Saturday, July 25, 2015


Post Mortem, written in 1930, has a noncommercial theatre production history; however, that does not make it an unknown play.  There is an often recounted story that usually leads into how Noel Coward (1899-1973) came to write Post Mortem.  I think the story has enough significance to help understand some of the characteristics Coward incorporated into Post Mortem. In 1930, when Coward was in Singapore he agreed to help an English touring company called The Quaints by playing the role of Stanhope, the commanding officer, in their production of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End.  This was the first successful British World War One play set in the trenches.

Journey’s End and the role of Stanhope motivated Coward to write a serious play rather than another popular comedy on which he had built both a major reputation and a significant bank account.  During Coward’s trip by ship from Singapore to Marseille, he wrote Post Mortem.  The play is set in eight scenes.  When I read the first scene, it made me think this was another version of Journey’s End since it is set “in a company headquarters in a quiet section of the Front Line in the spring of 1917.”  One feels that sudden death waits behind the door to this room.  But why is Noel Coward really writing this story since it was successfully done by Sherriff?

Scene Two is an unexpected change.  It is placed in the actual year the play was written 1930.  John Cavan, an officer who was mortally wounded at the end of the Scene One, suddenly appears in his Mother’s bedroom. John has returned to visit his living family members and friends in order to determine if the war has improved the quality of life and what lessons have been learned. 

I wish to digress a moment from the storyline to mention that John’s supernatural appearance in the play was not an unusual theatrical occurrence during the 1920’s and 1930’s.  There were many plays, films and novels where such astonishing situations were regular occurrences. I have discussed several plays (Miracle at Verdun and Bury the Dead) in previous posts where dead characters return to the world of the living.  The idea of dead characters among the living related to the obsession with death following World War One.  

In Post Mortem, John Cavan’s ghost continues to pay visits to friends and family members in Scenes Three through Seven.  In Scene Six he visits his former trench mates, now thirteen year older than in Scene One, who express their willingness to send their sons to fight in a future war.  They do not place any qualifications on the worthiness of the cause of such a war.  John is disheartened by the ignorance he has witnessed. Nothing seems to have been learned by the past even though the present has progressed in terms of mechanical and scientific advancements.

The final short scene of the play is back in the trench (1917) when John is carried in on the stretcher.  His final words are to Perry, who he debated with in Scene One about how the war will change people for the better.  Perry responded: “Not they.  They’ll slip back into their smug illusions, England will make it hot for them if they don’t.”  John’s last line of the play “You were right, Perry—a poor joke!”

Post Mortem did not receive a professional London production when Noel Coward returned to England, even though he had been a leading playwright since 1927.  But it was not tucked away in a drawer and forgotten.  The New York Times dated April 28, 1931 announced the British publication of Post Mortem.  Its secondary headline “London Critics Differ on Whether It Is Suitable for Production on the Stage.”  While the London critics debated about the drama, the public read the script.  The Dundee Evening Telegraph on June 5, 1931 in a column heading “Books in Biggest Demand” mentioned Post Mortem was the favorite entry under Non Fiction. The demand referred to was at the Dundee Central Library.

Other newspaper references to Post Mortem mention it was being performed in English cities and towns as a reading.  These events were produced by local theatre groups. The 1931-32 season announced by the Bath Playgoers’ Society and cited in the Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette mentioned that a reading of Post Mortem was planned.  Meanwhile it was announced in the New York Times on June 5, 1931 that Post Mortem was to be produced in New York City during the Fall theatre season; however, when the final season was published on August 2, 1931 there was no mention of this play.

On the lecture circuit in Britain, Coward and his plays were a popular topic.  I have read newspaper references to Mr. D.R. Hardman.  In October of 1936 at the Municipal College in Portsmouth, Hardman labeled “Post Mortem”, as one of Coward’s best plays.  In November, 1940 Hardman spoke at Cambridge University Extra-Mural Board Series and continued to express his assessment of Post Mortem as Coward’s best play.  Another lecturer named Mr. Louis U. Wilkinson, spoke in Derby on October 31, 1935 at the Derby Society for the Extension of University Teaching.  He believed Post Mortem “to be by far the most interesting play Coward had written, though it had never been publically performed.”

Thus Post Mortem was known by the public, but it was never presented as a professionally staged production. The first time this play was actually staged was in 1944 by English prisoners in a POW camp in Germany. The play’s first professional production was announced in the Times (London) on September 11, 1968.  It was a television production aired by BBC 2 the following week. 

Noel Coward’s February 12, 1956 entry in his diary: “Post Mortem, which is much better than I thought it was even when I wrote it.  On looking back I think it was foolish of me not to have had it produced at the time. . . .  Post Mortem is passionately sincere and just as important a facet of my talent as Private Lives.”

The Noel Coward Diaries, Edited by Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley. Boston: Little, Brown,                    

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