March 17, 2001: Coward, Semi-Monde


A play, too risqué for its time even to be submitted to the Examiner of Plays, written by Coward in 1926 but performed only in 1977, at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, directed and designed by Philip Prowse. This production, also by Prowse, is the English première. The working title of the play was Ritz Bar (from the program notes).

Prowse sets the play, not at the Ritz in London, but in Paris. A huge gilt and lattice dome emphasizes the circularity of the setting — it is raised at the beginning of the play and lowered again at the end — circularity also defined by two concentric quarter-circles, thickly upholstered, running on tracks in a revolve, which are moved into various positions downstage, sidestage, and upstage by waiters doubling as costumed stagehands, so conferring on the single general setting a number of discrete locations in the bar. And so the stage resonates in typical Prowsean fashion with irony, and expectation, and micro­cosmic significance. This is a “world” all its own, and unto itself. In Prowse’s treatment, the Ritz bar becomes a place hermetically sealed off from the larger, less tidy and polite world outside, trivial yet endowed with fascination, and peopled by persons so wrapped up in themselves and so oppressed by the exigencies of middle-class morality (upper-class though they are themselves) that they suffer from a sort of general neurosis. It is a flimsy, evanescent world where nothing lasts for long and allegiances are as short-lived as a dry martini. Upstage center is a grand piano, played by a man of a certain age who seems to know everyone and who plays songs (by Coward and others, notably and typically “Mad about the Boy”) at just the right background volume to keep up the atmosphere and yet not interfere with conversation. We begin with a song sung by one of the characters, Dorothy (played by an actress I thought was Felicity Kendall but turned out, in the cast list, to be Nicola McAuliffe), an act or “turn” that is repeated twice in the course of the play. The music in the background is not all Coward, Porter, et al., however; at the right moments we also hear Wagner — the Liebestod, I think; a nice, bitter-sweet comic irony, like the play itself. Coward said he thought it was “quite harmless,” though not “good clean fun.”

On reflection (I actually thought of this early in the first act) what we have here, I think, is Coward’s variation on the Ship of Fools topos; and Prowse points up the idea of a voyage to hell, or oblivion, or evanescence of some kind or other by dressing one of his male characters, toward the end, in an air force uniform, an omen of impending war. Or is it a replay of the war just ended eight years before? In any case, it reminded me of Prowse’s production of Heartbreak House seen in London a decade or more ago, in which silent soldiers, ghosts of those who would be or were being slain in battle, moving slowly and mournfully about the stage in the last act (I think, though they may have shown up less insistently earlier on). The setting could as well have been the bar or ballroom of an ocean liner; the effect would have been the same. We see a series of interlocking vignettes: six or eight or more stories going on more or less simultaneous­ly, glimpsed only in bits and pieces. At the end, a few revelations of guilty adulteries and other alliances gone sour, and that is all the plot there is. Remarkable, how Coward keeps it all going; but a finely tuned sense of the theater and of the dramatic moment he had. And Prowse matches it, moment by moment. The sure hands of two masters of their craft are in evidence here.

But, as always at the end of a Coward play, one exits wondering what it all may mean, if it means anything at all. At least, I always have the feeling, at this point, of worrying that I have wasted my time with trivial things, even while I am haunted by the images of human beings striving for connection and yet anxiously aware that their struggles are in vain. Finally, I think that that was Coward’s special gift as a playwright: not simply to present the “glitterati” in all this glitter, but to endow them, thanklessly, with nervous intimations of their own mortality, along with comical evidence of their own venality — which of course they blithely recognize. “A play with music,” the simple subtitle could be. One thing Coward never is is pretentious. We take him as he is, or not at all, as the entertainer par excellence.

Oh, the costumes: elegant to a fault. The credit is presumably Prowse’s, since he is billed in the program as director and designer and no one else is credited for costumes. All in black, it served men and women alike. No, wait, there was a bright red dress and others. The men in starched evening clothes, looking a bit uncomfortable in some cases; the women in dresses with noticeably short skirts — this is the Roaring Twenties, after all — and lace across the bosom, in some cases revealing the curve of a breast or even the pink of a nipple. The combin­ation of the decadently risqué and the fashionably elegant was striking. Beneath beautifully cut and draped skirts the tops of gartered stockings could sometimes be glimpsed.

And much hot-house sexuality in evidence also, both of the heterosex­ual and homosexual kind, though the latter is suitably muted. No nights with Reg in evidence here; the closest we come to overtness is at the beginning of the play, when a middle-aged man, seated, greets an acquaint­ance by running his hand up the inside of his thigh a few inches above the knee. That seemed to me in questionable taste, but I suppose Prowse felt he had to “name” the presence of this way of living clearly, early in the play.




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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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