I like the unpredictable. So today as a way of doing something I would not have chosen to I decided to go and see whatever was on at my local theatre. As it turned out it was Present Laughter by Noel Coward.
I don’t know much about Noel Coward, which I think reflects my age. He was very popular in the years just before I was born but was no longer fashionable. But he was not old enough to be considered a classic. Time moves on though and Coward now feels like a figure from history and consequently seems to command more respect. At the very least we now know his work has survived the test of time and is still being performed.
Anyway it was a very enjoyable play being well written and very well performed. Rufus Hound took the lead and managed to spend a great deal of time shouting without losing his voice. Quite an achievement.
It was written in 1939, as the introduction told us. The PA in the auditorium was being done in the crackly style of a 1930s radio, which was a nice touch. So we were told to turn off our mobile phones not only because they might disturb the performance but also because they were not yet invented.
But while telephones weren’t mobile in 1939 they certainly existed and in fact formed a key feature of the plot. The whole play is set in a single drawing room but the activities off screen are monitored by the use of the phone. It is already a piece of technology that can be assumed to be very familiar to the audience.
There are some other insights into the world of the thirties. The servants are portrayed as actual human beings with their own characters and are seen interacting as equals with their employers. In fact the whole atmosphere of the play is surprisingly relaxed and liberal compared to my perception of that period. It opens with an unmarried woman waking up after spending the night at the house of divorced man. It is written deftly so you can’t be sure whether she had slept with him or simply stayed in the spare room. There is no ambiguity later in the play when a married woman definitely does sleep with him. And none of this is done to shock, it is all part of the play’s overall plot.
So the thirties may not have been as straight laced as I imagined them. The other thing about that decade that I may have wrong is that it was a very political period where current affairs bore down on people’s daily lives and where people were intensely interested in them.
Well the play doesn’t have any evidence of that at all. There is one topical gag. (It’s quite a good one. “I am visiting my friend. She is German.” “Is she a spy?” “I think so. But she is very sweet.”) But the rising tensions that were about to break out into the greatest conflict of all time do not figure at all. Class struggle is never referred to. A prolonged trip to Africa is discussed at length with no mention of the fact that it was colonised, or indeed that the Africans even exist. You could have substituted “America” for “Africa” without having to make any other changes to the script.
So while it stood up very well as a play, it didn’t really throw much light on the period it was set. It was basically a group of people living out the kinds of dramas that people have always had and probably always will have. Humour doesn’t always last, but it was still very funny. The production team have added in some nifty visual jokes which helped it along a bit, because I suspect that there were some bits that were probably funnier eighty years ago than they are now. Once you’ve started laughing you need to keep laughing. But basically you could write this play today and only need to make minor adjustments for it to work pretty well.
The thing that has changed is the medium and our expectations from entertainment. At two and a half hours it was quite daunting sitting down and know I was committing myself to a single source of stimulation for what now seems quite a prolonged period. I’ll be honest and confess that for the first ten minutes or so I was not at all sure I was going to have a positive experience. Luckily the story drew me in pretty quickly. But what if it hadn’t? I’d have been stuck until the intermission.
Ultimately watching a play is not like watching the television or browsing online. You are in a room with real people. It is a very different and a very real experience. It is also an experience you can’t pull out of, at least not without the social cost of getting up and walking out and being the centre of attention. This is particularly true of my local theatre – Chichester. This was the location of a famous story about a woman whose husband died during a performance but who waited until the end before getting any help because she didn’t want to make a fuss.
I have a feeling that plays good enough to extract that kind of investment are not going to be very common. I suspect that there will be quite strong Darwinian selection on the body of plays that make up the current repertoire, and that not many new ones will be added to it. But Noel Coward’s are probably safe enough.