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January 30, 2006

The casual cruelties of upper class English life: Private Lives - Noel Coward

Posted by Kenneth Minogue

Noel Coward's Private Lives
directed by David Haig
Theatre Royal, Brighton
23rd - 28th January 2006

Theatre Royal, Glasgow
30th January - 4th February 2006

His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen
20th - 25th February 2006

New Victoria Theatre, Woking
27th February - 4th March 2006

Another production of Private Lives? We all like a soufflé once in a while, but this soufflé is threatening to become a steady diet. And Noel Coward himself certainly did not want to puff a piece he was reputed to have tossed off in four days. His own comment on it goes to the heart of the matter:

as a complete play it leaves a lot to be desired.
But there is no doubt that Private Lives is remarkably vital. How do we explain it?

The basic point is that it isn't a play at all. Rather, a series of brilliant comic sketches stitched together and yet oddly adding up to something like a moral point. In other words, the work lives in the British imagination the same way as the "Dead Parrot" sketch, or some of the turns from Beyond The Fringe. In 1930, divorce was shocking. Only the rich could afford it, and it signified both that immoral things had happened and that the participants were failures. Divorce went with disgrace. The idea of a "gay divorcee" was an amusing paradox.

Coward sailed into these dangerous waters with two advantages – his wit (or "talent to amuse") and the relentless sentimentality of both his music (with its "cheap potency") and his dialogue. He had mastered the art of combing a surface of small talk with a "subtext" of emotional involvement. Remarks like "very flat, Norfolk" are part of our culture because they reveal people trying to preserve their sang froid in spite of emotions bubbling below.

Elyot and Amanda are in any case so rich and remote from ordinary life as to belong in a fairy tale world. Amanda just happens to have a flat in Paris that just happens to be unoccupied at the moment, and even has a serviceable maid called Louise in situ. All this is marvellously different from everyday life in 1930, yet there is a curious moral implication to the play's sentimentality. It teaches that the hostility and quarrels of married life can be merely part, and even an amusing part, of marital affection – Romeo and Juliet meet Strindberg, as it were. To those trapped in marital desperation in 1930, this might well have been a consoling message.

Private Lives is the clearest possible exhibition of Coward's curious talents. As in most of his plays, the romance seems like a translation of homosexual life into heterosexual terms. Children are no more imaginable in the lives of Elyot and Amanda than they are in such other Coward relationships as those in Brief Encounter or Blithe Spirit. This allows him to create abstract characters that are merely satirical humours equipped with a local habitation and a name. It allows him to catch, among many other things, the casual cruelties of upper class English life, in which emotional pain must be transposed into acceptable surfaces. It is thus a very English view of life, written by a man who once blurted out on television that the English were:

the only people I ever really trusted.
It is this Englishness that probably saved him from hostile attention by both the Lord Chamberlain and his own audiences. The programme quotes T. S. Eliot as remarking:
I doubt that Mr Coward has ever spent one hour in the study of ethics.
No, indeed. He came straight out of the late Victorian vaudeville tradition that generated P. G. Wodehouse and Charlie Chaplin, and also left its mark on the Evelyn Waugh of Decline and Fall. Sailing close to the wind of respectability was one of the excitements of this tradition, an excitement we have quite lost.

What you get from a Noel Coward entertainment is style and sophistication. But what are these interesting abstractions? Style resulted from the fact that this middle class lad from Teddington had slipped effortlessly into the manners of the upper class. Noel was never "non-U". The sophistication lay in the fact that, life being a comedy to those who think, he found nearly everything "amusing". "Amusing" is his Homeric epithet. Others might agonise over moral problems, but Coward had learned the art of skating on thin ice.

When Elyot and Amanda ran off, ditching those they had just married, they suffered moral scruples – but not too much. Ethics in Coward belonged elsewhere; it was largely a matter of patriotism. Private Lives is witty sentimental froth, splendidly done in this production by Belinda Lang and Julian Wadham. For two hours, love redeems everything. But you'd better not ask what happened next day.

Kenneth Minogue is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, London School of Economics.

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I never thought of Coward as part of the music hall tradition or even particularly alongside Wodehouse, but of course Prof Minogue is right. What an entertaining piece!

Posted by: s masty at January 30, 2006 05:54 PM
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