Coward LawrenceFrom Theatre Magazine, March 1931, p.21. Wikipedia.

2023 marks fifty years since the death of Noël Coward. Born in London in 1899, Coward went on to become one of the most celebrated actor-vocalist-composer-lyricists of his generation. His parents were both musical. His father sold pianos and his mother was an amateur vocalist. It was customary for the family to sit around the piano of an evening and enjoy a sing-along. Coward’s remarkable gift for music and acting was evident at an early age. Encouraged by his mother, he made his professional debut in 1911 playing Prince Mussel in the children’s play The Goldfish. Over the following years he received support from the likes of actor-manager Charles Hawtrey and noted children’s stage schoolteacher Italia Conti. It was in 1913 that he first met Gertrude Lawrence, performing in a touring production of Hauptmann’s Hannele. The two would go on to  develop an enduring friendship and stage partnership.

From 1917, in collaboration with his friend Esme Wynn, he wrote his first plays, Ida Collaborates and Women and Whiskey. In 1918, he penned his first solo effort, The Rat Trap, later staged at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead.

He achieved his first success in 1920 with I’ll Leave It to You, ‘a light comedy in three acts’. Performed at the Gaiety Theatre in Manchester (3 May 1920, 24 performances) and in London at the New Theatre (21 July 1920, 37 performances), it starred Kate Cutler as Mrs. Dermott. This play was also performed in Boston in 1923. Reviews were mixed, but a notice in The Times (22 July 1920) declared: ‘It is a remarkable piece of work from so young a head—spontaneous, light, and always “brainy”.’

During 1921 Coward made his first trip to America. Although the trip was not a success—he only managed to sell a couple of short stories to Vanity Fair and Metropolitan—he made many new friends, including Tallulah Bankhead and Lynn Fontanne, who would be important in his later career.

Coward’s next play, The Young Idea, a ‘comedy of youth in three acts’, premiered at the Prince’s Theatre, Bristol, in September 1922, and following a six-week tour, opened at the Savoy Theatre in London, where it ran for 60 performances. Kate Cutler was once again in the lead, supported by Herbert Marshall and Ann Trevor. Coward appeared in this play, as he had in I’ll Leave It to You.

In 1923, at the invitation of noted London producer André Charlot, he was given the opportunity to work on his first revue: London Calling!, which he wrote in collaboration with Ronald Jeans and Philip Braham. Opening at the Duke of York’s on 4 September, the revue was a great success. With Tubby Edlin, Maisie Gay and Gertrude Lawrence in the leads, it ran for 316 performances. Coward also performed. Two of his songs, ‘You Were Meant for Me’ (sung by Coward and Gertie Lawrence) and ‘Parisian Pierrot’ (sung by Gertie) were big hits. The revue enjoyed several ‘editions’ over the course of its run, with new actors and songs introduced. In January 1924, Charlot opened the revue in New York, with Beatrice Lillie and Jack Buchanan in the leads. Though Coward’s six-month contract with Charlot was up, he still made the trip to America, using the money he had earned from the show to enjoy himself and renew old acquaintances.

Meanwhile he began work on two more plays: Fallen Angels and The Vortex. Both these plays would go on to enjoy huge success, not only at the time of their first productions, but in revival. The Vortex (in which Coward performed opposite Lillian Braithwaite) represented something of a watershed for Coward. Tackling contemporary themes of sex and drugs, it showed that he was a talent to be reckoned with. Charles Castle in his 1972 book Noël says: ‘It is probably fair to say that this play changed the face of the British theatre in the twenties in the way that John Osborne changed it in the fifties with Look Back in Anger.’

In the years leading up to the production of Private Lives, Coward’s career continued an upward trajectory. The variety of his work displayed an aptitude for everything from intimate comedies to large scale operettas. His plays Hay Fever (1925), Easy Virtue (1925) and The Marquise (1927) enjoyed success on both sides of the Atlantic, as did his revue This Year of Grace (1928) and his operetta Bitter Sweet (1929). His one failure of the period was Sirocco (1927).

By 1929, Coward had become one of the highest earning playwrights in the world with his annual income estimated at £50,000 (the equivalent of more than £3 million in today’s money).

Private Lives

Noël Coward wrote Private Lives during 1929/1930 following the success of Bitter Sweet in New York. Returning to England from America, travelling via Japan, Korea and Shanghai, he conceived the idea for the play at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. ‘The moment I switched out the lights’, he later recalled, ‘Gertie appeared in a white Molyneux 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, had constructed itself.’ He finished the play in Singapore over four days, when confined to his bed in the Cathay Hotel recovering from flu.

Coward hoped to launch Private Lives in London in September 1930, but securing Gertie for the play took some negotiating as she was contracted to Charlot to appear in a new revue. By the time Coward had returned to England, she was free, and in July 1930 rehearsals began in London.

The plot of Private Lives revolves around a simple premise of two people, Amanda and Elyot, who can’t live together and can’t live apart. In his preface to Play Parade, Coward described the play as ‘a reasonably well-constructed duologue for two experienced performers, with a couple of extra puppets thrown in to assist the plot and to provide contrast’. The ‘extra puppets’ are Amanda and Elyot’s new spouses Victor and Sybil. ‘These poor things, are little better than ninepins, lightly wooded, and only there at all in order to be repeatedly knocked down and stood up again.’

The Plot

 Act 1: The Terrace of a Hotel in France. Summer evening.

In adjacent suites, two honeymoon couples have just arrived at a hotel. The first, Elyot Chase and his young bride Amanda, wander out onto their terrace. As they go to dress for dinner, the couple in the other suite, Victor Prynne and his new wife Amanda, emerge onto their terrace. Coversation between both couples focus on Elyot and Amanda’s former marriages. Elyot enters again with cocktails. Then Amanda appears on her balcony. Music is heard from an orchestra below and as Elyot hums the tune, Amanda spies Elyot through the plants separating the two balconies. Likewise, Elyot sees Amanda. Shocked at the discovery, Amanda and Elyot both express a desire to leave the hotel, much to the dismay of Victor and Sybil, who both storm off in protest against their honeymoons being ruined. Left alone, Amanda and Elyot strike up a conversation and before too long they realise that they have never stopped loving one another and that the only course of action is to runaway together. But unable to agree where to go, they start to bicker, and to prevent themselves falling into their old ways, one of them must say ‘Solomon Isaacs’ [the title of an 1877 novel by Benjamin Farjeon] with both remaining silent for two minutes. With their departure, Victor and Sybil meet and agree to join forces and track down their recalcitrant spouses.

This first act also introduced the play’s only original song, ‘Someday I’ll find you’.

The dialogue between to the two characters is among the most perfect ever penned by Coward—and subsequently the most parodied by satirists, including Coward himself.

AMANDA: What have you been doing lately? During these last years?

ELYOT: Travelling about. I went round the world you know after—

AMANDA (hurriedly): Yes, yes, I know. How was it?

ELYOT: The world?


ELYOT: Oh, highly enjoyable.

AMANDA: China must be very interesting.

ELYOT: Very big, China.

AMANDA: And Japan—

ELYOT: Very small.

AMANDA: Did you eat sharks’ fins, and take your shoes off, and use chopsticks and everything?

ELYOT: Practically everything.

AMANDA: And India, the burning Ghars, or, Ghats, or whatever they are, and the Taj Mahal. How was the Taj Mahal?

ELYOT (looking at her): Unbelievable, a sort of dream.


Act 2: Amanda’s flat in Paris. A few days later. Evening.

Amanda and Elyot, dressed respectively in pyjamas and dressing gown, having just finished dinner, ‘are dallying over coffee and liqueurs’. They are happy and are planning their future, but before too long they start arguing over the details, and by the end of the act are rolling about on the floor, Amanda having broken a gramophone record over Elyot’s head. The curtain falls as Victor and Amanda quietly enter the room and stare in horror at the bickering couple.


Act 3: The same. The next morning.

The room is still a mess. Victor and Sybil are asleep on the two sofas. Amanda and Elyot are in their rooms. Separately they both emerge dressed in travelling clothes and carrying suitcases. Arguments between the four commence, the two men almost get in a brawl. Eventually they all agree that divorce is the only solution. They all sit down to breakfast, but when Sybil and Victor, defensive about their respective spouses, start shouting at one another, Amanda and Elyot, silently pick up their suitcases and leave unnoticed.




  • West End

    The second act ‘curtain’ of Private Lives, 1930. From Theatre World, December 1930, p.180. The first production of Private Lives was presented under the management of Charles B. Cochran. It opened out of town at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh on 18 August 1930. A five-week tour followed that saw...
  • Broadway

    Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward as Amanda and Elyot, 1931. Photo by Vandamm. New York Public Library, New York. Private Lives opened at the Times Square Theatre on 27 January 1931. The line-up was the same, apart from Adrianne Allen who had been replaced by Olivier’s wife Jill Esmond, and...
  • Australia

    Prior to the first stage production of Private Lives in Australia, the public had the opportunity to both see and hear the play, firstly through the release of the MGM film starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery, and secondly through a radio broadcast in early 1933 featuring Madge Elliott...
  • Revivals - West End

    Kay Hammond and John Clements as Amanda and Elyot. Photo by Alexander Bender. From Theatre World, December 1944, p.24. Revival 1 Private Lives received its first London revival in November 1944 when it was staged at the Apollo Theatre under the direction of John Clements, with Clements and his...
  • Revivals - Broadway

    Donald Cook and Tallulah Bankhead in Private Lives, 1948. Photo by Vandamm. New York Public Library, New York. Revival 1 Presented by John C. Wilson, directed by Martin Manulis, and with scenic design by Charles Elson, the first Broadway revival of Noël Coward’s Private Lives took place seventeen years...
  • Revivals - Australia

    Hal Thompson, Jane Conolly, Marie Ney and Richard Parry in Private Lives, 1940. National Library of Australia, Canberra. It is an interesting phenomenon that in Australia many plays and musicals seem to enjoy more revivals than they do in their native land. We saw this with Kissing Time. In...

Additional Info

  • Filmography & Discography

    Filmography 1931 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer motion picture (Release date: 12 December 1931) Screenplay by Hans Kräly, Richard Schayer and Claudine West; Produced by Irving Thalberg; Directed by Sidney Franklin: Cinematography by Ray Binger; Cast: Norma Shearer (Amanda Prynne), Robert Montgomery (Elyot...
  • Further Resources

    Selected Bibliography Charles Castle, Noël, W.H. Allen, 1972 Stephen Cole, Noël Coward: A Bio-Bibliography, Greenwood, 1994 Noël Coward, Collected Sketches and Lyrics, Hutchinson & Co. Ltd, 1931 Noël Coward, Play Parade, William Heinemann Ltd, 1934 Noël Coward, Present Indicative, William...