Private Lives by Noël Coward

Irish Classical Theatre Company, Buffalo, NY 2004

My program notes

When this play was first produced, the British theatrical impresario Ivor Brown wrote, “Within a few years, the student of the drama will be sitting in complete bewilderment before the text of Private Lives, wondering what on earth those fellows in 1930 saw in so flimsy a trifle.” Despite summary dismissal by its original critics as a piece of fluff, Private Lives has never been out of production since Noël Coward wrote it more than seventy years ago.

We should all be lucky enough to find the love and the passion that Amanda and Elyot recover in one another. We should all be down on our knees, fasting, to avoid the arguments and the violence which crackle through their relationship like static through a radio tube. Private Lives is to do with love, with sex, with silence and argument as aphrodisiacs and intimate communications, with being able unexpectedly to recover that which one perceived to be irretrievably lost. The play makes love with words, the violent ones as well as the overtly romantic. It also damns social conventions completely, flirting continuously with the drawn-in-the-drifting-sand boundary between personal restraint and interpersonal chaos.

Black comedy / light comedy / sex comedy

Critic Sean O’Connor describes Private Lives as a “superb black comedy of sexual manners masquerading as a light comedy.” Amanda and Elyot share a sense of play; a rich, vulnerable, demanding love for one another; and also a primal anxiety about the wave of modernity upon which they luxuriously ride. They perceive themselves to be the cutting edge; it is this very edge on which they cut both themselves and one another. They strain against the unexpected manifestations of the conventional within themselves and certainly within their new spouses; they cannot quite reconcile their “laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths” philosophy with their sexual jealousies and their underlying agita over the day-to-day business of life, love and death in a “marvelous age” of technological developments, cosmetic enhancement and impending world war. An abiding, spirited, determined, even argumentative love is a welcome buttress in times such as those, and, indeed, such as these.

Critic comedy of manners (or the lack thereof)

I overheard the critic for the Niagara Gazette, who gave the production 4 stars out of 5 in his review, at intermission saying that my program notes made him want to gag. That, of course, is his perogative, however tactlessly expressed.

Reviews

The Buffalo News:
“Tight and bright Private Lives… impressively assembled by visiting director Kathleen Powers. There is ample opportunity for physical comedy in this play; Powers tones it down, opting for flirt and the built-in verbal blasts rather than rough-and-tumble. Amusing and diverting it is, this is an ensemble to remember… the Irish Classical does these types of plays very, very well… Seeing it discloses what all the shouting has been about for the past 70-plus years.”

The Jamestown Post Journal:
“The Irish Classical Theatre Company is presenting a sensitive and yet wonderfully funny production of Private Lives, one of theatre’s most difficult playwrights: Noël Coward. Director Kathleen Powers has gone a bit to the humorous side of the line, but has found much of the humanity in the play as well.”

The Spectrum:
“Director Kathleen Powers juxtaposes the two sides of the play perfectly, having each couple take the stage alone at first, them having them split, and eventually bringing it all to a head in the second act.”

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Shakespeare can transform a human heart.
– Curt Tofteland, Shakespeare Behind Bars

You lie, in faith, for you are called plain Kate,
And bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst;
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendom,
Kate of Kate Hall, my super-dainty Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore, Kate,
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation…
--The Taming of the Shrew, Act II, scene i