Salient. Victoria University of Wellington Students' Newspaper. Volume 31, Number 23. September 17, 1968
Drama — A private lament for Coward
A private lament for Coward
Noel Coward's plays, if we are to believe what another generation tells us, are very funny. Within the framework of conventional West End comedy they delight us with the sparkle of their dialogue and … ? The truth is that apart from the rapid exchange of pseudo-epigrams there is nothing: there is no characterisation, no sentiment to be imparted to the audiences, no great insights.
The programme notes tor Private Lives, currently at Downstage, claim the absence of substance, of "political opinions, moral judgments" as the reason why Mr Coward's work hasn't dated. Such opinions and judgments, as he may have written in 1930, could well look ludicrous now. Because Mr Coward is not concerned with messages, his "interest in humanity, its quirks and foibles, its vanities and idiocies, its prejudices and pomposities" come to us I as it did to the West End audiences of the 1930s.
There seems to me to be a strange logic here for if you admit that the plays contain no characterisation (and the programme notes make this admission) then how can there be any concern with humanity (unless the actors are reciting political tracts, which they aren't). Surely humanity is made of people and every person has a character. If Mr Coward's theatre is to be demonstrative —it certainly isn't didactic—then it must be composed of characters living in more than one dimension (which according to my logic involves characterisation).
All there is is very funny dialogue coming from very flat people who belong in a world far removed from anything I (or 99.9% of Downstage audiences) are ever likely to live in. The people are flippant and their flippancy is very but they never stop being flippant so we can never see what is underneath (hence the conclusion then is nothing). Because they are all very much the same and thev swing along without giving us a peck at anything it is impossible for us to tell it they are vain or pompous at all.
The saving grace is the dialogue and the style of dialogue which in some respects foreshadows Albee (as that plavwright is gracious enough to admit). It is this grace that is most sorely abused in Downstage's Private Lives. I found it very difficult to catch many lines, particularly those of Sibyl and Elyot Chase (Nicky Hill and Bruce Mason). It seemed to me as if they were attempting an accent reflective of Mr Coward's world and that somehow the words were given second place. This surprised me both because of the quality of the producer Antony Groser's radio work and the care with which Mr Mason usually speaks.
While Mr Mason's voice lost many of the quips that lie in the play he also failed to bring enough charm to Elyott Chase. He merely reinforced the flippancy I mentioned above. It occurs to me that although Mr Coward gave the people in his plays little character, he did write the parts for established actors with character ol their own (in this case himself and Gertrude Lawrence) and thev would have brought a charm—charm perhaps through style—to their parts. To attempt to recreate the image of another actor in a role is not desirable, but to bring to a part some of the positive qualities another actor has given it seems to be a reasonable request especially when. as here, alternative interpretations of the role are restricted by the nature of the script.
Nicky Hill's performance tried to capture some sense of the whimsical young thing that Sibyl Chase might have been but in restricting hersell to a few often to be repeated mannerisms (e.g. oddly tilting the chin) she was unable to give any physical leinlorcement to her lines.
The play begins with the newly-weds Sibyl and Elyot: the latter is being very blase about the honeymoon and off-hand about his first marriage. The conversation takes place on a hotel balcony. Then with Sibyl and Elyot retreating to dress for dinner Victor and Amanda Pyrnne appear on the adjacent balcony. They too are newly-weds and Amanda is being blase about the honeymoon and off-hand about her first marriage. It isn't very hard to guess that Amanda and Elyot were married to each other.
Whereas Mrs Hill and Mr Mason brought little but the lines (and slightly garbled at that) to their opening scene Eric Wood and Dorothy Smith (Victor and Amanda) brought a charm and a sense of personality to theirs. Mr Wood is something of an out-of-his-depth Victor not quite on the same wavelength as his wife and a little uncertain as to how to take her flippancy. He reflects in his posturing and mannerisms his lack of ease and acts as a perfect foil for Dorothy Smith's Amanda.
Miss Smith's performance stands above those of the rest of the cast She conveys a sense of enjoyment when she is being frivolous and witty and a sense of frustration when she argues with Elvot (with whom Amanda reunites at the end of Act I). Most delightful of all is that she never seems to repeat herself. After a while with the rest of the cast I felt I knew their repertoire of reactions and inflections, but with Miss Smith there was always something new. She was the one member of the cast I could imagine in that strange social climate.
In the second and third acts the scene is Amanda's Paris flat and it is here that we meet Louise the French maid. Ginette McDonald manages to make quite an impact in this role, but, and it may be my poor knowledge of the French language, I could not see why this part was in the play. It adds nothing and Louise's scenes are not particularly funny.
If I say Noel Coward's plays have dated I am obviouslv open to criticism— the Downstage season of Private Lives is very popular and I understand revivals of this author's work are being successfully staged both in Australia and Britain. I think it is safer to say that because the plays are not offensive on any grounds I can think of and because they have some very amusing dialogue they make an easy and not too dramatic change from television. The fact that they have nothing to say is obviously not a lament of the majority, though I have noticed it is more commonly a lament of my particular age-group.
While the costumes in this production do reflect (and most attractively) the affluence of the social strata the play is set in it is unfortunate that the sets do not. They appear to be functional from the point of view of the cast with nice balconies to sit on and baby grand pianos to play on but they belong to another world. While I appreciate the exigencies of space at Downstage and realise that it is a triumph to use two complete sets anyway. I think it is a pity that neither of them managed to help establish the world in which all the flippancy was taking place.