Noel Coward's plays have an elasticity that allows actors to mold and reshape their characters. When I saw Private Lives on the stage, the actress who played Amanda had flawless delivery, and mastered Coward's verbal repartee. She was the epitome of English sophistication. Norma Shearer may have rushed some of her lines, but she more than compensated by giving Amanda an aggressive sensuality, and progressive worldview irresistible to Robert Montgomery's Elyot. Montgomery, in turn, was witty, and charmingly deadpan.
The masculine and feminine stereotypes were reversed in the film. It was a welcome sight. Reginald Denny as Victor and Una Merkel as Sibyl shed their primness in the third act, arguing with each other with a fierceness that made Amanda and Elyot proud. It was as if being in Amanda and Elyot’s company is enough to send even the calmest people on earth over the edge.
Noel Coward was no apologist for English customs and manners. He lampooned titled aristocrats, military blowhards, and tired old actors who should have gotten off the stage long ago. He even wrote a song called Why Must the Show Go On? Private Lives is one show we hope keeps on going.