Friday, August 2, 2019

Radio Theater: Orson Welles in Noël Coward's Private Lives (4/21/1939)

Orson Welles preparing for a radio play


I honestly don't know how I lived before finding Orson's radio theater performances! I mean, seriously!

Private Lives is a crazy combination of hilarity and tragedy that appeals to my macabre sense of humor. Orson Welles plays Elyot and actress Gertrude Lawrence plays his ex-wife Amanda (Gertrude actually played opposite Noël in 1930 in this play on the stage!). Each of these individuals has remarried and each of them is on their honeymoon, I would say the wedding night, actually. And of course, each couple stays in the same hotel!

And of course, they have suites right next to each other!

Elyot and Amanda see each other, turn white as a sheet (assumedly, since it is radio), and immediately beg their new spouses to agree to move to a different hotel. Which is hilarious because each of them wanted to go to Paris so they would have run into each other there too. Apparently, Amanda and Elyot both love the same hotels/resorts. Can't imagine how that happened.

Anyway, the new spouses are frustrated at this new itchy, irritating side to Elyot and Amanda and dig in their heels, refusing to change hotels. Each of the new spouses storms off to have dinner alone in the resort, leaving, CUE DRAMATIC MUSIC, Elyot and Amanda alone!

The divorced couple gets to talking, realizes how very much they still desperately love each other despite the smackdown drag-out fights they indulged in when they were married. Yah, that sounds healthy. After indulging in a bit of desperate guilt, the two set up a phrase, or in this case, a name, Solomon Isaacs, that each of them has the right to say to call a cease-fire for several minutes should an argument break out. Then they run away together, off to Amanda's apartment in Paris.

Whoo boy.

Yes, Private Lives is hilarious.

But my heart also breaks for the other spouses. These poor people, Sibyl and Victor, had nothing whatsoever to do with any of this insanity. The only thing they did wrong was fall in love with fickle people who can't live with each other and can't live without each other either. It's not a comforting thought to realize that the only way your husband/wife would be faithful is if they never saw their ex-spouse in the flesh. Yipes!

Down to the nitty-gritty of the radio theater performance.

Orson uses a delightful hoity-toity British accent as if he were a second son of a lord or duke. It's a lovely accent, made even more so by the absurd lines in the play that he gets to perform. Gertrude must have been a hoot on the stage because I absolutely adore her in the radio play! She has this charming selfishness to her voice that suits the character perfectly. And together, you buy that Elyot and Amanda are still in love. They just sell it, even though they each had their own microphone they were performing from, you can picture them in each other's arms, both arguing and kissing at the same time. It's insane to be able to capture that type of authenticity on the radio!

The secondary casting for Sibyl and Victor was excellent as well. Sibyl (Naomi Campbell) is this sweet little voice that you empathize with because she's right when she says that it's all so squalid. And Victor (Robert Speaight), well, he's a bit of a dullard, sort of white bread with mayonnaise, which is fine, but Amanda should have known better than to marry him. She would have been bored within a week.

And then there's the manager of the hotel. Oh my gosh, I LOVE him and I have no idea who played him. He's this officious little Frenchman who's an impartial observer to the insanity of Amanda and Elyot reconnecting. He's, in effect, the chorus or the narrator, and is positively brilliant.

Private Lives is in my top 5 favorites of Orson's radio theater productions. It's a perfect representation of the 1930s lackadaisical attitude towards marriage and I just can't help loving it.

Laurence Olivier and his first wife, Jill Esmond
Laurence Oliver and Jill Esmond
On a completely unimportant side note, Laurence Olivier performed as Victor in the stage play with Noël and Gertrude in 1930 and even married Jill Esmond, the girl who played Sibyl. This, of course, was before the Vivien Leigh debacle. As the narrator of the radio play would say, "These people are crazy!"

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