Listening to: Clair de Lune – Claude Debussy
This weekend, I had the privilege of being able to see a production of Noel Coward’s comedy Private Lives at the American Players’ Theatre in Spring Green, Wisconsin. For those unfamiliar with Private Lives, the play premiered in 1930 and enjoyed a successful run both in London and Broadway, being revived many times since. Its plot centers around two newlywed couples–Elyot and Sibyl Chase, and Victor and Amanda Prynne. Elyot and Amanda, divorced five years ago and recently remarried, find themselves staying next door to each other on their second honeymoons. The resulting storm of passionate outbursts leads to a series of darkly funny events, which twist up events more and more.
Most of the audience seemed to enjoy the play, and there was plenty of laughter at the repartee between the characters–insults given and taken in equal measure by men and women alike. However, during the second intermission of the play, I overheard a conversation between a woman with the Japanese kanji for “woman” (女, onna) tattooed prominently on her shoulder and a man that I assumed was her husband. She was stating, quite emphatically, that she hated the play. She thought that the play’s portrayal of women was stereotypical, degrading, and otherwise offensive in a thousand different ways, as well as suggesting that her husband was unreasonable for wanting to watch the last act of the play.
This struck me as rather puzzling–not because I thought that the depictions of men and women were unproblematic, but precisely because they were problematic. I’m quite sure that Noel Coward knew, full well, the implications of his writing choices. That’s probably the reason that he made them.
Let’s begin with Victor and Sybil, the “outliers” of the play. Victor is a reflection of almost everything that’s wrong with “traditional masculinity:” controlling, pompous, self-absorbed, and obsessed with upholding his image; expressing Scandalized Horror (TM) at anything that might upset the status quo. Sybil is his counterpart for “traditional femininity:” vapid, weepy, and displaying hysterical mood swings. She frequently refers scornfully to “half-masculine” women like Amanda, and tells Elyot that he is lucky to have escaped her. Both Victor and Sibyl are concerned with reinforcing the traditional roles of both genders (Sibyl’s line “I like a man to be a man, if that’s what you mean” is probably one of the most obvious examples). These two are more of caricatures than characters–comic foils for the main couple.
Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as Elyot and Amanda (Wikipedia)
Elyot and Amanda, on the other hand, are portrayed as practically equivalent: a parallelism that Coward himself encouraged with the above photograph. They are ill-suited for each other, and yet at the same time they are perfectly matched. Both of them seem to be aware of this in their conversations with their second spouses, and the fact that their lines in the opening scene are practically identical despite their differing partners further reinforces their similarities.
Coward dances a fine line around unfortunate implications when portraying the physical aspect of Elyot and Amanda’s fights with each other. There is a certain double standard in many mediums of entertainment that while a man slapping a woman is a shocking action that tends to be played for drama, a woman slapping a man is much more likely to get laughs out of the audience. In the same vein, it’s much more acceptable to imply that a man “deserved” to be slapped by a woman than vice versa. (While I was writing this post, my siblings were watching the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and the scene where Captain Jack is slapped by a succession of women didn’t fail to get a chuckle from my brothers. “That one, I deserved.”) There is, of course, a good reason for this: abuse of women is a significant, and quite visible, problem.
Coward’s method of dealing with this, however, is to portray Elyot and Amanda as equals in this as well. When Victor is scandalized by the thought that Elyot struck Amanda during one of their fights, Amanda casually brushes it off with her typical acidic humor: “I struck him too. Once I broke four gramophone records over his head. It was very satisfying.” In other words, she treats Victor’s Scandalized Horror (TM) at her and Elyot being involved in a physical altercation the same way that she treats his Scandalized Horror (TM) at her enjoying sunburn, gambling, and other “masculine” pursuits.
The other point is, of course, that this play is a comedy, and thus relies more on comedic tropes than dramatic ones. The most notable is that of the Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist, a trope that Amanda and Elyot both embody. Their altercations with each other may be dark comedy, but they are comedy nonetheless, and this trope is the reason why. They are not “good people” who have unfortunate things happen to them: both of them can be petty, mean-spirited, overdramatic, and so forth. Their conflict with each other stems, in major part, from their habitual lack of consideration for any feelings but their own. Neither of them are portrayed as perfect: quite the opposite in fact, as both spend the entire play being called out on their faults by every other character. They are extravagantly, marvelously flawed, and this is what makes them human.
Obviously, my point of view is somewhat limited by my background, so if others have input on the issue, I’d love to hear your own take on it in the comments! Signing off, until next week!