Found books 5: way to leave a marriage
Criticism about popular comedy is tricky. Either you laugh or you don't: what else to say? Yesterday I saw plays by Britain's most frequently performed playwrights, Alan Ackybourn - two slices of his 1974 trilogy The Norman Conquests, revived with wonderfully shaggy panache by Matthew Warchus at the Old Vic. Ackybourn's faultless technique and deceptive suburban territory often declaw criticism (though the programme hinted at the darkness behind his comedies, with a flinty epigraph from Raymond Carver and a rambling article by Paul Allen which nailed a central theme: Ackybourn's central subject, he writes, 'is human happiness; specifically the destruction of mental health').
Noël Coward is equally tricky - in part because so much of the writing about him that has appeared since his death originated from his estate, friends and fans. John Lahr produced an acute critical study in 1982 and Philip Hoare a smart biography in 1995, but otherwise there has been an awful lot of gush about the man known as 'the Master'. Quantities of previously unpublished work continue to make it into print - most recently, a distended selection of letters (padded out with toe-curlingly twee screeds of light verse which Noellie and chums exchanged as thank-you letters and aide-memoires).
Short, sharp and deliciously unexpected, Terry Castle's Noël Coward and Radclyffe Hall (1996) couldn't be more different. Castle wonders what the insouciant playwright and direful novelist might have had in common - and in particular the exquisite flippancy of Coward's Blithe Spirit (1941) and Hall's remorselessly dank The Well of Loneliness. The pair were friends, though were not intimate pals - part of the loose community of boho/society gay men and lesbians between the wars. A version of Coward crops up as Jonathan Brockett in The Well, with his 'hard clever face' and sympathetic but finger-wagging strictures. And Hall herself had spiritualist leanings that may have fed into Blithe Spirit.
How does this illuminate the play? Why will we need the phrases 'hag-ridden', 'Claridges' and 'a real rouser'? Find out after the click:
The play, in which Charles Condamine is visited by the ghosts of his first wife and then (after her untimely death) of his second. Fractious relationships in life, death does nothing to soothe their bicker. The play's ending is notably unsentimental, maybe even heartless. The spirits, only partly dematerialised, are unseen but still trapped in the cottage. Following the advice of tweedy medium Madame Arcati, he decides to leave them behind forever, and with them his 'hag-ridden' sexual history. It would be far too much to say he will henceforth enjoy the company of men, but he's abjuring the bonds of marriage. As Castle reads this ending, it figures 'a new kind of male-female alliance: between men who aren't husbands and women who aren't wives, but (blithe) kindred spirits to the last.'
Although a playwright whose territory is sparring between the sexes, Coward isn't fundamentally interested in marriage. The adoring bisexual triangle in Design for Living is usually taken to be a fizzy reproach to hetero-normality, though Philip Prowse (whom I discussed in the previous 'Found books' post) staged it far more bleakly: rather than chortling in a brazen tangle, as the stage directions suggest, they sat on a sofa, the two men flanking an older Gilda who contemplated an unpromising future as their fag hag and best audience.
Castle writes with rare flair (anyone wanting to check out her writing could start with her collection of essays Boss Ladies, Watch Out!). With customary puckishness, Castle identifies Arcati as a lesbian archetype, from the 'great chum' who shares her interest in supernatural phenomena, her 'games mistresslike exhortations ('what do you say we have another séance and really put our shoulders to the wheel? Make it a real rouser!') and her trusty bicycle ('I'll pedal home in a jiffy - it's only seven miles'). For all her eccentricity, Arcati's is a self-sufficiency which Coward's work repeatedly commends. One of his earliest plays, written when he was xx, was recently exhumed in London's Grand Guignol and the theatre of horror by Richard J Hand and Michael Wilson. Again, it's about how to discard a spouse: in The Better Half, Alice tries to push her sanctimonious husband and best friend together, simply because they both bore her to sobs and she can't stand any more of them. The play credits her ruthless scheme, and even the young Coward could conjure a fabulous exit line. Alice sweeps out, declaring, 'I am going to find a lover and live in flaming sin - possibly at Claridges.'
As ever, suggestions for future posts are always welcome. What should I be reading? What stage books have opened your eyes?
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