Dinner and a show last night—Our dinner was at Salt + Smoke, a BBQ joint in the Loop that was packed with WashU students, making me feel old by comparison. The show was Noël Coward’s Private Lives, which was performed at COCA (Center of Creative Arts), a smaller, more intimate venue than the Rep’s usual forum, the Loretto-Hilton Theater. The demographics of the Rep’s audience was such that I now felt young by comparison.
Coward’s 1930s Private Lives stars four roles. The leads are characters Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne, who were divorced and then meet again, on the adjoining balconies of their adjacent suites, for the first time since their bitter divorce, on the first night of their respective honeymoons, with their new spouses. Awkward! Elyot has married Sibyl Chase, a younger and somewhat flighty woman. While Amanda is now hitched to Victor Prynne, a rather dour and humorless man. Amanda and Elyot are the first to realize their new predicament and without telling them why, implore their respective amours to immediately flee to Paris from the Riviera resort that they have all only just arrived at, but to no avail. Faced with the seemingly unreasonable demands of their new spouses, separately both Sibyl and Victor leave the scene. This leaves Elyot and Amanda alone, first to squabble, then to commiserate, reminisce and eventually reconcile. Realizing that they are both still in love and realizing that neither of their new spouses know anything about these recent events, they both decide to sneak out together and flee to Paris, end Act One.
After intermission, Act Two opens in Amanda’s Paris flat, where we find Elyot and Amanda romancing together in bedroom attire. Elyot and Amanda invent the safety phrase “Solomon Isaacs”, to stop their arguments from getting out of hand. They kiss passionately, but the harmony cannot last, while Elyot and Amanda cannot live without each other, neither can they live with each other. They argue violently and try to outwit each other, just as they had done during their stormy marriage. Their ongoing argument escalates to a point of fury, as Amanda breaks a record over Elyot’s head, and he retaliates by slapping her face. They seem to be trapped in a repeating cycle of love and hate as their private passions and jealousies consume them. At the end of the second act and the height of their biggest fight, Sibyl and Victor walk in.
In the Thirties the second act was frequently deemed too sexual and was often censored. By today’s standards the scene seemed rather tame, but there was still enough going on to adequately suggest otherwise. It also begged the question, did the Rep have to put on this production at COCA, because the Rep’s regular landladys, the Sisters of Loretto, still found it to be too unseemly?
I will not spoil the play’s ending, except to say that Coward has found a more satisfying way to end this play, than the only logical conclusion to Amanda and Elyot’s love-hate relationship, one of them killing the other. A valid criticism of Private Lives is that Coward has found a way to make domestic violence funny.
Coward wrote Private Lives feverishly in four days, while he was recuperating in China. He planned on performing the part of Elyot and reached out by cable to Gertrude Lawrence to play the part of Amanda. He sent her the script, to which she wired back, “nothing wrong with it that can’t be fixed.” Coward wired back curtly that the only thing that needed to be fixed was her performance. An echo of their character’s on-stage tension, but also a misunderstanding. Lawrence was referring to a scheduling issue that she had. By the time Coward had returned to London, she had cleared her schedule.