the plays that I see are recordings or even film adaptations, but Coward —perhaps even more than other playwrights— is worth trying to see on stage. Something about a screen seems to implicitly promise realism whereas, in Coward’s comedies in particular, the outrageous behaviour of his characters calls for the self-aware artificiality of theatre. Furthermore, his humour is the kind that depends on really skilled timing and delivery; the same line, handled badly, can go from screamingly funny to merely arch. This degree of difficulty is unsurprising when you consider that many of Coward’s roles were written specifically for some of the great acting talents of his time—including, as often as not, himself.
Coward possessed a deep well of inventiveness that allowed him to conceive more than fifty plays and make each one feel new. A familiar device that crops up to frequently humorous effect is a kind of romantic musical chairs, in which various ill-matched couples are shaken up into different configurations. In the rather sweet and sentimental Quadrille (1952), for example, a couple leave their spouses and run away together to the south of France. While their adulterous relationship is soon on the rocks, it is the abandoned husband and wife who, coming in search of them, end by falling in love with each other. The device becomes pure comedy in Hay Fever (1924), in which members of an eccentric family each invite the current object of their affections to a weekend in the country. Every single character proves unfaithful, albeit never going farther than some light kissing and flirtation. But these missteps give an opportunity to the mother, a frustrated former actress, to lurk around the house, catching one illicit couple after another and reacting in the most dramatic way possible. In a hilarious sequence, she resolves to confess a non-existent love affair to her husband, renounces her actual lover so that he can supposedly marry her daughter, and bestows her blessing upon her husband and a confused woman whom he has only ever kissed once. The guests, frightened and bewildered, finally band together to escape this madhouse, and sneak away while the family quarrels obliviously over breakfast.
Amorous mix-ups are the bread-and-butter of romantic comedy. They carry with them an expectation that such re-shuffling will yield pairings that are more appropriate, whether in temperament or respective ages. Once balance is restored, the lovers will be at rest in their Happily Ever After. But Coward’s characters don’t always—or even often—arrive at this idyllic state. The evidence of play after play leads to the conclusion that Coward regards all couples as inherently unstable. A late marriage is no happier than an early marriage in Blithe Spirit, in which a ghost takes out her jealous spite on her husband’s second wife, producing lots of opportunities for humorous misunderstandings. At the end of the play, as their husband flees a house now haunted by both deceased women, he makes a speech declaring that they were equally intolerable to him. “I was reasonably faithful to you, Ruth, but I doubt if it would have lasted much longer... Now I’m free, and I’m enjoying it immensely!” The curtain falls on this comedic high note, a rather grim manifesto for marriage.
The futility of seeking after romantic bliss appears in a somewhat more serious vein in Design for Living (1933), with its three-part structure. Gilda, Leo, and Otto, whose friendship was cemented when they were impoverished young artists in Paris, spend the rest of their lives going through every possible romantic permutation between them—Gilda with Leo, Gilda with Otto, and (sub-textually, at least) Otto with Leo. Gradually, they realise that none of these combinations will bring them lasting happiness. Coward, writing an introduction to the play, describes them as “like moths in a pool of light, unable to tolerate the lonely outer darkness, and equally unable to share the light without colliding constantly and bruising one another’s wings.” Whether your find their efforts sympathetic or exasperating might depend on whether you’ve ever lived through this kind of co-dependent relationship—and whether you look back on it with warmth or regret.
Private Lives (1930), possibly Coward’s best-known play with many major revivals since its original production, is also one of the most difficult to classify. It seems to hover uneasily between the unserious comedies and the provocative psychology of his earliest hit, The Vortex (1924). A divorced couple, Elyot and Amanda, reconnect while both of them are on their honeymoons with new spouses (which casts an amusing sidelight on the smallness of upper-class society). Their passion for each other rekindles and they immediately run off together, but the violent quarrels that ruined their marriage are not slow to resurface. The play has a delightfully ambiguous ending that hints at the same kind of symmetrical exchange of partners as that of the gentler Quadrille. If, as Elyot and Amanda claim, quarrelling is the mark of a passionate love, what does it mean that their respective spouses Sibyl and Victor have been dragged off their moral high ground and begin to snipe viciously at each other as the curtain closes? Should we expect this acrimony to blossom into affection?
This panoply of relationships doomed before they begin raises a question. Does a happy partnership exist in Coward’s world, and if so, what does it look like? Coward, who from the 1940s onward was in a long and apparently stable relationship with another man, might be expected to cast a jaded eye on heterosexual couples, in particular the conventionally married. However, censorship (and his own diffidence about his sexuality) meant that homosexual relationships are only ever hinted at in his work. I think that the closest thing to a happy, durable relationship might be Garry and his wife Liz in Present Laughter (1942). Though they are separated, Liz remains involved in Garry’s life, joining forces with his female secretary to protect her hapless husband from an ill-intentioned seductress who threatens to break up their social circle. Despite some verbal skirmishes between husband and wife, their relationship stays warm, an alliance in the face of life’s dangers rather than a romantic and physical attraction. For such a partnership, clear-eyed knowledge of the other person is indispensable. This pairing contrasts with the opening scene of Private Lives, in which it quickly becomes obvious that Amanda and Elyot’s new spouses do not know some basic facts about them.
Present Laughter contains not only the happiest marriage, but also one of the most touching scenes in all of Coward’s work, in which Garry’s household staff are leaving for the night. One by one he tries to keep his secretary, his driver, and his maid in conversation, becoming nearly frantic as he asks them questions about their personal lives and interests and growing dejected as, one by one, they go out the door, leaving him alone in his house. If Coward was cynical about the path of romantic love, he understood all too well how humans suffer without connection.
While it may not be what we’re trained to want, the idea that happy endings —if they exist— don’t depend on finding the perfect person to spend them with is a bracing one. There may not be the safety of settled bliss awaiting Coward’s lovers, but there is always a lot to learn about human nature, and a lot to laugh at and enjoy, along the way.--Mary Thaler