The Astonished Heart
The Astonished Heart 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, described at its first production as "a tragedy in six scenes", is told through a series of flashbacks in reverse order. The title is taken from Deuteronomy 28:28, "the Lord shall smite thee with madness and blindness and astonishment of heart."
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."
The play was first produced in 1935 in Manchester and on tour and played in London (1936), New York (1936–1937) and Canada (1938). It has enjoyed several major revivals and in 1949 was adapted for film. At the London première, The Astonished Heart was played on the same evening as Family Album and Red Peppers. 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, including The Astonished Heart, were first presented at the Manchester Opera House beginning on 15 October 1935, and a seventh play was added on the subsequent provincial tour. The final three were added for the London run: Ways and Means, Still Life. 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.
On its opening night in Manchester, The Astonished Heart was presented together with We Were Dancing and Red Peppers. The first London performance was on 9 January 1936 at the Phoenix Theatre. 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". Coward loved playing in some of the other plays in Tonight at 8:30, particularly Fumed Oak and Red Peppers, but "I hated playing The Astonished Heart. It depressed me." The Astonished Heart was not one of the best-received plays in Tonight at 8:30 (or Tonight at 7:30 as it was billed in Manchester, to reflect the earlier starting time in the provinces in the 1930s). The Manchester Guardian described it as "a clever play which probably touched nobody's heart", and other reviews said much the same.
The Broadway openings for the three parts took place on 24 November 1936 (including The Astonished Heart), 27 November 1936 and 30 November 1936 at the National Theatre, again starring Coward and Lawrence. The London and New York runs were limited only by Coward's boredom at long engagements.
Major productions of parts of the cycle were revived in 1948 and 1967 on Broadway and in 1981 at the Lyric Theatre in London, in each case omitting The Astonished Heart. However, it was included at the Chichester Festival in 2006 (along with Hands Across the Sea, Shadow Play, Red Peppers, Family Album and Fumed Oak). In 1971, the Shaw Festival revived several, and in 2000, the Williamstown Theatre Festival revived six, but The Astonished Heart was omitted in both cases. The Antaeus Company in Los Angeles revived all ten plays in October 2007, and the Shaw Festival revived the full cycle in 2009. In 1991, BBC television mounted productions of the individual plays with Joan Collins taking the Lawrence roles.
Roles and original cast
- Barbara Faber – Alison Leggatt (Joyce Carey in New York)
- Christian Faber – Noël Coward
- Leonora Vail – Gertrude Lawrence
- Tim Verney – Anthony Pelissier
- Susan Birch – Everly Gregg (Joan Swinstead in New York)
- Ernest – Edward Underdown
- Sir Reginald French – Alan Webb
Christian Faber, a leading psychiatrist, falls passionately in love with Leonora Vail, an old friend of his wife. Leonora has wilfully led him on but is unprepared for the disastrous effect on him. Faber, more and more desperate, watches his own mind lose control of itself, and he finally kills himself.
- The Observer, 19 January 1936, p. 15
- The Observer, 9 August 1936, p. 9
- Shaw Festival Study Guide, 2009, p. 4. Accessed 17 March 2010.
- Hoare, pp. 268–70
- The Manchester Guardian, 16 October 1935, p. 11
- 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.
- The Times, 10 January 1936, p. 10.
- Coward, unnumbered introductory page
- Castle, p. 139
- The Astonished Heart 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
- Brantley, Ben. "How to Savor Fleeting Joys: Smiles Suave, Brows Arched", The New York Times, 28 June 2000,
- Belcher, David. "Brushing Up Their Coward in Canada". New York Times, 17 August 2009
- Truss, Lynne. "Tonight at 8.30", The Times, 15 April 1991
- Noël Coward website.
- Castle, Charles. Noël, W. H. Allen, London, 1972. ISBN 0-491-00534-2
- Coward, Noël. Plays: Three, Eyre Methuen 1979, ISBN 0-413-46100-9
- Day, Barry. Coward on Film, Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2005. ISBN 0-8108-5358-2
- Hoare, Philip. Noël Coward, A Biography. Sinclair-Stevenson 1995. ISBN 1-85619-265-2.