After thoroughly enjoying the first performance of Noel Coward’s Private Lives in 1930, critic Ivor Brown predicted, “within a few years’ the student of drama will be sitting in complete bewilderment before the text of Private Lives, wondering what on earth these fellows in 1930 saw in so flimsy a trifle”.
It took more than twenty years and no wonderment was involved, but Private Lives has received a modern understanding in the twenty-first century.
Let me explain.
Mr. Coward famously said, “I believe that since my life began the most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse.” And as one of the world’s great comic writers, Mr. Coward, like all masters of laughter, knew that comedy was based on incongruity 1, things not matching with what is expected. Francis Hutcheson articulated that common knowledge as early as 1725 in Thoughts on Laughter: laughter is a response to the perception of incongruity.
Coward expert John Lahr 2 explains how incongruity works in Private Lives: ”Flippancy rules”, where one would expect seriousness.
What is flippancy exactly?
Flippancy arises from the desire to avoid anything serious by making a joke of everything, in order to amuse, to make laugh, not just oneself, but everyone in the room. Detached, hiding behind humor, the flippant person reveals neither one’s opinions, nor even one’s very self. Flippancy creates the aura of frivolousness.
Private Lives opens with two mismatched newlywed couples: Flippant Elyot Chase is married to serious Sybil, and flippant Amanda is married to serious Victor Prynne. As you can imagine, trouble arises when the serious mate cannot get the flippant mate to be serious. EVER.
A may say to B, “You are the worst person in the world”. Serious A would try to anger serious B with those derogatory words, the text flowing on a congruous subtext. On the other hand, Flippant A would try to make flippant B smile with a laudatory subtext. Incongruity would arise in the exchanges between flippant A and flippant B: negative text delivered with a positive subtext, result: laughter.
We discover that Elyot and Amanda have been married to each other. These unusual likes attracted one another, probably because no one else could stand flippancy as a way of life. The flippant birds of a feather flocked and nested, if not “happily ever after,” then “amusedly” for a while.
Then why did they ever divorce?
It seems that eventually one comes to want to know the identity of the person one has married, and that knowledge is impossible to learn if each mate insists on hiding behind humor. The recurring poignant love song, “Some Day I’ll Find You” sums up the hopelessness of Elyot and Amanda’s ultimately tragic love:
When one is lonely the days are long;
You seem so near
But never appear.
Each night I sing you a lover’s song;
Please try to hear,
My dear, my dear.
Someday I’ll find you,
Moonlight behind you,
True to the dream I am dreaming.
As I draw near you
You’ll smile a little smile;
For a little while
We shall stand
Hand in hand.
I’ll leave you never,
Love you for ever,
Twenty-first century directors have found new themes in Private Lives. In 2001 Howard Davies’ production, in London, revealed “the harshness and darkness” of Mr. Coward’s play. The 2010 revival of Private Lives at the Vaudeville Theatre in London directed by Richard Eyre continued the new century’s new interpretation. CinemaLive disseminated the new Coward by broadcasting the production worldwide the following year.
Soon theater companies throughout the world were supplying their subscribers with “Private Lives Resource Packs” 3 , encouraging the playgoers to consider Coward’s play alongside Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Strindberg’s Dance of Death. One packet included these words from Noel Coward Society member John Knowles: “People mistakenly believe that Coward’s plays are light-hearted drawing-room comedies – they couldn’t be more wrong. Most of his plays are about people drawn from all classes and backgrounds struggling with life and the frailty of the human condition.”
What characterizes the modern interpretation in performance?
Sybil and Victor remain the serious minded sincere representatives of “normalcy.” Amanda and Elyot lose their incongruous text/subtext lives as laughing flippancy gives way to mean-spirited sarcasm. Lahr noted that the traditional Private Lives presents “what in real life would be a tragedy” as “a comedy of emotional under-involvement;” the modern Private Lives highlights the play’s tragic tones.
The modern Private Lives featuring excellent directors and first rate actors has been very popular. Shaw Chicago’s Private Lives is directed by the skillful Barbara Zahora and features the stellar cast we have come to expect from this company: Mary Michell as Amanda, Michael Lasswell as Elyot (Both just as good as any Amanda or Elyot broadcast by Digital Theatre), Doug MacKechnie (no one can play matinee idol pomp better) as Victor, Leslie Ann Handelman, (the delightful ingénue once again) as Sybil, and Lydia Berger Gray, creating a symphony of a character with Louise.
If you like your Coward modern, Shaw Chicago is the place for you.
1 Kuritz, Paul. Fundamental Acting. Part 3. New York: Applause Theatre Books, 1998.
2 Lahr, John. Coward the Playwright.London. Methuen, 1982.