Elyot and Amanda call it quits after three tumultuous years of marriage. Five years later, they are trapped on adjoining terraces, honeymooning in the same French hotel—with their new partners in hand. Commiseration turns into reminiscence. Bathed in moonlight and distant music, their passion reignites and, heedless of the consequences, they decide that they belong together—though destined to relive what drove them apart the first time.
Writing with himself and long-time friend Gertrude Lawrence in mind to play Elyot and Amanda, Noël Coward went on to produce and star in the 1930 debut of Private Lives. As unemployment in Britain rose to 18% in the first years of the Great Depression, plays like Coward’s were regarded as entertaining escapism from the harsh realities of daily life. The so-called “well-made” plays, including Private Lives, were deemed light entertainment in comparison to the emerging works of realist and naturalist drama, preoccupied with stark portrayals of the conflicts and disappointments of the new modern era. Coward’s exploration of interpersonal tension, however, provided keen insight into the complexity of human emotions.
In the 1960s a surge of revivals secured the play’s popularity and lasting appeal for decades to come. John Gielgud directed Maggie Smith and John Standing in the third Broadway revival of Private Lives in 1975. Smith’s broad, almost-caricature portrayal of Amanda earned the actress critical praise for eschewing the dry subtlety of previous interpretations. In 1983 Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s own “private lives” formed a portentous parallel to Coward’s script. Feverish anticipation of the pairing earned over three million dollars in advance ticket sales but proved lukewarm onstage, and the “glamorous fiasco” closed a month early. Howard Davies’ 2002 post-modern production, starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, renewed the play by grounding its story in reality while maintaining the comedic integrity of the script. The honeymoon hotel resembled a beautiful, multi-tiered wedding cake that could topple over at any moment. New ingenuity has brought Coward’s work successfully into a new age, where his awareness and honesty as a playwright has continued to shape theater today.
Noël Coward was born in 1899 in Teddington, South London. Coward made his professional stage debut at the age of 11, saw his first play produced at 17, and reached London’s West End as both writer and actor at the age of 20. Coward gained critical acclaim and personal celebrity in 1924 with the sensation caused
by his play The Vortex. Over the next two decades he achieved fame through a string of revues, songs and plays—Hay Fever (1925), Fallen Angels (1925), Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1933), Tonight at 8:30 (1936), Blithe Spirit (1941) and Present Laughter (1943). His screenplays include Brief Encounter and Best Picture Academy Award-winner In Which We Serve. Coward was knighted in 1970, and received a Tony Award for distinguished achievement in 1971. He died at his home in Bermuda in 1973.
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