Coward By Reputation

Until recently I only knew Noel Coward by reputation. I expected well-groomed characters, theatrical overinduglence, and rampant alchoholism in his work; the rest was just a guess. Recently I’ve become more familiar with Coward, but I don’t think I like what I see. Some examples:

  1. Last summer Teresa and I saw Princeton Summer Theater‘s production of Private Lives, with our very own John Elliott directing. Like their prior production of Proof, I left disappointed in the play itself. Private Lives owes a lot to The Importance of Being Earnest (trivial comedy, serious people, etc.), but unlike Earnest, Private Lives is visibly uncomfortable with its plot. The play’s characters are so delicately put into their appropriate, mayhem-ready places that I felt exhausted before any of the domestic abuse began.
  2. Last month I saw Shakespeare ’70’s production of Hay Fever featuring Mel and my former brothers Curt and Pat. Here Coward increases the character count, offering four eccentric family members and four manipulated houseguests, and it takes four times as long to get the play moving. Some scenes are especially funny, but after a while I wondered: why don’t the guests just leave? Then they do. And that’s it.
  3. And earlier this evening I finished reading Blithe Spirit. Here Coward’s trademark unflappable absurdity overran my patience. The spectral Elvira moves back home without any consideration of her own state of being. Charles is also far too disinterested in whether either of his wives are breathing or not. And why is there no wonder, no awe of the supernatural world? Charles resigns himself to its existence while Ruth flatly rejects it—there’s no middle ground.

Blithe Spirit was a big disappointment; it failed to deliver anything as sexy or supernatural as even Dan Ackroyd’s ghost blowjob in Ghostbusters. Coward’s work just seems plain uncomfortable onstage, as if it’s too much work just to put it there. But I want more!

And there is more that can be done with Coward’s plays. I’ll discuss what very soon.

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