Friday, January 22, 2021

Private Lives by Noel Coward

I've been really trying to read more plays the last couple of years, for several reasons. First, because I've really gotten into theater; because I realized it's a whole genre of writing that I've largely ignored; and finally, because they're really quick reads (every year I set a goal of 100 books to read and I'll admit I have read plays in December so I can make my quota -- silly, I know, but I can't help myself). 

I'm also always looking for things to listen to while walking, and while browsing the library's Overdrive catalog, I saw that there were some Noel Coward plays with full-cast recordings. In December I listened to a recording of Coward's Blithe Spirit, which I loved but never got around to reviewing. I also found Private Lives, a short play which is one of his most popular, so I was happy to find it. I listened to the entire thing in the course of a day, over two walks, as it's just over an hour long. 

Basically, it's the story of two British couples: Elyot and Sibyl, and Victor and Amanda. We first meet Ellyot and Sibyl, a couple on their honeymoon in a resort in Deauville, on the coast of France. They've just arrived and Sibyl somehow brings up the subject of Elyot's previous marriage to Amanda. Little do they know that Amanda has also just remarried, to Victor. . . and they're also honeymooning. . . in Deauville. In the same hotel. In fact, Amanda and Victor are in the next suite, and they share a balcony. To their mutual horror, Ellyot and Amanda encounter one another, and, aghast, try to convince their respective new spouses to leave the hotel and honeymoon in Paris instead -- without admitting that their exes are in the next room. Basically, it's a bedroom farce and naturally all goes wrong, setting up comedic events in which the couples have to decide whether or not they're better off married -- and to whom.

This sounds like the setup for a fun and rollicking farce, and in parts, it is. However, I wasn't prepared for the fact that there's a history of domestic violence in the relationship between Amanda and Elyot -- and it occurs again, and it seems like it's played for laughs. (There's also a lot of bickering and shouting that also would have made me really uncomfortable, even without the domestic violence). The play was originally written in 1930, and hopefully, domestic violence is taken much more seriously now. I don't know if Private Lives is still performed regularly and how it's addressed. I know there's a film version from 1931, and there's a recorded version from the West End, but I haven't watched either of them. I may have to try them and reserve judgment. Parts of the play are very witty and some of the characters get in some real zingers when they're arguing, but mostly it made me really uncomfortable. But I did love Blithe Spirit so I'm not going to give up on Noel Coward just yet. 

I'm counting this as my Classic Play for the Back to the Classics Challenge.

11 comments:

  1. Enjoyed the review! I never thought of listening to plays -- what a great idea. I've not read very many plays and nothing by Noel Coward. I did, however, see this one performed many, many years ago; the emphasis was totally on the wit, dialogue and bedroom farce elements. I didn't pick up on the domestic violence aspects but as you point out, the play was written in a different age and for an audience that wasn't at all sensitive to the issue (same was true when I saw it). Isn't it interesting, how a contemporary audience (or reader) can pick up on aspects of a classic work that the author was probably unaware of?

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    1. I wish I could find more plays on audio! It's a nice break from books but there aren't that many available from Overdrive, mostly Shakespeare. What's great is if you can get a full-cast recording. It makes me feel like I'm listening to it on the wireless in pre-TV times.

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  2. I saw a production of this here in Toronto a couple of years ago--they did soften the violence a bit. It was pretty entertaining.

    The same company did Blithe Spirit a few years earlier, which I did like better.

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    1. I loved Blithe Spirit! I can see a little of the bickering couples but it was much more fun.

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  3. I've never read or seen any Noel Coward plays. Your comment about the casual treatment/acceptance of domestic violence makes me think of The Honeymooners with Jackie Gleason and Audrey Meadows. The threat was always there.

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    1. I've never watched The Honeymooners but I've heard about him threatening to send her to the moon. Yikes.

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    2. Like Ruthiella, I, too, have thought of Jackie Gleason in this context! My memory's a little faulty here, but I think The Honeymooners got even worse. Something along the lines of "one day Alice, pow! right in the kisser!' Thankfully, some things can no longer be said, at least in the media . . .

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  4. Attitudes have changed so much toward domestic violence (at least in the more enlightened). It was once not just accepted but recommended. That can be really disturbing to encounter on the stage but it sounds like this one could be tempered a bit by the production.

    It's good to hear that you like to read plays -- I'm planning a "Reading the Theatre" event in March and I hope you'll join us!

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    1. It seemed like their volatile relationship was a key part of the plot, but I would love to see that toned down, it made me so uncomfortable. I can't imagine what it would be like for an audience member who had actually encountered domestic violence.

      And I would love to join in your Reading the Theater event! I have so many more plays I want to read!

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  5. I saw this onstage several years ago and it was hilarious. Their 'fighting' reminded me a lot of the characters in The Taming of the Shrew. I can see where reading it would give it a different feel, but when performed live it does make you laugh.

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  6. I saw a wonderful production of Private Lives in New York with Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan. I became such a Coward fan that a few years ago I went to a small production in Boston just of his songs and bought a few CDs.

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