Someone should write a book about the maids (and other domestic servants) in Noël Coward’s plays. Maybe I will one day if I have a few extra months on my hands.
In our production of Blithe Spirit, I am portraying Edith, a maid. In general, I really enjoy playing supporting roles. There are lots of opportunities to watch (or listen to) the rest of the show, plenty of time to hydrate between scenes, and usually very minimal prop tracking or costume changes. There usually isn’t a long, emotional journey to plot out page-by-page, or even a second dimension to the character’s personality. Mostly what I enjoy is a certain freedom that comes from having relatively few lines and stage time which allows you to make bolder choices for your character because it doesn’t have to be sustained through eighty pages of dialogue or two hours of stage presence. Playing a supporting role is, in a word, fun!
And that fun becomes exponentially greater when playing a supporting role in a Noël Coward play.
It is fascinating to me that a playwright whose main focus is the elite upper class almost always leaves room to include a servant or two in his shows. He could easily omit these characters – a simple scene break during which a tray of cocktails appears would be much easier than including ten lines of dialogue about fetching the ice bucket. The dilettantes could simply have a conversation in which they speak condescendingly about the help rather than do it in person. But no, Coward writes it all in. The poor, put-upon souls that inhabit the downstairs of these homes get face time with the audience… and that can’t be an accident.
At face value, these characters are an easy way to draw contrast between the main characters and the rest of the world, highlighting class dynamics through appearance, speech patterns, and behavior. They are also easy targets at which the main characters can hurl abuse with little or no consequence. However, they are frequently integral to the plot of the show, occasionally even being a driving force toward the conclusion! His play Present Laughter features a secretary (based on his own) who is steadfast in the chaos of the plot, and ends up being the most likable character.
If Coward were so singularly focused on telling the thinly fictionalized stories of his peers, I don’t think he would have made time for the working class. My personal opinion, based on what I’ve read of him, leads me to believe the following: Coward was so entangled in aristocratic society that he had no choice but to focus his work on that, especially with as much fodder as his social circles provided. But, having come from relatively humble beginnings himself, he knew better than to believe that that way of life was the only way or the best way. He didn’t particularly like his friends, and knew that audiences wouldn’t particularly like the characters based on his friends either. So, perhaps the common folks are there as a reprieve from the callousness, the glamorous facade, the immoral behavior, and the Sorkin-esque banter. They’re there to remind the audience that what you’re watching isn’t a window to the good life… it’s a cautionary tale.
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