The name of NoÃ«l Coward is hardly synonymous with subversive theatre. But a cursory glance at its unpublished text reveals at least one reason why it has taken Semi-Monde 75 years to make the West End. With its themes of adultery and a cast at least half of which are gay or lesbian, it positively reeks of inter-war amorality - more Weimar Berlin than Weybridge, Surrey. Set in an unnamed Parisian hotel in the years 1924-6, Semi- Monde follows the changing passions of a series of guests - mostly English - behaving badly in a foreign land. As Jerome - a character evidently based on the author himself - declares in a classic Coward line, loaded with brittle ennui: "We're all silly animals, gratifying our own beastly desires, covering them with a veneer of decency and good behaviour. Lies - lies - complete rottenness..."
It's an existential cri de coeur that seems to have been bounced directly from The Vortex, the play with which Coward had made his name two years previously. With its toyboys and cocaine, The Vortex held up a mirror to 1920s society, outraging and delighting it in equal measure. Swathed in the virtual undress of his silk dressing-gown, Coward charged the mixing of cocktails and the smoking of cigarettes with a sense of ironic transgression that suffuses his early work; a sense of devil-may-care that defined the Zeitgeist. As one of the characters in the play announces, "The great thing in this world is not to be obvious, Nicky - over anything!"
In Semi-Monde, Coward carried that amorality to a uniquely dangerous degree. At a time when for two unmarried persons of the opposite sex to emerge from a hotel lift together was an act of sexual intent, its overtly homosexual and, perhaps even more shockingly, bisexual characters were seen as a threat to English morality, not least because, as role model to the new middle classes, Coward had their ear. He was the enemy within.
In the year of writing Semi- Monde - the year of the General Strike - Coward's similarly unproduced This Was A Man had been lambasted on its submission to the censors of the Lord Chamberlain's Office. Sir Douglas Dawson thundered: "Every character in this play, presumably ladies and gentlemen, leads an adulterous life and glories in doing so... I find no serious 'purpose' in the play, unless it be misrepresentation. At a time like this, what better propaganda could the Soviet instigate and finance?"
This was Coward's cardinal sin to an older generation - his lack of "serious 'purpose'". It still offends critics today. It is telling to note that at the same time, he was being openly courted by the intellectuals of Bloomsbury - Virginia Woolf professed herself to being "a little in love" with the playwright - who exhorted him to write more seriously. Although billed as "a comedy in three acts", Semi-Monde has ambitions to an almost Chekhovian despair, a commedia dell'arte mime show of the human condition, aimed at the blue stockings in the circle as much as the white-collared gallery and watered-silk stalls.
The play's setting - the va-et-vient of a posh hotel - is a scenario so classic it is difficult to remember that Coward virtually invented it. Indeed, the reason Coward gives in his memoirs for Semi-Monde's oblivion is less its "lightly suggested abnormalities" than the success of Vicky Baum's Grand Hotel in 1932. But Coward was being disingenous; as he wrote in his later drama of mÃ©nages Ã trois, Design for Living, "It's all a question of masks, really; brittle, painted masks. We all wear them as a form of protection; modern life forces us to."
The hotel could equally be in London, New York or Berlin, a nexus of the modern city in which the upwardly mobile "crawl from room to room" (as Suede's reworking of Coward's "Poor Little Rich Girl" for Neil Tennant's 20th Century Blues project had it). It is a world of vacuous It-girls and predatory men, fuelled by drink and drugs; a cultivated hothouse of de luxe indulgence enabled by an encompassing sense of modernity, flirting with the sense of its ending (Philip Prowse's 1977 production updated the last scenes of the play to the Thirties, with Hitler on the radio).
In an apocalyptic era, Coward delighted in the danse macabre of his characters, choreographing them in a sort of Syrie Maugham limbo, stage-propped with limed Louis-Quinze chairs and an endless succession of ever-more intricate cocktails. Semi-Monde's dialogue is as eschatologically bereft of meaning as it could be. Indeed, it is truly shocking when real passion explodes on the scene - "Pimp! Crawling bloody pimp!", or "Oh, Christ!" - in the kind of language Coward was always being accused by the censors of trying to sneak on to the genteel West End stage.
But his fantasy hotel was also a reality, of course, based directly on the Ritz (the play's original title was Ritz Bar). During Coward's time, the smart hotel had become the emblem of an era. Designed to lure Americans to a post-war Europe with a promise of a resurgent Old World sophistication, its bars became nightclubs by default, with a strong gay flavour. In London's version, Brian Howard - Waugh's Anthony Blanche - would be barred during the war for inciting servicemen to subversive acts and for betraying national secrets; while in the New York Ritz, Cole Porter would take up his position in one corner and lure young men like flies into his web.
The Ritz bar was therefore an arena of excess, a global branding of self-conscious decadence covered by the veneer of decency of which Jerome so spiritedly, and ironically, complains. It was the perfect setting for Coward's exposÃ© of a generation's vices. Yet the anarchic amorality that he was seen to condone in other plays - in Private Lives and Design for Living - here becomes a mechanism of dissatisfaction. "Do get La Vie Parisienne," says one character, "it's so defiantly normal."
The gay and lesbian characters in the play are doomed to unsatisfactory relationships. Constantly swapping partners, bitching and highly strung, they are caricatured, as if Coward were dissassociating himself from them and their kind. When Jerome, the Coward character, declares his intention to escape decadent Paris for the wide open spaces "where men are men", his friend laughs, "You mustn't let this bar dishearten you". Jerome replies "Oh, these don't matter - they're not even real of their kind..."
For Coward, the social-climbing suburban boy for whom taste and behaving well were the mechanisms of his ascent, it was all a matter of discretion, too. One's sexuality was not something to flaunt in the face of society (he disparaged Wilde, for instance, as "silly, conceited, inadequate... a self-deceiver" who had pre-empted his own demise).
Semi-Monde, is not, therefore, any great defence of liberalism. Ultimately, it calls for people in their place. It is a play that requires a producer of Prowse's ability to bring it to life. Maybe Coward knew as much: he prefaced his script with the instruction that "whoever produces this play must use his own discretion". It is a discretion that has kept the play under wraps all these years. Perhaps Semi-Monde threatened to say more about its author than he cared to reveal.
'Semi-Monde' opens tonight, Lyric Theatre, London W1 (020-7494 5045). Philip Hoare's 'Spike Island' is published on 5 Apr by Fourth EstateReuse content