Still Life (play)
Still Life is a short play by Noël Coward, one of ten that make up Tonight at 8:30, a cycle written to be performed across three evenings. The play depicts the love affair of Alec and Laura across a twelve-month period. The sadness of Alec and Laura's serious and secretive affair is contrasted throughout the play with the boisterous, uncomplicated relationship of Myrtle and Albert, two of the station staff.
In the introduction to a published edition of the plays, Coward wrote, "A short play, having a great advantage over a long one in that it can sustain a mood without technical creaking or over padding, deserves a better fate, and if, by careful writing, acting and producing I can do a little towards reinstating it in its rightful pride, I shall have achieved one of my more sentimental ambitions."
Still Life was first produced in London (1936) and later presented in New York (1936–1937) and Canada (1938). It has enjoyed several major revivals and in 1945 was adapted for film under the title Brief Encounter. Like all the other plays in the cycle, it originally starred Gertrude Lawrence and Coward himself.
Six of the plays in Tonight at 8:30 were first presented at the Manchester Opera House beginning on 15 October 1935, and a seventh play, Family Album, was added on the subsequent provincial tour. Still Life, however, was added for the London run, together with Ways and Means and Star Chamber, the last of which was performed only once. The first London performance in the cycle was on 9 January 1936 at the Phoenix Theatre but Still Life did not premiere until May 1936.
Coward directed all ten pieces, and each starred Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. Coward said that he wrote them as "acting, singing, and dancing vehicles for Gertrude Lawrence and myself". The plays were performed in various combinations of three at each performance during the original run. The plays chosen for each performance were announced in advance, although a myth evolved that the groupings were random. Matinées were sometimes billed as Today at 2:30. The Broadway openings for the three parts took place on 24 November 1936, 27 November 1936 and 30 November 1936 (including Still Life) at the National Theatre, again starring Coward and Lawrence. Star Chamber was not included. The London and New York runs were limited only by Coward's boredom at long engagements.
Major productions of parts of the cycle included Broadway revivals in 1948 (not including Still Life) and 1967 (including Still Life ) and in 1981 at the Lyric Theatre in London (not including Still Life). The Antaeus Company in Los Angeles revived all ten plays in October 2007. In 2009, the Shaw Festival revived the full cycle.
Still Life was given a television production in 1951. In 1991, BBC television mounted productions of the individual plays starring Joan Collins. In most of the plays she took the Lawrence roles, but in Still Life she played Myrtle.
In the refreshment room of "Milford Junction" railway station, in the spring, Laura Jesson, a housewife, is waiting for her train home after shopping. She is in pain from a piece of grit that has got into her eye. Alec Harvey, a married physician, who is in the refreshment room removes it for her. The next summer, Alec and Laura have met each other a second time by chance and have enjoyed each other's company to the extent of arranging to lunch together and go to the cinema. In October, they are forced to admit that they are in love with each other, and they make arrangements to meet at the flat of a friend of Alec. By December, they are both agonised by guilt and agree that their affair must stop. The following spring, Alec is leaving to work abroad, and Laura comes to see him off but is prevented from giving him the passionate farewell they both yearn for when a talkative friend of hers intrudes into their last moments together, and their final goodbye is cruelly limited to a formal handshake.
Meanwhile, Myrtle and Albert, two of the station staff, carry on a boisterous, uncomplicated relationship.
Characters and original cast
- Alec Harvey – Noël Coward
- Laura Jesson – Gertrude Lawrence
- Myrtle Bagot – Joyce Carey
- Beryl Waters – Moya Nugent
- Young Man – Charles Peters
- Stanley – Kenneth Carten
- Albert Godby, ticket collector – Alan Webb
- Bill, a soldier – Edward Underdown
- Johnnie, a soldier – Anthony Pelissier
- Mildred – Betty Hare
- Dolly Messiter – Everly Gregg (Joan Swinstead in New York)
Coward himself later said of the play, "Still Life was the most mature play of the whole series.... It is well written, economical and well constructed: the characters, I think, are true, and I can say now, reading it with detachment after so many years, that I am proud to have written it." John Lahr, in his book on Coward's plays, disagreed: "when he wrote himself into the role of an ardent heterosexual lover... the characterisation is wooden. The master of the comic throw-away becomes too loquacious when he gets serious, and his fine words ring false." At the first production, critical opinion agreed with Coward. The Times called it "a serious and sympathetic study of humdrum people suddenly trapped by love" and strongly praised Coward both for the play and his performance.
After the successful production of the play, Coward expanded and adapted it into a full-length film script, Brief Encounter (1945), which was filmed by David Lean, with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in the roles originally played by Lawrence and Coward. A radio adaptation of the film was broadcast in 1955, and the following year Coward made a version for two voices which he recorded with Margaret Leighton. A French translation was given in Paris in 1968 under the title Brève Recontre (presented in tandem with Nous Dansons), and in the same year, along with Fumed Oak, it formed the basis for a musical, not by Coward, called Mr. and Mrs. The film was remade in 1974 starring Richard Burton and Sophia Loren. In 2008, a stage version of Brief Encounter was presented in London at the Haymarket Cinema and on tour by Kneehigh Theatre using a combination of the text of Still Life and the screenplay. In May 2009, Houston Grand Opera premiered an opera in two acts based on Brief Encounter, with music by André Previn from a libretto by John Caird.
- Shaw Festival Study Guide, 2009, p. 4. Accessed 17 March 2010.
- The Manchester Guardian, 16 October 1935, p. 11
- Hoare, pp. 268–70
- The Times 10 January 1936, p. 10
- The Times, 23 May 1936, p. 12
- Coward, unnumbered introductory page
- The Times, 20 January 1936, p. 10; 11 February 1936, p. 12; 2 March 1936, p. 12; 6 April 1936, p. 10; 2 May 1936, p. 12; 10 June 1936, p. 14.
- Still Life and other plays at the IBDB database
- Kenrick, John. "Noel Coward 101: Coward's Musicals", Musicals 101: The Cyber Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre, TV and Film
- Belcher, David. "Brushing Up Their Coward in Canada". The New York Times, 17 August 2009
- "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars", Still Life (1951) at the IMDB database
- Truss, Lynne. "Tonight at 8.30", The Times, 15 April 1991
- Coward, Unnumbered introductory page
- Lahr, p. 3
- Houston Grand Opera performance page
- Coward, Noël. Plays: Three, Eyre Methuen, London, 1979. ISBN 0-413-46090-8
- Hoare, Philip. Noël Coward, A Biography. Sinclair-Stevenson 1995. ISBN 1-85619-265-2.
- Lahr, John. Coward the Playwright. Methuen, London, 1982, ISBN 0-413-48050-X