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Bitter-Sweet

Private Lives

a play by Noël Coward, directed by Howard Davies
at the Richard Rodgers Theater, New York, opened April 28, 2002

Long Island Sound

a play by Noël Coward, directed by Scott Alan Evans
at the Actors Company Theater, New York, opened May 13, 2002

1.

A talent to amuse”or “just a talent to amuse”? Even before Noël Coward’s death in 1973, the former had become the standard celebratory summation of his contribution to popular culture during a half-century as a playwright, actor, songwriter, diarist, composer, autobiographer, novelist, and cabaret entertainer. A Talent to Amuse is the title of Sheridan Morley’s admiring but judicious 1969 biography of Sir Noël; A TALENT TO AMUSE is the epigraph that adorns the Westminster Abbey memorial stone dedicated to him (and located—appropriately, you can’t help thinking, for this master of light verse—not in, but just adjacent to, the Poet’s Corner).

But “a talent to amuse” is not what Coward actually wrote. Or at least, not all of what he wrote. The phrase that has come to summarize Coward was, in fact, snipped from its context in a song called “If Love Were All” that Coward composed for his 1929 “oper-ette” Bitter-Sweet. It’s sung by a lovelorn café chanteuse after she’s been reunited with a former lover who has since remarried. Here is the entire verse:

Although when shadows fall
I think if only—
Somebody splendid really needed me,
Someone affectionate and dear,
Cares would be ended if I knew that he
Wanted to have me near.
But I believe that since my life began
The most I’ve had is just
A talent to amuse.

In its proper context, then, “a talent to amuse” is not so much a self-celebration as it is something more wistful and self-ironic, and not a little sad. A talent, yes, but a talent for something relatively minor: just a talent to amuse. A gift, yes, but one with limited power: the most she can offer.

The elision of that “just” over the years, the gradual loss of the phrase’s original, piquant context, can be seen as a symbol of our increasing failure to understand just what “amusement” meant for the author of those words. Noël Coward’s distinctive sensibility, as both writer and performer, was, in fact, a particularly complex one. Shaped in his Edwardian boyhood but ripened in his Jazz Age youth, it owed much to the revues of the late Teens and early Twenties, like those of his early producer André Charlot, with their swift shifts in mood and tone. It’s a sensibility that’s poised, we might say, on the fulcrum between “a talent to amuse” and “just a talent to amuse”—between self-assertion and self-deprecation, merriment and melancholy, sweet and bitter. This curious hybrid is difficult to sustain in the present era of popular entertainment, with its effortfully ironic tone, its brittle carapace of postmodern knowingness, and its omnipresent violence and explicitness. To us, Coward’s light touch, like the “light” genres at which he excelled—light comedy, light verse, the latter in particular nearly extinct today, both aiming above all to provide pleasure, gaiety, amusement—is bound to come off as trivial, un-hip.

As a result, we tend to get Coward wrong: we find the elements that appeal to us, and forget the rest. Coward tends to be played as camp these days; the brittleness of his dialogue appeals to our own desire to appear knowingly world-weary. But emphasizing the cold glitter leaves out the delicate feelings—the sentimentality that lurks in the background of the comic plays, and explodes into the foreground in the 1945 film Brief Encounter, based on one of his 1935 Tonight at Eight-thirty sketches, or his patriotic paean In Which We Serve (1942).

Coward’s estimation of his own talent to amuse was itself characterized by a mix of celebration and deprecation. On the one hand, he had the healthy self-regard of talented people who have achieved success through tremendous hard work. (“I am bursting with pride, which is why I have absolutely no vanity.”) Born just before Christmas 1899—hence the given name—to a lower-middle-class Teddington piano salesman and his strong- willed wife, he first stepped on a stage at the age of ten, and throughout his life he was proud to have been in the business of giving pleasure. When he described his five canonical comic masterpieces—Hay Fever (1924), Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1932), Present Laughter (1939), and Blithe Spirit (1941)—as being “important,” it was because they gave “a vast number of people a great deal of pleasure.”

He himself took unabashed pleasure in the success that his ability to amuse had brought him already at a very tender age. He composed that bittersweet lyric for Bitter-Sweet when he wasn’t quite thirty; by then, he’d been an international celebrity for five years, having rocketed to stardom in 1923, at the age of twenty-four, with his sensational cocaine-addiction melodrama The Vortex, which was followed the next year by a solid comic hit in Hay Fever. “The world has treated me very well—but then, I haven’t treated it so badly either.”

Yet Coward’s satisfaction in what he did so abundantly well (and so abundantly: sixty published plays, three hundred published songs, a multivolume autobiography, dozens of short stories, a novel) was balanced by a healthy lack of illusions about the nature of his gift. “I don’t write plays with the idea of giving some great thought to the world,” he wrote on the eve of his sixtieth birthday, “and that isn’t just coy modesty…. If I wanted to write a play with a message, God forbid, it would undoubtedly be a comedy.” “God forbid” reminds you of Coward’s distrust of weighty messages, his fervent belief that amusement could have nuance and substance; and it explains why, even after the rise of John Osborne and the kitchen-sink drama, he went on insisting, with perhaps pardonable shrillness, that the theater must above all amuse, must be what it surely seemed to him in his Edwardian boyhood, “a house of strange enchantment, a temple of dreams.” “Nowadays,” he wrote in his late fifties,

a well constructed play is despised and a light comedy whose only purpose is to amuse is dismissed as “trivial” and “without significance.” Since when has laughter been so insignificant? No merriment apparently must scratch the set, grim patina of these dire times. We must all just sit and wait for death, or hurry it on, according to how we feel. To my mind, one of the most efficacious ways of hurrying it on is to sit in a theatre watching a verbose, humourless, ill-constructed play, acted with turgid intensity, which has received rave notices and is closing on Saturday.

His characterization of what makes a play bad reminds us of what makes his own best work so good: verbal precision and economy (he declared himself “one of the few remaining guardians of the English language”), merriment and humor, elegance of construction, all of them showcased by an acting style that is gossamer, playful, blithe—a technique that easily reflects the many colors that shimmer across the surfaces of his lines. (“The befeathered sheen of a pheasant’s neck” is how Kenneth Tynan described Coward’s dialogue.) A technique, that is to say, that understands that his plays consist of nothing but surfaces—and that takes their superficiality with, of course, the utmost seriousness.

The difficulty of getting just right Coward’s many complexities—the paradoxical ways in which wistfulness can be entwined with glitter, and meaning can exist in surfaces—is all too evident in two new productions. One of them is easy enough to dismiss, since Coward himself dismissed it: the world première of Long Island Sound, a 1947 play whose value even as a curio is, however, marred by a vulgar, tasteless staging. The other is a shiny new production of Private Lives. The fact that the latter manages to make this finest of Coward’s comedies seem verbose, humorless, and ill-constructed—to say nothing of the fact that it has received rave notices on both sides of the Atlantic—indicates how far from Coward we now are, and how fragile his legacy is.

2.

Fragile” is a very good way to describe Private Lives. Its plot is as thin as any that Coward concocted—the most tenuous of structures on which to hang his mousseline wit. In the first act, Elyot Chase, an elegant young man of “about thirty, quite slim and pleasant-looking,” is honeymooning at a luxe hotel in France with his second wife, Sybil, a pretty blonde of twenty-three. The adjoining suite, of course, turns out to be occupied by Elyot’s firecracker of a first wife, Amanda, who’s honeymooning with her new husband, Victor Prynne. Storming onto the terrace after fights with their respective mates, Elyot and Amanda catch sight of each other; in the course of some verbal sparring realize they’re still mad about each other; and proceed to flee their nice if somewhat conventional new spouses.

The second act, set a few days later in Amanda’s Paris flat, suggests why Elyot and Amanda divorced in the first place: tart-tongued, volatile, inventive, restless, each is the other’s best audience—but who wants to live on stage? The third act, typical of Coward’s finales, is less a resolution than an escape: Victor and Sybil catch up with their wayward mates, growing to loathe each other into the bargain, and during a furious breakfast-time fracas Elyot and Amanda laughingly sneak off together as Victor and Sybil start hammering away at each other. How they will actually live together is of no concern.

Typically, Coward had few illusions about the weightiness of this work, which was written in four frantic days in Shanghai after a vision of his acting partner and beloved friend Gertrude Lawrence “in a white Molyneux dress on a terrace in the South of France” came to him as he readied himself for bed. (He’d promised to write a play for her while he was traveling in the Far East; leaving nothing to chance, Lawrence slipped a photograph of herself into the Cartier desk set that she’d given him as a going-away present.) In the first volume of his autobiography, Present Indicative, which he published at the tender age of thirty-seven, the playwright, with his usual blend of self-deprecation and self-celebration, characterized his creation as “a reasonably well-constructed duologue for two experienced performers…. As a complete play, it leaves a lot to be desired…. From the playwright’s point of view, [it] may or may not be considered interesting, but at any rate, from the point of view of technical acting, it is very interesting indeed.” And again, later: “a shrewd and witty comedy, well-constructed on the whole, but psychologically unstable; however, its entertainment value seemed obvious enough, and its acting opportunities for Gertie and me admirable….”

It’s significant that Coward always rates the work’s “entertainment value” and, particularly, its “acting opportunities” more highly than he does its structural or psychological coherence. The real hero of Coward’s best comedies is, after all, Coward himself; a lot, if not most, of his oeuvre was composed with himself in mind as the male lead. (You’d think that this would alert directors to the fact that an appreciation of Coward’s performance style is likely to be crucial to the success of his plays.) The repeated characterization of his plays as vehicles for interesting acting is one of the many things that distinguish Coward from Oscar Wilde, that other homosexual British master of crisp wit, to whom Coward is often, and for the most part inaccurately, compared. Wilde’s plays are the creations of a playwright; Coward’s are those of a performer. If the former’s work achieves a hermetic perfection of structure that Coward’s never does, it’s because Coward is ultimately more interested in the performance than in the play.

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