When I last directed Noël Coward’s Private Lives in 2008, I wrote the following article for the program notes. When Shannon Emerick, Main Street Theater’s Marketing Director reminded me of it, I decided to republish it here. What I wrote eleven years ago, is just as true today.
A Deeper Look at Private Lives
In many ways Private Lives is an extraordinary play. The Twentieth Century equivalent of the Well-Made Play, it is elegance personified. There are only a few characters, each representing a specific social type while remaining quite believable. The characters of the play are from the wealthy leisure class. Although not specifically aristocratic, they are quintessentially British upper class. No mention is ever made of professions, work, or money. Yet everything indicates a life of privilege; the 1930’s version of the Jet Set.
Ironically, the play opened only weeks before the crash of 1929 which ended the world it documents.
Private Lives is written in brilliantly caustic prose. The language is erudite, intelligent, and delightfully witty. While working on it, certain lines find their way into daily conversation because the characters speak with a wit and charm to which we can only aspire. The language is not only charming, it is as profoundly challenging for an actor as Shakespeare or Shaw.
The entire plot revolves around a specific premise: what happens when two intelligent but volatile personalities meet years after they were madly in love? Act I establishes the characters, the relationships, the conflict, and the EVENT. Act II explores the relationship in the light of their actions and the mayhem that ensues. Just as things become explosive, their actions catch up with them in the form of their abandoned spouses. Act III is the charming and witty ‘resolution’ of their dilemma. Coward moved in such circles. He was a popular addition to many a ‘weekend house party.’ He was an integral part of the coterie of young people sometimes referred to as the ‘bright young things,’ a group represented in more recent fiction in Brideshead Revisited.
Historically, this is the generation that was ravaged by World War I. Many young Englishmen died in the war, but an extraordinarily high number of young aristocrats did not return. World War I was also the first war to be declared on the civilian population. Battles were no longer only fought on battlefields between two armies. Suddenly, death rained from the skies and poisonous gas drifted from battlefields into communities. Out of the randomness of that war and the ensuing ennui came new ways of looking at life as expressed in a variety of philosophies and artistic and literary movements, including Expressionism, Symbolism, and Existentialism. Writers such as Hemingway, Beckett and Sartre found their own ways of expressing these ideas.
It may seem odd to compare the seemingly ‘trivial’ and superficial comedies of manners that Coward wrote with the writings of Hemingway, Sartre, and Becket. But in a very real way Coward documented the same questioning melancholy that found expression in contemporary society as agnosticism, lost faith, and a rejection of more traditional lives and societal roles. He chose to write in a more familiar and recognizable style, with humor, wit, vivacity, and charm, but his characters express the same doubts and questioning with an elegance that is inevitably entertaining and astonishingly memorable.
Claire Hart-Palumbo, director (Summer 2008)
For information about my new production of Private Lives at Main Street Theater in Houston, go to MainStreetTheater.com.