Coward's Treatment of Gender-Roles and Marriage

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1406

As Noel Coward repeatedly insisted, Private Lives is a light comedy, intended to amuse and captivate its audience, rather than to teach moral lessons or advance a particular ideology. It is exactly the sort of popular work scholars may “murder to dissect:" to over-analyze its "deeper meanings" is to risk...

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As Noel Coward repeatedly insisted, Private Lives is a light comedy, intended to amuse and captivate its audience, rather than to teach moral lessons or advance a particular ideology. It is exactly the sort of popular work scholars may “murder to dissect:" to over-analyze its "deeper meanings" is to risk blinding ourselves to its glittering surfaces or sacrificing the light-hearted pleasures its author has carefully provided. Nonetheless, the lasting popularity of Private Lives indicates that it does have "something to say'' beneath its eccentric, entertaining banter, something that has appealed to audiences for several generations now. Its many intriguing qualities include Coward's cynical perspective on the eternal “battle of the sexes'' and an exploration of traditional gender-roles that can be seen to anticipate the social and sexual transformations of more recent years.

In this reading, Victor and Sibyl are cartoonish representatives of the traditional male and female roles: he is stolid and conservative, paternally wishing to "look after" his new wife; she is emotional and sentimental, fully expecting to be taken care of by her husband. Coward intentionally sketches these characters as dull and two-dimensional, thoroughly predictable in their blind embrace of society's expectations. In contrast, Elyot and Amanda ate alluring rebels, who mock convention and follow their individual desires, despite the social disapproval they invite.

In historical terms, Coward can be said to dramatize the opposition between Victorian moral codes and such "modernist" doctrines as "free love," "companionate marriage," guilt-free divorce and female equality. These were among the catch-phrases of a widespread moral controversy at the time Private Lives was written; in different words, similar concerns have appeared in more recent debates over feminism, sexuality, and “family values'' (a debate that reached a high point with former vice president Dan Quayle criticizing the sitcom Murphy Brown for a plotline that involved the title character becoming a single mother). Amanda and Elyot clearly represent the "progressive'' moral position, in opposition to restrictive traditions. Yet in another sense they are firmly traditional; while they defy conventional notions of social respectability, they remain faithful to the dictates of another convention, that of romantic love. When Elyot and Amanda escape the legal bonds of their new marriages it is not to pursue a promiscuous lifestyle or to make a philosophical statement but to follow the stronger love between themselves: they are romantics following their own hearts regardless of the consequences, not revolutionaries who seek to overthrow all conventions.

Victor and Sibyl embrace the sterile, unequal terms of traditional marriage. Coward implies that, unlike their worldly and sophisticated partners, they lack the imagination to feel restricted by the artificial confines of their stereotypical gender-roles or the self-awareness to notice any conflict between their private desires and the public images they strive to maintain. It may be that they simply cannot conceive of any alternatives to the parts they have always expected to play. Amanda and Elyot, on the other hand, are too intelligent and self-aware to be satisfied for long in the confinement of a conventional marriage—even though they were both willing to enter into such an alliance before their youthful passion was rekindled. Their impulsive decision is a courageous (if selfish) search for a more fulfilling alternative, which allows them more equal roles. The traditional marriage represented by Victor and Sibyl is an unbalanced equation: either the man has full authority over his submissive wife or she "runs" him surreptitiously, bending him to her will while maintaining a dependent pose. Though it is marked by violent strife, Amanda and Elyot's precarious relationship is distinctly more honest and equal than the second marriages they had anticipated and truer to their individual "private lives" or desires.

"Private lives,'' however, turn out to be messy and volatile, requiring boundaries of some sort to keep from breaking out in primitive, passionate conflict. While this psychological truth is evident in Elyot and Amanda's love/hate relationship, it applies equally to Victor and Sibyl, whose repressed passions come spilling out at the end of Act in, echoing the wild skirmishes between the play's central couple. Confused and distraught, lacking a "prescribed etiquette to fall back upon," they drop their "respectable" poses, and soon engage in the very behavior which they found so shocking and reprehensible in Elyot and Amanda. As Amanda observes m the play's signature speech, few of us are "completely normal" beneath our public roles, even those like Sibyl and Victor who seem most tediously normal; when "the right spark is struck, there's no knowing what one mightn't do."

By traditional standards, Elyot and Amanda's previous marriage and divorce, as well as their troubled reunion, are proof that they are “incompatible" as marriage partners. Yet they seem to be made for each other and to be far more compatible as a couple than they are with their new spouses. The problem with their first marriage, they agree, was that they loved each other too much; their romantic passion brought out other passions, and they became "two violent acids bubbling about in a nasty little matrimonial bottle " In their second marriages, they have overcompensated for their bitter experience, seeking to avoid the problem by marrying people with whom they are clearly not in love. Apparently, they have convinced themselves that these unions can last, precisely because they feel no passionate attachment to their partners there is utterly no danger of loving too much.

When Amanda and Elyot's passion for each other is awakened, however, such a safe, lukewarm relationship is no longer an acceptable compromise—though a satisfying, long-term marriage seems no more possible than it was their first time around. Early in Act II, Amanda offers a different diagnosis of their troubles, targeting not love but marriage itself "I believe it was just the fact of our being married, and clamped together publicly, that wrecked us before " Marriage is claustrophobic, a "nasty little bottle" that contains passion under pressure, building until it explodes. To Coward's sensibility, it is love and marriage that are incompatible. His protagonists may have one or the other but not both.

Amanda and Elyot begin then- second tryst with a number of advantages on their side. They are not only lovers but old friends and, intellectually, kindred spirits. They hold no surprises for each other, yet remain strongly attracted. Their disastrous experience has made them aware of the pitfalls of marriage, and they are consciously determined to avoid repeating their mistakes. A marriage counselor would likely consider such a couple well-prepared for partnership and rate their chances of success high. But then- good intentions and hard-earned wisdom are little, if any, help, and they are soon caught up in the same jealousies and resentments that had made their life together intolerable.

Overall, this amounts to a severely pessimistic view of the prospects for men and women. While the conventional marriages are unacceptably hollow and passionless, Elyot and Amanda's efforts to live their love prove no more workable; their commitment to their passion only dooms them to endless cycles of love and hate. When they sneak off together at the final curtain, it is clear that their escape is temporary and provisional and their happiness momentary and precarious. They have triumphed and regained their equilibrium but nothing is guaranteed. Though the audience may wish them well, their future together is questionable. They easily outsmart and outmaneuver Victor and Sibyl and presumably can do so indefinitely, for the weaker characters are clearly no match for them. Unfortunately, they are too good a match for each other, too alike and too evenly-matched for one to successfully "manage" the other. Worse yet, they both seem incapable of managing themselves. Marriage is quite possible, Coward seems to be saying—but not among two people who share so many personality traits—and not in the presence of passionate love.

Drama often dictates that the people and events it portrays are larger than life. In this sense Amanda and Elyot's relationship can be seen as an exaggerated case of marital ups and downs. Marriage is very often hard work for the two people who try to maintain it, for every happiness there is often matched sorrow or disappointment Through his protagonists, who represent an extreme of the precarious-ness of relationships, Coward is making the humorous statement that sharing your life with another is not always easy and true romance does not always end "happily ever after."

Source: Tom Faulkner, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998.

Happy Birthday, Dear Noel

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 818

Four of the most fruitful days of 1929 were surely those that Noel Coward, on a lazy holiday tap around the world, spent writing Private Lives. The first act of the play, which I don't hesitate to call as nearly flawless a first act for a comedy as any in the language, is said to have been jotted down overnight—formidable proof of the fact, repugnant to puritans, that time and effort have no necessary connection with achievement in the arts. Neither, for that matter, does age—Coward was twenty-nine when he wrote Private Lives, and he was never to surpass it (Indeed, he had already composed, at twenty-five, its only possible rival for comic excellence, Hay Fever.) The play had its world premiere in Edinburgh, in 1930, starting Gertrude Lawrence (who had inspired it) as Amanda and Coward as Elyot, with Laurence Olivier and Adnanne Allen in supporting roles. The sun has long since set on the British Empire that Coward made such fun of and later glorified, but I doubt if it has ever set, or ever will set, on Private Lives. Now the play has bobbed up here, at the Billy Rose Theatre, in an APA production sponsored by David Merrick. The production is an admirable one and will serve nicely to help celebrate the occasion of Coward's seventieth birthday, on Tuesday next. As a small sprig to add to the laurels being heaped up in honor of that day, I will repeat an opinion that I have often expressed, with a gravity not quite wholly based on a desire to irritate certain friends of mine in Academe—-that Coward is the greatest of English theatrical figures in the multi-fariousness of his gifts. Who but he has written his own plays and musical comedies, directed them, acted in them, danced in them, and sung in them songs of his own composition? Poor Shakespeare, after all (and I have been waiting a long time to set down the words "poor Shakespeare")* merely wrote, acted, and composed the lyrics of a few songs in his plays. As far as I know, there isn't much likelihood that when he played the Ghost in “Hamlet" he broke out into song and dance, though the idea is an appealing one and somebody is bound to make use of it sooner or later.

Simple as it may seem in the reading, Private Lives is extremely hard to act well; the lines of the play turn out to matter less than the silences between the lines, and the duration of these silences must be calculated to the millisecond. The director of the present production, Stephen Porter, has performed these calculations with exemplary skill. He is aware that much of our pleasure in the play comes from our being allowed to know, from moment to moment, more than the characters themselves are allowed to know. Our laughter springs as much from the sudden glory of anticipation fulfilled as from the witty expression of any ordinary human feeling or—perish the thought!—thought. The first act has a symmetry of word and deed so exact as to be almost uncanny; the two newlywed couples in the swagger hotel in Deauville are made to move through a series of discomfitures as neatly introduced, exhibited, and dismissed as so many magic hoops, cards, coins, and colored handkerchiefs. In the second act, the prestidigitator risks losing control by losing momentum. We perceive that he has time to kill on his way to a third act (in the twenties, a playwright who plotted a comedy in two acts would no doubt have been accused of shortchanging his audience), and we come dangerously close to seeing Amanda and Elyot for what they are—in real life, two of the least delightful people imaginable, with nothing to do but eat, drink, bicker, make love, and congratulate themselves on their isolation from a world unworthy of them. In the third act, the prestidigitator is again in full control; after a flurry of slapstick physical encounters, he rings down the curtain on a breakfast scene that is at once consummately trivial and just the right size.

Amanda and Elyot are played by Tammy Grimes and Brian Bedford. I wouldn't have guessed that Miss Grimes, whose voice to my ears is like chalk on slate, could bring off the role of a pretty, willful English girl of those distant flapper days, but she does, she does, and Brian Bedford is appropriately clipped of accent and selfish of purpose as Elyot. David Glover plays the staunch and obtuse ninny who has just become Amanda's second husband, and Suzanne Grossmann, looking a trifle jaded for the part, plays Elyot's bewildered twenty-three-year-old bride. The amusing Art-Deco settings and the lighting are by James Tilton and the costumes are by Joe Eula.

Source: Brendan Gill, "Happy Birthday, Dear Noel," in the New Yorker, Volume XLV, no 43, December 13,1969, pp. 115-16

Mr. Coward Still Going Along

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 592

Noel Coward's talent for little things remains unimpaired. In Private Lives, in which he appeared at the Times Square last evening, he has nothing to say, and manages to say it with competent agility for three acts. Sometimes the nothingness of this comedy begins to show through the dialogue. Particularly in the long second act, which is as thin as a patent partition, Mr. Coward's talent for little things threatens to run dry. But when the tone comes to drop the second act curtain his old facility for theatrical climax comes bubbling out of the tap again. There is a sudden brawl. Mr. Coward, in person, and Gertrude Lawrence, likewise in person, start tumbling over the furniture and rolling on the floor, and the audience roars with delight. For Mr. Coward, who dotes on pranks, has an impish wit, a genius for phrase-making, a subtlety of inflection and an engaging manner on the stage. Paired with Miss Lawrence in a mild five-part escapade, he carries Private Lives through by the skin of his teeth.

Take two married couples on their respective honeymoons, divide them instantly, and there—if the two leading players are glamorous comedians— you have the situation. As a matter of fact, it has a little more finesse than that. For Elyot Chase, who feels rather grumpy about his second honeymoon, and Amanda Prynne, who feels rather grumpy about hers, were divorced from each other five years ago. When they see each other at the same honeymoon hotel in France, they suddenly realize that they should never have been divorced. Their new marriages are horrible blunders. Their impulse is to fly away together at once. They fly. How rapturously they love and quarrel in a Paris flat, and how frightfully embarrassed they are when their deserted bride and bridegroom finally catch up with them, is what keeps Mr. Coward just this side of his wits' end for the remaining two acts.

For the most part it is a duologue between Mr. Coward and Miss Lawrence. Jill Esmond, as the deserted bride, and Laurence Olivier, as the deserted bridegroom, are permitted to chatter foolishly once or twice in the first act, and to help keep the ball rolling at the end. After the furniture has been upset. Therese Guadri, as a French maid, is invited to come m, raise the curtains and jabber her Gallic distress over unseemly confusion. But these are ultitarian parts in the major tour de force of Mr. Coward and Miss Lawrence cooing and spatting at home.

Be it known that their passion is a troubled one. They coo with languid pleasure. But they are also touchy, and fly on the instant into rages. Mr. Coward's wit is not ostentatious. He tucks it away neatly in pat phrases and subtle word combinations and smartly bizarre allusions. Occasionally he comes out boldly with a flat statement of facts. "Certain women should be struck regularly like gongs," he declares. Acting just as he writes, he is crisp, swift and accurate. And Miss Lawrence, whose subtlety has not always been conspicuous, plays this time with rapidity and humor. Her ruddy beauty, her supple grace and the russet drawl in her voice keep you interested in the slightly wind-blown affairs of a scanty comedy. If Mr. Coward's talent were the least bit clumsy, there would be no comedy at all

Source: Brooks Atkinson, Mr. Coward Still Going Along'' (1931) in On Stage; Selected Theater Reviews from the New York Times, 1920-1970, edited by Bernard Beckerman and Howard Siegman, Arno Press, 1973, pp 122-23.

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Private Lives