Private Lives: The Director’s Take

By Dennis Razze, Associate Artistic Director

I first became aware of the playwright, composer, and raconteur Noël Coward when I was in college. The fledgling Allentown College theatre company produced his musical comedy Red Peppers. This 1936 musical in one act was part of a collection of plays known as Tonight at 8:30. The original production starred Noël Coward and famed British actress Gertrude Lawrence as George and Lily Pepper who were a husband and wife touring duo that performed in the provincial English music hall. I thought it was great fun, and I became even more intrigued by Coward when we produced Oh, Coward!, a musical revue of Coward’s acerbically witty songs like “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington!” as well as some of his bitter sweet love songs like “I’ll See You Again.”

Audiences loved seeing Coward and Lawrence perform together, a pairing that began with Coward’s 1930 play Private Lives. Coward and Lawrence were great friends, some even believed lovers, but that is unlikely. Coward did adore Lawrence even though they often wrangled. Coward wrote Private Lives while he was on tour in Asia. He contracted a bad case of the flu in Shanghai and was ill for two weeks. During that time, he drafted the shape of a play that would become Private Lives, and he wrote the actual script in four days. He immediately sent copies of the play to Gertrude Lawrence and his manager to ask their reactions to the play. He also asked Lawrence to reserve the fall of that year to star opposite him in a production of the play which he would also direct in London.

Coward received as many as thirty telegrams back from Lawrence who first said that the play had “nothing wrong with it that can’t be fixed.” Coward shot back that the only thing that was going to be fixed was her performance. Lawrence had a previous commitment to do another play, so Coward threatened that he was going to cast another actress, but unknown to Coward, Lawrence had cleared her schedule and was already learning her lines while staying at a villa in South Eastern France. Coward joined her there in July, and they began working on the play together.

By August they were back in London rehearsing the play with the two actors who would play Sibyl Chase and Victor Prynne. Coward cast Adrianne Allen and Laurence Olivier as the honeymooning spouses because he felt that they needed to be attractive people who would be credible marriage partners to Elyot and Amanda. While rehearsing the play, the Lord Chamberlain – who must approve all plays for production — took exception to the second act love scene because the couple was divorced and now married to others. Coward went himself to plead the case of the play by performing the entirety of it before the censor, and saying that the scene would not be objectionable due to his artful direction. The Lord Chamberlain relented and rehearsals continued The play was originally met with a mixed critical response, but because of its entertainment value has proven extraordinarily popular with audiences ever since. Noël Coward later wrote:

“The critics described Private Lives variously as ‘tenuous, thin, brittle, gossamer, iridescent, and delightfully daring’. 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.”

Audiences responded enthusiastically to the play, and it has been revived many times to great success. A film of the play was made in 1931 starring Robert Montgomery and Norma Shearer. Coward himself found the film only passable. On the stage, famous actors who have played Elyot and Amanda include Brian Bedford and Maggie Smith, Alec McCowen and Penelope Keith, Bill Nighy and Helena Bonham Carter, and most recently the late Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan. I recall seeing the 1983 Broadway production that starred Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, and certainly their real life marriage made the play all the more intriguing as many took it as a glimpse inside their private lives.

The play’s premise that concerns a divorced couple who have both remarried and are now honeymooning at the same time, staying at the same hotel in adjoining rooms, and then after seeing each other again realize that they are still in love, is absurd to say the least. Even less plausible is their sudden decision to immediately flee to Paris, leaving their current spouses behind without even an explanation. It is supremely ridiculous, but it makes for delicious comedy—especially because the rogue couple consists of such urbane and entertaining people as Elyot and Amanda.

PSF has cast captivating, witty actors as the two couples. Eleanor Handley, who you may remember played Maggie in our production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Kate in our most recent The Taming of the Shrew, as well as Olivia in last season’s Twelfth Night, will play Amanda. Matthew Floyd Miller, an actor with many successful television and regional theatre credits and is new to PSF, will play Elyot. Luigi Sottile, who played the title role in last year’s terrific Shakespeare in Love, returns to play Victor Prynne. Sybil Chase will be portrayed by Talley Gale, a skilled comedienne who is also making her PSF debut.

Both the set and the costume designs for Private Lives must be as elegant and sophisticated as the characters. Our designers, Roman Tatarowicz and Sarah Cubbage, have come up with a wonderful art deco environment and some beautiful gowns and formal attire that should certainly create the desired effervescence of the play. The first act occurs in a posh hotel in Deauville on the Normandy coast and the second moves to Amanda’s tasteful Parisian apartment complete with a view of the Eiffel Tower.

I hope you will join us at PSF for this witty and entertaining play about marital relationships among the upper classes and the eternal battle of the sexes.