Noël & Gertie
By Elizabeth Williamson, Dramaturg and Director of New Play Development
Noël Coward and Gertrude Lawrence first met as child actors in 1913, and were friends from then on. She became an international star in revues and musical theatre – the role of Anna in The King and I was tailored to match her vocal range. She’d grown up poor in South-East London, and, like Coward, had invented the role of herself and played it beautifully. They both created provocative, charming, flamboyant personae for themselves which they performed for the rest of their lives, both onstage and off.
As one of her lovers, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, described her, “She was very temperamental, very jealous, could be exhausting, moody, difficult – but also enchanting and alive and very funny.”
Coward wrote Private Lives as a vehicle for them to star in together. The inspiration for the play came to him suddenly one night in Shanghai. “I went to bed early… the moment I switched out the lights, Gertrude appeared in a white Molyneux dress on a terrace in the South of France and refused to go again until 4 a.m., by which time Private Lives, title and all, had constructed itself.”
Once he’d finished the play, he cabled her:
HAVE WRITTEN DELIGHTFUL NEW COMEDY STOP GOOD PART FOR YOU STOP WONDERFUL ONE FOR ME STOP KEEP YOURSELF FREE FOR AUTUMN PRODUCTION.
Characteristically, having read it she cabled back:
HAVE READ NEW PLAY STOP NOTHING WRONG THAT CAN’T BE FIXED STOP GERTIE.
To which he responded:
THE ONLY THING THAT WILL NEED TO BE FIXED IS YOUR
PERFORMANCE STOP NOËL.
They opened opposite each other in the play in London on September 24, 1930. He later wrote, “Sometimes, in Private Lives, I would look at her across the stage and she would simply take my breath away.”