Noël Coward Returns

The acclaimed London revival of Private Lives, starring Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, has now come to Broadway. Funny how potent chic drama is, writes Christopher Hampton.

Toward the end of 1956, Noël Coward, sitting in a Jamaican tax exile that had earned him front-page headlines in newspapers not otherwise known for their interest in the theater, and in receipt of a set of savage reviews for his new play, Nude with Violin, wrote in his diary of an especially vitriolic attack from the man he referred to as the "industrious Mr. Tynan": "He might just as well have written, 'Oh God, oh God, I wish more than anything in the world to be Noël Coward, if only for one glorious day!' " At this distance of time, this note of jaunty truculence may seem complacent; but in the circumstances (John Osborne's breakthrough with Look Back in Anger at the new Royal Court and the triumph, death, and apotheosis of Kenneth Tynan's favorite, Bertolt Brecht), Coward's professional future must have seemed to him relatively bleak, and his response to these serious assaults on his reputation seems gallantly stoic.

Our view of Coward is probably still tainted by the fifties attacks of Tynan and others. In his book Contre Sainte-Beuve, Proust explains that it's precisely the good critic who constitutes the greatest danger to the public. This doesn't mean that Proust is against good criticism; he simply identifies the paradox that Sainte-Beuve, despite being regarded as the best literary critic of his generation, managed subtly to misunderstand, misrepresent, and patronize, without exception, all the greatest writers of the mid-19th century, including those he most approved of. It's possible to imagine a book along the same lines called Contre Kenneth Tynan (or, for that matter, Contre Pauline Kael); one of the conclusions of such a work might be that Tynan launched himself quixotically at the edifice known as Noël Coward without paying much attention to the modest building across the street that housed the texts of his plays.

It's true that Coward was an imposing physical presence, looking, as he himself once memorably remarked, "like a heavily doped Chinese Illusionist." And there was that extraordinary voice, like an off-duty ventriloquist, or a man courageously ignoring the removal of innumerable cactus spines from his fleshy parts. What's more, he cast a giant shadow and, however formidable his interlocutor, was fearless in delivering his opinions ("I thought Blithe Spirit was director-proof," he told David Lean, "but you seem to have managed to fuck it up"). In short, what needs to be done perhaps is to detach Coward's plays from the pervasive influence of his ebullient personality and debonair image. Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra, I'd hazard a guess, when they decided to do cover versions of "Mack the Knife," had not heard, and were therefore unaffected by, the mesmerizingly peculiar version of the song recorded by Brecht himself. In the same way, we need somehow to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of the clipped vowels and percussive consonants of Coward's unmistakable voice.

The problem is particularly acute in those plays, like Private Lives, that Coward made most unforgettably his own. And, in writing about the play, Coward himself seems half-aware of this difficulty. He refers to it as "more tricky and full of pitfalls than anything I have ever attempted as an actor." He apologizes for "my dastardly and conscienceless behaviour towards Sibyl and Victor, the secondary characters . . . poor things . . . little better than ninepins, lightly wooden, and only there at all in order to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again." (Is there an awareness here of the complaints of Laurence Olivier, the original Victor?) And he finally dismisses the play as "leav[ing] a lot to be desired" while attributing its success to "irreverent allusions to copulation . . . causing a gratifying number of respectable people to queue up at the box office."

I don't think many people (possibly not even Kenneth Tynan) would so airily dismiss Private Lives today. Granted, it may not have the heft of Mourning Becomes Electra or Brecht's Galileo (to choose two more or less contemporary plays); but on the other hand, as Chekhov observed, any fool can write a tragedy. A light comedy as perfect as this comes along very rarely indeed, and I think we may take it for granted that the easier it looks, the harder it was to write. All its virtues—exquisite construction, faultless deployment of adjectives (an important talent, whatever Hemingway might have asserted to the contrary), and psychological insight (I think the perception that bickering is sex pursued by other means qualifies)—were precisely those calculated to appeal least to the inchoate, rudely stirring beast that was trying in 1956 to formulate a theatrical response to Britain's hypocritical complacencies, our delusions of grandeur, and our international disgrace.

But nearly 50 years on (and 72 years after Private Lives was actually written, somehow unsurprisingly, in Shanghai), we can see that the building was so well crafted, there seems no reason it shouldn't stay standing indefinitely. Its owner, too, remains firmly established in the affections of the public. (It's hard not to like a man who, toward the end of his life, wrote, "I don't look back in anger, nor indeed in anything approaching even mild rage; I rather look back in pleasure and amusement.") Now that he's left the building with his cigarette holder and his silk dressing gown, there's no reason the new tenants shouldn't make the old place look even more appealing.


Rickman and Duncan, Together Again

Seventeen years ago, Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan played a pair of calculating, predatory monsters in Howard Davies' scintillating production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Now they are reunited in Davies' groundbreaking revival of Private Lives, which liberates the play from the confines of staccato Coward camp. Seeing Rickman and Duncan together is like watching Astaire and Rogers dance: While both are wonderfully expressive, they nearly always seem like two halves of one person.

This theatrical marriage was forged not in heaven but in Stratford-upon-Avon. Both actors joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985 after remarkably parallel careers. Rickman honed his craft in regional theater and in new-writing venues such as the Royal Court and the Bush Theatre; Duncan similarly progressed from Manchester to the metropolis. After appearing together at Stratford in Troilus and Cressida, they were given the leads in Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

Rickman's drawling, sensual languor as the Vicomte de Valmont was perfectly matched by Duncan's porcelain-cold beauty as the ex-lover who spurs him on to seduce a 15-year-old virgin: These were two silk-swathed egotists proving that couples who prey together invariably stay together. "A lot of people left the theater wanting to have sex," observed Duncan a few years later, "most of them with Alan Rickman." The show became a West End and Broadway hit, though to their chagrin Rickman and Duncan lost their roles in the ineffective movie version to John Malkovich and Glenn Close.

Since their two-year stint in Liaisons, Rickman and Duncan's careers have diverged. Rickman, in addition to directing The Winter Guest on stage and screen, has acquired a reputation as a Hollywood heavy with a gift for stealing pictures: As a stylish thief in Die Hard he out-acted Bruce Willis; as a high-camp Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves he left Kevin Costner looking disconsolate in green tights; and as professor Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone he did his own bit of breaking and entering. Duncan, meanwhile, has become one of the foremost interpreters of Harold Pinter: In 1996 at the Royal Court she created the role of the enigmatic Rebecca in Ashes to Ashes, and in last summer's Pinter festival at New York's Lincoln Center she moved stunningly, in the course of an evening, from a beleaguered slattern in The Room to a vivacious vulgarian in Celebration.

Rickman's fire melts Duncan's ice. In Private Lives they advance brilliantly from breathless reunion on the balcony of a Gaudí-esque hotel to bickering violence in a Strindbergian red-plush apartment. They lend Coward's masterpiece an unexpected emotional reality and prove that their onstage partnership is itself a wild and dangerous liaison.
—Michael Billington

"Private Lives" is scheduled for a limited run through August 11. Richard Rodgers Theatre, 226 West 46th Street, New York. For information about tickets, call Ticketmaster, 212-307-4100; box office, 212-221-1211.