Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Noël Coward’s Private Lives

These are the programme notes for my production of Private Lives, for Plosive Productions at the Gladstone Theatre in Ottawa, play September-October 2013.

David Whiteley and Alix Sideris in a publicity shot for Private Lives. Photo by Andrew Alexander.

“I think that very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives.”

The critic John Lahr once declared Noël Coward’s Private Lives to be the “high-water mark” of “comedies of bad manners.” If we remove the qualification “bad” from Lahr’s memorable description, we will find that Coward’s play is joined by a couple of others, most notably Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Should that observation encourage us to look for a sensibility shared by two writers who created widely celebrated, socially astute personas within a society that rejected their sexuality, we may certainly find evidence of it in the plays. It is undoubtedly true that any society that criminalizes homosexuality must inevitably turn every gay person into a performer of some sort; a select few will become consummate performers whose personas define the style of their eras.

Rather than resting with that one insight, however, we do well to consider some of the other sources of the disengagement Coward felt ⎯ and in turn bestowed upon his characters. As suave as he seemed as a public person, Coward had known humiliating poverty before he finally knew great wealth, and this, along with his status as a “bohemian” artist and agnostic, made him highly conscious of his lack of ease amongst complacent materialist philistines and prudish Pharisees. Many if not most of his comedies are founded on such a conflict: “artistic” types discovering that they are not merely incompatible with, but weirdly incomprehensible to those who complacently identify with social conventionality.

At its darkest, Coward’s indictment of such complacency was expressed in Post Mortem, the work that is chronologically closest to Private Lives and which shows the ghost of a man killed during the Great War returning to find that in the 1930s, people apparently have learned nothing whatever from that debacle: complacency remains the greatest threat to vitality and humanity. At its lightest, of course, we have Private Lives itself, in which glib, impatient irony is the method of deflecting an awareness that might otherwise lead to bleak nihilism. Amanda and Elyot are very witty; but implicitly, “being in on” the joke means one also has to “be in on” something of the raging discontent that seethes beneath the surface of this bad-mannered comedy.

In some respects, it seems impossible to set Private Lives at any time but when Coward conceived it: between the two World Wars. And yet there is very little in the play that obstinately refers to a specific time and place. Amanda’s Paris apartment is, in some ways, out of time: a forest of Arden, an Illyria, an Athenian forest, in which nature and enchantment reveal true selves in suspended time until the clock moves on and the public world must be confronted again. And it is with that in mind that I have taken a few liberties concerning the dates of some songs I have used. It is, from that outlook, simply a dull error of chronology that Rodgers and Hart did not write Elyot and Amanda’s “theme song” ---"Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," from Pal Joey (1940)--- in time for the first production of Noël Coward’s play.

Raging discontent haunts idyllic Paris. Photo by Craig Walker.