A silk dinner jacket, a martini, a cigarette held at a debonair angle. Smart repartee spoken in an impeccably clipped British accent. Songs with witty lyrics about mad dogs and Englishmen or the dangers of putting your daughter on the stage.
They're all identified with Noel Coward -- a man who was and still is the epitome of style for audiences of his sparkling comedies, three of which are playing on area stages.
What was the secret of Coward's style? In a word, substance.
He was an extremely hard worker who cultivated an air of indolence, a product of the middle classes who was more aristocratic than the aristocrats, and an author of deceptively light drawing-room comedies that are actually about serious emotional subjects.
"Private Lives" (1930), critically regarded as Coward's finest play, is about a divorced couple who encounter each other on honeymoons with new spouses. A no-holds-barred examination of lovers who can't live together and can't live apart, it will be the final play in the Center Stage season beginning Friday.
"Design for Living" (1933), which opened at Olney Theatre Center this weekend, focuses on a menage a trois. The most daring of the three regional offerings, it is not atypical of this playwright, who didn't shy away from dicey subject matter.
"Blithe Spirit" (1941), a comedy about a married couple visited by the ghost of the husband's first wife, was Coward's biggest box-office hit. It continues at Washington's Arena Stage through June 9.
Coward wrote himself into all three of these plays, which are being jointly billed by the theaters as a Noel Coward Festival.
"Private Lives" was a vehicle for him and Gertrude Lawrence, his close friend from the days when they were child actors together. "Design for Living" was written for him and the famed acting couple Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. And though he didn't star in the original production of "Blithe Spirit," Coward subsequently played the role of the novelist husband, which he surely created with himself in mind.
At some point in each of these plays, Coward's alter ego appears in the requisite dinner jacket or dressing gown, looking like the last word in urbanity, the theatrical sine qua non of chic. As his friend and biographer Sheridan Morley put it in a recent interview from his home in London, "He was the playboy of the West End world."
Coward worked hard to cultivate that elegant, carefree image. In "Future Indefinite," the second volume of his autobiography, he boasted that he wrote "Private Lives" in four days and "Blithe Spirit" in six, acknowledging that "Private Lives" percolated in his brain for months beforehand.
But the posh milieu he created on stage was sometimes at odds with the conditions under which he wrote the plays -- however quickly he may have crafted the dialogue. In "Present Indicative," volume one of his memoirs, he revealed that "Private Lives" was written while he was "sweating gloomily" from a bout of influenza in a Shanghai hotel.
Sickness aside, the knowledge that he was on vacation was also typical of Coward's image as what would later be called a jet setter -- an image that recurs in his plays. In "Private Lives," Amanda and Elyot, the divorced lovebirds, are not only on honeymoons, but most of their memories are of traveling together. And in "Design for Living," the action takes its English characters from Paris to London and then to New York.
Coward's own travels, however, were often a much-needed respite from the rigors of a workload that included writing plays, starring in them and directing them -- not to mention writing songs and maintaining a social life that could have been a full-time occupation in itself. And yet, he found time to write dozens of plays and hundreds of songs -- 70 more have just been discovered -- as well as short stories, a novel and two autobiographies.
"He was a driven individual, and he would travel after a particularly exhausting time in his life, and the travel itself was exhausting," says Center Stage artistic director Irene Lewis, who is directing the theater's production of "Private Lives."
And, not only did he create the characters in his plays, but, as Lewis says, "He created himself. First and foremost, he created a different class for himself."
Indeed, although his speech sounded as if he were to the manor born, he was actually born into the struggling middle class. His father sold pianos, though not too successfully, forcing the family to move to increasingly tighter quarters and eventually to take in boarders.
For Kyle Donnelly, director of "Blithe Spirit" at Arena Stage, "middle class sophistication" was part of the appeal of this 1941 comedy, whose characters, though certainly not struggling financially, are far from the idle rich who populate "Private Lives." And, when asked in what ways the character of the writer husband in "Blithe Spirit" resembles Coward, Donnelly reiterates, definitely his middle-classness."