The Better Half by Noel Coward

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BBC Radio 4, 25 May 2009
This short playlet, rediscovered in the British Library archives in 2007 by Richard Hand and Michael Wilson, professors at the University of Glamorgan, was written in 1922 as part of a programme of Grand Guignol performed by Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson. Written immediately before The Vortex, The Better Half was considered a little too racy for performance at that time, particular in its portrayal of female desire. The protagonist Alice (Federay Holmes) insists on her right to enjoy multiple affairs, just like her husband David (Samuel West).
Listening to its broadcast premiere in a production by Martin Jarvis, I became increasingly aware of how the characters use witty repartee as a way of concealing their emotions. In their rarefied world of privilege, to admit weakness is to commit social suicide; they must endeavour to remain 'beautiful people' even if their relationships suffer as a result. The Better Half suggests that the three characters - Alice, David and David's lover Marion (Lisa Dillon) - do not have 'relationships' per se, but rather drift into and out of various encounters, in which nothing matters except instant self-gratification. They spend much of their time being horrible to one another, while insisting on their basic decency. David vows never to leave Alice, but refuses to give up Marion. Alice in turn tries to drive David into Marion's hands, but succeeds only in alienating him further. Marion tries to be oh-so-respectable but cannot understand how every word she says about David's virtues increases Alice's pain and self-loathing.
The play builds up to a melodramatic climax, as David threatens to strangle Alice; Alice resists him and announces her intention to find a lover and live in sin. David and Marion announce that they will love one another for ever and that nothing will ever change. This is a profoundly ironic comment: The Better Half was written at a time of profound social change, as young people in the early 1920s repudiated those kind of lasting values - for example, marriage and the family - characteristic of British life in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War.
The Better Half is a slight piece with occasionally overwrought moments, but it still confirms Coward's reputation as a social commentator, as well as a highly successful writer of boulevard comedies.

The Vortex by Noel Coward