A Public Display of “Private Lives”
One would assume that a “comedy of manners” written in 1930 would seem rather tame by our modern standards. However, reactions and reviews of Noël Coward’s Private Lives, which will be read on Monday night as the next installment of Intrepid Shakespeare’s Staged Reading Series, have been anything but that.
“The critics described Private Lives variously as ‘tenuous, thin, brittle, gossamer, iridescent, and delightfully daring,’ said the playwright. “All of which connoted in the public mind cocktails, repartee and irreverent allusions to copulation, thereby causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office.”
The story of Private Lives revolves around the dissolved marriage of Elyot and Amanda, who chance upon each other while on their respective honeymoons with their new spouses. As luck would have it, they are rooming next door to each other in the same luxurious coastal French hotel, and even though they are seemingly outraged at the other’s presence, it is soon evident that the flame of their former relationship is not completely smothered, but merely smoldering. Chaos and hilarity ensue as the play moves from the Deauville shore to a Paris city apartment and Elyot and Amanda attempt to sort out both their feelings for each other and their actions with regards to their new spouses.
“What makes this script so wonderful and funny,” says Jonathan Sachs, who will be portraying Victor, “is that it touches on some truly real feelings about marriage, divorce, infidelity, remarriage, abuse (verbal and physical) and most of all whether a past love will consume the present relationship.”
The play premiered in London in 1930 to some controversy, as it was almost banned because of the romantic portrayal of characters who are divorced and married to others. Coward had to plead his case to the Lord Chamberlin to be granted permission to open in the West End. The play moved to Broadway a year later with Coward playing Elyot opposite Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda. Jill Esmond and Lawrence Olivier (who would later marry) rounded out the New York cast as Sybil and Victor. Private Lives has since enjoyed numerous revivals in both cities, with varying notoriety depending upon the cast.
But what reviewers have found most fascinating about the play is its dialogue. Colleen Kollar Smith, who will be playing Amanda, compares her scenes to something lifted from “The West Wing.”
“I was trying to place my finger on what about the pace and wit of this piece felt familiar,” says Colleen. “It dawned on me later that Coward’s dialogue feels a lot like Sorkin to me. It is so intelligent and there are many layers of wit. So many, in fact, that I found myself trying to NOT laugh because I was afraid I would miss the next joke around the corner.”
Given that Colleen is playing opposite Phil Johnson as Elyot makes trying to maintain a straight face a bit of a challenge.
“It was a futile attempt,” she admits.
Even though the play does tackle seemingly serious themes, the levity of the piece remains unaffected – or perhaps even more enhanced – by the gravity of the situations.
“There’s a knowledge that the world is askew, and with that everything becomes humorous,” explains Phil.
“Reading it out loud is so fun,” says Jo Anne Glover, who will be playing Sybil, “just the rhythm he writes in and the wordplay back and forth between the characters. And, it’s fascinating how progressive this play is.”
Perhaps that is why this 84-year-old play is not only still performed, but still evokes the laughter of familiarity.
“The play takes some of the finer points of farce and weaves them into a wonderful tragic comedy,” says Jonathan. “The audience will find something very personal in what they see and that is what make this piece so special.”
Private Lives by Noël Coward, a staged reading. Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, June 23. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. $15. Rsvp to email@example.com and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase a reading series subscription.