Private Lives by Noel Coward

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Listen to Private Lives performed by Mercury Theatre of the Air

Campbell Playhouse, 21 April 1939
Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre of the Air began broadcasting in July 1938, and ran without a sponsor until December of that year. On October 30 of that year, the programme achieved worldwide fame with its broadcast of an adaptation of H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, which caused nationwide panic. In December 1938 the show was picked up by Campbell's Soups and renamed The Campbell Playhouse. It ran until March 1940, with a repertoire of new productions and classic adaptations.
Private Lives was a notable production, as Welles managed to persuade Gertrude Lawrence to reprise her role as Amanda; she had created the part (with Coward as Elyot) nine years previously at London's Phoenix Theatre. Listening to her performance, I understood why the role was so perfect for her; her clipped mode of delivery revealed her desire to maintain a polished exterior. Anyone who got in her way (especially Elyot) was summarily dismissed. At the same time Amanda couldn't bear the idea of living without Elyot; thus many of her insults were followed soon afterwards by terms of endearment. She was an extremely complicated character, at once self-willed yet desperate for company.
Welles made a creditable stab at the role of Elyot. Although his method of delivery contained several Coward-like echoes (notably his prounciation of the consonant "a" as "e," as in the word "heppy"), he wisely decided not to copy "The Master's" example. Welles initially came across as a rather rough-hewn character - perhaps more aggressive than Coward - who wanted to maintain his patriarchal rule over Amanda. However he soon discovered that the task was impossible; he had to treat her on equal terms. Hence his voice became softer, almost languid - which only served to render him more attractive in Amanda's eyes. Elyot's second wife Sybil (Naomi Campbell) didn't have a chance: Elyot and Amanda were inevitably going to reunite.
This radio production created a new character - the Hotel Manager (Edgar Barrier), who spoke in a cod-French accent. He acted as a commentator on events, setting the scene for listeners, while commenting on the absurdities of his English guests. His observations - delivered direct to the listeners - emphasized the artificiality of the characters' behaviour; they were not to be taken seriously, especially by those unaware of English upper-class mores.
With background music - comprising many of Noel Coward's musical hits from the 1930s - provided by Bernard Herrmann, this production was not only a landmark in American radio history, but offered a highly plausible interpretation of Coward's text.