January 12, 2002: Coward, Star Quality

Apollo Theatre. Matinee. Adapted by Christopher Luscombe

Coward’s last play, written in 1967 but unproduced, adapted by Christo­pher Luscombe from the play and Coward’s short story of the same title.

Not in the same class with Private Lives and Blithe Spirit, but recognizably a Coward play. Full of quick wit, self-centered and egotistical characters, and some great put-down tirades immediately countered with a second such tirade. A new play, Dark Heritage, by a young, unknown playwright is starting rehear­sals. We begin backstage, move to the full-set dress rehearsal, in Act II, and in the third act are backstage again, in the dressing room of the star, Lorraine Barrie. Coward’s trade-mark dissection of pretense is still in evidence, and the star, Lorraine, is not exempt from the process. But she has, as it were, the last word, and she is quite willing to participate in the truce that typically brings a Coward play to a close if it doesn’t really end it. One has the strong feeling, at the end of a Coward play, that we have seen a series of defining episodes in the lives of the central characters, but we also have the strong sense that they will go on to more of the same. The difference is that we know them now for what they are and understand that it is the world they live in that defines them every bit as much as their own desires, wills, and actions. And reactions.

In this play that world is the theatre. Never was there a stronger, clearer sense of Coward’s conviction that people are just like actors than at the end of this play, where the dressing room gives way to the star, her back turned to us, taking a solo bow before a dazzling (so dazzling we can’t see them) audience, who is then joined by the other actors and dramatist in an ensemble bow — and who then turns with the others and walks hand in hand downstage to accept the applause of us, their audience. The theatre has always been a compelling and efficacious metaphor for life as we know it, for life as we collectively live it. Coward knew that, and wrote accordingly. What saves Coward from sticky sentimentality is his refusal to idealize his characters; what makes him worth reviving, despite what some often feel at the start of one of his plays, that it will almost surely prove trivial and superficial, is his willingness to take people for what they are, accommodate their shortcomings, and on occasion even celebrate their gross imperfections. He is neither idealist nor cynic, knowing as he does that the underside of pretense and pomposity is a gnawing sense of insecurity and a near-desperate need for love.

Well, there you are. Coward in a nutshell. In the program he is quoted as saying, “I don’t know what it is, but I know that I’ve got it.” What he had was one of the best innate senses of good theatre of his century. Luscombe’s adaptation seems to have filled in some lacunae and may have fleshed things out in some other ways. Whatever he did, he stayed true to that Cowardian sense of theatre — including his unfailing sense of when enough is enough. I had the same experience with this play as with all other productions of Coward that I can remember: in the first few minutes I worry that I may have wasted my money on something insubstantial, but it is not very long before I’m very glad I didn’t miss it.


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

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