Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

Private Lives was a runaway hit when it debuted in 1930, and the play has remained popular in revivals ever since. In the initial production, Coward himself starred as Elyot opposite Gertrude Lawrence's Amanda. The play was produced at London's Phoenix Theatre, opening in September, 1930, after preview runs in...

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Private Lives was a runaway hit when it debuted in 1930, and the play has remained popular in revivals ever since. In the initial production, Coward himself starred as Elyot opposite Gertrude Lawrence's Amanda. The play was produced at London's Phoenix Theatre, opening in September, 1930, after preview runs in Edinburgh, Birmingham, Manchester, and Southsea. The Daily Mail reported that tickets to the three-month engagement were in great demand, "though the piece is meant neither to instruct, to improve, nor to uplift." In the New York Times, drama critic Charles Morgan called the play "a remarkable tour de force," despite a story that was "almost impudently insubstantially. The speed, the impudence, the frothiness of [Coward's] dialogue are his salvation, and his performance is brilliant." After its New York debut, at the Times Square Theater m January of 1931, J. Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times found the essence of the play to be its "well-bred petulance" and "cosmopolitan fatigue." "Mr. Coward's talent for small things remains unimpaired," Atkinson reported; "[he] has an impish wit, a genius for phrasemaking, and an engaging manner on the stage." Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) quickly acquired the film rights to Coward's international sensation and had a feature adaptation (starring Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer m the leads) in theaters by the end of 1931.

Subsequent critical assessments (both of Private Lives and of Coward's work m general) tend to follow the tone of these early reviews. While noting a lack of substance, of “big ideas" or grand themes, critics nonetheless acknowledge an abundance of style, wit, and comedic pacing; the result is taken not as "Immortal Drama," but as highly-entertaining dramatic spectacle. Producing such work was Coward's conscious intention; he once said he had "no great or beautiful thoughts" to express, and no particular desire to include such thoughts in his plays if he did have them. “The primary and dominant function of the theatre is to amuse people," he believed, “not to reform or edify them.'' His “smart'' humor is prized for its eccentricity; as Atkinson observed of Private Lives,"Mr. Coward's wit is not ostentatious. He tucks it neatly away in pat phrases and subtle word combinations and smartly bizarre allusions." While satiric humor is a staple of his work, he is not usually considered to present any unified critique of society, or to advance a consistent, identifiable philosophy. For this reason, his characters and situations are often considered to be superficial, even trivial. His wit, however, is nearly always classed as "sophisticated,'' and his dialogue is praised for its intelligence and cleverness. Disdaining "high-brow" conceptions of art, Coward claimed not to be writing for posterity; yet his "talent for small things" has shown a remarkable staying-power, and his work has delighted audiences for several generations.

Private Lives remains a popular standard for repertory companies everywhere. After more than a half-century, it evidently retains its appeal for a wide audience. Major London revivals were staged in 1944, 1963, 1969 (a 70th birthday tribute for Coward at the Phoenix Theater), and 1980, marking its 50th anniversary. Tammy Grimes won a Tony Award for her performance as Amanda in a 1970 Broadway revival, and a 1983 production featured Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

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