Noël Coward

  • Encounters with Stars of the Theatrical Kind (Part 4)

    In Part 4 of his ‘Encounters’, theatre and film critic RAYMOND STANLEY tells of his 1963 meeting with Noël Coward, who was in Melbourne for the Australian premiere of his musical Sail Away, which he was directing.

    Noel Coward NPGThis 1957 portrait of Coward by Ida Kar was reproduced in the 1963 JCW Sail Away program.From the mid-twenties until the mid-fifties (which heralded the advent of John Osborne’s Angry Young Man1), for anyone interested in the English theatre scene the epitome was Noël Coward. Not only was he an accomplished actor and playwright, but also composed music for his own musicals and revues (naturally supplying lyrics as well as book), and in addition wrote short stories, poems and even one novel. Far from being a Jack of all trades and master of none, he excelled at them all and indeed frequently was referred to as The Master.

    My first conscious contact with his work was at the beginning of World War II, when I became engrossed in his first volume of autobiography, Present Indicative.2 From this I learned much about the theatre of the twenties and thirties, with first-hand glimpses of those who inhabited it. I then became aware that I had seen the films based—some very loosely—upon his plays: Private Lives, Cavalcade, Tonight is Ours (from his play The Queen Was in the Parlour), Bitter Sweet with Anna Neagle, and Design for Living. I had even seen Coward once in a film: the offbeat The Scoundrel.3

    As a natural progression I turned to reading his plays and was soon delighted at the purchase of the famous Private Lives recording of he and Gertrude Lawrence.4 I remember playing it to my Mother and her strange comment: “Doesn’t he sound like Charles Laughton!”

    More films based on Coward’s plays were produced during the early war years: the Macdonald-Eddy travesty of Bitter Sweet, the ridiculous We Were Dancing, supposedly from his Tonight at 8.30 plays and starring Norma Shearer, and of course the memorable In Which We Serve.5

    Then on one leave I actually saw The Master on stage, at the Haymarket, in his two latest plays: Present Laughter and This Happy Breed, in which he had been touring around England along with Blithe Spirit. The latter of course was enjoying its long run at the Piccadilly. I had attended the first matinee of this and had been thrilled to see Coward himself, along with designer Gladys Calthrop, watching the performance from a box, and taking notes.6

    Then, just after VE Day, I saw him in a special charity concert at the Cambridge (in which Josephine Baker also appeared). I do not now recall that he sang any of his own songs, but he did sing a few from what he described as the latest smash-hit American musical. Thus, I heard for the first time ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top’ and other numbers from Oklahoma!7

    From the beginning of the war until 1958 I only missed one Coward show (After the Ball),8 sometimes seeing them twice when there was a replacement cast (i.e. when Coward came out of the Present Laughter revival, to be succeeded by Hugh Sinclair). I even saw Coward portraying King Magnus in Shaw’s The Apple Cart.9

    Somewhere along the line, for no particular reason, I ‘went off’ Coward and have since noted this is a phase experienced by a number of people. Perhaps it was a case of over-exposure of the man. Certainly, he was still popular. I belonged to a playwrights’ club and frequently observed members writing plays which had more than echoes of Coward in them. In fact, one member presented a play à la Blithe Spirit, which had two husbands with two wives each, being conjured up at seances!

    By the time I had moved to Australia even to me Coward had become rather a has-been, despite my delight at possessing his two LPs: Noël Coward at Las Vegas and Noël Coward in New York.10

    Then in 1963, after productions of Coward’s musical Sail Away in New York and London, it was decided to stage it in Australia.11

    Rehearsals took place in Melbourne, with a cast assembled locally, and Australian Maggie Fitzgibbon12brought back from London for the role created by Elaine Stritch.13 Finally, in the last days of rehearsals, Coward was brough out in a blaze of publicity, to give his final approval.

    I later heard that one rather ‘mannish’ actress was being made to play her part in the exact manner and clothes in which it had been performed in New York and London, which was alien to her nature, and she was having difficulty in coming to terms with it. Coward immediately sized up the situation, noted how uncomfortable she was, and in no time at all she had been re-directed to play it more in keeping with her own nature and in slacks instead of dresses. In the final result she was one of the hits of the show.

    There was great excitement in the air on opening night.14 Never before had such a distinguished international author attended the opening Down Under of his own work. Accompanied by Lady Casey, an old friend, Coward took his seat in one of the boxes just before the lights dimmed. With one accord the entire audience rose and applauded him, long and loud. He must have been very gratified and stood up and bowed his acknowledgement.

    A couple of days after that first night, I had an interview arranged with The Master. He was staying in a suite in a very grand but rather old-fashioned hotel. I went along, believing I would find Coward very blasé and a tough nut to crack. I was determined to be just as tough. But from the word go the wind was taken completely out of my sails.

    The hotel suite door was opened by Cole Lesley,15 Coward’s close friend who had been his general factotum for a number of years. Lesley showed me into ‘the presence’. Noël Coward greeted me profusely like an old friend. It seemed not to be put on, but quite genuine.

    “I do hope you’re not in a hurry, dear boy,” he began. “Would you think it awfully impolite of me if we delayed the interview a little? A very dear friend of mine is popping in to see me—he won’t be here very long—and would you mind very much waiting in the bedroom when he arrives?”

    Of course, one didn’t say no to such a request from Noël Coward!

    “You might know him in fact. He’s the Prime Minister of Australia, Mr. Menzies!”16

    By now, of course, I had fallen for The Master’s charm.

    “Let’s just chat until he arrives,” suggested Coward, and for the next ten minutes we did exactly that. How I wished my recorder had been switched on at the time!

    He told me he was going to New York for his musical The Girl Who Came to Supper, adapted from the Rattigan play The Sleeping Prince.17

    “Jose Ferrer18 is playing the Prince, and he’ll be wonderful, and a marvellous girl called Florence Henderson19 will be the leading lady. As a matter of fact, we’ve had to delay it whilst she’s had another baby but, as she’s always in good voice after giving birth, that’s all for the good.’

    Coward spoke also about the musical version of his play Blithe Spirit—to be called High Spirits—which he was going to direct.20 I was already aware Beatrice Lillie21 would play Madame Arcati in that.

    “It’ll be a difficult time, rehearsing Beattie,” he commented quite frankly. “We always row—fight like cat and dog—and stop speaking to each other. But Beattie always ends up doing what I want, and of course she’ll be absolutely wonderful in the role.”

    He also said he was going to direct his Hay Fever,22 with Edith Evans,23 for the National Theatre in England. And so, we chatted on.

    I heard a telephone ring in the next room, and soon afterwards Cole Lesley came in to say the Prime Minister had been delayed.

    “Oh well, let’s get on with the interview, shall we?”, said Coward, and after I’d plugged my tape recorder into a wall switch, we began.

    Pointing out the obvious, that he was a man of so many talents—actor, playwright, composer, lyric writer, novelist, short story writer, director—I asked, if he had the choise of going down to posterity in just one of those capacities, which would he prefer?

    “Well, it’s very difficult to say. I don’t really mind, I haven’t got a great eye on posterity. All I like to do is to entertain the people now, while I’m alive. I shall be remembered mostly for my popular music. One doesn’t know. I don’t care which it is, as long as I’m remembered a little bit. I should like that.”

    Then I asked Coward where, without any false modesty, he would place himself as a playwright amongst past and present dramatists. There was no hesitation in his reply.

    “Without any false modesty, I think I have contributed a certain amount to the English theatre by my plays. I love writing plays. I was brought up in the theatre. Some of them, like Private Lives,24 Hay Fever,25 Design for Living26 will probably—did probably—make a slight revolution. I think The Vortex27 made a slight revolution in playwrighting because—quite unconsciously, I didn’t attempt to be original—I just wrote how I wanted to write and it ‘sort of clicked’.”

    “Do you do very much research work on your plays? With Blithe Spirit,28 I imagine you must have delved a bit into spiritualism.”

    “Yes – I read up a certain amount, not very much, but a little. I do research work mostly if I’m doing a period piece like Bitter Sweet29 or Conversation Piece30 or Cavalcade.31 Then I read up a lot. To do Conversation Piece I read about thirty books on the Regency, so I got myself absolutely soused in the atmosphere and knew what I was talking about, or rather what my characters were talking about.”

    “Do you find, in the actual writing of your plays, that the frame-work and character change at all?”

    “Oh yes, sometimes the characters take charge, because when I wrote Blithe Spirit, I only intended Madame Arcati to be a small part in the first act. But when I started writing her, she sort of took charge of me and I fell in love with her. I thought: she’s wonderful. And so I thought: well, I’d better … she changed the play as she went along. She took charge.”

    “Did you have anyone in mind when you were writing the play?”

    “No, that happened afterwards.”

    “Margaret Rutherford32 came in at a later date?”

    “Yes. I thought she’d be wonderful, and I was right. She was wonderful.”

    “Do you earmark your witty dialogue long before it’s written, or does it usually come to you?”

    “Oh, no, I never earmark it. No. No. No! It comes out. If I’m on the right ‘beam’, it comes out swiftly and easily. If I’m not and feel I’m always hesitating and having to re-write scenes, then I know there is something wrong with the construction. If the construction is strong the dialogue comes easily to me.”

    “Do you consider your early plays are now period pieces and as such should be played as comedy of manners in the dress and style of the time, or do you consider they should be updated?”

    “Well, it doesn’t seem to matter very much. A little company the other day, in London, put on a production of Private Lives without putting it into period – 1930, when it was written—and I must say it didn’t sound dated at all.33 They changed one or two lines—they changed the Duke of Westminster’s yacht to Mr. Onassis’s yacht—but apart from that it sounded quite modern. It didn’t seem to me dated. But of course, I’d be prejudiced, I wouldn’t think it was dated anyhow!”

    “You mentioned you’re going to direct Hay Fever for the National Theatre—will you keep that in the twenties still?”

    “Oh, yes, that will be in the twenties. It should be, because that was the twenties. But I didn’t think it will date all that much. In writing contemporary plays—particularly comedy—the only thing that’s liable to date you is if you use allusions to local contemporary figures or contemporary people. If that happens, all you have to did is just snip them out or change them.”

    “You seem to have cultivated a style of writing of your own, but have you been influenced by other writers?”

    “Oh, a great deal. I was influenced when I was young, curiously enough, by E. Nesbit’s34 books for children and by the short stories of Saki.35 Those were the two who really—unbeknownst to me—started me off writing. Then I was influenced of course, as we all were to an extent, by Shaw. 36 But he was very firm with me when I was young and said: ‘Don’t you read anything more of mine, you write your own things.’ He was charming to me. He was a wonderful man.

    “I think every writer should be influenced by those who’ve gone before, up to a point. One of the mistakes of some of the modern young writers is contempt for the past. I admired and studied all the plays of Pinero,37 Haddon Chambers,38 Somerset Maugham,39 Hubert Henry Davis,40 Bernard Shaw, J.M. Barrie41—these were my school. That’s what I learned from. Then I did my own thing and now some other young people have since then followed me a bit. That’s how it goes. You mustn’t ignore the past.”

    “Do you find that people tend to imitate you?”

    “I don’t know whether they still do. They did for a certain period. Sometimes when I go to the theatre, I wish they imitated me a bit more!”

    In those days, in the sixties, the kitchen sink drama was all in vogue, so I asked Coward his opinion of it.

    “The kitchen sink drama is a sort of generalization. Certain of what is known as the kitchen sink dramas … for instance, Mr. Harold Pinter, 42 I think, is a very fine playwright. Mr. Wesker43 is becoming a very fine playwright. His last play—Chips with Everything44—was fine; a little bit too class conscious, but very finely written.

    “Quite a number of the kitchen sink dramas are a great bore, because they mis-represent what is known—or used to be known—as the working class, and they’re fighting for a gained cause. I don’t think it’s very true of the English cockney now, they’re not always frying onions in back rooms. They live very well. They’re having a very happy time, I’m delighted to say. I’m rather bored with the downbeat drama, I like going to the theatre to be amused.”

    “What are your thoughts on the theatre of the absurd, say Ionesco and Beckett?”

    “I can’t understand them frankly. I can’t understand Mr. Beckett.45 I thought Waiting for Godot46 was a cracking bore when I saw it. But I’m sure I must be wrong. I’m assured by very intellectual people that I’m wrong. But I share that being wrong with the public, because he public don’t care for him very much.”

    “But don’t you feel it might be a cult, that people may feel that they ought to like those sorts of things?”

    “Yes, but you know there are never enough people who think they ought to like anything. I’ve always, having been a professional since I was ten years old, believed that my job was to attract as large a public as possible, without sacrificing my integrity. And I’ve found that that works. I think that the public on the whole are very intelligent.”

    Censorship in England at that time had fairly recently been abolished,47 and things were being done and talked about on the stage not previously possible. I queried whether, had this occurred in the twenties, say, it would have made any difference to his writing.

    “Oh, I got away with quite a lot in the twenties! No, I don’t think it makes much difference. I’m getting rather sick of everything being said. I think, and have always thought, that implication and suggestion is much more interesting than flat statement, and to use a lot of four-letter words … all depending on the type of play it is and the type of character. It’s slightly easy not to have any censorship at all and be able to say exactly what you like. It’s very easy to shock, but it’s not so easy to entertain.”

    When I asked Coward it there were any of his plays and musicals he would like to see revived, perhaps because he felt they didn’t get the success they deserved at the time, he surprised me by being objective about his work.

    “Oh, the ones that didn’t get the success that they deserved at the time were not worthy of it! That’s why they didn’t get the success. There’s never anybody to blame but the author. The one that I’d like to see a really good revival of is Bitter Sweet, I must say, because I enjoyed Bitter Sweet. This Year of Grace,48 which was a revue, that couldn’t be revived, because it was so contemporary, but that was a good show. Conversation Piece was very charming; I’d like to see that done again. But it would be very difficult to find anybody as good as Yvonne Printemps49 to play it.”

    “To me, when you write a short story, you seem very different. You use very little dialogue, which is surprising for a playwright.”

    “That’s fairly deliberate. I like to improve my prose style, my writing. I can write dialogue by the yard. Some of my stories have a certain amount of dialogue, but I like using descriptive passages because it’s unlike the other things I do.”

    “Have you ever thought of turning any of your short stories or your novel into plays?”

    “No, I haven’t thought of doing it myself, because I always find it very difficult to work over something I’ve already done. But I hope somebody else will. I’d like somebody to make a good play out of Pomp and Circumstance,50 my novel, for instance. Or a good movie that’d make. But I don’t know that I could do it myself.”

    “Is that why you’re not doing the book, music and lyrics of High Spirits?

    “Exactly. Hugh Martin51 and Timothy Gray52 have done that and they’ve done it brilliantly. I supervised the editing the book part of it. They’ve kept very close to my dialogue. He’s done a beautiful score and the lyrics are very good. They come out of the score. So, on the whole I’m very pleased with that. But I don’t believe I could have done it so well myself.”

    Next I queried whether there were any special reasons there had been no film versions of his later plays.

    “Well, nobody seems to have done them, that’s why. I don’t think anybody asked for them. I haven’t sold the film rights of Relative Values53 or Nude with Violin54 or Quadrille.55 Those would make quite reasonably good pictures."

    "Present Laughter?"

    Present Laughter … no, never done that. I think that would make a very good picture, but you’d have to have a marvellous comedian to play it. It’d be wonderful for Rex Harrison56 or for Cary Grant.” 57

    “You wouldn’t do it yourself?”

    “I think I’m a bit long in the tooth for that now!”

    “Now as to acting: you once wrote a number ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington’.58 Would you still give that advice to dear Mrs. Worthington?”

    “I certainly would, unless they had blazing talent. I like talent. Lots of people think the stage is easy. But I have news for them!”

    I then sought The Master’s opinion of method acting.

    “Well, every sensible actor has some form of method acting and I don’t hold very much with the constant discussion about motivation and theorizing. I believe first of all in learning the words intelligently and then laying yourself open to a director and thinking how you’re going to play it.

    “The Lunts59 have their own method, I have my method. I always am word perfect at the first rehearsal, because I want to devote my rehearsal period to developing the various different ways you can play a part.

    “I don’t believe in all this ‘getting into the mood’; I don’t believe you’ve got to feel the performance eight times a week. I think you’ve got to feel it sometime during rehearsal and set the feeling and dole it out at each performance to the public. That’s acting. Being is not acting.”

    “You haven’t appeared in many plays by other people—I think Shaw’s The Apple Cart was the last one … “

    “Yes, The Apple Cart was the last one. Very interesting to do. I enjoyed that very much. Very difficult to do, but very interesting.”

    “Is there any particular reason why you don’t appear in other people’s plays?”

    “Well, yes, there’s a very good reason and that is that I just haven’t got time. I haven’t even time to appear in my own plays. You see, if I’m playing eight performances a week, it’s a whole time job. The moment you become a star you have the responsibility of the show. And that means you have to watch your diet, you have to live a monastic life and there’s certainly no time to write lyrics and music and short stories while you’re acting. It takes all the energy you’ve got.”

    “Have you ever had any desires to appear in Shakespeare?”

    “I’ve had one or two. There are two or three parts in Shakespeare I would liked to have played. I would never have cared to play Hamlet. I’d like to have played Iago,60 I’d like to have played Malvolio,61 and I would have liked to have played Benedict.62 But that’s about all.”

    “How much of your work is autobiographical? Your poem, ‘The Boy Actor’ … ”63

    “Oh, that obviously is.”

    “And possibly parts of Present Laughter?”

    “Oh, nearly all Present Laughter. It’s a sort of send-up of myself. Oh, yes, that’s … The rest—not very much.”

    “Are there any people in the theatre today whose careers you feel you’ve had a distinct influence upon?”

    “Oh, I’m proud to say quite a lot. Yes. John Gielgud64 started his career as my understudy, which I’m very proud of. Laurence Olivier65 played the other part in Private Lives with me originally, and through that—I mean he was always a beautiful actor—but through that he got a certain recognition that he hadn’t had hitherto.

    “Johnny Mills66 I discovered in Singapore in 1930, when he was playing in a touring company, and put him into Cavalcade. Oh, there’re quite a number that I’m proud to have helped. And certainly Elaine Stritch. She became a star in Sail Away; she hadn’t really been a star before. Oh, there have been several who in the old days played small parts in my shows who have later become stars, which is very gratifying.”

    “Can we expect you to branch out with any surprising pieces of writing in the future? Like Peace in Our Time67 was something rather different for you?” Peace in Our Time, which opened in 1947 and ran for nearly six months in London, was a drama which supposed the occupation of England by the Germans 1940–45.

    “Well, I liked Peace in Our Time and I thought it was quite a good play. And I liked Waiting in the Wings68 too; but the critics didn’t, but I did. And the public did up to a point. It was rather a sad theme, but I think it’s quite a reasonably good play.

    “I don’t do anything with a reason of branching out or doing something original. If an idea for a play comes to me that I want to write, I just sit down and write it and hope it’ll do.”

    “Has the legend of Noël Coward grown a little out of proportion to you, do you feel, so that you can now view yourself objectively, rather as an organization than a person?”

    “No, I never viewed myself as a legend! That was other people and they all said I was a cocktail-drinking playboy, and if they’d thought for two minutes they’d realise that I couldn’t have been. You can’t work as hard as I’ve worked all these years and drink cocktails all day long and wear dressing gowns. I’ve worked hard all my life. That they never mention.

    “I’m supposed to be very sophisticated and sharp and brittle but—it isn’t quite true. I’m a very hard worker, and the reason I’m a hard worker is frankly because I like working.”

    During the interview I had heard the doorbell ring and guessed it was the Prime Minister arriving. Coward must also have heard it, but made no comment, and so I continued, thus keeping the Australian P.M. waiting a few minutes.

    As I was packing up my tape recorder, Robert Menzies came into the room and the first words Coward said to him were: “I bring you greetings from the Queen Mother.” 69

    I noticed his guest addressed Coward as ‘King Magnus’—the role he had played in The Apple Cart.

    Then, much to my embarrassment, Coward insisted on introducing me to the P.M.

    “This is Raymond Stanley who has just done an excellent interview with me.”

    Endnotes compiled by Elisabeth Kumm

    1. ‘Angry Young Man’ was a term used in the 1950s to describe the plays of the new wave of young British writers including John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, John Arden and Willis Hall.

    2. Present Indicative was the first volume of Noël Coward’s autobiography, published in 1937. It was followed by Future Indefinite in 1954. A third volume, Past Conditional, was not completed.

    3. Private Lives was turned into a MGM Hollywood film in 1931, directed by Sidney Franklin and starring Norma Shearer and Robert Montgomery. In 1933, Cavalcade was given the Hollywood treatment by 20th Century Fox, when it was adapted into a film starring Diana Wynyard and Clive Brook, and directed by Frank Lloyd. Tonight is Ours,taken from Coward’s 1926 play The Queen Was in the Parlour, was made into a film by Paramount in 1933, directed by Stuart Walker and featuring Claudette Colbert and Fredric March. Herbert Wilcox’s 1933 film version of Bitter Sweet, shot in the UK, was the first screen adaptation of Coward’s operetta. Design for Living was given the ‘Lubitsch touch’, when in 1933, Paramount produced a film version starring Fredric March, Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins.

    4. In 1930, Coward and Lawrence recorded two scenes from Private Lives for His Master’s Voice (C 2043). The first was the Love Scene from Act 1 and the second was a scene from Act 2.

    5. MGM’s 1940 film version of Bitter Sweet, directed by W.S. Van Dyke, made such a mess of the original play that Coward vowed he would never let any more of his works be filmed in Hollywood. We Were Dancing, starring Norma Shearer, was a 1942 MGM film, directed by Robert Z. Leonard. It was the last Coward play to be turned into a Hollywood film. In Which We Serve was an original 1942 film written by Noël Coward and directed by Coward with assistance from David Lean for British Lion.

    6. Present Laughter, comedy in three acts by Noël Coward. This play was first performed at the Grand Theatre, Blackpool, on 20 September 1942. Along with This Happy Breed and Blithe Spirit, it toured for 25 weeks under the collective title of Play Parade. The play opened in London at the Haymarket Theatre on 29 April 1943, where it was performed alternatively with This Happy Breed. Noël Coward played the role of Garry Essendine on tour and in London. He also directed. Glady Calthrop (1894–1980), or G.E. Calthrop as she was often credited, designed sets and costumes for most of his plays and films.

    7. On 14 May 1945, at the Cambridge Theatre, a gala concert was presented in aid of the Amis des Volontaires Francaise. According to reviews, Josephine Baker (1906–1975) made her first appearance in London since the war, and Noël Coward ‘sang a number of his waltz melodies’.

    8. After the Ball, musical play in three acts by Noël Coward, adapted from Oscar Wilde’s play Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892). First performed Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool, 1 March 1954, with Vanessa Lee, Peter Graves and Mary Ellis. Following a provincial tour, the play opened in London at the Globe Theatre on 10 June 1954.

    9. First performed in 1929, The Apple Cart was a two-act satirical political comedy by George Bernard Shaw. Noël Coward played King Magnus in the second major London revival of the play when it opened at the Haymarket Theatre, 7 May 1953.

    10. Noël Coward at Las Vegas was recorded in 1955 by Columbia Masterworks (ML 5063) and Noël Coward in New York was recorded in 1957 by Columbia Masterworks (ML 5163).

    11. Sail Away, musical play in two acts by Noël Coward. This play had its premiere in the USA. After tryouts in Boston and Philadelphia, it opened on Broadway at the Broadhurst Theatre on 3 October 1961, with Elaine Stritch as Mimi Paragon. In the tryout version, the play had two leading ladies, but Coward combined the roles and the musical was reworked as a vehicle for Stritch.

    12. Maggie Fitzgibbon (1929–2020), Australian actress and singer. After early success as a singer in Australia, her career took her to the UK in the mid-1950s. She returned to Australia in 1963 to play Mimi Paragon in Sail Away. Back in the UK she continued to appear on stage and on TV, including in the early 1970s, with her own show, Maggie’s Place for London Weekend Television. Maggie can be heard singing ‘Why Do the Wrong People Travel’ from Sail Away on You Tube:

    13. Elaine Stritch (1925–2014), American actress. Noël Coward selected her for a role in Sail Away after seeing her in the Broadway flop Goldilocks.

    14. The Australian premiere of Sail Away took place at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, on 24 May 1963.

    15. Cole Lesley (1910–1980) acted as Noël Coward’s secretary and after his death in 1973 took on the role of biographer, producing two books, The Life of Noel Coward (1976) and Noel Coward and His Friends (1979).

    16. Robert Menzies (1894–1978) was Prime Minister of Australia twice, 1939–1941, and 1949–1966.

    17. The Girl Who Came to Supper, musical comedy in two acts by Harry Kurnitz, based on Terence Rattigan’s 1953 play The Sleeping Prince, with lyrics and music by Noël Coward. After playing tryout performances in Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia, it commenced its New York season at the Broadway Theatre on 8 December 1963 (112 performances).

    18. José Ferrer (1912–1992), Puerto Rican actor and director.

    19. Florence Henderson (1934–2016), American actress and singer. Best remembered today for playing Carol Brady in the TV series The Brady Bunch, Henderson performed in the musicals Wish You Were Here (1953) and Fanny (1954) on Broadway prior to landing the leading female role in The Girl Who Came to Supper (1963).

    20. High Spirits, an improbable musical in two acts by Hugh Martin & Timothy Gray, based on Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit. Following tryouts in New Haven, Boston and Philadelphia, the musical opened at the Alvin Theatre, New York, 7 April 1964, with Edward Woodward, Beatrice Lillie, Tammy Grimes and Louise Troy. Despite some teething problems, the play ran a respectable 375 performances. In October 1964, the musical received its UK premiere in Manchester, opening at the Savoy Theatre, London, 3 November 1964, with Denis Quilley, Cicely Courtneidge, Marti Stevens and Jan Waters (94 performances). SEE ALSO Footnote 30.

    21. Beatrice Lillie (1894–1989), Canadian-born British actress, was considered one of the ‘funniest women in the world’.

    22. Hay Fever, comedy in three acts by Noël Coward. Premiering in London at the Ambassadors Theatre on 6 August 1925, with Marie Tempest in the role of Judith Bliss. It transferred to the Criterion Theatre in September, closing in March 1926.

    23. Edith Evans (1888–1976), British stage actress.

    24. Private Lives, comedy in three acts by Noël Coward. Opening at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, in August 1930, the play toured for five weeks visiting Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and Southsea, prior to its London premiere at the newly constructed Phoenix Theatre on 24 September 1930. With Gertrude Lawrence and Noël Coward as Amanda and Elyot, Coward withdrew it at the height of its success in December 1930 to take it to Broadway, where it played at the Times Square Theatre from 27 January 1931.

    25. Noël Coward’s 1925 comedy Hay Fever received its third London revival in 1964 at the Old Vic Theatre. Coward directed an all-star cast that included, in addition to Edith Evans as Judith Bliss; Derek Jacobi as Simon Bliss, Robert Stephens as Sandy Tyrell, Maggie Smith as Myra Arundel, Lynn Redgrave as Jackie Coryton, Anthony Nicholls as David Bliss and Louise Purnell as Sorel Bliss.

    26. A comedy in three acts by Noël Coward, Design for Living premiered in the USA. Playing tryouts in Cleveland and Washington in January 1933, it opened on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on 24 January 1933. The principal roles were performed by Lynn Fontanne, Alfred Lunt and Noël Coward. The play did not reach the UK until 1939. Following a week’s tryout at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, from 16 January 1939, it opened at the Haymarket Theatre on 25 January 1939. In June of the same year, it transferred to the Savoy Theatre. With the outbreak of war, the show was halted after 203 performances and the company went on tour, returning to the Savoy in December 1939 for an additional 33 performances. Diana Wynyard, Anton Walbrook and Rex Harrison played the principal roles.

    27. The Vortex, play in three acts by Noël Coward. First performed at the Everyman Theatre, London, 25 November 1924, with Lillian Braithwaite and Noël Coward as the leads. After twelve performances, the play transferred to the Royalty Theatre in the West End for a further 224 performances. In March 1925 it transferred again to the Comedy Theatre, thereafter, moving to the Little Theatre in May 1925. The play was essentially the story of a drug-addict son’s relationship with his mother.

    28. Subtitled an improbably farce in three acts, Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit was first performed in Manchester and Leeds in June 1941, with Cecil Parker, Kay Hammond, Fay Compton and Margaret Rutherford. It opened in London at the Piccadilly Theatre on 2 July 1941, transferring to the St. James’s Theatre on 23 March 1942, and then to the Duchess Theatre on 6 October 1942. When it closed in March 1946 it had notched up 1,997 performances. Kay Hammond and Margaret Rutherford would go on to recreate their roles in David Lean’s 1945 film version. Blithe Spirit was played on Broadway in 1941-1943 and in Australia during 1945-1946.

    29. Bitter Sweet, an operetta in three acts by Noël Coward was performed for the first time at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, on 2 July 1929, with Peggy Wood (Sarah Millick) and George Metaxa (Carl Linden). It was performed in London at His Majesty’s Theatre from 12 July 1929 to 28 February 1931, transferring to the Palace Theatre from 2-21 March 1931. The company then played Streatham Hill (1 week) and Golders Green (2 weeks), returning to London for an additional 32 performances at the Lyceum Theatre. Evelyn Laye, who had played the role of Sarah in America, replaced Peggy Wood at His Majesty’s from November 1930 to January 1931. She also played the role during the farewell season at the Lyceum.

    30. Conversation Piece, a three-act romantic comedy with music by Noël Coward, premiered at His Majesty’s Theatre in London on 16 February 1934. Set in France and England during the Regency period, the play featured exquisite sets and dresses by G.E. Calthrop. The lead roles were played by Noël Coward (Paul, Duc de Chaucigny-Varennes) and Yvonne Printemps (Melanie). During the play’s four-month season, the role of Paul was also performed by Pierre Fresney. In October 1934, the play transferred to Broadway, playing a modest 55 performances at the 44th Street Theatre, with Yvonne Printemps and Pierre Fresney as the leads.

    31. When Noël Coward’s Cavalcade opened at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in October 1931, it was described as a magnificent evocation of what it means to be English. Told in 22 scenes, the action spans a thirty-year period, from 1899 to 1930, from the Boer War to the Jazz Age. Against this backdrop, the play’s heroine, Jane Marryot, ages gracefully, as she dines and dances her way through the story. Mary Clare played the role of Jane, alongside a huge cast that included Irene Browne, Una O’Connor, Binnie Barnes, John Mills, Fred Groves and Strella Wilson. Directed by Noël Coward and designed by G.E. Calthrop, it achieved 405 performances.

    32. Margaret Rutherford (1892–1972), English stage and screen actress.

    33. The second major London revival of Private Lives was at the Hampstead Theatre Club in 1963. Featuring Rosemary Martin and Edward de Souza as Amanda and Elyot, it was directed by James Roose-Evans. Noël Coward attended the opening night and went back stage after the show and was photographed with the cast.

    34. E. Nesbit (née Edith Nesbit, 1858–1924), English writer, notably of children’s novels such as The Railway Children (1906).

    35. Saki (né Hector Hugh Munro. 1870–1916), English writer.

    36. George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), Irish playwright and critic.

    37. Arthur Wing Pinero (1955–1934), English playwright.

    38. Charles Haddon Chambers (1860–1921), Australian-born British playwright. Refer Haddon Chambers and the Long Arm of Neglect (Revisited) by Roger Neill, Part 1 and Part 2, On Stage, 2021

    39. William Somerset Maugham (1874–1965), English playwright and novelist.

    40. Hubert Henry Davies (1869–1917), English playwright.

    41. J.M. Barrie (1860–1937), Scottish playwright and novelist.

    42. Harold Pinter (1930–2008), English playwright.

    43. Along with John Osborn, British playwright Arnold Wesker (1932–2016) was considered one of the key proponents of the ‘Angry Young Man’ drama of the post war period. With an output of more than fifty plays, it is his early plays that best typify his style: Chicken Soup with Barley (1958), Roots (1959), The Kitchen (1959), I’m Talking About Jerusalem (1960), and Chips with Everything (1962).

    44. Wesker’s Chips with Everything premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in April 1962. Using the divisions of the Royal Air Force as a microcosm of the class system in Britain, the play tells the story of an ordinary serviceman, Pip, who rebels against the expectations of the force that as a privately educated recruit, he must join the officer class. His failure to avoid promotion demonstrates the power of the class system to ensure everyone is in their correct place.

    45. Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett (1906–1989) is now considered one of the most distinguished writers of the twentieth century. 

    46. In 1961, Martin Esslin coined the term ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ (in his book of the same name), to describe a particular form of theatre that explored man’s existential relationship to the universe and nature, with Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot a key example. Waiting for Godot was first performed in Paris in 1953 as En attendant Godot and given its English-language premiere at the Arts Theatre in London in 1955. Cuts were made to the text by the Lord Chamberlain, and it was not until 1964 that the first unexpurgated version of the play was performed in England at the Royal Court Theatre.

    47. Since the 1600s, all plays staged in England were required by law to be licenced for production prior to performance. In 1737 a new Act appointed the Lord Chamberlain as the official licenser of plays, giving him the power to prohibit or censor plays that he felt had the potential to cause offence or incite unrest. With the passing of the Theatres Act of 1843 little changed, and 100 years on, the Lord Chamberlain remained the arbiter of taste and protector of public morals. Moves to abolish theatre censorship began in the post WW2 period and in the early 1960s theatre critic Kenneth Tynan and others were campaigning for liberalisation. Finally with the passing of the Theatres Act 1958, theatre censorship in Great Britain was abolished and it was no longer necessary to submit works to the Lord Chamberlain for scrutiny prior to production.

    48. This Year of Grace! was a revue devised by Noël Coward and first presented at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, in February 1928 (where it had the title Charles B. Cochran’s 1928 Revue). It was subsequently performed at the London Pavilion on 22 March 1928, running for 316 performances.

    49. Yvonne Printemps (1894–1977) was a French singer and actress. Along with her husband, the actor and playwright Sacha Guitry, she had been seen on the London stage in several seasons of French plays during the 1920s. Noël Coward wrote Conversation Piece as a vehicle for Printemps who he described as a ‘fine actress’ with ‘one of the loveliest voices it has ever been my privilege to hear’. Unable to speak English, Printemps was required to learn her part phonetically. In 1933, she left her husband for actor Pierre Fresney, and he succeeded Coward in the role of Paul in Conversation Piece, and he also played the part on Broadway.

    50. Pomp and Circumstance, published by William Heinemann Ltd., London, 1960 and published in paperback by PAN Books Ltd., London, 1963, was Noël Coward’s only full-length novel. Set on the island of Samola, it concerns a visit to the fictitious British colony by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip to the island.

    51. Hugh Martin (1914–2011), American composer and playwright, best remembered for his score for the MGM film musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944).

    52. Timothy Gray (1926–2007), American songwriter. In addition to partnering with Hugh Martin on High Spirits, he is also remembered for writing the score of the 1952 London musical Love from Judy.

    53. Relative Values, a light comedy in three acts by Noël Coward. First performed in at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle, in October 1951, the play toured for six weeks, visiting Glasgow, Oxford, Brighton, Bournemouth and Leeds, prior to opening at the Savoy Theatre in London on 28 November 1951 (477 performances). Directed by Noël Coward, the play featured Gladys Cooper, Angela Baddeley, Ralph Michael, Hugh McDermott and Judy Campbell.

    54. Nude with Violin, a light comedy in three acts by Noël Coward. A satire on modern art, it had its premiere at the Olympic Theatre in Dublin in September 1956. Following some revisions, it was taken on a four-week tour, visiting Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Edinburgh, prior to opening in London at the Globe Theatre on 7 November 1956. John Gielgud played the role of Sebastien on tour and in London. In June 1957, he was succeeded by Michael Wilding, and in November 1957 by Robert Helpmann. Coward played Sebastian on Broadway in 1957. And in 1958, Robert Helpmann reprised the role when the play was given its Australian premiere.

    55. Quadrille, a romantic comedy in three acts by Noël Coward. After premiering at the Opera House, Manchester, in July 1952, it toured to Edinburgh, Glasgow and Liverpool, prior to opening in London at the Phoenix Theatre on 12 September 1952 (329 performances). Leading roles were performed by Alfred Lunt (Axel Diensen) and Lynn Fontanne (Serena, the Marchioness of Heronden). They repeated their roles when the play was performed on Broadway at the Coronet Theatre from 3 November 1954 (159 performances). Noël Coward directed the UK production. Alfred Lunt directed the New York production. Cecil Beaton designed set and costumes for both.

    56. Rex Harrison (1908–1990), English actor. Best remembered for creating the role of Professor Higgins in My Fair Lady, on stage and on film, Harrison also played the role of Leo in the first UK production of Design for Living. He also acted the role of Charles Condomine in David Lean’s film version of Blithe Spirit.

    57. Like Rex Harrison, British-born Cary Grant (1904–1986) was the epitome of the Hollywood leading man. With his easy-going style, impeccable comic timing and debonair demeanour, he acted in more than 70 films between 1932 and 1966.

    58. Written in 1935, Noël Coward’s song ‘Mrs Worthington’was, according to The Methuen Dictionary of the Drama, addressed to ‘Glitters’ Worthington, the wife of a Birchington GP, whose affair with the playwright Frederick Lonsdale resulted in the birth of a daughter, Angela. As a youngster, Angela developed a passion for the stage, inspiring Coward to compose some words of advice to her mother. Though she did not pursue a stage career, Angela later became the wife of theatre impresario Robin Fox, and matriarch of the Fox family of actors that includes Edward and James Fox.

    59. The Lunts: Alfred Lunt (1892–1977) and Lynn Fontanne (1887–1983) were a celebrated acting couple who enjoyed popularity on both sides of the Atlantic. Milwaukee-born Lunt and London-born Fontanne married in 1922 and from that time were inseparable stage partners. Coward first met them in 1921 and in 1932 wrote Design for Living as a stage vehicle for the three of them. The story of a ménage à trois, the play caused a storm when it premiered on Broadway. Hoping to replicate this success, he wrote Point Valaine for them in 1934, but it lacked the wit and glamour of the earlier play and was withdrawn after only a few weeks. They also appeared in his 1952 comedy Quadrille in London and on Broadway.

    60. Iago, one of the principal characters in Shakespeare’s play Othello, hatches a plan to destroy Othello by making him believe that his wife, Desdemona, is having an affair with his lieutenant Cassio.

    61. In Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night, Malvolio is a figure of fun. A selfish and pompous man, he becomes the victim of a cruel joke, when members of his household send him a love letter purporting to be from Olivia. 

    62. Benedick is the principal male character in Shakespeare’s comedy Much Ado About Nothing, whose love-hate relationship with Beatrice is central to the play.

    63. ‘The Boy Actor’, autobiographical poem by Noël Coward included in Not Yet The Dodo and other verses, published by William Heinemann, London, 1967. Listen to Sir Derek Jacobi reciting the poem:

    64. John Gielgud (1904–2000) was one of Britain’s most celebrated stage actors, notably in Shakespeare.

    65. Laurence Olivier (1907–1989), English stage and film actor.

    66. John Mills (1908–2005), English stage and film actor. Mills and his second wife, the playwright Mary Hayley Bell (1914–2000), were lifelong friends of Coward, who was godfather of their eldest daughter, Juliet Mills. In addition to performing on stage in Cavalcade, Mills also played Ordinary Seaman ‘Shorty’ Blake in Coward’s 1942 moral boosting film In Which We Serve.

    67. Peace in Our Time, play in two acts and eight scenes by Noël Coward. After opening at the Theatre Royal, Brighton, in July 1947, the play received its West End premiere at the Lyric Theatre on 22 July 1947, transferring to the Aldwych Theatre on 29 September 1947 (total 167 performances). The action of the play takes place in the saloon bar of a public house called ‘The Shy Gazelle’, situated somewhere between Knightsbridge and Sloane Square.

    68. Waiting in the Wings, play in three acts by Noël Coward. The play opened in London at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 7 September 1960, following short tryout seasons at the Olympic Theatre, Dublin and Royal Court Theatre, Liverpool, during August 1960. The play was dedicated to Dame Sybil Thorndike, who created the role of Letta Bainbridge, one of the residents of ‘The Wings’, a charity home for retired actresses, in the Thames Valley, not far from Bourne End.

    69. As the wife of King George VI, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (1900–2002), was Queen of England from 1936 to 1952. After George’s death, when her daughter, Elizabeth ascended to the throne, she became known as the Queen Mother. According to Philip Hoare, ‘it was with Noël Coward that the Queen Mother struck up her strongest relationship with a gay man’. She found him entertaining, and they sang duets together. In 1961 she lunched with him at ‘Firefly’, his home in Jamaica.

  • Haddon Chambers and the Long Arm of Neglect (Revisited) (Part 2)

    ROGER NEILL concludes his two-part article on the life and works of Australian-born Charles Haddon Chambers, commemorating 100 years since the death of a playwright who deserves better recognition in the country of his birth.

    High point: The Tyranny of Tears

    Although Haddon Chambers’ next full-length play,The Tyranny of Tears of 1899, was substantially his most successful and critically applauded play, re-staged over several decades, it presents us today with some real difficulty. At the heart of it is the relentless patronising of his wife by the leading man. As Elizabeth Schafer puts it:

    The Tyranny of Tears featured a married couple renegotiating their marriage as the wife is pressured into behaving more acceptably. Initially she exerts ‘tyranny’ by crying prettily and using emotional blackmail to alienate her husband from his friends and keep his focus relentlessly on her, to the detriment of his writing … I would want to ask, more stringently than the play allows, what precisely would make a woman employ such ‘tyranny’ in the first place?

    My own assumption is that the Hampstead writer-husband, Clement Parbury, is substantially based on Chambers himself. Indeed, it may be that this tightly composed domestic comedy is based on his own marriage, the wife Mabel on his own wife. While her manipulative tears might indeed drive a man to distraction, it never seems to occur to Parbury that he might be part of the problem. Being constantly positioned by him as an inferior being, a ‘dear little woman’, might well promote in a wife feelings of anger, even revenge. His self-perception (always being, by right, in the right) would be irksome, to say the least. Any modern staging would be bound to re-balance the roles—as happens so often with contemporary productions of, for example, The Taming of the Shrew.

    One wonders whether Chambers’ relationship with such a powerful woman as Melba—so much more direct and self-confident than the Mabel character—might not have sharpened his sense of the problems in his own marriage. Another side of Chambers is embodied in a second male character, George Dunning, the unmarried outsider who disturbs the ‘harmony’ of the marriage. Mabel Parbury says to him that she thinks his alarming influence over her husband is ‘the ridicule of the untamed for the tamed.’ ‘Say of the disreputable for the respectable,’ responds Gunning.

    The Tyranny of Tears opened at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus on 6 April 1899, presented by Charles Wyndham’s company, with Wyndham as the husband and his wife, the ‘adored’ Mary Moore, as Mrs Parbury. ‘I did not expect that he would ever take this keen interest in ordinary human character,’ wrote Max Beerbohm in The Saturday Review, ‘nor that he would ever write dialogues so pointed and witty.’ It ran for 115 performances and Chambers drew a ten per cent royalty from the play, which gave him £160 a week, equivalent to around $A30,000 a week in current money, supplemented by the royalties he was earning from the revival under Beerbohm Tree of Captain Swift, running at the same time at Her Majesty’s in London. Tyranny was revived in January 1902 at Wyndham’s and in February 1914 at the Comedy (52 performances).

    Chambers’ friend Charles Frohman presented The Tyranny of Tears in New York in September at the Empire. It became a star vehicle for John Drew as Parbury. Drew was to become a ‘close pal’ of Chambers. In Australia it was toured by Robert Brough’s company in 1900 (and later 1902) with Mr and Mrs Brough in leading roles, first opening at the Theatre Royal in Sydney on 12 May. After Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, the company went on to Calcutta.

    Tyrannywas followed in 1901 by The Awakening, which did well and aroused much comment. A guru of turn-of-the-century theatre (and first translator of Ibsen), William Archer, paraphrased it as follows in Play-Making: A Manual of Craftsmanship of 1912:

    [It] turned on a sudden conversion—the ‘awakening’, in fact, referred to in the title. A professional lady-killer [Jim Trower], a noted Don Juan, has been idly making love to a country maiden, whose heart is full of innocent idealisms. She discovers his true character, or, at any rate, his reputation and is horror-stricken, while practically at the same moment, he ‘awakens’ to the error of his ways, and is seized with a passion for her as single minded and idealistic as hers for him. But how are the audience to be assured of the fact?

    The Awakening seems to me to be the most autobiographical of all Chambers’ work, and the ambivalence that Archer senses in the ‘lady-killer’ may well reflect ambivalence in the playwright himself. In a letter to a friend Chambers admits that he was ‘weak enough to be persuaded into making [an] alteration’, going on to say that ‘when the play is done in America it will be exactly as written, as the balance was disturbed by a regretted attempt to whitewash Jim Trower.’

    Initially postponed following the death of Queen Victoria, it opened at the St James’s Theatre in London on 6 February 1901 (running for 59 performances) with George Alexander as the philanderer James St John Trower, A.E. Matthews as Cecil Bird, H.B. Irving as Lord Reginald Dugdale and Fay Davis as the ‘country maiden’ Olive Lawrence. ‘He uses his innate sense of the theatre, not for striking out unscrupulously theatrical effects, but for creating effects of real life across footlights,’ wrote Max Beerbohm in The Saturday Review. The following month Chambers directed H.V. Esmond’s The Wilderness at the same theatre. Although Frohman purchased the American rights for The Awakening, I have yet to discover any performance there. It was given a decade later by an amateur company at the Palace Theatre in Sydney (December 1912).

    In the early years of the new century, Haddon Chambers followed up the success of The Tyranny of Tears and The Awakening (1901) with a series of adaptations from European originals—A Modern Magdalen (1902), The Younger Mrs Parling (1904), The Thief (1907), Suzanne (1910) and Tante (1913). Did he turn to adaptation because he felt his own creative powers waning?

    Chambers’ next three productions all had their premières in New York. A Modern Magdalen was refashioned by Chambers from a Danish play, Familie Jensen by Edgar Hoyen. Here Chambers returns to an earlier theme—the woman with a past and her subsequent rejection by society. It opened in New York in March 1902 at the Bijou Theatre with Amelia Bingham in the lead role, playing for 73 performances.

    An apparently different play, specifically written (it was claimed by George Musgrove) by Haddon Chambers for the Australian musical comedy star Nellie Stewart, called Dolores, made its première at the Theatre Royal in Sydney in July 1903. Not lasting long there, it was toured throughout Australia. In reality, Dolores was A Modern Magdalen.Clearly, Nellie Stewart was not enamoured of Mr Chambers, complaining in her memoirs that an agreement was made with the playwright for a series of new plays for Nellie, none of which was forthcoming. She described him as a ‘casual Australian’. Perhaps Haddon was not amused. Around the same time, there were reports that A Modern Magdalenhad been translated into French for the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, but this does not seem to have come to anything. A Modern Magdalenwas made into a movie in Hollywood in 1915 starring Lionel Barrymore and Cathrine Countiss.

    His next adaptation, The Younger Mrs Parling opened at the Park Theater in Boston in November 1903 with Annie Russell in the lead role, and then ran for 36 performances at the Garrick in New York. It was from Le Détour by Henri Bernstein, and again took up the cause of the ‘fallen woman’—‘a mixture of Ibsen and Dumas fils,’ said the New York Times. Mauled by the American critics, it never reached the stage in London.

    The Thief was adapted by Chambers, again from the French of Henri Bernstein, and opened in September 1907 again at the Lyceum in New York (a major hit, running for 281 performances), with the English actor, Kyrle Bellew, as Richard Voysin and Margaret Illington as his wife. Bellew had toured Australia twice with the radiant Mrs Brown Potter in the 1890s and had prospected (and acted) on the goldfields of Victoria twenty years earlier.

    The version of The Thief which ran at the St James’s Theatre in London (opening 12 November 1907 with George Alexander and Irene Vanbrugh) was by Cosmo Gordon Lennox. Haddon Chambers’ adaptation was not performed in England until June 1927, when it was given by the repertory company at the Playhouse in Broadstairs, Kent.

    Chambers adapted Suzanne from a Belgian comedy, Le Mariage de Mademoiselle Beulemans, by Frantz Fonson and Ferdinand Wicheler. It was produced at the Lyceum in New York by Charles Frohman, opening in December 1910, with Billie Burke (Suzanne), Julian L’Estrange and George W. Anson in leading roles. It ran for 64 performances.

    The last of these adaptations, Tante, was from a best-selling novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick. Another Frohman production, it was tried out at the Apollo in Atlantic City in October 1913 before opening at the Empire in New York, where it ran for 79 performances with Ethel Barrymore in the lead role of the artist, Madame Okraska. The New York Times described it as a work of ‘exceptional adroitness’ with ‘splendid characterisation’. It opened at the Haymarket in London as The Impossible Womanin September 1914 with Lillah McCarthy (running for 89 performances) and under that title was made into a British film with Constance Collier in 1919.

    Breaking with Melba

    It seems that Haddon Chambers’ relationship with Nellie Melba came to a halt at some time during the period around 1906-08. Some saw it as an abrupt break. In his memoirs, Henry Russell says: ‘For reasons that I never understood and which he never explained, he suddenly ceased to be persona grata to her.’ He goes on to speculate that Haddon ‘found her a trifle too exigent from time to time’, seeming to imply that he dropped her, which I doubt. Exigent had been a word he had used in The Tyranny of Tears to describe the manipulative wife. ‘His infatuation lasted longer than hers, and she had a lot of trouble in getting rid of him,’ wrote Melba’s early biographer, Percy Colson.

    One possibility is that the breach stemmed from difficulties surrounding the royalties committed to Chambers by Melba from her early recordings (one shilling per record sold in America). Melba’s first recordings, made at her home in Great Cumberland Place in March and April of 1904, came after long periods of separation from Haddon and this may be a second issue. He was at the carriage door at Euston Station as she left in July 1902 for her first tour of Australia after sixteen years in Europe and she toured frequently in the succeeding years.

    A third possible contributing factor is that Haddon’s estranged wife, Marie, died in November 1904, so ironically he was at last legally free. And, of course, his reputed philandering ways may have had something to do with the breakdown. Ann Blainey suggests that Melba’s affections switched to the Australian flautist, John Lemmoné. In March 1904 Haddon copied out in his own hand a triolet (eight-line verse) that rehearses whimsically the heroic absences of men and the inconstancy of women:

    ‘Glory calls me – I must go!’

       Said the lover to his lady:

    Noble words were those, I trow.

       ‘Glory calls me – I must go.’

    Back he came: another beau

       Toying with her tresses shady:

    ‘Glory calls me – I must go!’

       Said the lover to his lady.

    In fact, the verse was not by Chambers, but had been first published in the 24 November 1883 issue of The Bulletin in Sydney as the work of VJD (Irish-Australian poet, Victor Daley). Clearly, it had some enduring meaning for Haddon.

    Sadly, Haddon Chambers is not mentioned either in the first biography of the diva (Melba: A Biographyof 1909 by Agnes G Murphy), which was virtually dictated to the writer by Melba, or in her ‘official’ autobiography, Melodies and Memoriesof 1925, which was ghost-written by Beverley Nichols.

    Between 1903 and 1906 Haddon wrote two original new plays, The Golden Silence and Sir Anthony, neither of them enjoying any great success. A third, The Head of the Family, seemingly not produced, perhaps unfinished, was written in partnership with the American, Paul Kester, who had a major hit on his hands at that time in England, America and Australia, Sweet Nell of Old Drury.

    The Golden Silence opened at the Garrick Theatre in London on 22 September 1903, running for 78 performances. The lead roles were taken by Violet Vanbrugh (Countess of Arlington) and Arthur Bourchier (Augustus Mapes), who also directed. At the première, Bourchier had a cool reception from the audience and at the close Haddon Chambers came forward, bowed, and was received with a chorus of groans.

    Sir Anthony, opened at the Savoy Theatre in New York on 19 November 1906, produced this time not by Frohman, but by Liebler & Co. It ran for only 16 performances, transferring to the Park Theatre in Boston. It opened successfully in London at Wyndham’s Theatre two years later (28 November 1908, 48 performances), and Max Beerbohm commented on ‘the extreme fidelity with which Mr Chambers has painted the class of people who are his theme … the lower-middle and middle-middle classes’. Perhaps Chambers’ satirising of British snobbery found a more ready response in London than it had in New York. Among the London cast were Weedon Grossmith and Nina Boucicault, and the Wyndham’s staging was co-produced by Frank Curzon and Chambers’ long-time associate in New York, Charles Frohman.

    Another Chambers project from 1905-06 that seems not to have reached the stage was a musical comedy, Mr Flame, created with the composer Bernard Rolt. Young and handsome, Rolt was primarily a composer of drawing-room ballads. He had become a close friend of Nellie and Haddon Chambers. The three of them had vacationed together with others in Italy in July 1904—first at a house party at Henry Russell’s villa at Stresa on Lake Maggiore, moving on to Venice, where Melba studied Madama Butterfly with Puccini, a role she never sang. In 1906, Haddon was living in ‘my new little house in Waverton Street’ in Mayfair.

    On 19 September 1908 Haddon Chambers participated in a ‘copyright’ performance of a new American operetta by Victor Herbert and Henry Blossom, The Prima Donna.Haddon read the lead male role. This happened at the Knickerbocker Theater in New York on 30 November with Fritzi Scheff as the prima donna.

    In 1910 Chambers was reportedly writing another musical comedy, The Best Girl, with music by John L. Golden, but this too does not seem to have come to anything.

    Late works

    Two of his last three plays, written immediately before and during the First World War, were admired and also successful at the box office.

    The basic idea for Passers-By of 1911 came to Chambers when he and a friend, the Gaiety actor, Paul Arthur, were walking home on a foggy night from the theatre in London. Chambers collided with a tramp, who apologised gracefully, so Chambers invited him home for supper. Dedicated to his own daughter, Margery, the play opened, well received, at Wyndham’s Theatre on 29 March with Irene Vanbrugh and Gerald du Maurier in the lead roles. It was to be one of the most successful new plays of the season with 163 performances.

    When a young gentleman of leisure, Peter Waverton, invites a tramp, Samuel Burns, out of the fog into his Piccadilly apartment for supper, his butler, Pine, complains at the upsetting of social hierarchy. Also out of the fog comes a distressed young mother, Margaret, the father of whose child, unbeknown to him, is Waverton.  Haddon Chambers’ proto-feminist attitudes can be gauged from the unmarried mother, Margaret: ‘You needn’t be embarrassed for me, Peter. I’m not ashamed and I’ve no remorse. He’s my child. I’ve won him and he’s mine only.’

    Irene Vanbrugh wrote in her memoirs: ‘I was to be Gerald du Maurier’s leading lady, an experience I had always wanted. This was in Passers-By by Haddon Chambers, a play with true sentiment, and Gerald’s special, very flexible, sensitive approach to his art delighted me … and kept the scenes between us alive.’ The theatre critic of The Times had a different view on the proceedings: ‘Mr Peter Waverton is not a real person, but the “sympathetic” personage in a sentimental play.’

    Passers-By opened on 14 September 1911 at the Criterion in New York, produced by Frohman, running for 124 performances. ‘Richard Bennett need not fear comparison with Gerald du Maurier,’ wrote the New York Times critic, ‘he has the variety, charm, naturalness, ease.’ It was twice made into silent movies in Hollywood (in 1916 and 1920), the earlier version with Chambers’ close friend, Charles Cherry. Cherry was also in the American stage productions of Tanteand The Great Pursuit.

    The rights for Australasia having been signed by J.C. Williamson, Passers-Bytoured extensively there from January to September 1912. The production opened at the Theatre Royal in Melbourne with Hilda Spong as Margaret. Spong had previously appeared in Haddon Chambers’ The Fatal Cardin Sydney seventeen years earlier in 1895. This was her first return to the Antipodes since that time, having established her reputation as a fine actor in Britain and America.

    After Melbourne, the Passers-Bycompany went to New Zealand (Auckland, Wanganui, New Plymouth, Christchurch, Dunedin, Wellington), returning to His Majesty’s in Brisbane, the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, the Town Hall in Kalgoorlie, His Majesty’s in Perth, the Princess in Bendigo, Her Majesty’s in Ballarat and finally the Theatre Royal in Sydney. In Melbourne and Sydney, Waverton was played by Harcourt Beatty, but on tour the part was taken by the American William Desmond.

    Less successful, The Great Pursuit of 1916 was put on at the Shubert Theatre in New York as a vehicle for the English actor, W. Graham Browne, with his starrier wife Marie Tempest taking a small role. It ran for 29 performances.

    Haddon Chambers’ last finished play, The Saving Grace of 1917, was a hit in London, running for 200 performances at the Garrick Theatre with Sir Charles Hawtrey in the lead role and the young Noel Coward as the juvenile lead (his first ‘grown-up part’). Haddon was at this time living (with valet Hogg) at 4 Aldford Street, off Park Lane, Mayfair—‘tiny but charmingly furnished … every room differently and delightfully decorated,’ according to John D. Williams. In New York (at the Empire again), The Saving Gracewas played to ecstatic reviews (‘amazing subtlety and distinction’) by the English actor, Cyril Maude. Chambers himself directed and the play ran on Broadway for 96 performances.

    It was brought to Sydney by Robert Courtneidge’s company, opening at the Tivoli in October 1920. Brisbane followed, where on 21 November, according to the Northern Herald: ‘A serious panic at His Majesty’s Theatre was narrowly averted … when about 150 university students raided the building and startled the audience … Many people thought there was a fire.’

    The central figure is Blinn Corbett, a penniless English army officer, who has run off with his commanding officer’s wife. Written past the mid-point of the war, millions of casualties having been sustained, but set at its outbreak, it seems astonishing that the enthusiasm to join up was still uppermost in men’s thinking. Nevertheless, The Saving Grace is tautly plotted with crackling, witty dialogue. ‘Haddon Chambers’ best,’ said the New York Times of its American première. Reviewing his long career, the piece continued:

    He has to his credit one of the small number of perfect comedies of manners in the language. The Tyranny of Tears, and a character romance of distinguished charm, Passers-By. The present play blends the acute actuality of the one with the kindly feeling of the other.

    And assessing the whole Haddon Chambers oevre, Michael R. Booth (in his English Plays of the Nineteenth Century) wrote:

    From the French they [English dramatists] absorbed the planned management of plot structure, the elimination of irrelevant material, and the careful subordination of means to ends. In Pinero and Jones French skills are generally applied to plays with many characters, a substantial plot, and an elaborate social setting. The Tyranny of Tears [and The Saving Grace] goes further: the characters are remarkably few in number; the plot is slight; and the setting is many miles, both literally and figuratively, from Mayfair.

    In his memoirs-article of 13 October 1918, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, the fifty-six-year-old playwright described his sadness at losing over recent times so many of his closest friends, naming particularly Charles Frohman (who had drowned in the sinking of the Lusitaniaby a German submarine in May 1915), Herbert Beerbohm Tree (in 1917) and George Alexander (in 1918). He also mentioned in passing ‘certain war activities that I had been engaged upon.’ What these were remains unclear.

    If Nellie Melba had been Haddon Chambers’ closest woman friend, his closest male intimate in New York and London over a quarter of a century had been Charles Frohman. Around 1900 Chambers introduced Frohman to Marlow, which the producer fell in love with, regularly staying at the Compleat Angler inn by the river. Following the sinking of the Lusitaniain May 1915 in which Frohman was one of the 1,198 who died, Haddon said to the New York Times:

    Up and down [the High Street] Mr Frohman used to love to walk, dodging in and out of the stores, where he would purchase unconsidered trifles as an excuse for chatting with the shopkeepers.

    Chambers made the journey to the port of Queenstown (now Cobh) in County Cork, Ireland, in order to identify and retrieve the body, writing to his sister Agnes in Sydney:

    I went over to Queenstown with Lestocq, his London manager, to get Frohman’s body. We crossed the Irish Channel at night with all lights out on account of the German submarines … It was the saddest quest I was ever upon … We bore him to Liverpool and sent him to New York … Just before the ship went down he said to a girl friend of mine, who was fortunately saved, that ‘after all, death was only a beautiful adventure.’


    The Saving Grace is dedicated to his new love, Pepita. On 29 October 1920 he married the musical comedy star, Pepita Bobadilla. Haddon was 59, she 28. Although she was advertised as having been born in Ecuador, her real name was Nelly Louise Burton, born in Hamburg, the illegitimate daughter of an English mother and a German officer father.

    Haddon’s health declined and she took care of him until his death, apparently from stroke and heart disease, at 61 in London on 28 March 1921. There was a funeral service at St George’s Hanover Square in London—among the congregation Sir Arthur Pinero, Charles Hawtrey, Lady Wyndham and Lady Tree. He was buried at Marlow, where he had had some of his happiest times with another Nellie and with Charles Frohman.

    There is no evidence that he ever embraced the ministry of his Baptist parents or of the ‘Prince of Preachers’, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, after whom he had been named. The British playwright-actor Seymour Hicks (performing in Melbourne in 1924) discussed the death of Haddon Chambers with Melba at her house, Coombe Cottage at Coldstream:

    For a fellow countryman of hers, Haddon Chambers, she had the greatest admiration as an author, and was very fond of him as a man … Long after I had finished telling her all I could about her mutual friend, she sat silent, looking through the rose-covered pergolas of her lovely garden out into the bluest of blue Australian skies.

    Pepita had his final play, unfinished at his death, completed in 1922, acting in it herself at the Savoy Theatre in London. He had written The Card Players for her, but it was not a success. It opened on 26 April, running for 29 performances with Pepita (as Eileen Ashfield), produced by Dot Boucicault. The following year, she was to marry Sidney Reilly, the celebrated ‘Ace of Spies’—on his part bigamously (or even trigamously).

    Haddon had died intestate, effectively leaving everything to Pepita, although how much remained is unclear. In his biography of Reilly, Richard B Spence asserts that she inherited ‘an income of at least £2,000 a year’. This may have been true initially, but if it was based on ticket and book royalties, that amount would have declined rather precipitously as the years went by. Without any substantial supporting evidence, Spence also speculates that Pepita may have met Reilly earlier than she disclosed and that there may have been foul play involved in the sudden death of Haddon Chambers.

    Haddon’s friend, the American theatre director John D. Williams, in an appreciation of Chambers’ life in Century Magazine (December 1921), wrote that Haddon

    … publicly entertained two generations and privately fascinated hundreds of men and women of two worlds. He was irresistible as a companion, the chairman of the committee on fun, wherever he was, a fascinating magician in epigrams … a citizen of the world, at home wherever he found himself, but especially at his best as the play-boy of England and America.

    The younger writer Somerset Maugham wrote a less glamorous, somewhat bitchy remembrance in his A Writer’s Notebook following Haddon Chambers’ death:

    At the first glance he looked a youngish man, but presently you saw that in reality he was old, old … He had the reputation of a Don Juan, and this he valued much more than any that his plays had brought him … The only art in which he seemed at all interested was music … It exasperated him to have his best play, The Tyranny of Tears, ascribed to Oscar Wilde … I see him lounging at a bar, a dapper little man, chatting good-humouredly with a casual acquaintance of women, horses and Covent Garden opera, but with an air as though he were looking for someone who might at any moment come in at that door.

    Why have Haddon Chambers’ plays not (thus far) survived in performance, particularly in his home country? I think there are a number of reasons. Even in his own lifetime, his work was more successful in Britain and America than in Australia. Australian audiences have in modern times found it hard to take English high-society plays—though it must be said that Robert Brough ‘the greatest actor-manager Australia had known’, had made a career of just this in the late nineteenth century, introducing Australian audiences to Pinero, Oscar Wilde, J.M. Barrie, Jerome K. Jerome … and Haddon Chambers. Although he often talked about it, he never returned to Australia. This is a poor long-term career move if an artist wishes to be remembered there.

    It is clear that, with the exception of Wilde and Shaw, late Victorian and Edwardian plays were finally swept from British stages with the arrival of ‘kitchen sink’ in the 1950s. It took several decades before managements would risk them again. Gradually there has been a return, with actors and directors finding ways to make these plays speak to us now, prominent amongst them Pinero’s Trelawny of the ‘Wells’and The Second Mrs Tanqueray, and Harley Granville Barker’s The Voysey Inheritance and The Madras House.

    It remains ironic that, while eight of Haddon Chambers’ plays are now in print (2021),1 his work remains unexplored and unperformed. What of the remainder of the scripts? Most, if not all, reside in typescript form in the Lord Chamberlain’s censorship archive at the British Library.


    1. C. Haddon Chambers plays in print (2021): The Open Gate, Captain Swift, The Idler, The Tyranny of Tears, The Awakening, Sir Anthony, Passers-By, The Saving Grace


    Appendix: Plays by C. Haddon Chambers

    One of Them 1886 (one act); The Open Gate 1887 (one act); Captain Swift 1888; Devil Caresfoot1889 (adapted from Rider Haggard’s Dawn); The Idler 1890; Love and War 1891 (adapted from the French); The Honourable Herbert 1891; The Collaborators1892; The Queen of Manoa 1892 (with WO Tristram); The Old Lady 1892; The Pipe of Peace 1892; The Fatal Card (with RC Stephenson) 1894; John-a-Dreams 1894; Boys Together (with J Comyns Carr) 1896; In the Days of the Duke (with J Comyns Carr) 1897; The Tyranny of Tears 1899; Blue Roses 1901 (staged privately); The Awakening 1902 (adapted from the French); The Golden Silence 1903; The Head of the Family (with Paul Kester) 1903 (incomplete? not staged); A Modern Magdalen (adaptation) / Dolores 1902; The Younger Mrs Parling 1903; Sir Anthony 1906; The Thief 1907 (adapted from the French of Henri Bernstein); Suzanne 1910; The Best Girl 1910 (musical comedy with music by John L Golden) (incomplete? not staged); Passers-By 1911; Tante1913 (adapted from novel by Anne Douglas Sedgwick) / The Impossible Woman; The Great Pursuit 1916 (revision of The Idler?); The Saving Grace 1917; The Card Players 1922



    Stephen Alomes, When London Calls: The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999

    Ann Blainey, I am Melba: A biography, Black Inc., Melbourne, 2008

    Elleke Boehmer (ed), Empire Writing: An Anthology of Colonial Literature 1870-1918, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998

    Michael R. Booth (ed), English Plays of the Nineteenth Century: III Comedies, Oxford University Press, London, 1973

    Katharine Brisbane (ed), Entertaining Australia: The Performing Arts as Cultural History,Currency Press, Sydney, 1991

    Robin Bruce Lockhart, Reilly: Ace of Spies,Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1967

    Kate Carew, ‘Charles Frohman opens his heart at Kate Carew’s private confessional’, New York Tribune, 25 August 1912

    C. Haddon Chambers, ‘The American Producer who Lived at Marlow’, New York Times, 17 October 1915

    C. Haddon Chambers, ‘Thirty Years of Playwriting’, New York Times, 13 October 1918

    Percy Colson, Melba: An Unconventional Biography, Grayson & Grayson, London, 1932

    Noel Coward, Present Indicative, William Heinemann, London & Toronto, 1937

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    Isaac F. Marcosson and Daniel Frohman, Charles Frohman: Manager and Man,John Lane / The Bodley Head, 1915

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    Richard B. Spence, Trust No One: The Secret World of Sidney Reilly,Feral House, Los Angeles, 2002

    Nellie Stewart, My Life’s Story, John Sands, Sydney, 1923

    J.C. Trewin, The Edwardian Theatre,Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1976

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    J.P. Wearing, The London Stage, 1890-1899, 1900-1909, 1910-1919, Rowman & Littlefield, Maryland, 2014

    Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography, Methuen, London, 1993

    John D. Williams, ‘A Play-Boy of Two Worlds’, Century Magazine, New York, December 1921

    A.E. Wilson, Edwardian Theatre, Arthur Barker, London, 1951 



    With grateful thanks for help of all kinds:

    Elisabeth Kumm of Theatre Heritage Australia; Pamela Botha, Melbourne; Christine Chambers, great-niece of Haddon Chambers, Little River, California; Maisie Dubosarsky Fieschi, Paris; Christine Egan, Fort Street School Archives, Petersham; Kathryn Johnson, the British Library; Tony Locantro, Barking; John Wilson, Cheltenham; Sophie Wilson, King’s Sutton; Keith Windschuttle, Quadrant, Sydney; Theatre Museum, University of Bristol

    © Roger Neill 2021


    This is an expanded, revised text, now with illustrations, of an essay originally published in Quadrant magazine, July-August 2008 (with kind permission),