Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1307
As a playwright, composer, lyricist, producer, director, author, and actor, Noël Coward spent his life entertaining the public. This he did with a flair, sophistication, and polish that are not readily found in twentieth century drama. He wrote farce, high comedy, domestic and patriotic melodramas, musical comedies, and revues. His...
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- Critical Essays
As a playwright, composer, lyricist, producer, director, author, and actor, Noël Coward spent his life entertaining the public. This he did with a flair, sophistication, and polish that are not readily found in twentieth century drama. He wrote farce, high comedy, domestic and patriotic melodramas, musical comedies, and revues. His plays were popular fare in England and the United States for years because Coward recognized that the “great public” for which he wrote his plays wanted, above all, to be entertained.
All of Coward’s plays fall into easily recognizable stylized patterns. Essentially, Coward wrote modern comedies of manners that are as reflective of twentieth century mores and sentiments as their Restoration forebears were of those in the seventeenth century. For the most part, his plays are set in drawing rooms and usually have a couple involved in a love relationship as the central characters. He draws heavily on his theatrical background and populates his plays with theatrical and artistic characters. These temperamental personages allow Coward to involve them easily in the constant bickering and verbal fencing that came to be the trademarks of a Coward play. Each of his characters vies to get the upper hand over the others. Arguments are central to his work, and much of his humor relies on sophisticated insults. Coward’s dialogue bitingly exposes hypocrites and the petty games played by the upper class; his plays parody Mayfair society mercilessly. Unfortunately, his plays involve little else. There is little motivation of character, less development of theme, and what thin remnant of plot remains is swept along in the incessant bantering of the characters. Robert Greacen, referring to Fumed Oak, remarked that “an observant foreigner might sit through the entire play . . . and simply hear people talking and believe that no action was taking place at all.” Such statements apply to most of Coward’s plays.
This criticism reveals both the strongest and the weakest aspects of Coward’s theater. He was capable of writing brilliant, naturalistic dialogue with an astonishing economy. In spite of this enormous talent for writing dialogue, however, little happens in his plays to advance the plot. Most of his plays remain structurally flawed, relying heavily on the use of deus ex machina and coincidence for plot resolutions.
Thematically, Coward’s comedies examine true love, adulterous affairs, and domestic upheavals. His more serious plays focus on a variety of topics, including drug addiction, infidelity, and patriotism. The few patriotic plays he attempted strongly support solid middle-class values and promote a stereotyped image of the stoical Englishman.
Though his works appear to have identifiable themes, they lack a thesis. Coward’s plays realistically depict modern characters in absorbing situations, but the characters are not as fully developed as the situations in which they find themselves. Their motivations remain obscure. Even in the serious plays, his position on his subject is never clearly revealed. Most of his serious dramas fail because he never brings the moment to a crisis, and so his plays end anticlimactically. According to Milton Levin, Coward’s plays “raise no questions, they provide few critical footholds, they simply ask to be praised for what they are, sparkling caprices.”
Generally, the success of Coward’s plays depended on the ability of the actors to carry his rapier-sharp dialogue. He freely admitted tailoring choice roles to his talents and those of his friends. Coward and Gertrude Lawrence in Private Lives, Coward and the Lunts in Design for Living, Coward with Beatrice Lillie in Blithe Spirit mark legendary moments in theatrical history that cannot be replicated. When criticizing drama, one must consider the text in production. It is this consideration that elevates the relatively weak scripts of Coward’s plays to modern classics.
Embodied in Coward is a theatrical trinity of actor, playwright, and producer. The inability to separate completely one from the other in studying his works contributes to the mystique that surrounds the man. Rarely are his works found in academic anthologies of the genre, but the imprint of his productions is still discernible in the theater today.
Coward was a highly developed product of the 1920’s and the 1930’s and of the social milieu he frequented, and, to a not inconsiderable extent, the current popularity of his work originates in the nostalgic hunger of contemporary audiences for an age more verbally sophisticated and carefree than their own. Nevertheless, at their best, Coward’s plays continue to sparkle with their author’s lively sense of wit, talent for dramatic dialogue and construction, and genius for the neat twist in dramatic action. These significant talents make Coward’s theater instructive as well as delightful.
Design for Living
Design for Living was the end result of a plan by Coward, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne to act in a play together, written specifically for them. They originally conceived of this idea in the early 1920’s, and the gestation period required for Coward actually to write and produce the play lasted eleven years. Design for Living scrutinizes a free-spirited and occasionally painful ménage à trois comprising Gilda, an interior decorator, Otto, a painter, and Leo, a playwright. The most striking quality of the play is its completely amoral stance on marriage, fidelity, friendship, and sexual relations. Pangs of conscience are fleeting in these characters as their relationships as friends and lovers become apparent to one another and to the audience.
It is the amorality of the characters, rather than a perceived immorality, that has provoked criticism of this play. Coward forms no conclusions and passes no judgment: The play ends with the three characters embracing and laughing wildly on a sofa, and the audience is provided no clue as to how they should judge these amorous individuals. They are asked to watch and accept without being given a resolution to the plot. Most of the criticism directed at the production resulted from a misunderstanding of the title on the part of the critics. Coward intended his title to be ironic. It was taken to be an admonition that the Bohemian lifestyle depicted onstage was not merely acceptable but was actually preferable to conventional ways as a “design for living.”
Design for Living was a vehicle for the formidable talents of Coward and the Lunts. The dialogue is quick and sharp as the three characters alternately pair off, argue, and reunite. The theme stressed most strongly in this play, and the one that offers its most redemptive qualities, is that of friendship. Gilda, Otto, and Leo value their mutual companionship, but their active libidos complicate their relationships. Design for Living was judged to be “unpleasant” by the critics, but it enjoyed a phenomenal success with audiences in England and the United States.
Private Lives, considered one of Coward’s best plays, “leaves a lot to be desired,” by the author’s own admission. The protagonists, Amanda and Elyot, are divorced and meet again while both are honeymooning with their new spouses. Their former affection for each other is rekindled, and they abandon their unsuspecting spouses and escape to Paris. Here, they are reminded of what it was in their personalities that prompted them to seek a divorce. The scene is complicated by the arrival of the jilted spouses, who come seeking reconciliation, but who eventually are spurned as Amanda and Elyot, after arguing violently, leave together, presumably to lead a life of adversarial bliss.
Amanda and Elyot are interesting, fairly well-drawn characters; these roles were written with Gertrude Lawrence and Coward in mind. The secondary characters, the spouses, Victor and Sibyl, are two-dimensional and only provide a surface off which to bounce the stinging repartee of the reunited couple. Coward himself has described Private Lives as a “reasonably well-constructed duologue for two performers with a couple of extra puppets thrown in to assist the plot and to provide contrast.”