Easy Virtue (play)
Easy Virtue is a three-act play by Noël Coward. He wrote it in 1924 when he was 25 years old, and it is his 16th play. The play had a successful first run in New York in 1925 and then opened in London in 1926. It has been revived several times since and made into a film twice—in 1928 and 2008.
In tone and style, Easy Virtue is essentially a drawing room melodrama, with flourishes of the signature wit which would later be identified with him. The central characters of the play are John Whittaker and Larita, the American divorcée he has just married to his mother's great disapproval.
Easy Virtue was produced at a time when Coward was riding a wave of success. The Vortex had been a controversial sensation on both sides of the Atlantic with veiled references to homosexuality and drug taking. In his autobiography, Present Indicative, Coward said that his object in writing the play was to present a comedy in the structure of a tragedy "to compare the déclassée woman of to-day with the more flamboyant demi-mondaine of the 1890s".
The play was first produced in U.S. at the Broad Theatre, Newark, New Jersey. It moved to New York in December 1925 and ran for 147 performances, with Jane Cowl starring as Larita and Joyce Carey as Sarah. Broadway audiences appreciated Larita as someone who depicted the rise of the individual in society, and the rights of a woman to lead her own life out of the constraints of her husband's opinion. In 1926, Easy Virtue opened at the Duke of York's Theatre in London's West End.
In 1988, the play was revived at the King's Head Theatre and then at the Garrick Theatre with Jane How, Zena Walker and Ronnie Stevens. Greta Scacchi played Larita in a 1999 revival at the Festival Theatre in Chichester.
An upper middle-class drawing room with three French windows reveals a tennis court; it is early spring—but raining. Mrs Whittaker has "the stern repression of any sexual emotions; all her life has brought her to middle age with a faulty digestion which doesn't so much sour her temper as spread it." Her clothes are "rather mannish". She is with her religiously zealous daughter Marion and her husband, Colonel Whittaker, "A grey haired man of about fifty—his expression is generally resigned." The Colonel and his wife have achieved some sort of "truce"—in which he lobs the occasional shot over his wife's battlement, while she is blatantly bitter about his past affairs and indiscretions.
The younger daughter, Hilda, enters ("nineteen and completely commonplace") with news that their only son John Whittaker has married while holidaying in the south of France—he and his new bride will arrive soon. Mrs Whittaker is thrown into despair over the news, while the Colonel is sanguine; "He had to marry someone, she's probably a very interesting woman." To which she retorts, "I've no doubt you'll find her so." Plans need to be rearranged, as John's former girlfriend and neighbour Sarah Hurst is coming to dinner with her friend Charles Burleigh.
John soon arrives with his new wife, Larita, "She is tall, exquisitely made-up and very beautiful. Her clothes, because of their simplicity, are obviously violently expensive." Larita remains calm in the face of her new mother-in-law's disdain—even admitting to being divorced. John is not perturbed by his sister's shock; "He was an absolute Devil." While Larita and John freshen up for lunch, Sarah arrives with her friend Charles. Sarah is disappointed John has married, but welcomes Larita warmly as they all go in to lunch.
Three months later. It is now the height of summer. Larita is reading Proust's Sodom and Gomorrah on the sofa. Everyone is very concerned that she does not want to play tennis. She is bored and miserable. Her only sympathetic friend is the Colonel, who kindly plays bezique, a card game, with her. He also reveals that he speaks French. Into this scene comes Mrs Whittaker, and later Marion—preparing for a party Mrs Whittaker is throwing that evening. Much consideration is being put into the display of "Japanese Lanterns". Larita and the Colonel exit. Marion and Mrs Whittaker are both shocked by Larita's choice of reading material. Marion offers to have a "straight talk" with Larita, but Mrs Whittaker advises against it. She feels that John will soon tire of his wife and the marriage will end in divorce.
Sarah has come to play tennis along with her brother Philip, on whom Hilda has a crush. Philip, however, is infatuated with Larita—something which Hilda misunderstands. In a fit of jealous pique, she accuses Larita of making "sheep's eyes" at Philip. John's affection for Larita seems to be waning as he bemoans his wife's shortcomings to Sarah who in return defends her new friend. Larita arrives at the end of the conversation as Sarah leaves to prepare for the evening's festivities. John attempts to talk to his wife, but his impatience and immaturity only cause them both irritation. Larita mentions her ex-husband and John's jealousy flares. A secondary argument ensues about the nature of love and trust. John resolves the argument by declaring that he "trusts Larita absolutely" and then exits to "freshen up" after tennis.
Marion chooses this moment to have her "straight talk" with Larita—the subject of which veers around the topics of Larita's friendship with the Colonel; Marion's missing fiancé Edgar; religion and hypocrisy. Marion leaves, and Philip arrives to ask Larita to reserve a dance for him—a request which is picked up on by an increasingly jealous Hilda. At afternoon tea (John is not present), Hilda delivers a newspaper cutting revealing that Larita was involved in a court case regarding a man's suicide, as well as list of many of her lovers. Larita reacts coolly, and even quips, "Only two of the people on that list really loved me."
The Colonel takes Larita's side, but Mrs Whittaker is not mollified. Larita refuses to be cowed and proceeds to rip apart everyone's moral pretentions and hypocrisy. Marion storms out of the room and Mrs Whittaker tries to send Larita to her room, telling her not to come to the party. Hilda recognizes that she has been malicious, but it is too late. Larita throws her book in frustration, accidentally (and unregrettably) breaking a plaster copy of the Venus de Milo in the process.
At the party, gossip about the family fight and Larita's past has spread. There is an air of titillated excitement, but Mrs Whittaker has told everyone that her daughter-in-law has a migraine, and will not be down. However, that is not the case as Larita makes a spectacular entrance wearing a striking white dress along with diamonds and rubies. John is annoyed by her outlandish costume, and will not dance with her. She dances with Philip instead. Mrs Whittaker takes this as a personal affront—as it may well have been intended.
Sarah has arrived with her friend Charles. They discuss Larita and guess at what has gone on. Larita has a moment with Charles, and explains why she married John: "I thought that any other relationship would be cheapening and squalid—I can't imagine how I could have been such a fool." She also tells Sarah privately that she is leaving—and apologizes for having interrupted her relationship with John. She hopes that Sarah will forgive her, and take John back.
John, blissfully unaware of the fight in the afternoon or the reasons for the divorce, asks his wife to dance with him. She tells him to dance with Sarah—and when he does—she quietly leaves. The only person to see her off is Furber, the family butler.
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The play deals primarily with hypocrisy. This is most evident in Mrs Whittaker, who declares herself to be a bastion of morality but contrives from the beginning to ruin her son's marriage. It is also reflected in Marion, who has an absent fiancé (Edgar), yet judges her brother and Larita through the lens of religious fanaticism.
Against this is Larita, whose reputation as a woman of "easy virtue" is belied, as she maintains a dignified loyalty to her husband throughout the story. Sarah also displays great integrity and emotional generosity. The Colonel is a sardonic and detached individual—who plainly rises to the challenge of Larita's intelligence and wit. The numerous mentions of his affairs, and his age and stated rank in the play all indicate that he would have taken part in the First World War.
John, as the product of both Mrs Whittaker and the Colonel is necessarily weak and unformed. He is described by Charles Burleigh at one point as being "a young, healthy animal", and in some respects, that is all he is.
Easy Virtue was made into a film in 1928 by Alfred Hitchcock. Ironically for Coward, known for verbal byplay and wit, it is a silent film. The only remaining piece of dialogue from the play is a card on which Mrs Whittaker says: "Have you had as many lovers as they say?" and Larita replies, "Of course not. Hardly any of them actually loved me." The film shows Hitchcock's technical and narrative skill, for example, in how he creates suspense while the audience waits to hear whether or not Larita will take John's hand in marriage. The film appeared to have been lost until the late 1970s when a print emerged in Austria. It was shown for the first time in fifty years as part of a Hitchcock retrospective. At the time, David Robinson said of the black-and-white movie: "It is Hitchcock in the making (and perhaps, into the bargain, Coward unmade), but as a period curiosity the National Film Archive and the Österreichische Filmmuseum [who found the copy] deserve gratitude for its resurrection."
Another film was made eighty years later by Ealing Studios, with co-writer Stephan Elliott directing, starring Jessica Biel, Ben Barnes, Colin Firth and Kristin Scott Thomas. This version follows the story more directly, and uses much of Coward's dialogue, although it has been fashioned more directly into the type of comedy for which Coward subsequently became famous. It differs from the play in that the character of Charles Burleigh is removed and amalgamated into the characters of Philip Hurst and Major Whittaker (who had been a captain who led his entire company to death); Larita's husband did not divorce her, but instead died after she euthanised him with poison to accelerate his lingering death from cancer; and the structure is rearranged so that the fight with John's family occurs at the end of the movie, after John refuses to dance with his wife. When Larita leaves, Major Whittaker goes with her.
Both films struggled with Larita's backstory, as revealed in the denouement by Hilda, with Hitchcock dedicating half of his movie to John and Larita's relationship in Cannes, and Elliott offering a twist on the suicide theme.
- Coward, Noël. Present Indicative. Autobiography to 1931. Heinemann 1937. Methuen reissue, 2004 ISBN 978-0-413-77413-2
- Payn, Graham and Sheridan Morley (eds.) The Noël Coward Diaries (1941–1969); Methuen 1982. ISBN 0-297-78142-1
- University of Kent listing
- Tynan, Kenneth. Tynan on Theatre, Penguin Books, London, 1964.
- "The Times Historical Archive". The Times. London.
- "Compilation of Easy Virtue reviews". Retrieved 2009-03-16.