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The Enduring Genius of Noel Coward
by Anthony Chase
Kavinoky’s production of Blithe Spirit opens this weekend
Once the most influential drama critic in America, George Jean Nathan (1882-1958) predicted literary oblivion for Noël Coward. “Mr. Coward occupies the successful place in our theater today that the late Clyde Fitch occupied twenty and thirty years ago,” he wrote. “Where are the plays of Fitch now? Where will the plays of Mr. Coward be when as many years have passed? As in the case of my critical reflections on Fitch in his fashionable heyday, I leave the answer to the calendar.”
Now, nearly 40 years after Coward’s death, the calendar seems to have answered. Clyde Fitch is still in literary oblivion (along with George Jean Nathan himself), and Noël Coward is a rock star—still one of the most popularly produced playwrights in the English-speaking world.
This week, the Kavinoky Theatre opens its production of Coward’s 1941 comedy classic Blithe Spirit, directed by David Lamb.
In Blithe Spirit, author Charles Condomine is seeking some authentic color for a novel about a dishonest spiritualist. He invites Madame Arcati to hold a séance at the elegant home he shares with his austere second wife, Ruth. Arcati unwittingly conjures the ghost of Condomine’s first wife, Elvira, leaving him in the precarious position of cohabitation with both wives. Meanwhile, Elvira has a plan of her own—she seeks to murder her husband, thereby reclaiming him as her own for eternity.
This was not Coward’s first comic foray into the territory of unconventional marriage.
In Design for Living (1932), his characters are uncontrollably drawn into a ménage a trois.
In Hay Fever (1924), the members of the Bliss family see the slightest suggestion of attraction as an invitation to full-blown romance and marriage.
In Private Lives (1930), Elyot and Amanda are a divorced couple. Each has remarried, but when, by coincidence, they find themselves in adjacent honeymoon suites, they realize that their new spouses bore them and that they are uncontrollably drawn to each other.
While Coward is typically identified with the urban sophistication of his style, I would argue that the essence of a Noël Coward comedy does not rest in style alone. It’s not just to be found in anyone for tennis or in cocktails for two. Rather, Coward explores sexual relationships that challenge an idea of traditional marriage.
After World War II, the cause of women’s rights would bust wide open, but even before that, while the rest of the world was braced for Doris Day, Father Knows Best, and Mamie Eisenhower, Coward seemed to know that the norms of traditional marriage, wherein confident husband and subservient ,stay-at-home wife were locked in eternal monogamy, were a fiction that was not sustainable for most people—at least not without laughing.
Couples could go to a Noël Coward play and laugh, vicariously, at the heavenly hell they had created for each other. Gay audiences could read between the lines and recognize the clues to a joyful world in which their sexuality was joyful and normal. Therefore, contrary to George Jean Nathan’s prediction, the playfully urbane plays of Noël Coward achieve universality and endure.
Noël Coward’s world is only superficially superficial. He actually wrote Blithe Spirit, a play about characters flirting with death, during World War II. In fact, he wrote the play during a one-week vacation in Wales after fleeing the Nazi bombing of London, which had destroyed his home. Not surprisingly, the play is as preoccupied with living as it is with dying.
The world of Coward’s plays is always populated with characters who are flippantly chomping at the bit of their confinement: social, sexual, spiritual, political, ectoplasmic, and otherwise. His genius is to make antics that some might consider deviant, decadent, or sinful look enormously fun!
With this in mind, we can experience Coward’s seemingly silly play with greater insight into the subtlety of his craft. He establishes the rules of the game in the very first scene. When controlling Ruth warns Charles that she’s trying to impose greater order on their household by subduing their overeager new maid, Edith, he wonders what happened to their former servant.
CHARLES: The last few days have been extremely agitating. What do you suppose induced Agnes to leave us and go and get married?
RUTH: The reason was becoming increasingly obvious, dear.
CHARLES: Yes, but in these days nobody thinks anything of that sort of thing—she could have popped into the cottage hospital, had it, and popped out again.
RUTH: Her social life would have been seriously undermined.
CHARLES: We must keep Edith in the house more.
If you doubt me, your memory is editing the play. The discussions of sex and marriage between Charles and Elvira are hilarious. The word play among Ruth, Charles, and the ghost of Elvira follows a similar theme. By the standards of 1941, comedy is the only socially acceptable way to rage against the norm and live. In this case, the legacy is a play of rare and exquisite charm—and a delightful celebration of living.
The Kavinoky cast includes Chris Kelly, Diane Curley, Kristen Tripp Kelley, Debbie Pappas, Greg Gjurich, and Megan Callahan, with Anne Gayley as Madame Arcati. The production continues through May 20. Call 829-7668
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