At the intermission of Noël Coward's Private Lives, my wife asked me whether I had been offended by the use of the word "Chinaman." We were watching a splendid production by the Washington, D.C. Shakespeare Theatre. Other than that one bit of language, it was a perfect comedy of manners.
I replied that I wasn't sure.
Coward, who set the standard for English wit in the 20th century, wrote the delightful three-act during the Depression. It could not have been more sophisticated then; it remains stylish now. The leads are a couple so well-to-do they have no discernible occupation other than to be clever, droll and entertaining to everyone -- especially themselves.
Despite their shared elegance, they could not stand one another. They divorced, when that decision could shock.
As the curtain rises, Elyot and Amanda have not forgotten one another. Their lives continue to be defined by their relationship, in its absence.
Each has found a new spouse: Elyot courted the squeaky-voiced young Sybil; Amanda seduced the stolid, solid Victor.
Their spiritual bond is confirmed by their independent choices for a honeymoon destination. They have chosen the same resort.
When they arrive, settle in, and order cocktails to enjoy on their respective, side-by-side, identical balconies, they realize the exquisite coincidence. Their polish is matched by perfect costumes and set design. The dissimilarity of the stars to their new spouses is absolute.
The plot is clear to all. Elyot and Amanda must reunite. The events are not logical, but they are believable.
They run off to Paris. They have their own honeymoon. As a preventative measure, they agree to a safe word, "sollocks," to avoid squabbling spoiling the arrangement.
Coward famously wrote this hit, one of many, in Shanghai, China while recovering from the flu. He had arrived with 27 pieces of luggage, not counting a gramophone, and spent only four days devising this entertainment. It was assumed to have reflected his own relationship with his frequent co-star, Gertrude Lawrence. Audiences were thrilled at the possibility they were looking at a mirror showing the two celebrities' real interactions.
In early press photographs, Coward would say, he was depicted as if he were a "Chinese decadent" on "dope." In this particular play, he had his characters make fun of Catholics, observing at length that they would continue to be married according to the faith; and the French, who are subject to casual abuse.
I have to say that in my life, I have never heard the term "Chinaman" said in the same manner as the term "Englishman," as a description without condescension. I suppose, however, that for Coward, it could have been meant without disparagement. Nobody calls himself a "Chinaman" who is familiar with English, though it would be common enough to call one's self an "Englishman" in English or Chinese (technically, "English-person" in an exact translation). Coward himself, for example, penned a popular tune about "Mad Dogs and Englishmen." "Chinaman" is grammatically not quite right; a strict parallel would be "Englandman."
In contemporary popular culture, there has been a lively debate on whether the term is offensive. I've always regarded offensiveness as the wrong test. A prude would be offended by the sexuality of Coward's work, to say nothing of his life. It's how people respond when the problem is presented that interests me. Those who are dismissive are signaling their disrespect for others; if the intent of the speaker is not to do harm when she utters "Chinaman," then she wouldn't repeat the usage once aware of the implications. That's how conversation among equals proceeds.
As any playwright would appreciate, our communication isn't merely words -- it's not even mostly words: it's all about the context, history, body language, and delivery and tone. When Elyot and Amanda are discussing the size of China and Japan, as the playbill noted, they really are talking about something else altogether: if they still love one another.
For what it's worth, I wouldn't advocate tampering with the script. It presents an opportunity to notice the asymmetry of race and an anachronism that shows progress.
The actual dialogue, between Victor and Amanda, is as follows. Victor, not as sadly as might be supposed, turns out to be mistaken about Amanda.
"Oh, Mandy, of course, you are sweetly divinely normal."
"I haven't any peculiar cravings for Chinamen or old boots, if that's what you mean."
"I think very few people are completely normal really, deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various cosmic things fuse at the same moment, and the right spark is struck, there's no knowing what one mightn't do."
Coward could not have foreseen a future in which Chinamen not only spoke English fluently, but also enjoyed his art in their shared native language. That wouldn't have been normal in his day. But there has come about a new combination of circumstances.