Sunday, January 6, 2013

Private Lives

One thing leads to another. A Talent to Amuse, the seventieth birthday tribute to Noël Coward lately issued on CD—contains a snippet from Act I of Private Lives (1930), played in this instance by the youthful Susannah York and Richard Briers, but originally conceived as a vehicle for Coward himself and his great muse Gertrude Lawrence. It is so good that I have since then tracked down and devoured the whole play. The writing is, of course, brilliant—consistently clever and funny throughout—but encased in the substructure is a rich vein of defiance. It doesnt suit women to be promiscuous,declares Elyot. “It doesnt suit men for women to be promiscuous!” retorts Amanda with feeling. There is a presumption throughout that all four characters’ social credentials are impeccable. At one point in Act II Amanda refers to performing a “Court curtsey,” so we may assume that she has had occasion to deploy it. On the other hand, Amanda knows that the specter of a second divorce will put them in a “Hell of a mess socially.” There is not the merest hint at the Great War, although we may assume that Elyot and Victor are easily old enough to have fought in it and survived. In other words, there is much here of interest to anyone in search of an essentially Edwardian frame of mind, just as it surely exists in comparable novels by P. G. Wodehouse, Vita Sackville-West, and the work of any number of artists (visual or not) steering a parallel course through the 1920s and beyond. True, Amanda and Elyot profess absolutely no faith in anything. They do not believe in Heaven or Hell, merely, as Amanda puts it, “in being kind to everyone, giving money to old beggar-women, and being as gay as possible.” Even here, however, one detects an echo of much earlier but no less shockingly anti-Victorian frivolities, just as one may see the pompous veneers of Art Deco and fads such as silk dressing-gowns, nightclubs, golf, cocktails, and the gramophone all deriving much nourishment from a root system firmly embedded in the Edwardian decade. Coward himself, after all, served his dramatic apprenticeship to Sir Charles Hawtrey. Two other tiny but telling flecks of detail strengthen this impression and they concern diamonds and flamingoes.

In Act II, warming up to one of their bitter rows, Elyot quizzes Amanda about one of her male friends. “You took presents from him,” he accuses. “Presents? Only a trivial little brooch,” she replies defensively. “I remember it well,” Elyot continues: “Bristling with diamonds in the worst possible taste.” “Not at all. It was very pretty. I still have it and I wear it often,” says Amanda with a hint of provocation. There are a few clues in the play as to whose taste is the more reliable, Elyot’s or Amanda’s. Elyot made sure he saw the Taj Mahal in the moonlight. Amanda always suspected that it might look like a biscuit box. Nevertheless, the question in the mind of this middle-aged art museum curator, so recently and thoroughly immersed in the study of Edwardian diamonds, is this: What might a little brooch, ca. 1930, trivial or not, that is “bristling with diamonds in the worst possible taste” actually look like—one, moreover, that Amanda describes as “very pretty”? Was the lapse in taste somehow connected to the number and concentration of the stones, or in their cutting, setting, size, or even colour—fancy pink, perhaps, or intense fancy yellow, or even blue? Or is the problem located nearer to the form of the jewel, some perch-dwelling parrot, for example, or a spray of fuchsias, a miniature pineapple, or something equally vulgar? Not perhaps an issue to lose sleep over, but it is intriguing, because in the design and manufacture of precious jewels one detects one of the most striking curves of stylistic and market continuity extending from ca. 1905 to ca. 1925 and beyond, as if the Great War had simply never happened. This is one of the most interesting aspects of our exhibition, now barely seven weeks awayHeavens!—in which we have plotted several other such curves, all of which appear to defy many of the more conventional, currently accepted rules of Modernism in art and design.

As for the flamingoes, we also learn in Act II that travel throughout the empire did nothing to diminish the pain of Elyot’s divorce from Amanda. “I saw such beautiful things,” he says wistfully lying next to her on the sofa: “Moonlight shining on old temples; strange barbaric dances in jungle villages; scarlet flamingoes flying over deep, deep blue water—breathlessly, love, and completely unexciting because you weren’t there to see them with me.” “Take me, please,” she gushes, “take me at once. Let’s make up for lost time.” “Next week?” he suggests. “Tomorrow,” she urges. “Done!” And for emphasis Amanda adds: “I must see those dear flamingoes.” So the ne plus ultra of Edwardian aestheticism, with its strong, even insistent art nouveau prompt, our old friend the sinuous flamingo, glides over the waters and right into the heart of the mental and emotional décor of Coward’s scene almost as if nothing had disturbed it over the previous twenty years. It might almost be a direct paraphrase of Edwin Austin Abbey’s bizarre painting here at Yale. How interesting! I wonder if Noël Coward ever met Syd Long. In this respect at least, quite apart from the obvious, they had much in common.

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