Sir Noel Peirce Coward (1899-1973) was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, known for his wit, flamboyance, and what Time Magazine called “a sense of personal style, a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise.”
Coward was born in southwest London and made his stage debut at age eleven. As a teen, he was introduced to the high society in which most of his plays were set. He published over 50 plays in his lifetime, the most notable among them being Design for Living, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit, and Private Lives. Coward also composed hundreds of songs, including “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “I Went to a Marvellous Party.” He also wrote over a dozen musicals and operettas. Coward’s acting career spanned six decades, and he starred in many of his own works.
Though Coward never publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, it was discussed openly and candidly after his death by various biographers, including his long-time partner Graham Payn.
Private Lives is a satiric comedy of manners which focuses on a divorced couple who, while honeymooning with their new spouses, discover they are staying in adjacent rooms at the same hotel. Despite a perpetually stormy relationship, Elyot and Amanda realize they still have feelings for each other.
Coward wrote the play while recovering from the flu. It took him two weeks to outline the piece but only four days to actually write the play. When the work was completed, Coward immediately cabled his friend and frequent collaborator, actress Gertrude Lawrence, to ask her to star in the play. Allegedly, Coward received thirty telegrams from Lawrence about the play. Her first said that she read the play and that there was “nothing wrong with it that can’t be fixed.” In true form, Coward wired back to say that the only thing that would need to be fixed would be Lawrence’s performance.
After touring the British provinces, Private Lives opened at the Phoenix Theatre in London in 1930. The original production starred Coward as Elyot, Adrianne Allen as Sybil, Gertrude Lawrence as Amanda, and Laurence Olivier as Victor. The original production, particularly the Second Act, were considered quite risque, and the play was even censored in Britain.
The original production was also plagued with mixed to negative reviews. The Times called it entertaining but questioned if different performers could make something of the material. Critic Allardyce Nicoll called it “amusing, no doubt, yet hardly moving farther below the surface than a paper boat in a bathtub and, like the paper boat, ever in imminent danger of becoming a shapeless, sodden mass.” The Manchester Guardian had a similar response: “The audience evidently found it a good entertainment, but Mr. Coward certainly had not flattered our intelligence. The play appears to be based on the theory that anything will do provided it be neatly done.” When the text was published, critics continued to harshly dissect the piece. The Times called it “unreadable,” and The Times Literary Supplement added that it was “inexpressibly tedious.”
Despite its initial troubles, Private Lives has become a classic and is unquestionably one of Coward’s most enduring works. It has been revived over half a dozen times in both the West End and Broadway with stars ranging from Richard Burton, Alan Rickman, Tallulah Bankhead, Elizabeth Taylor, Maggie Smith, and Kim Cattrall.