The Coward’s Exposure of Private Life
Noel Coward and his dearest friend, Gertrude Lawrence, as Elyot and Amanda in a 1931 production of Private Lives.
Sir Noel Pierce Coward was born in Teddington, Middlesex, England on December 16, 1899. He suffered through a poor and frivolous education, but succeeded in his love of singing, dancing, and otherwise performing. He was performing in various talent competitions by the age of seven and made his London theatre debut at the ripe age of 12. Though a poor actor born to poor parents, Cowards charm and determination saw him swiftly climb the ladder of social prominence. His acting career came to a rather sudden halt as he was drafted into service in 1918. After nine months of light service, he received an honorable medical discharge, but found returning to his former acting glory to be incredibly difficult. After repeated rejections, Coward began focusing his creative capacities into playwriting and composing. In 1920, I’ll Leave it to You, was the first of Coward’s plays to be produced on the West End. Though it did receive Soon after its short run, Coward packed his bag and set sail for the whirlwind theatre world of New York City. Later in his life Coward grew to become one of the most prominent drama and literary figures of the 20th Century as an actor, songwriter, and namely playwright and was knighted in 1970 for his artistic contributions.
Coward soon became known for his revolutionary writings which exposed the truth behind the fantasies of the perfection of the upper classes. Many of his works have been derived from or inspired by the antics of his many relations with both men and women, platonic and romantic. Coward wasn’t afraid to dabble in the controversial. Many of his plays revolutionized the theatrical approach to homosexuality and addressed drug abuse and corruption among the upper classes. The Vortex (1924), presented a searing look at sexual vanity and drug abuse among the upper classes. In it, a middle-aged socialite with a foolish penchant for extramarital affairs with younger men clashes with her cocaine-snorting son. On opening night, the audience was both shocked and fascinated by The Vortex. The combination of fiery acting and scandalous subject matter made The Vortex the talk of London. Other plays had depicted drug abuse, but not among the rich. Demand was such that the production soon moved to a larger West End theater for an extended run, allowing Coward to finally receive his long-awaited ‘Big Break’.
Coward found his greatest success in his legendary “Three Day Wonder”, a title alluding to the time it took him to complete the first draft of his greatest sensation, Private Lives: An Intimate Comedy. Coward’s most profound sample of his art generated a stylized limbo without any consequences for the players. It reflected the restless spirit of Coward’s era. Emerging from a devastating World War and hanging on the balance of an unknown future as the world crept up to the edge of the ‘Roaring Twenties’, Private Lives emulated the careful fear displayed by those who lived in the space between Word War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. A devil-may-care façade was placed upon the attitudes of a people who were doing their absolute best to look forward to a hopeful future riddled with rumors of economic ruin and another mass war. Coward’s plays were masterfully constructed to appear superficial, but actually relay pertinent, deep, and human emotions derived from varying social issues and situations.
There is a beautifully subtle disconnect between what his protagonists say, and what they might really mean. His principal characters, Amanda and Elyot, are epitome of social superiority. They are the fashionables, the sleek, the sexy, the powerful, the individual that everyone wishes they could emulate. But does all this make them happy? Coward asks the question, but declines to answer. If his characters are to be defined by their style, their facades are brutally exposed by that most quixotic and dangerous of all human failings: requited, passionate, unable-to-leave-one-another-alone love. Coward’s lovers are never happy together, never happy apart. They shift and change with the fluidity of the times. They live in between two terrible wars, book-ended by economic collapse, disaster, totalitarian politics, and global threats. There is little wonder as to why they live for the day, but what happens when the cigarettes, tailored clothing, music, and champagne disappear? There’s a sparseness, even a pessimism to their predicament – one much more reminiscent of contemporary drama. Looking at them through a 21st- century lens, we undoubtedly recognize their fate.
For all his comic brilliance, Coward may have been one of the greatest tragedians of his time. His dark amusements and silly antics transform the underlying fear and hopelessness, making audiences laugh so much that they forget to cry in their pathetic identification. Many of his characters are portrayed, and not the least by themselves, as flighty, social creatures of a cynical age, their passions are intense, heartfelt, and ostentatious. When the bedroom doors close, they suffer, like the rest of us. Or rather, they suffer more, at the hands of their creator. In the second installment of his autobiography, Future Indefinite, Coward states, “There was, as in all celebrations of victory, an inevitable undertow of sadness. Parades generate only a superficial gaiety, because we all know that they cannot last, and although this was the end of the war it was far from the end of the world’s troubles. Japan was still unconquered and even when she was vanquished there was still the future to be fought.”
The ‘Roaring Twenties’ was an era of healing and hope, but also a period of mistrust and fear. Coward’s masterful hand was able to combine these qualities into a masterpiece that further inspired hope for the future while reminding us of the past. It is little wonder that he eventually gained the nickname of “The Master” for all this talent, success, truth, and humanity. During Coward’s 70th birthday celebration, Lord Louis Mountbatten said, “There are probably greater painters than Noel, greater novelists than Noel, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars. If there are, they are fourteen different people. Only one man combined all fourteen different labels – The Master.”