I ONCE BEARD Kenneth Tynan tell a joke (which he admitted stealing from George Jean Nathan) about the Noel Coward school of comedy. He remarked that this species of theater is like a game of billiards with a perfectly felted table, exquisitely polished cues, and no balls.
As always, Tynan was being fashionable. At the time he exhumed that squib (which is ben trovato but totally false), it was terribly chic-in fact, radically chic theatrically-to mock Coward and his plays. In Britain, at least, that sort of silliness did not survive for long, and even Tynan himself eventually revived Coward at the National Theater. In more recent seasons London’s West End has seen revivals of the old master’s work attract audiences and make them as happy as ever they did in the Thirties and Forties. Coward’s status as a classic is now so well established that some London critics, far from knocking his work, use its excellence as a criterion to knock the actors who perform it.
Which is what happened in the latest London revival of Private Lives at the Aldwych. Coward wrote the play for himself and Gertrude Lawrence, and later described it as “a reasonably well-constructed dialogue for two experienced performers, with a couple of extra puppets thrown in to assist the plot and to provide contrast.” The plot, such as it is, begins on “the terrace of a hotel in France” with an encounter between two brittle lovers, Elyot and Amanda, who have divorced and each re-married, to Sybil and Victor, respectively. At the end of the first act Elyot and Amanda, still madly in love, desert their new spouses and decamp together to Amanda’s Paris flat. Here they chatter, sing, and quarrel. Sybil and Victor pursue them there, entering in the midst of a knock-down-and-drag-out battle between Elyot and Amanda which brings down the second-act curtain. After some well-bred argy-bargy in the third act, Sybil and Victor in their turn bicker and then attack each other quite fiercely, as Elyot and Amanda escape together, carrying suitcases.
The Aldwych production of this rice-paper play was designed as a vehicle to roll Joan Collins out of the confected, speciously glamorous existence of Dynasty-style television and back into the world of legitimate theater, where Art and Prestige lurk for those who have the strength and talent to grasp them. After the curtain rose, two things rapidly became very clear: first, control of such a vehicle as Private Lives requires the finely honed skills and reflexes of a formula-one racing driver; second, Miss Collins, although glossily enameled and lovely in her Antoinette Gregory gowns and pyjamas, belonged in the back seat of a Ford Escort. Her co-lead, Keith Baxter, might in a pinch have been the chauffeur, provided he stuck to quiet suburban streets. He was stiff, leathery in looks, and deployed a husky voice that tended to dull the edge of Coward’s brittle dialogue.
While Miss Collins and Mr. Baxter bobbed woodenly about the stage with strings on their fingers and toes, the “extra puppets” accomplished the extraordinary feat of turning the play upside down. Coward certainly intended them to be “little better than ninepins … only there at all to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again.” But, as played by Edward Duke and a delightful young actress called Sara Crowe, they came to life, like Pinocchio, and proved to be extremely funny and attractive characters, far more lively and better written than the playwright supposed.
The production upset some of the “serious” weekend newspaper critics. John Peter of the London Sunday Times was very snooty about the evening’s violation of what he describes as Coward’s “Englishness”; Mr. Peter (who by the way is Hungarian) seems to have longed for the exquisite cut-glass style and accents associated with Private Lives as played by Coward himself. It is true enough that the speech of Miss Collins and Mr. Baxter had less to do with cut glass than with a sort of beveled plastic. But, given the excellent help they received from Miss Crowe and Mr. Duke, this did not spoil the evening altogether. Michael Coveney of The Observer was relatively ferocious; he dismissed the whole show as “unspeakably crass” and “common.” His supercilious disapproval calls to mind a story told by the famous critic James Agate, who, writing on the play’s premiere, mentioned its butterfly” quality; years later he disavowed this, noting:
I saw this play a month or two ago performed in a wooden hut somewhere in Sussex to an audience not, one thinks, appreciative of butterflies. The piece had been broadened a little and what texture there was left was that of a flea-bitten hunter’s hide. And it brought the roof down, and everybody voted it to be tremendous fun, and, during the row on the sofa, the audience stamped and whistled, and shouted, “Go to it, Elyot,” “Slosh ‘im, Amanda!” I find that in 1930 I talked of this play’s “world-weary banter,” I ought to have had my brains taken out and buttered and given to a dog.
Perhaps that has happened to Mr. Coveney already; in spite of Miss Collins’s undergraduate playing and the starchiness of her leading man, both of them managed (with formidable help from Coward’s script) to be funny quite a lot of the time. They did not broaden the play so much as make their part of it a bit less shiny. Miss Collins (on the first night, and one must allow for that) repeatedly mistimed, and thus flattened, dialogue which should have gotten laughs; Mr. Baxter actually barked the play’s most famous and splendid line–“There are certain women who should be struck regularly, like gongs”-into the midst of someone else’s laugh, and so lost it. Nevertheless, like the players in that Sussex hut, this Elyot and Amanda did dispense a decent share of amusement, and were able to get through the evening without boring the audience or making us chuckle for the wrong reasons.
While these sincere fumblings were going on, Miss Crowe and Mr. Duke romped through their par perb abandon, and happily proceeded to steal the play and run away with it tucked firmly under their arms. The tall, dark, and moustached Mr. Duke huffed and puffed tweedily, and brought off the delicate feat of being a truly entertaining stuffed shirt.
Miss Crowe, on the other hand, is one of those rare performers who can walk onto a stage with the most evanescent material, and use it to break up an audience. Her performance was a sample of that delicious and prime species of comedy which draws sudden laughter from lines that would be sterile and ordinary on anyone else’s tongue. From the very first scene it was obvious that she was going to dominate the evening. Her Sybil was blonde, blue-eyed, and flighty, but did not pull faces, or wiggle her bottom, or get up to any of the other physical stunts which belong on the variety stage. The wide, round face was usually bright, hopeful, and pleased, except when the part required it to crumple into tears. The voice was light and eager, placed somewhere between a chirp and a thin whoop, and when it was funny, the effect came without visible effort.
Sara Crowe replaced the blank little Sybil of Coward’s imagination with another, more substantial creature, gurgling and sublimely silly, inspiring not just hilarity but affectionate, roaring approval from the Aldwych audience. More than anyone else in the cast, she made the difference between an evening that was just all right and one that was full of refreshing juice and joy. Whatever one might say about Miss Collins and her very late and awkward return to the London theater, she deserves thanks and a cheer for bringing this wonderful young comedienne onto the stage and-generously-letting her keep the limelight.