by Frances E. Dolan
I fell for Noël Coward around the same time I fell for Shakespeare, singing Coward’s songs and studying Shakespeare’s plays. And when I became a professional Shakespeare scholar, I never chose one passion over the other. So for me it is perfect that this season makes it possible to carry on with both playwrights at once. The opportunity to spy into Noël Coward’s Private Lives just months before seeing Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew reveals both how much had changed between 1592 and 1930—and how much remains the same even today.
Private Lives depicts a divorced couple, Amanda and Elyot, who honeymoon with their new spouses, Victor and Sybil, in the same hotel, rekindle their attraction, and run off together. This plot would have been quite unimaginable in Shakespeare’s England where what we would recognize as divorce—that is, a dissolution of marriage that leaves one free to marry again—was almost impossible to attain. One of the reasons Petruchio and Katharine have to come to some accommodation in the course of The Taming of the Shrew is that, once they marry, they have no way out. In contrast, Coward invites us to consider the issues and opportunities that arise when one is wholly free to choose a partner and free to leave. What are the ties that really bind?
I overheard members of a New York audience speculating that director Howard Davies had made the play more violent. He had not. In the script, Amanda and Elyot both confess to striking one another. She remembers how “very satisfying” it was to break four gramophone records over his head; they reminisce laughingly about a fight that was a “rouser” in which Elyot first hit her. Act 2 ends with a fight in which he slaps her and she “fetch[es] him a welt across the face,” and they are found by their new spouses rolling around on the floor. Violence is not a symptom of marital dysfunction or breakdown in Private Lives but rather integral to the very fabric of this marriage; it is part of what Amanda and Elyot miss.
What keeps the violence funny is that Amanda and Elyot are obviously enjoying themselves and neither stays down—or up—for long. In some of his comedies, though not in Shrew, Shakespeare allows his lovers to meet on equal terms by placing his heroines in breeches, at least for a time. Coward makes his husband and wife absolutely rather than temporarily equal. Amanda has her own Paris apartment, her own income, her own affairs, her own power to hurt. This equality leads to some blurring of gender differences. Elyot seems to find the “completely feminine” Sibyl less interesting than the “half masculine” Amanda, who can match him round for round. Amanda, in turn, prefers Elyot to the paternal Victor. The recognition that equals rather than opposites might attract—that Orlando might want to marry his Ganymede, or Orsino his Cesario, so to speak—is one Coward shares with Shakespeare.
In Private Lives, equality results in a standoff; that’s what we usually mean by the battle of the sexes. But Coward does not offer us the conventional resolution. Neither spouse gives up or gives in here. If Petruchio is said to run a “taming school” in which other husbands learn to master their wives, Amanda and Elyot run a co-ed fighting school with Sybil and Victor as pupils!
Although Amanda and Elyot seek domestic peace with their new spouses, they run away from it as too “frowsy.” They want mad passion. But can they find it in marriage? The play dares to ask what constitutes “normal” marriage anyway. “I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives,” Amanda suggests, disparaging marriage as the problem and not the solution; “it was just the fact of our being married, and clamped together publicly, that wrecked us before.” While some Shakespeare characters express a fear that marriage might destroy or diminish love, Amanda confronts this fear in a way that is only possible when marriage is optional, divorce available.
Under such conditions, one expects more rather than less of marriage. For all their world-weariness, Amanda and Elyot confess an urgent longing to sustain their big love, to figure out some way to live together without committing murder. This longing is captured in the lyrics of their song: “I’ll leave you never, love you forever, all our past sorrows redeeming.” Someday. To admit such a dream is also to admit that it might not come true. The play’s poignancy springs from the same well as its humor: the primitive emotions seething beneath a veneer of sophistication. Coward does not offer us a clear “take home” message about marriage—although one might want to remember some of the juicier insults. But, at a time when marriage remains a controversial topic, Private Lives invites us to question what we want from marriage and how hard we’re willing to fight to get it.