Last month, during rehearsals for Blithe Spirit, Gina Di Salvo (Assistant Professor of Theatre History and Dramaturgy) sat down with Carol Mayo Jenkins to discuss the role of Madame Arcati, Noël Coward, and mid-century comedy. This is an edited version of that conversation.
GD: You play Madame Arcati in this production. Have you played her before?
CMJ: No. I’ve never done this play. I did a production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter with Louis Jourdan for a summer tour through New England. And I got one of the best reviews I ever got in the New York Times. I just loved it. I just have an affinity for Coward perhaps because I lived in London for many years.
GD: What did you learn during your time in London?
CMJ: The Brits speak differently than we do. I used to sit and listen to Glenda Jackson speak at cocktail parties. She speaks not only in complete sentences but in complete paragraphs. The Brits express themselves more clearly and, in many instances, more colorfully. We tend to use passion and volume. They actually use words and colorful modifiers and connected thoughts. They have been imbued with Shakespeare since they were little kids. It’s part of their education. Our American speech patterns come to end stops all of the time. You can’t do that in Shakespeare or Noël Coward. You have to carry through.
GD: What else is quintessentially British in Noël Coward’s plays?
CMJ: Most of his plays were written between the wars. I love this period of history. World War I was devastating in different ways and completely changed the face of British society and they had to figure out how to maintain the standards of the old order and create a new order. That’s what I see in Coward’s plays. Noël Coward himself was not part of the old order. He was very much part of the new order. And so he was able to make fun of the old way of doing things and, at the same time, be a standard bearer for new ways of thinking.
GD: He seems to be fascinated with the upper classes and their ways of doing things.
CMJ: Because Noël Coward was not himself a member of that class, but he longed to be. He made fun of them even though he fashioned his own lifestyle trying to become one of them. But he’s constantly laughing at them and poking fun at upper-middle class mores.
GD: He was gay and middle class. Coward lived on the outside of the society he frequently portrayed onstage. He must have spent a lot of time observing others.
CMJ: Coward had an extremely keen sense of the way people lived their lives and the way they saw themselves as opposed to the way other people saw them. He was keen on people’s pretentions. For example, in Blithe Spirit, how Ruth must train Edith. In the upper classes, there is a responsibility to live within the norms of civilized society. Noël Coward was very interested in the effort it takes to live in those roles. And also when people break out of those roles.
GD: Coward’s plays are full of disagreeable people who can be volatile.
CMJ: I directed Coward’s Private Lives a few years ago in California. In the play, the divorced couple Amanda and Elyot fight. They have a knock-down-drag-out-throw-down fight, but they enjoy it. And they kind of get off on it. And it’s something they both understand. In other words – and I think this is Noël Coward’s thing – relationships between people are fine as long as they are playing by the same rules. They don’t need to play by the rules of the people next door. The trouble is when you’re not playing by the same rules.
GD: That’s what Coward’s plays are about, aren’t they? People who don’t play by the same rules.
CMJ: I think we love Amanda and Elyot’s rules and secretly wish we could play by their rules and be those people and we can’t.
GD: Thank goodness. In Coward’s plays, there’s a lot of interestingly unhappy marriages that are worked out through almost farcical—
CMJ: —in Blithe Spirit, Charles has two wives. The end of the play is a declaration of freedom. It’s occurring to me. Coward went away to Wales and wrote this play in a very short period of time at the beginning of the war in order to cheer people up. And I think in Charles achieving freedom, Coward is sort of saying to people that they are going to tear down all the things we don’t like about our society and there’s a new and better day coming.
GD: Why do you think the wars changed our society so much?
CMJ: It’s because in war, we become animals. In war, all bets are off. In World War I, the soldiers were faced not only with killing other human beings, but also living in those trenches. We become much more animalistic. So civilized society is a way of keeping the animal in us at bay. And I think that interested Noël Coward very much. What is funny about Blithe Spirit is that we have a character who is a ghost. So all bets are off. There are no rules around that. No one knows what to do with this. We function very well when the rules are clearly defined – until we don’t.
GD: Directors and actors will often say that comedy is harder to pull off than tragedy. Why is that?
CMJ: Tragedy can be messy. Life is messy. You can fling passions around all over the place. Comedy has to be absolutely precise. It has to be clear and pointed. You can make something look messy, but you have to know what you’re doing all the time. What is going to make people laugh is a science. If you do things exactly this way, it’ll make people laugh. If you take a beat or do it from a different angle, you lose it. It is becoming terrifically evident as we work on it: The reason I’m good at Noël Coward is because I’ve done a lot of Shakespeare. It’s not blank verse, but it’s that precise. For many years, it was believed that women can’t be clowns because our bodies reproduce, so it’s not funny for a woman to be hurt. Lucille Ball turned that upside down. But she never got hurt. And Carol Burnett carried on. And now there are any number of female comedians.
GD: What about the role of Madam Arcati? Have you wanted to play her?
CMJ: Oh yeah. She’s been on my bucket list. It’s also what I’m learning about her. She’s not part of that upper-class community. Money is tight for her. She is one who struggling to keep her head above water. She’s a little bit foolish, but we should also feel some compassion for her. She has a wonderful arc, do you know? She goes from being dictatorial in her certainty, to uncertainty, and, finally, to triumph.