"private lives"

Published February 1, 1931


Private Lives with Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurence Olivier, and Jill Esmond. 1931



(L to R) Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, Laurence Olivier, Jill Esmond

“Sometimes in Private Lives I would look across the stage at Gertie and she would simply take my breath away.”        -- Noël Coward

When Private Lives opened in London in 1930, Tatler’s critic wondered "Was ever a premiere so crashingly soigné? Is all this sophisticated, feckless, irresponsible flippancy the stuff that will endure? Will Coward bear revival?" Only the New Statesman’s critic recognized the play’s dark side: “It’s not the least of Coward’s achievements that he has disguised the grimness of his play and that his conception of love is really desolating.”

On Broadway alone, there have been seven revivals of Private Lives, starring such luminaries as Tallulah Bankhead, Maggie Smith, John Standing, Tammy Grimes, Brian Bedford, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Joan Collins, Lindsay Duncan, Alan Rickman, and Kim Cattrall. But the original, which graced the Times Square Theatre in 1931, featured “The Master” himself, in the play he wrote for himself and Gertrude Lawrence. Laurence Olivier and his wife, Jill Esmond, were also in the cast.

The idea for Private Lives came to Noël in Tokyo during an extended trip to the Far East in 1929: “The moment I switched out the lights, Gertie appeared in a white Molyneaux dress on a terrace in the South of France and refused to go again until 4 a.m., by which time Private Lives, title and all, constructed itself. In 1923 the play would have been written and typed within a few days of my thinking of it, but in 1929 I had learned the wisdom of not welcoming a new idea too ardently, so I forced it into the back of my mind, trusting to its own integrity to emerge later on, when it had become sufficiently set and matured.” A few weeks later, in Shanghai, Noël was laid low with a bout of influenza: “The ensuing convalescence was productive, for I utilized it by writing Private Lives.”

The two leads – Elyot and Amanda – were obviously to be played by Noël and Gertie. Noël offered the subordinate part of Victor to a young actor in need of a break: Laurence Olivier. Olivier accepted the part and was exhilarated by the experience: “I experienced for the first time the incredible sense of being in a West End smash success – the thronged stage door and the parties every night.” On Broadway, the play was an even greater success.

In his unfavorable review of the 1975 production directed by John Gielgud and starring Maggie Smith and John Standing, John Simon, who counts Private Lives among his favorite plays, wrote: “If Noël Coward’s Private Lives is cast properly, the rest will take care of itself. Unfortunately, the two performers of genius who, in a sense, were the play – Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward – are no more. What they did with it, even for someone who merely saw the photographs and heard recorded excerpts, was such perfection that no one else can quite replace it, any more.” Simon’s review of the 2002 production with Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman was more positive: “This Private Lives is a public benefaction: two hours that can irradiate a lifetime.”

Despite the number and variety of performances of Private Lives across the decades, the legacy of the play will forever be entwined with the relationship of Noël and Gertie. When Gertie died in 1952, Noël wrote “No one I have ever known, however brilliant and however gifted, has contributed quite what she contributed to my work. Her quality was, to me, unique and her magic imperishable.”

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