If, for some inexcusable reason, you’ve never seen Private Lives , go immediately to jail; do not pass go. But you’ll have a treat in store with the latest Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s 1930 comic masterpiece. If, like most of us, you’ve seen Private Lives three or four times before-including the unforgettable Joan Collins version-do not despair. You’ll find that the new production and its cast have triumphed over historic adversity.
Apart from the previous star vehicles and hack productions, the problem with staging Noël Coward is Noël Coward. The famously clipped, stiff-upper-lip style of “The Master,” along with his staccato delivery and silk-dressing-gown chic, has made him the most badly impersonated public figure on and off the English stage. There’s even a scratchy recording of him with Gertrude Lawrence-they were the stars of the original Privates Lives production-doing their racy, bantering stuff .
The achievement of the new production’s British stars, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, is that they’ve jettisoned the dated legacy and the impersonations and actually made those forever battling lovers, Elyot and Amanda, intelligently real. They’re both giving supreme comic performances-the best I’ve seen in Private Lives , or most other places recently.
Be warned, though: This is not the erotic experience the Times critic would have you believe. “The erotic bloom is restored to one of the funniest comedies of the twentieth century,” The Times announced, having pointed out that the subject of Private Lives is really sex.
You’ll appreciate how tactful I’m trying to be. I’m not even mentioning Ben Brantley by name. But if you visit Private Lives for eroticism, you’re going to end up in the wrong place. Noël Coward is about as erotic as Fred Astaire. Stylishness is another matter. The theme of Private Lives isn’t anything so disgusting as sex. Love, the impossibility of love, the frightful, fatiguing, infatuated strain of love, the hey-ho, if love were all of love, is Coward’s gold-embossed calling card. What’s that “nasty, insistent little tune” that Elyot complains about to Amanda and will later sing with her? It’s Coward’s own bitter-sweet “Some Day I’ll Find You,” of course.
Some day 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.
Slim erotic pickings there …. The sentimental theme song of Private Lives represents Elyot and Amanda’s sweet romantic yearning. The reality of the eternally warring lovers is that they’re doomed to be incapable of living without each other. (“I’ll leave you never / Love you forever,” the lyric goes on.) But what do they really want? They want what Noël Coward wanted, in his own inscrutable fashion.
Coward’s 1930′s keynote address in the play is Elyot’s own unapologetic credo: “Let’s be superficial and blow trumpets and squeakers, and enjoy the party as much as we can …. ” His message is a defense of deft flippancy in the teeth of disapproving bourgeois morality. It’s the same escapist message conveyed by the bohemian modernists and closet gays of Coward’s Design for Living . “Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths,” Elyot adds for good measure. “Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light.”
Coward’s self-defined talent to amuse could make anything even remotely serious seem boring. He loads the dice against the opposition from the start (and gets away with it). The opening balcony scene of Private Lives is the best balcony scene since Romeo and Juliet , only wittier. Elyot and Amanda, divorced for five years, meet on adjoining balconies of their Deauville hotel where they’re honeymooning with their new spouses, tweedy Victor and Sibyl (as in “Don’t quibble, Sibyl”). Victor and Sibyl are conventional middle-class clods-no match for a good dose of smart triviality.
Why the effortlessly bored Elyot married bossy Sibyl (played by Emma Fielding in supercomic form), or why the free-spirited Amanda married humorless Victor (the first-rate Adam Godley), is a death wish in search of normality. By Act II, Elyot and Amanda have jilted their spouses and fled to Paris. I’ve always reluctantly found the second half of Private Lives a bit of a self-pleading romp after the dazzling perfection of the first. Everyone knows at least a line or two from Act I. “Very big, China.” “And Japan?” “Very small.” But how many of us can recite anything from Act II-except, perhaps, for Elyot’s “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.”
Howard Davies’ otherwise winning production falters by slowing up the second half. Coward’s wit is lean and must crackle along. Best not to linger over its artifice. But the director has over-choreographed the knockabout comedy of the closing fight scene, and he’s managed to turn “Someday I’ll Find You” into a duet and near dirge. He’s after the sacred subtext.
Oh, that old thing. The subtext! The brittle, polished surfaces of Coward, like Wilde’s elegant wit, is used to camouflage authentic emotion. As a gay man, Noël Coward had good reason to be circumspect in an age when homosexuality was still a crime. Coded evasion was a tactful, necessary style. But reticence has always been a deeply ingrained English characteristic. The national temperament is one of restraint. We often must deduce what the traditionally reserved Englishman feels by what he leaves unsaid. There are private lives (and public faces). Appearances are to be maintained.
But is there any mystery left by now in Coward’s subtext? Hasn’t it already been strip-mined for what isn’t there? For myself, Private Lives ‘ appeal is its flippancy. Rumors that there’s much underneath the underneath have been greatly exaggerated. To be sure, Coward is masking solitude and need, but it’s a transparent mask. What do we most remember after seeing Private Lives if not the fun we had?
I’ve written before about being lucky enough to have met Noël Coward when I was just starting out and he was, as it were, finishing up. At 70, Coward was approaching the end of his life. I visited him at his home in Switzerland and interviewed him over two mornings and lunch. “Do stop racking your brains, dear boy, and eat up your lunch,” he advised me, looking amused. This is the thing: Apart from the fact that he really was Noël Coward down to his silk dressing gown, apart from him being gloriously funny (and happily enjoying his own jokes), he deflected all seriousness like an unwelcome intruder.
He was like his plays. When I mentioned Samuel Beckett’s pessimism to him, he replied with unblinking cool, “He must have read too many of his own plays. It gets him down, I expect.” I asked him what the year 1930 meant to him. ” Private Lives , of course.” And 1939? ” Present Laughter ,” he replied, somewhat overlooking the significance of World War II.
Well, the Master wasn’t about to tell his innermost secrets to me. I asked in all innocence how much of his work didn’t we know about. He paused for the only time during our meeting: “My dear boy …. ” But then, Coward revealed little about himself to anyone.
Is it possible that beneath his glittering, urbane exterior there was a glittering, urbane interior? Naturally, it’s said that Mr. Rickman and Ms. Duncan have gone for the “unexplored” subtext of Private Lives . From my point of view, these leading actors-who play so beautifully together-have made Coward’s vintage comedy grow up. Mr. Rickman, with his wary, hooded eyes, conveys Elyot’s droll boredom in a masterly way; it’s as if he’s on the verge of killing anything mundane, including poor Sibyl. He’s correctly restrained with what Elyot calls “the big, romantic stuff,” and is pleasingly, slyly arrogant whenever possible. He leaves us in no doubt that Elyot is smarter than anyone for miles. As Coward’s alter ego, it’s the least Elyot can do.
Ms. Duncan’s Amanda is another of her fine performances, suggesting a brassier sense of comedy than you might expect. Gertrude Lawrence, the original Amanda, was adored by Coward for her vulgarity. (Known as “Gert,” no Gert was ever pert.) Ms. Duncan’s faintly South London accent hovers on being common in exactly the right low-comedy way. She glides over Coward’s archness. “You mustn’t be serious, my dear one, it’s just what they want,” goes Elyot’s advice on the code of appearances. The beautiful Ms. Duncan suggests danger and feckless need at a glance. Her Amanda is trouble, all right, and a joy.