By Daniel Frezza
“HAVE READ NEW PLAY STOP NOTHING WRONG THAT CAN’T BE FIXED” cabled Gertrude Lawrence to Noel Coward, who cabled back: “THE ONLY THING THAT WILL NEED TO BE FIXED IS YOUR PERFORMANCE.” That exchange sounds like dialog from Private Lives (the new play) for good reason: Coward wrote the parts of Elyot and Amanda for himself and Lawrence, and the play “in many respects mirrored the real-life relationship between Noel and Gertie: two people deeply fond of each other but constantly bickering and testing the limits of that friendship in the certain knowledge that it is unbreakable” (Barry Day, ed. The Letters of Noel Coward [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007], 182).
Coward and Lawrence first acted together in their early teens. He recalled “a vivacious child with ringlets to whom I took an instant fancy” (Noel Coward, Present Indicative [New York: Doubleday Doran & Co., 1937], 34). She remembered “a thin, unusually shy boy” who was occasionally condescending to her. “I could put up with the condescension. What I could not have endured was to have Noel ignore me” (Gertrude Lawrence, A Star Danced [New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1945], 44). Their friendship developed as their careers took separate paths. A decade later, in 1923, they worked together in the revue, London Calling, which Coward co-authored. After it closed, Lawrence went to New York in André Charlot’s London Revue of 1924 and established herself as a star. She followed that with another hit, the Gershwins’ Oh Kay! Back home, Coward made equal strides. In 1924 The Vortex made him a sensation both as actor and playwright. By mid-1925 he had four shows running simultaneously in London.
Coward had long wanted to write a play for Lawrence. In the summer of 1928 he formed the idea for his operetta Bitter Sweet after hearing a recording of Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. He intended the lead for Lawrence, “but when the score was almost done, she and I both realized that her voice, although light and charming, was not strong enough to carry such a heavy singing role” (Present Indicative, 299). Maybe Lawrence realized that privately, but in her autobiography she stated that she couldn’t do Bitter Sweet because she was already engaged to do Candle-Light around the same time (the autumn of 1929). Though not a memorable play, Candle-Light was an important step because it was the first non-musical show of Lawrence’s adult career. “Never mind, darling,” Coward told her, “I’ll write another play especially for us that will be even better” (Lawrence, 183). He did; and it was as different as could be from Bitter Sweet’s romantic, sentimental look back at the late nineteenth century.
There was something almost magical about the inception of Private Lives. In December 1929, Coward was vacationing in the Far East. One evening, in Tokyo, he went to bed early, “but the moment I switched out the lights, Gertie appeared in a white Molyeneux dress on a terrace in the South of France and refused to go again until four a.m., by which time Private Lives, title and all, had constructed itself” (Present Indicative, 320). (Photographs of Lawrence in the elegant white dress designed by Edward Molyneux can be seen in various Coward biographies.) A few years earlier Coward would have written the play within days of thinking of it, but he “had learned the wisdom of not welcoming a new idea too ardently.” He forced it to the back of his mind, trusting it to emerge when it was sufficiently matured. While convalescing from influenza in Shanghai several weeks later, he completed a hand-written draft in four days. A few weeks later, in Hong Kong, he revised and typed it and sent a copy to Lawrence. When she received the script with a request to keep the autumn free, Lawrence was under contract for another show for that time. The phrase “NOTHING WRONG THAT CAN’T BE FIXED,” she claimed, referred to this contract. She wrote years later: “Noel never has entirely forgiven me for that cable, and I don’t think that he has ever really believed . . . that I was not making an adverse comment on his play” (Lawrence, 184). By May she was free of the prior commitment and Coward was back in England. Rehearsals began in June.
Of the five-week tour before Private Lives reached London, Coward wrote: “Assurance of success seemed to be emblazoned on the play from the first. . . . Gertie was brilliant. Everything she had been in my mind when I originally conceived the idea in Tokyo came to life on the stage” (Present Indicative, 338). The three-month limited London engagement opened September 24, 1930, and sold out in a week. In January 1931 Private Lives moved to Broadway and ran for 256 performances, continuing with replacements when Coward and Lawrence left the cast after three months. (Raymond Mander and Joe Mitchenson, Theatrical Companion to Coward, 2nd ed. [London: Oberon Books, 2000], 216). Coward set a three month limit on any role he played, partly because he started to get bored at that point but also because he needed time to write.
Coward’s appraisal of the play changed over time. Initially he referred to it as “a reasonably well-constructed duologue for two experienced performers. . . . There is a well-written love scene in Act One, and a certain amount of sound sex psychology underlying the quarrel scenes in Act Two. As a complete play, it leaves a lot to be desired, principally owing to my dastardly and conscienceless behaviour towards Sibyl and Victor, the secondary characters. These, poor things, are little better than ninepins, . . . only there at all in order to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again” (Coward, int. Play Parade [New York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1933], xii-xiv), In 1942—before the play had a major revival in London or New York—he predicted “Private Lives will always be revived and will go into the history of comedy like a play by Congreve or Wilde” (Graham Payn , My Life With Noel Coward [New York: Applause, 1994], 89). According to Graham Payn, Coward’s companion and executor of his estate, Blithe Spirit, Private Lives and Hay Fever are the most often produced Coward plays. Payn added that whatever the quality of a Private Lives production “the observation of character and the quality of the writing shine through.” (Payn, 258)
Coward and Lawrence recorded excerpts from acts one and two of Private Lives shortly before the London opening. The recording, available on CD, is worth a listen. One’s initial reaction is likely to be surprise at how clipped and “thrown away” their delivery is. Repeated listening reveals the underlying emotion, particularly in the act one segment (available at youtube.com) where Amanda and Elyot strain to talk about anything other than the discovery they’ve just made: that although divorced from each other and now honeymooning with their new spouses, they are still very much in love. Decades later Coward said “the thing about the play that went unobserved at the time was that it is the lightest of light comedies, based on a serious situation which is two people who love each other too much. I wouldn’t say it’s a tragedy, but there’s a sadness below it” (Hal Burton, ed. Great Acting [New York: Bonanza Books, 1967], 169). The challenge lies in finding the right balance of lightness and sadness and the precise moments when the tone shifts.
The character of Amanda was partly based on socialite Lady Castlerosse (Payn, 53), but if anyone doubts it was based mainly on Lawrence herself, reading Gertrude Lawrence as Mrs. A, by her husband Richard Stoddard Aldrich, will reveal how accurately Coward captured the personality of his dearest friend. They weren’t romantically involved, yet their scenes show an extraordinary degree of psychological intimacy.
Coward offered one reason: “Amanda and Elyot are practically synonymous” (Present Indicative, 338). Their acting together was part of a greater private relationship in which the audience were being allowed almost vicariously to participate for an hour or two each night (Sheridan Morley, The Private Lives of Noel and Gertie [London: Oberon Books, 1999], 439). So powerful was that effect that “with Private Lives, ‘Noel and Gertie’ were to become a single entity in the public mind” (Day, 182).
Do Elyot and Amanda stay together after the play ends? If the lives of Noel and Gertie are an indicator (and reading their biographies is basic research for actors playing Elyot and Amanda), the answer is: physically no, but emotionally yes. “Always.”