Tuesday, August 4, 2015


Despite having selected a different play for this post, I continued thinking about the war play Noel Coward wrote after Post Mortem.  I decided to focus on his other 1931 play titled Cavalcade.   Coward still wished to disseminate his opinion about how life had changed, not necessarily for the better, after the many sacrifices made during World War One.  Cavalcade proves Coward could write a serious play with war as one motif and societal changes as another, while providing audiences with an entertaining and spectacular theatrical experience.

With broad strokes Cavalcade sweeps across life in England during the first twenty-nine years of the twentieth century.  It commences on December 31, 1899 (the year of Coward’s birth) and ends in the early hours of January 1, 1930.  Audience members are pulled into the overwhelming historical events of those tumultuous years by the plight of individual characters striving to survive as well as patriotically supporting Great Britain. The play is divided into three Parts that are separated into twenty-one scenes.  I have read newspaper reviews that claim the play has twenty-two scenes; however, the printed version I read has twenty-one.

 This play follows two families through the designated years.  They were linked in the beginning of the play by the fact that one family, the upper-class Marryots, employ Mr. and Mrs. Bridges as servants. Throughout the three decades covered in the play, the changing fortunes of these two families are central to the continuity of the plot. We see how each family reacts to the major historical events such as the Second Boer War, Queen Victoria’s death, sinking of the Titanic, World War One and its aftermath.

While reading the script, I was very aware that Cavalcade was created to be a visual experience, an auditory event and an emotional roller-coaster.  The visual elements included a huge cast of actors so the crowd scenes were highly delineated as well as frequently realistic. I have read newspaper reports and critical commentaries that claim various numbers of actors, ranging between 250 and 500, were used on stage. Film was used to add another dimension to the theatre experience as well as to enhance special effects for trains, ships, etc.  Songs that were originally popular, in each of the periods covered from 1899 to 1929, were presented.  The only song specifically written for this play is “Twentieth Century Blues”.  It was written by Noel Coward for the final scene of the play.

Since the lives of the major characters are seen over three decades, the audience witnesses them experiencing significant ups and downs of life. In the same scene, Coward frequently demonstrates individuals facing two opposite emotions. Part One, Scene 2 is an excellent example. It is set at dockside where the departing soldiers are on board a troop ship.  This brief scene depicts the cheering soldiers’ excitement and patriotism, while the sorrow of the weeping wives and loved ones, being left at home, are simultaneously evident.  There are other stunning examples of this techniques carefully sprinkled throughout the play.

While reading Cavalcade, I thought that it really is an excellent film script.  The film Cavalcade was made by Fox Film Corporation in 1933 and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture of the year.  The review of the film in the London Times dated February 16, 1933 stated “America is to be congratulated on having made the best film of English life that has ever been made.”   I saw this film a few days ago and I completely agree with the following comment in the review: “Here and there the dialogue of the Drury Lane production has been added to by Mr. Reginald Berkeley, and so skillfully added to (it) that memory sometimes tricks us into supposing that we have heard the additions before.”  The film is still available through Amazon and it is worth seeing.

Cavalcade, the play, has other unique aspects beyond is panoramic view of time and events. One is discussed by Heinz Kosok, in his book The Theatre of War: The First World War in British and Irish Drama. He delineates the three stages in a soldier’s career: his departure from home, his experience at the front and his return home to civilian life.  Kosok mentions that few playwrights made the attempt to include all three stages in a soldier’s career within the pages of a single play; however, in Cavalcade Coward successfully accomplished this feat.

This play also has the distinction of having a really long run in 1931-32. It was unusual for a play basically focused on war to become a box office hit since the topic was of less interest in England during this decade.  Cavalcade opened on October 13, 1931 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane which was especially equipped with a hydraulic lift and other significant theatrical devises to handle the special effects required by this historic panoramic parade.  Cavalcade had a run of 405 performances. 

The New York Times on January 15, 1932 ran a brief story that C.B. Cochran had taken an option on the American rights to Cavalcade.  He was proposing to produce it at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House, but this production never happened.  On December 18, 1933 the New York Times printed another announcement concerning an American production of Cavalcade. The first American stage production was to be produced by the Pasadena (California) Playhouse. No date was announced, but the production was in preparation at the time of the story. An article in the Santa Ana Register on June 18, 1934 confirms that the Pasadena Playhouse did produce Cavalcade and it opened at the end of May. It appears to have been successful, but I have not found a review.

Cavalcade is a unique theatre piece.  While it was too ambitious a project for many theatres to produce, the film circled the globe and within the first ten months after its release was seen by 40,000,000 persons. 

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