Noël Coward – The Impossibility of Love
had one of her plays, Sweet Aloes, produced in the West End and was now working on another based on Keats and Fanny Brawne. As a travelling companion, she took her great friend Noël Coward. When they returned to London six days later, Joyce was still wrestling with Fanny Brawne. Coward had the completed manuscript of Blithe Spirit.
“For some time past an idea for a light comedy had been rattling at the door of my mind,” said Coward, “and I thought the time had come to let it in and show it a little courtesy…. Beyond a few typographical errors, I made no corrections, and only two lines of the original script were ultimately cut.”
The play opened only a month later on June 16 in Manchester, and then at London’s Piccadilly Theatre on July 2. It ran for 1997 performances, outlasting World War II (a West End record until The Mousetrap overtook it).
Some early critics were skeptical of the subject matter. How could audiences be expected to ﬁnd death amusing in the middle of a war? Yet, clearly they did. The Daily Mail summed it up as “fantastic fun” and, paraphrasing Shelley, concluded:
Hail to thee, Blithe
Spirit, Bird thou’ll
And it never has, even though it’s one of the most revived of his plays.
Coward gave the play the subtitle “An Improbable Comedy” but Harold Pinter sensed a deeper meaning, common to many of Coward’s major plays. When he directed a revival of Blithe Spirit at The National Theatre in 1976, Pinter insisted to his cast at the start of rehearsals that he considered the play to be neither improbable nor a comedy. He had already realized from a study of Private Lives that “a character could stand on a stage and say one thing and the audience would know he actually meant something else!” Pinter would elaborate on that insight in his own work ever after.
Comedy was always Coward’s way of making a serious point. “I am light-minded. I would inevitably write a comedy if – God help me! – I wanted to write a play with a message.” Perhaps it was his deliberate intention to appear trivial, never to wear his heart anywhere near his sleeve. What he might have said was that he realized that comedy and tragedy are essentially two sides of the same coin. With the 20-20 clarity of hindsight, however, it becomes clear that beneath the brittle carapace of witty words, much of his work had as its unifying theme the tragic impossibility of love.
In Private Lives, Elyot and Amanda cannot live with each other or without each other. In their struggle, which will go on after they steal away and the play ends, they leave the debris of everyone who comes near them, and will go on doing so, for this is not an ending but an intermission. They are unconscious killers.
The same thing happens in Design For Living for Gilda, Otto and Leo. The secondary characters who cross their paths are irrelevant to their selﬁsh needs and casually discarded as they work out the variations in their romance-à-trois. Others must clean up the emotional mess. In Fallen Angels, Julia and Jane have settled for predictably boring marriage until the prospect of a visit from the Gallic lover they had once shared suggests the possibility of an old ﬂame rekindling the odd ember.
In Blithe Spirit, Charles Condomine is, for the purposes of the play, a bigamist. As played by Cecil Parker in the original production, he is a conventional middle-aged man, comfortable, if not ecstatic, in his second marriage to Ruth. Then the shade of his ﬁrst wife, Elvira, returns, reminding him of the lows and also a few of the highs of what once was. But Blithe Spirit is only incidentally about ghosts and the hereafter. It’s really about marital discord in the present continuing for all time. The impossibility of love, doubled.
Coward’s expressed view of love and marriage was consistent from very early on. It may end in tragedy as in The Astonished Heart or Bitter Sweet, or in futility, as in Easy Virtue. At its most romantic, love is something that nearly but never was and now never will be, as in Brief Encounter. Never was and therefore able to endure as romance unsoiled in the minds of Laura and Alec. In the minds of the audience too, which is presumably why The Guardian recently placed Brief Encounter at the top of its poll for the most romantic ﬁlm of all time. Casablanca and Gone With The Wind were second and third respectively.
Over the years and through his plays, poems and songs, Coward conducted a constant debate about love through his characters.
“Tell me, tell me, tell me, what is Love?” asks the young Sari in Bitter Sweet. “Is it some consuming ﬂame / Part of the Moon, part of the Sun / Part of a dream barely begun?”
Later in the same 1929 play, Manon, the café chanteuse, expresses what has come to be seen as Coward’s considered conclusion:
I think if only –
Somebody splendid really
needed me, Someone aﬀectionate and dear,
Cares would be ended if I knew that he
Wanted to have me near.
But I believe that since my life began
The most I’ve had is just
A talent to amuse.
Heigh, ho, if love were all.
A later verse captures a more realistic, if more disappointing, realization.
I am no good at Love.
My heart should be wild and free
I kill the unfortunate golden goose, Whoever it may be,
With over-articulate tenderness
And too much intensity. I am no good at Love.
I betray it with little sins,
For I feel the misery of the end
In the moment that it begins
And the bitterness of the last good-bye
Is the bitterness that wins.
In Blithe Spirit, Charles Condomine lives to love again. But what are his chances? Does anyone in a Coward play live happily ever after?
In a late life television interview, Coward is asked to sum up his life in one word. “Well, now comes the terrible decision as to whether to be corny or not. The answer is one word. Love. To know that you are among people you love and who love you. That has made all the successes wonderful – much more wonderful than they’d have been anyway. And that’s it, really.”
So perhaps the answer is not romantic love, but loving.
Editor of The Letters of Noël Coward
Barry Day has written and compiled a number of books on Noël Coward including Star Quality: The Treasures of Noël Coward (Andre Deutsch), The Letters of Noël Coward (Knopf/Methuen) and The Complete Lyrics of Noël Coward (Overlook/Methuen).