Written for a production of Private Lives, directed by the inimitable and echt posh Maria Aitken. – DL
At first glance, Private Lives seems like the thinnest of excuses for a play. Amanda and Elyot (originally played by Coward and his muse Gertrude Lawrence) divorced five years ago. They meet again on the balcony of a hotel in the south of France while honeymooning with their respective (frighteningly attractive, and frighteningly dull) new spouses. Off of this absurd contrivance, the plot, or what little there is of it, is off and running.
Coward supplies no given circumstances for this comedy of remarriage: neither Amanda nor Elyot seem to hold a job, nor do they seem to have family members, or interests outside each other and themselves. Their dialogue is peppered with references to places they have traveled, civilized things they have enjoyed, but the play contains no references to a political or social realm external to itself. Amanda and Elyot (and by extension the play’s dramaturgy) are supinely worldly, but they are not of this world. If the play seems thrown together, that’s because it was. Coward wrote the play over less than two weeks in 1929, “sweating gloomily” while holed up with the fever in Shanghai’s Cathay Hotel, accompanied by nothing but a pair of silk pyjamas, 27 pieces of luggage and a gramophone. Taken all together, one might be tempted to agree with John Lahr of The New Yorker, who wrote of the play: “It is minimal as an art deco curve, it matches its content; a plotless play for purposeless people.”
And yet, in nearly the same breath, Lahr also notes that Private Lives is the “high-water mark” of “comedies of bad manners,” a “high-camp masterpiece” in which Coward undermines nearly every one of the prevailing social mores of his day. Amanda and Elyot, Lahr writes, “have inherited a world where romance is a put-on, honor a masquerade, morality a thing of the past, and the future unknown.” In other words, Private Lives may be a frivolous play, but it is seriously frivolous, much like The Importance of Being Earnest, which Oscar Wilde subtitleda “trivial comedy for serious people.”
Coward’s radical design becomes fully apparent in his daring and completely unpredictable second act, a brilliant little two-hander which, like the “Don Juan in Hell” interlude in Shaw’s Man and Superman, or the dialogue between Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, could easily stand on its own as an absurdist one-act play. Elevating plotlessness to the status of high art, Coward locks Amanda and Elyot together in a Parisian flat, forcing them to ping his mercurial, delightful dialogue off each other. The scene fills quickly with brilliant, unexpected curlicues on every subject from the grammatically correct term for a plural herd of bison (“You might say a covey of bisons, or even a school of bisons”) to crossing the Sahara on a camel (“Frequently. My grandmother had a lovely seat”) – and that’s just in the first five minutes. Perhaps most delightfully, the nonsensical refrain of Amanda and Elyot’s safe word – “Sollocks!” – joins the immortal comedy line-up of Bunburyisms, Malapropisms and Dogberryisms.
Despite, or perhaps because of this determined silliness, the tone of the act pivots from giddy frivolity to something sharper, sadder and ultimately shocking. A scene which began in the haze of love curdles quickly into the murk of reality. Amanda and Elyot are witty. They are cozy. They are also depressed. They feel horrible about what they’ve done, and who they are, and what it all means. They admit to each other that they don’t believe in God, or the Devil; they don’t believe in anything, really. “It seems so silly to go on, and on, and on with a thing,” Amanda says, sounding very much like a character from Sartre or Beckett. Elyot’s response, however, is pure Coward: “You can hardly call three liqueur glasses in a whole evening going on, and on, and on.” The carousel of dialogue – by turns both earnest and trivial – continues until the two shut each other up the only way they can. (It’s not what you think.)
Coward’s ability to make his dialogue appear tossed off effortlessly – an extension of the dashing, seemingly improvisatory way in which he lived his life – has had the unfortunate effect of minimizing his mastery, as well as his influence. As Barry Day has noted, one of Coward’s most surprising theatrical heirs is Harold Pinter, who was one of the first to articulate a deeper truth about Coward’s art. Having seen a production of Private Lives, Pinter realized that, “a character could stand on a stage and say one thing and the audience would know he actually meant something else.” The scene Pinter was referring to is the famous balcony scene in Act 1. As Amanda and Elyot discuss the flatness of Norfolk; the relative size of China and Japan; the advisability of seeing the Taj Mahal by moonlight, what they are really saying is: “I still love you. Do you still love me?”
Coward was, in the end, not just a master of dialogue, of what is said, but also of what is left unsaid. For all his apparent kinship with Wildean and Shakespearean high comedy, he is ultimately the father of an entirely new and entirely 20th century kind of play. It is a comedy less about plot and more about behavior, more devoted to the theatrical present tense than the fictive illusion, a comedy of silences and mental misdirections rather than witty sayings and concrete meanings. In the early 1960s, at the beginning of his theatrical renaissance, Coward wrote to Pinter: “I have just read The Homecoming twice through […] I love your choice of words, your resolute refusal to explain anything and the arrogant, but triumphant demands you make on the audience’s imagination.” He may as well have been talking about his own dramaturgy. After all, Coward invented the “Pinteresque” play. There is perhaps no better, more quintessential, more Cowardesque example than Private Lives.