20 September 2006: Coward, Design for Living

Royal George Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario. Directed by Morris Panych

The play was written by Coward for Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt, and Coward himself, and opened on Broadway on 24 January 1933. Coward’s comic treat­ment of a very unconventional ménage à trois is vintage stuff; as played by Shaw Festival actors it is crisp, clear, effective, and very funny, even while the serious­ness that is also, in its way, vintage Coward shines through undimmed. Coward did not, I think, have a gift for deep, complex characterization, but he did have a knack for creating serviceable dramatic identities articulated in a well-based comic action. Even more, his was a gift for marvelously effective dialogue that seems to glide swiftly across a brilliant surface of trivial conversation while at the same time revealing serious concerns about how to live.

Coward seems to pursue largely the same theme, in play after play. That theme has to do with the life-denying encroachments made by civilization upon the true human instincts for emotional fulfillment that people in modern society always have, no matter how vehemently they may deny it. In this play, at the end, Gilda, the female member of the sometime ménage, explains to her impatient husband, Ernest, “I have to give in.” I can’t go on pretending that the marriage I made with you is working, when I so deeply yearn to go back to the two men — Leo and Otto — who both love me and each other. Conventional society has nothing to offer her — or them, for that matter. Ernest is Coward’s audience surrogate, ironically placed, and his bombastic tirade against all three, at the very end — it is the last spoken dialogue of the play — captures the opprobrium that conventional mores effectively heaps upon people who flout the dictates of bourgeois respectability. But the play doesn’t end quite yet. After Ernest storms out, Gilda and her men have a good laugh over it and then proceed onto Ernest’s balcony, looking out over a lovely view of the Chrysler Building at night.

Such fantasies may not survive the more searching light of day, but in the magical dark of the theatre they are compelling, for a while at least. Coward’s paean to artistic unconventionality holds its audience today just as well, I sup­pose, as it did in the first years, when America was still in the depths of a depres­sion that would only lighten, finally, under the exigencies of another world war. Coward sold himself short, I think, when he described his as a “talent to amuse.” It was that, of course, and we are still very well entertained by his writing; but it was more than that as well. Along with an ability to draw audiences into the com­­pelling make-believe of fantasies, comic fantasies, of life released from the petty tyrannies of conventional do’s and don’t’s, he had the singular wit to show us those fantastic people, men and women in a glittering upper-crust society on a constant collision course with one another. It’s clear that, in the social universe constructed as the setting for a Coward play, men and women, whatever their sexual orientation, come constantly into conflict. And they do so partly because they are addicted to “fuss.” “I love fuss,” Gilda admits. All of them do. They have the instinctive feeling that a day spent in blissful, amiable peacefulness is a day wasted. Nothing brings out their true natures so much as an issue they can squab­­ble over. When that turns up — and women and men are so curiously yet predictably constituted that such issues invariably turn up — then they are most truly themselves. And it is then that we love them most dearly for it, for then they are most like ourselves; and, deep down, we know that too.

The setting — the set, I mean to say — for this production is quite striking. There are three different scenes, one for each of the three acts: Otto’s studio in Paris, Leo’s flat in London, and Ernest’s apartment in New York. The Royal George (capacity, 500-600, I would suppose) has a shallow stage, and almost half of it was devoted to a combination of permanent and site-specific background, the permanent component being closer in and consisting of very large black lattice-work, curving up high and distorted, like a structure seen reflected in a puddle of water. Above that, in the site-specific area, and perspicuously framed by it, was a commensurately distorted image: in Act I, the Eiffel Tower; in Act II, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament; in Act III, the Chrysler Building and near­by skyscrapers. The overall style reminded me of scene designs in books on early twentieth-century stage design in the Expressionist and Constructivist tradition. Now, Ernest is an art dealer and Otto is a painter, and Ernest enters in Act I bear­ing a painting by Matisse that he has just bought. So the general social atmos­phere encouraged by the scene design (the designer is Ken MacDonald) says “European avant-garde 1920s – 1930s.”

What does this actually have to do with the substance or themes of Coward’s play? Perhaps we are to understand that, just as European art is breaking from a long tradition of conventional realism and moving toward cubism and other fragmentary styles that break down what is reassuringly familiar into radically separated component parts (Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is reprod­uced on the front cover of the program), so Coward is giving us a central group of characters who are departing in perceived radical ways from what convention­al society still feels is the norm.
So the visual effect is quite striking and feels very suitable to the action of the play. That is, the three unconventional characters are placed in a visual surround that mirrors their unconventional outlook on life and, in effect, endorses it, even though some characters who appear in these settings represent the world of phil­istine, unthinking, hidebound conventionality. In this way Coward’s three set­tings capture the progress of the action of the play and in fact go far toward epitomizing it.

We move from the studio of a painter to the flat of a dramatist where Gilda, Otto, and Leo have free play to work out their uncon­ventional relationship, up to a point where Gilda has a crisis and can no longer, for the present, continue with them. And so she accepts the offer of marriage from Ernest, a successful art deal­er who sees into what Matisse and all that he represents is doing but who never­theless does not understand how that same radical instinct can be articulated in the private lives of the artists and other people he knows. Gilda, in Act III, has the second phase of her crisis and realizes she can no longer live with Ernest in his swanky apartment with the stun­ning nighttime view of the New York skyline. And we see her acknowledge this, to Otto and Leo’s intense joy and to Ernest’s equally intense frustration. But, while all this is going on, the distorted lines of the permanent setting and their correlation in the crazy angles of the Chrysler Building have been telling us that the conventional relationship with Ernest is bound not to last.

And so, in this production, scenography is destiny. In the real world at large, convention may dominate, but in the privileged and special world of the theatre some alternative set of values is going to dominate — and we had better pay atten­tion to it because, here, it is all of the piece. And while we are paying atten­tion to it, we can also enjoy it fully. A phrase out of Shakespeare, employed by Coward as the title for another one of his plays, comes to mind: “present laugh­ter.” What’s to come is still unsure, but in the immediacy of the moment and, under the sway of the wit and the laughter it provokes, what’s here, now, is perhaps enough.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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