A Song at Twilight by Noel Coward

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A Song at Twilight by NoŽl Coward (1988).  Dir. David Johnston.  Perf. Michael Denison, Dulcie Gray, Jill Bennett.  BBC Radio 4 Extra, 15 March 2015.  BBCiPlayer


Distinguished by the fact that it was the last play that Coward ever performed on the London stage in the mid-Sixties, A Song at Twilight has distinct echoes of Oscar Wilde in terms of content and form.  Sir Hugo Latymer (Michael Denison), unhappily married to his German wife Hilde (Jill Bennett), receives a visit from old flame Carlotta Gray (Dulcie Gray).  They exchange familiar platitudes, until Carlotta reveals that she has in her possession some love-letters written by Sir Hugo in his young days to his (male) lover Perry Sheldon, who has since died.  We learn that it was Hugo’s self-interest that contributed to Perry’s death; Carlotta threatens to make Hugo’s private life public by giving the letters to a biographer.  The two of them argue over the implications of that decision; Hilde returns; and the play ends with a soft center.


This subject has distinct echoes of Lady Windermere’s Fan, only this time Hugo is a far less attractive character than Lady Windermere.  For the first time in his career Coward is prepared to discuss in public the issue of homosexuality, in line with the changing theatrical climate of the time.  Yet it is not so much Hugo’s sexuality that renders him unattractive, but his relentless self-interest.  A cheerfully affable public figure, in private he is so wrapped up in himself that he does not understand the damage he has done to those closest to him.


Stylistically speaking A Song at Twilight also contains Wildean echoes, with the familiar cut-and-thrust of witty repartee between the three protagonists.  As the action progresses, however, so the tone grows much darker as Coward – for one of the few times during his dramatic career – casts off the veneer of being a ‘beautiful person’ and tries his best to get inside his characters.  To a large extent the experiment pays off: we understand that Hugo hasn’t learned anything, despite his emotional ordeal, and that the two women in his life will continue to bend over backwards to ensure his spiritual and physical well-being.  Patriarchy lives and rules untrammelled in the Coward universe.