With Noel Coward and the Titanic both so much in the news these days, I am amazed that nobody has bothered to revive the only play which Noel Coward ever set aboard the Titanic. It is, of course, the comedy called “Brief Tables”.
Here, to remind you, is a brief extract from this forgotten work by the Master.
The scene is the first class deck of the Titanic. Two deck chairs are occupied by Maxim and Chloe, a married couple.
Chloe: Yes, darling?
Maxim: Are you warm enough?
Chloe: Of course. Why do you ask?
Maxim: I feel I ought to look after you. That is what a husband should do.
Chloe: Yes, that is true. On the other hand, my husband is not here.
Maxim: Chloe! Must you keep reminding me that you were married before? In any case, your first husband is dead now.
Chloe: Well, we don’t know that for sure. All we know is that Albert went off on a polar expedition to look for magnetic North and never came back. He is presumed dead. That is not the same thing as being dead.
Maxim: Very nearly. The sun is presumed to be rising again tomorrow. I think that is the same thing as actually rising tomorrow. In any case, why on earth did Albert want to go looking for magnetic North?
Chloe: Because it was there and because nobody had ever seen it.
Maxim: One might as well go looking for Huddersfield. One knows it is there, but that is no reason.
Chloe: Many people have seen Huddersfield.
Maxim: Not anyone one knows, thank God.
Chloe: Are you always this brittle on your honeymoon?
Maxim: I don’t know. This is only my second honeymoon, after all. Perhaps one mellows after the third or fourth.
Chloe: Do you intend to be married to other people after me?
Maxim: That depends on whether you intend to wrap up warmly or not. I am going to our cabin to get a garment which will stop you catching your death of cold.
Chloe: Don’t be long, dear.
Maxim leaves. Another man enters and sits in a vacant deck chair on the other side of Chloe.
Man: Is this deck chair taken?
Chloe: If he were not dead, I would say that that was the voice of my late husband, Albert.
Chloe: Albert ! ... No, it is not taken. Do sit down.
Albert: Is that all you have to say to me? After all these years? “Do sit down”?
Chloe: I rather thought it was up to you to say something. You are presumed dead. You might have got in touch to say you were alive.
Albert: There are not many telegraph offices or post boxes at the North Pole.
Chloe: I suppose so .... Did you find magnetic North?
Albert: Yes. At least, I think so. My compass had a small nervous breakdown and didn’t know where to point, so I assumed I had reached magnetic North. In the distance the ship’s band starts playing.
Chloe: And how was the North Pole?
Albert: Very potent.
He listens to the music for a moment. The band is playing out of tune. How flat cheap music is .... Maxim comes back with a warm wrap.
Maxim: Here it is. Put it on, dear. There is a definite chill in the air.
Albert: You are right. I can smell ice. I am never wrong about that.
Maxim: Chloe, have you been talking to strangers while I was away?
Chloe: No, dear. This is no stranger. This is Albert, the other husband about whom I have often spoken. Albert, this is Maxim, to whom I am now married.
Maxim: Albert? So you are not as dead as you are presumed?
Albert: No. On the other hand, you are not as married as you presumed you were.
Maxim: You may be right about that.
A slight pause. What do you mean about being able to smell ice?
Albert: If I did not know better, I would say there was an iceberg in the offing. We polar explorers acquire a very keen sense of smell.
Maxim: I can understand that. In the long polar evenings there cannot be much else to do except stand and sniff. Polar bears seem to spend most of their time wrinkling their noses.
Chloe: Maxim, are you making fun of Albert?
Maxim: I? Make fun of the only other person whose marriage proposal you have taken seriously? Heaven forfend !
More of this tomorrow, I fear.
* * *
Today I am bringing you another extract from the forgotten Noel Coward play set aboard The Titanic, “Brief Tables”.
The story so far is that Maxim and Chloe, on their honeymoon, have run into Albert, Chloe’s first husband, who has reappeared after being presumed dead at the North Pole. Maxim and Chloe are reclining on the first class deck, admiring the sunset and wondering if Albert’s return will affect their marriage......
Maxim: You never actually divorced Albert, did you?
Chloe: I had no idea he was alive. To divorce a dead husband seems a little extreme. People might think I was being critical of him behind his back.
Maxim: In retrospect, it would have been wiser. He would have come back from the dead a free man, unmarried. As it is, he has turned you into a bigamist.
Chloe: No, he hasn’t. It is you who did that, on the day you married me.
Maxim: So you accuse me of bigamy?
Chloe: Not at all. I am the bigamist. YOU are merely married to a bigamist.
Maxim: Poor child. Tell me, what is it like having two husbands?
Chloe: Not unpleasant. It is rather like having two quite different children.
Maxim: Are you trying to tell me you also have offspring I don’t know about?
Chloe: Oh, don’t let’s bicker like this! We are here to enjoy a magical honeymoon on the maiden voyage of The Titanic. Just because I am married to someone else on board as well, you shouldn’t get upset ........ Why don’t we go for a walk?
Maxim: In fact, I did go for a long stroll this morning, while you were applying your make-up. The ship is immense. I never expected to get blisters on an ocean cruise. It is so far from bow to stern that the weather is appreciably different at the other end of the ship.
Chloe: In what way?
Maxim: It’s further south, and thus much warmer.
Chloe: That sounds lovely.
And what makes it seem even longer is that you walk from class to class, down from first through second to steerage, just as if one were going on a motoring trip through Eastern Europe. Why, there are parts of the steerage where nobody speaks English at all. Next time I go rambling on this ship, I shall take an interpreter with me.
Enter Albert, Chloe’s first husband.
Albert: Hello, you two! How’s the honeymoon going?
Chloe: Albert! That is a question you must never ask a woman!
Albert: Not even if you are married to her? Come on, you can tell me!
Maxim: You seem in a very jolly mood, Albert. I may call you Albert, may I not?
Albert: Of course. Fact is, I am always ill at ease away from the polar regions. This evening I can smell ice in the air. That makes me happier.
Maxim: The only ice I ever have beneath my nose is the ice in a gin and tonic. It has the same effect on me. And it is far cheaper than mounting a Polar expedition.
Chloe: Well, it is nice to see you two getting on so well.
Maxim: We have a lot in common.
Albert: The same wife.
Maxim: The same taste in women.
Chloe: Oh, for heaven’s sake, stop going on about both being married to me! It is so dreary.
Maxim: On the contrary. When two women meet, they both run their own husbands down. Albert and I are both praising our wives. This is much better behaviour. The fact that it is the same wife in both cases makes it even better.
This is too much! I am going to get ready for dinner! Will you please decide meanwhile which one I am to have dinner with?
Maxim: You seem younger than I had imagined, Albert. May I ask how old you are?
Albert: I am five years younger than Chloe.
Maxim: What a coincidence. I am five years older.
Albert: Is that significant?
Maxim: Only that she decided to move on from you to an older, more experienced man.
Albert: There was no need to do that. If she had stayed with me, I would have become older and more experienced at no extra expense...... Just a moment! Did you see something huge and white out there?
Maxim: Yes. It was the first class dining room wine waiter shimmering in to dinner.
Albert: Perhaps you are right ....
Unbeknownst to them, it is actually an iceberg and Maxim, Albert and Chloe have about forty minutes left in which to sort out their tangled threesome. Will they manage it? Watch this space!
The Independent Wed April 15 1998