A genuine opportunity to be a part of theatre history is as rare as hens’ teeth, and it’s rarer still that you get the chance to salvage an almost unknown work from a figure as legendary as Noël Coward. But the release of This Was a Man for amateur performance tantalisingly offers just that.
This Was a Man is unlikely to ring any bells for even the most ardent theatre fan. Written in 1926 (during an especially productive period of Coward’s career that also included Hay Fever, Fallen Angels and The Vortex) This Was a Man was refused a license by the Lord Chamberlain, then empowered to censor any play produced in Britain. Consequently it went unperformed for nearly 90 years, only receiving its UK professional debut in 2014 at the Finborough Theatre. Quite why the Lord Chamberlain chose to censor This Was a Man but pass The Vortex, with all its drug taking and promiscuity, is something of a mystery. Perhaps the powers-that-were objected to Carol, the central, sexually confident woman at the heart of the play, or perhaps it was the frank, almost casual discussion of divorce that raised their heckles.
The world has of course changed a lot since the 1920s. Much of what shocked the Lord Chamberlain has become quite normal, and modern audiences are more likely to focus on the subtler, deeper strands of Coward’s work.
The story centres around painter Edward Churt and his wife Carol. Edward is aware that Carol is being unfaithful to him, but does little about it. Frustrated with her behaviour, Edward’s stuffy best friend Evelyn decides to take matters into his own hands.
Looked at from the vantage point of the 21st century, what comes out most strongly in this play – by no means perfect, but fascinating nonetheless – is the unhealable hurt and isolation that lingers in the hearts of these characters. As The Guardian put it, this play is a window onto ‘how unhappy and lost this postwar generation find themselves. Even as they down the cocktails, there is a sense in which they are all desperate to extricate themselves from the non-stop party as it becomes ever harder to keep their smiles screwed on tightly and their blasted hearts hidden from view’.
The release of This Was a Man offers the chance to rescue a neglected play with much to explore from the depths of obscurity, and to illuminate a small corner of the long shadow cast by British theatre censorship in the twentieth century. And what could be more heroic than that?
To find our more about how you can perform This Was a Man, visit our website or call our licensing team on 020 7255 4301
This Was a Man was published for the first time as a single volume by Samuel French in 2014, and is available to buy on our website.