The curtain rises on the terrace of a seaside hotel in France. A pretty young woman, smartly dressed in travelling clothes, steps out onto the terrace. She leans on the balustrade and regards the view of the lights twinkling on the sea with an ecstatic expression. She is on the first night of her honeymoon.
This is the opening of what appears to be a classic romantic comedy set among the fashionable set in the 1930s. It is certainly very funny and stylish, but Noël Coward’s Private Lives might better be called an ‘unromantic comedy’. Within the cloak of its dazzling wit, it is in fact an excoriating portrait of love and marriage among the disaffected elite in the dying days of the Jazz Age.
Private Lives premiered at the newly built Phoenix Theatre in London in 1930, with Noël Coward himself playing the part of Elyot, alongside his favourite female partner, Gertie Lawrence, for whom he had written the role of his marital sparring partner Amanda. The production was a great success, both in London and on its transfer to Broadway, the critics admiring the play’s construction and sparkling wit, but predicting it would not last. One Broadway critic called it “an admirable piece of fluff.” But last it has, as approaching a century on, a new production at the Donmar Theatre in London, sees Rachael Stirling and Stephen Mangan in imperious form as the warring couple, both entertaining and challenging a modern audience. So why has Private Lives endured long after the world it is set in has disappeared. Is there more to this piece of fluff than high style and flippant wit?
To help me answer that question I am lucky to be joined in this discussion about the play by a Coward expert, Oliver Soden. Oliver is the author of a brand-new biography of Noël Coward, the first in nearly thirty years, which was published just last month.