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Drama Club: An Introduction to Noel Coward

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Over the course of his life, Sir Noel Coward wrote dozens of critically and publicly adored plays.  One, Still Life, would inspire what is regarded as one of the best British films of all-time, Brief Encounter.  Another, Private Lives, was just revived in London by Kim Cattrall (Sex and the City) and Matthew Macfayden (Pride and Prejudice).  Yet far too few people in the U.S. appreciate – or even know about – this magnificent playwright.

Classic cinema fans know Coward’s potential to devastate from Brief Encounter, but he is best known for his witty plays of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s.  They usually feature sparring couples and family members, comically fickle feelings and a good measure of absurdity. Blithe Spirit, Hay Fever and Private Lives are three famous examples, and natural primers for those unfamiliar with Coward.

Blithe Spirit opens on Ruth and Charles Condomine’s dinner party turned séance.  In the process, a kooky old psychic named Madame Arcati accidentally brings Charles’ deceased first wife, Elvira, back as a ghost.  Only Charles can see her, and Elvira uses this to pit Ruth and Charles against each other.  Things eventually get so heated – and dangerous – in the Condomine household that Madame Arcati must attempt to send Elvira back to the afterlife.

Hay Fever centers on David, Judith, Simon and Sorel Bliss.  They’re a family of moody artists, especially matriarch Judith, a retired actress who has not lost an ounce of her theatricality.  Each invites a guest for the weekend without informing one another, making the ensuing two days equal parts ridiculous and awkward.  The action takes place in their country home in Cookham.

Finally, Private Lives, perhaps Coward’s greatest play, explores the on-and-off again relationship of Elyot Chase and Amanda Prynne.  Elyot and Amanda, a divorced couple, find themselves reunited while on honeymoons with new spouses.  They soon pick up where they left off, but discover time has not erased their past issues.  These issues are manifested most memorably in an over-the-top fight in Act Two, featuring smashed records and toppled tables.

So if you’re looking for a new spring read, consider Coward.  His comedies are clever, funny and frothy – just the right stuff to devour in a park under the sun.

–Kristin Hunt

Kristin Hunt is an undergraduate journalism major at Syracuse University.  Her column, ‘Drama Club,’ appears every Tuesday.

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Written by whitney teal

May 4, 2010 at 8:58 am

Posted in Drama Club

Tagged with ,

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