Private Lives: Cocktails at Dawn

Noël Coward's 'Private Lives' may exude sex and glamour, says his biographer Philip Hoare, but beneath the shimmering surface of the play - revived in the West End this week - lies the true story of its author's own tortured passions
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Can a 70-year old play, written by a cocktail hedonist born in the 19th century (just), really have anything to say to an audience in the 21st century? A good test will be the return to the West End this week of Private Lives, Noël Coward's famous drama about Amanda and Elyot, the sparring ex-husband and wife who meet again over an hotel balcony on the honeymoons of their respective second marriages. So successful was the play when it opened in 1931 that it made its writer the highest-earning author in the world.

The mere fact of the play's regular appearance in the repertoire indicates a certain immortality – although it is one which Coward himself almost superstitiously rejected. Indeed, he outraged his critics by declaring, after a three-month London run, that he was closing it, reasoning, "It is, of course, more than possible that I might write and appear in a play that wouldn't run three weeks. In that bleak moment, age permitting, I shall turn gratefully to a revival of Private Lives". Which is what theatre companies have been doing ever since.

The play came at a crucial point in Coward's career. The mid-Twenties scandals of The Vortex and Easy Virtue had alerted the public to his talent as an acidic chronicler of the Bright Young People generation; he had then confounded expectation with the frankly nostalgic – and massively lucrative – Bitter Sweet; while at the same time pleasing Bloomsbury intellectuals with his social acuity. Rebecca West announced that Coward "had a better grasp of what was going wrong in our society than Shaw".

With the turning of the flapper Twenties (with their infantilist pursuits, elsewhere satirised by Evelyn Waugh) into the more sophisticated – and ultimately more serious – Thirties, the expectation for a new Coward work was at fever-pitch. Typically, Coward reacted by leaving the country. Touring the Far East, with 27 pieces of luggage, a gramophone, and the aristocrat, Jeffrey (Earl) Amherst, Coward went on a voyage of escape, unsure of his fame, and his friends. He was, however, sure of his love for Amherst, a dashing officer, war hero, and future BOAC pilot (later Amherst would fly to Germany, just to get a good look at Hitler).

But the affection was unrequited – Amherst was more interested in a New York boxer called Gerry MacCarthy whom he'd left behind in Jersey City – and it is obvious that that tension surfaced in the play which Coward began to write in the Cathy Hotel, Shanghai.

Theatrical legend has it that Private Lives was written to give Coward and his co-star Gertrude Lawrence "whacking good parts"; but since my biography of the playwright was published in 1995, I have become convinced that the theme of the play – a couple who can live neither together, nor apart – reflects the complicated private life of its author. Frustrated in his affections for Amherst, Coward had subsequently become caught up in an ultimately disastrous relationship with his manager, Jack Wilson – a Yale-educated stockbroker with the looks of a blurred Brando – whom Coward had met and fallen in love with in 1925.

Photographs from private albums show Coward and Wilson together, playing happy couples at Coward's Kentish farmhouse, Goldenhurst. And initially Wilson's business acumen worked in Coward's favour – not least in the fact that five years later, Noel Coward Ltd was earning £50,000 per annum. But Wilson was unfaithful, alcoholic, and bisexual, and in 1936 would marry Natasha Paley, a White Russian princess. The tension between this reality and the idealised love Coward sought with Amherst, underlies the emotional tug-of-war of the play's main characters. And as Amanda declares in Act I, "I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives".

I met Earl Amherst (to whom Coward dedicated Private Lives) while working on my book. He was then in his late eighties, still active in the Lords, especially interested in the arts (revealingly, a volume on Bruce Weber lay on the top of the coffee-table pile in his Sloane Square house). Diminutive, still handsome with extraordinary blue eyes, he gave little away in our interview beyond his evident and still residual affection for Coward; his own private life was not about to be breached. Later, in New York, I was summoned to an Upper Eastside brownstone for an audience with Katharine Hepburn; in her characteristic vibrato, she spoke of Jack Wilson, and in veiled terms of his betrayal of her friend, "dear Noël". These stories still lie under the surface of the play; even now, six years after having published my book, they seem unsettled, and elusive, to me.

When Private Lives first hit the West End in the autumn of 1931, it was wreathed in the glamour of its creator (who played Elyot) and Lawrence (Amanda). The play opened the brand-new, state-of-the-art Phoenix Theatre on Charing Cross Road. In this glittering art deco interior, with its special noiseless fans and 1,200 coatpegs (one for every seat), people flocked to see the two greatest theatre celebrities of their time. Habituées (as they would be now) of The Ivy, omnipresent in tabloid newspapers, always arriving and leaving from some transatlantic liner, this luminous pair slugged out the astonishing Act II fight which epitomises the intense sexual passion of Private Lives.

It is salutary to recall now how outrageous the play was for its time. It was an age in which, as the abdication later showed, divorce was a scandal and adultery beyond the pale. The overtly extra-martial sex of the play, and the apparent amorality of the cosmopolitan Amanda and Elyot (sun-tanned in the style which Coward and Lawrence had made fashionable), provided a delicious frisson of "what if" for their suburban audiences (and it is telling to note that the canny Coward toured the provinces with Private Lives, playing Edinburgh, Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and Southsea before bringing it into the West End, its track record proven).

Coward also cast a handsome and upcoming young actor, Laurence Olivier, and the glamorous Adrienne Allen, in the other two roles, giving them a weight their parts might not necessarily have suggested; and he cleverly inserted, Lloyd-Webber style, a hit song, "Someday I'll Find You", to maximise the benefits. The package was complete. And then, just as it hit its peak, as his fame could glow no brighter, he decamped to Broadway with the show, leaving everyone wanting more. No one in the inter-war period was more adept at the propagation of his own image and work than Coward.

Since then, the play has become the epitome of that sterling image, an avatar of cosmopolitan sophistication, even when played in a church hall in the Home Counties. As Wilde brought decadence to lowly clerks from Croydon, so Coward could impart a sense of exquisite hedonism to semi-detached homes in Britain's sprawling new suburbs. Indeed, that was the key to his success; a success which time and the vagaries of less demanding directors eroded. Only with the revival of interest in Coward's work in the early 1960s was the play reassessed, with a crucial London production by James Roose-Evans in 1963 which used a young cast and a contemporary setting, and, in New York that year, a less successful attempt by Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton to read their own highly public relationship into Coward's plot.

Meanwhile, directors such as Alan Strachan noted that previous critics had "missed the underlying sadness of these glib and over-articulate people who twist their lives into distorted shapes because they cannot help themselves" – an intellectualisation Coward himself typically fought shy of, calling his most famous play "psychologically unstable" and "as a complete play it leaves a lot to be desired". As he told a reporter in 1969, "No, I have no social causes. I can't think of any offhand. If I could, they'd be very offhand".

The play, voted one of the best British works of the last century in a National Theatre poll, continues to attract directors and actors who feel drawn to its classic qualities in the way they are to Shakespeare or Chekhov (the last major revival was Philip Franks' at the National Theatre in 1999). Such productions indicate that it is not just an historically interesting piece, or a crowd-pleaser brought out to swell slow box-offices (although it is both of these, too). As a product of a modern, mediated age, Coward still speaks to us. The play is a frame for glamour and talent; its thin, almost non-existent plot – described by John Lahr as "minimal as an art deco curve" – is a mere maquette for the leading players to build upon. Its immediacy draws on a sense of improvisation, as though the actors were making it up as they go along. Of course, this is in itself the product of immaculate timing. And timing is what Coward is all about.

Above all, the power of Private Lives lies in its sense of sexual transgression (and at least one 1930s critic saw Amanda as a man in drag). Suspended in their deluxe limbo, Amanda and Elyot play with each other's emotions, toying with their inconstancy. In this, the casting of Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman in the new production by Howard Davies (who directed the pair in Les Liaisons Dangereuses) is both adventurous and appropriate. Their talents – Duncan's simmering and deceptive calm, Rickman's veiled threat of wickedness – are perfectly pitched to source the faint air of dangerous decadence that troubles the play; a sense of antediluvian hedonism with a paradoxical innocence that now, even more in the light of current world events, seems both nostalgic and contemporary. That lost emotion, the evanescence of their attachment, would seem to be all too apposite in our current state of flux.

The last West End Coward revival, earlier this year, was the deeply decadent and pre-apocalyptic Semi Monde, which worked as a reflection of a London which, as William Gaunt wrote, was "awash with a sea of sovereigns". In the same way, just as Private Lives was a serious reaction and a coda to the decadence of the flippant 1920s, so it now seems to stand in our own unsteady era as a monument to a lost time – our own recent hedonism.

'Private Lives', Albery Theatre, London WC2 (020 7369 1730), Thurs to 6 January 2002. 'Noël Coward: A Biography' by Philip Hoare, is published by University of Chicago Press