The Vortex by Noel Coward

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BBC Radio 7, 17 August 2008
Written in 1924, The Vortex was a succes d’estime of its day, catapulting the young Noel Coward to stardom as an author that dared to touch on hitherto taboo subjects such as drugs and an inter-generational love affair involving an older woman and a younger man.


Initially Glyn Dearman’s 1975 production appeared particularly old-fashioned, with the cast speaking the inherently flip dialogue that might have seemed acceptable in the mid-1920s but now appears forced and artificial, with each character trying to outdo one another with effusive compliments and insincere flattery. Everything was either ‘divine’ or ‘exquisite’: one longed to hear mote down-to-earth expressions. As the play unfolded, however, it became clear that Coward knew exactly what he was doing, as he showed how the so-called ‘smart set’ use language as a means of obfuscation rather than communication – a means of protection from the seamy truth underlying their existences. When Nicky Lancaster (Martin Jarvis) revealed his dependence on cocaine, everyone made strenuous efforts to cover it up; similarly, in the central conflict between Nicky and his mother Florence (Elisabeth Sellars), Florence desperately clung to the illusion that she was unique, different, a cut above the rest. The fact that she failed to do so underlined her basic superficiality.


Dearman’s revival proved gripping entertainment, with the characters’ foibles being gradually revealed until the climactic scene involving Nicky and Florence, a protracted verbal duel culminating in the mental destruction of both of them. They might still belong to the ‘smart set,’ but nothing could be the same any more; their illusions had been destroyed. As I listened to the play, I realized that it bore strong resemblances to Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, published a year later. Both deal with illusions and penetrate the surface beneath them. The main difference between the two works is that Fitzgerald analyzes what it is to be an American in the post-1918 period, a time before the Wall Street Crash when everyone believed that anything might be possible. Its subject is ‘the American Dream.’ Coward deals more with a specific social group, reflecting the fact that Great Britain at that time was a far more stratified society when compared to the United States. Florence and Nicky had their dreams, but they were mostly those of the ‘smart set.’


The Vortex might be a period piece, but it still has the capacity to shock, due in no small part to Coward’s gift for dramatic construction. Dearman’s revival, performed by a cast led by Sellars, Jarvis and a pre-James Bond Timothy Dalton as a soft-spoken Tom (Florence’s young lover) – did the play proud.

The Better Half by Noel Coward (written 2 years before The Vortex)