One of my favorite gifts received last Christmas is a book called “Tonight at 8.30; ten one-act plays” by Noël Coward. I have always enjoyed Coward’s writing. He had a unique sophistication and wit and, in addition to his considerable talents as a dramatist, composer, lyricist, actor and cabaret performer, he was a master of the ‘drawing-room comedy’.
In 1935 he was arguably at the peak of his career as a playwright. He had enjoyed great success with Hay Fever, Private Lives and Design For Living and was only 3 years away from completing what would become his masterpiece; Blithe Spirit. Partly in an effort to revive the one-act form, Coward wrote 10 short plays. An equally important goal was to capitalize on his popularity with his long-time performing partner, Gertrude Lawrence, by showcasing their talents in diverse roles. The audiences would come to see Noël & Gert; the material was secondary. Presented under the title “Tonight at 8.30“; the plays were presented in seemingly random groups of three. The only apparent commonalities among the plays is that there were always leading roles for Coward and Lawrence and, because of their length and one-act format, any three of them could be performed in an evening, divided by two intermissions. The production toured England in 1935 with new plays being added into the rotation as they were completed. The production opened in London in January of 1936 and the New York run began in November of that year.
The plays are wonderful individually; some more than others to be sure, but even more so when viewed collectively. They cover a complete spectrum of styles from drama to farce. There are comedies; both light and very dark. Some of the pieces include music.
The best known of the plays is Still Life. The drama tells the story of the relationship of a man and woman, both married to others, as they continue to meet, over time, in a London train station. Coward later adapted it as a screenplay and it became a successful film under the title Brief Encounter.
I think the weakest of the plays is We Were Dancing, a comedy about marital infidelity among colonial Brits who are just a little too sophisticated.
The Astonished Heart is a tragedy about infidelity and obsession.
In Red Peppers, described as; “An Interlude with Music”, the title refers to a husband & wife team of English Music Hall performers who are not exactly at the top of their game.
Hands Across the Sea is a classic Coward drawing-room comedy of manners and mistaken identity.
One of my favorites, Fumed Oak is a dark comedy about a very dysfunctional family. Described as; “An Unpleasant Comedy in Two Scenes”, the play appeals to me in the same way as the work of contemporary playwrights like George Walker and Tracy Letts.
Shadow Play, captioned as; “A Musical Fantasy”, is the most unusual of the pieces. With music and a surprisingly non-linear structure, it shows the life-cycle of a romantic relationship.
Family Album, a comedy set in Victorian England, is the only period piece. It shows a bereaved family coping with grief by means of madeira and fraud.
Ways and Means is a farce involving burglars and house guests who won’t leave.
Star Chamber is a satire of the stereotypes of show folk.
In 2009, Canada’s Shaw Festival produced the series. The plays were presented in groups of three throughout the season and, twice, were presented in what was billed as the “Mad Dogs & Englishman Marathon” when all 10 plays were performed in the same day. Even for a Coward fan, the marathon was daunting but it was the only way those of us traveling a long distance to the Festival were able to see all 10 plays. It was a long day for the audience, evening longer for the actors, I’m sure. But it was absolutely worth it. Rereading them was enjoyable and a wonderful reminder of a once-in-a-lifetime theater experience.