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Beneath the Froth Is Basic Truth

Beneath the Froth Is Basic Truth

By Aden Ross

Noel Coward wrote of his play Waiting in the Wings, “The work contains, beneath the froth of some of its lighter moments, basic truth” (Plays: Five, London: Methuen, 1983, p. x). The same could be said of most of his plays, and certainly of Relative Values. Using a conventional genre—comedy of manners—Coward explores quite serious socioeconomic and philosophical issues with characteristic wit and panache.

The long tradition of English comedy of manners was firmly established by Restoration playwrights like Congreve, although its antecedents appeared in Shakespeare’s festive comedy and Jonson’s comedy of humours. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the form found new life through writers like Oscar Wilde, Somerset Maugham, and Noël Coward. Comedy of manners depends heavily upon character types—notably the clever servant, the young lovers, the controlling parent, and at least one character with a social and intellectual IQ not quite up to snuff. The plots revolve predictably upon a forthcoming marriage over the objections of the older generation, and the setting usually consists of an English drawing room. If contemporary American audiences don’t live with this same furniture, at least we live with these same silly situations.

As artificial as the genre might seem, comedy of manners is a sophisticated and complex art form demanding absolute command of the dialog and perfect comic timing, the lack of which tortured Coward during rehearsals (Ibid., pp. vii-xi). Far from comprising decoration, the witty repartee conveys, camouflages, and/or substitutes for emotion. For example, when Felicity compares her son’s meeting his true love on a raft at Cap d’Antibes with the Kon Tiki expedition, he fairly shoots back, “I suppose all this laboured flippancy is merely to cover up what you really feel?” (53). In the play’s most self-referential moment, Crestwell, the butler, suggests that the family’s dilemma could be delightfully exploited by a writer like Somerset Maugham, concluding that “later playwrights would miss the more subtle nuances. Comedies of manners swiftly become obsolete when there are no longer any manners” (38). This genre also becomes obsolete to audiences unwilling to be propelled by wit alone; in the comedy of manners wit is the play’s action.

Predicated as it is upon the encoded communication patterns, the tacit assumptions and the inviolable conventions of a particular social group, comedy of manners inherently provides the most appropriate battleground for dramatizing class warfare. Relative Values portrays several hierarchies of class, each with its own set of rules. At the top of the socioeconomic scale are Felicity, Countess of Marshwood, her son Nigel, and Admiral and Lady Hayling. At the bottom of this hierarchy are the servants, Moxie and Crestwell. Moxie is so content with her position on the Great Chain of Being that she resists a higher status even when it is unexpectedly thrust upon her. Crestwell, on the other hand, spouts social revolution, although he significantly does not act on his proletarian passions. As the clever servant par excellence, he prefers to point out ironies like “the ancient and inaccurate assumption that, as we are all equal in the eyes of God, we should therefore be equally equal in the eyes of our fellow creatures” (73). With his superior intellect, Crestwell provides the correct answer to The Times crossword puzzle—John Milton’s “Lycidas,” no less!—and finds American diction and grammar almost incomprehensible. Nonetheless, Crestwell will always serve Felicity lunch, while society allows her to go to lunch with a golf instructor of Crestwell’s same birth level.

Into these subtle class hierarchies of birth and profession enter Miranda Frayle and Don Lucas. Because they are rich, movie stars, and apparently American, they stand outside the English caste system. Given these parameters, Nigel could acceptably marry Miranda; indeed, Felicity remarks, “the aristocracy, what’s left of it, owes a great deal to the theatrical profession” (19). Horrified at such a “mixed marriage,” the servant Moxie discloses that Miranda is actually her own duplicitous sister. For the Earl of Marshwood to have as his sister-in-law the family’s maid of nineteen years is unthinkable, and the plot grows murkier. Felicity tries to convince herself that “nowadays all social barriers are being swept away and that everybody is as good as everybody else . . . and that any suggestion of class distinction is laughed at” (16), but no one believes her. No one, regardless of class.

The fact that Miranda is also a movie star underscores role-playing on all levels, social as well as professional. Nigel is as attracted to the romantic image of Miranda as any of the play’s readers of Screen Romances or the villagers beating the estate’s bushes for an autograph. He’s infatuated with an idea, part of which is that he can happily marry beneath himself. But Moxie cannot play the role of an aristocrat any more than her sister can resist the ultimate role of Countess of Marshwood. All of the lies and role-playing coalesce in the “lovers’ reunion” between Don and Miranda, replete with grade C movie dialog and cheap emotions. All that’s missing are the flashbulbs, as Felicity might say.

Within this kaleidoscope of role-playing, prevarication, and class distinctions, the play’s title keeps gaining new layers of meaning. Relative values, indeed! On first hearing the title, audiences might assume that this play depicts some kind of ethical relativism. And, at first, “values” seem pretty shifty. Felicity and Nigel are doing their best to extend noblesse oblige to Nigel’s fiancée; Miranda actually believes that she can give up fame for a quiet life as a countess; Crestwell may soon answer the “clarion call of progress” for social equality; and Don Lucas attempts renunciation of his true love, albeit with the worst cinematic inanities.

Moxie is the first to halt this farce: she didn’t earn the role of high-born family friend, and everything she has accomplished in her life resulted from hard, honest work. Miranda isn’t named “Frayle” for nothing (or “Miranda,” for that matter); she and Don revert to their genuine, superficial value system of fame, money, and each other as soon as possible. At the end of the play, Crestwell speaks for everyone, toasting Moxie “in our humble, but on the whole honorable calling.” Significantly, he adds, “I drink to her Ladyship and his Lordship, groaning beneath the weight of privilege . . . [and] to the final inglorious disintegration of the most unlikely dream that ever troubled the foolish heart of man—Social Equality!” (113). The values we hold—ingrained by birth, education, profession, social expectations, and the like—are not so “relative” after all. In this play, some values cannot and should not adjust to time, place and circumstance.

But other “relative values” pervade the play. Typically punning on his own title, Coward is asking not only what values we share with our relatives but also what value we place upon our relatives. The play neatly compares and contrasts several “families.” Nigel and Felicity begin at odds and come back together, with references to an alcoholic father. Moxie and Miranda start the play apart, come together, and again break apart, with references to their mother’s imagined alcoholism. Miranda “kept on almost having babies--but not quite” (31), a possible reference to abortion. And Moxie “pretends” to be like a family member, when, in fact, she’s much closer than family.

What is of value to each of these characters, and by extension, to ourselves? Birth? Fame? Profession? Money? Family? Work? Wit? In Relative Values, Coward explores some basic questions, elegantly served as a frothy theatrical dessert. But this play never lets us forget that, sooner or later, someone must wash the dishes.