Arguably, Noel Coward's most famous play is the witty still-in-love divorce comedy, "Private Lives."
But the playwright's own private life was that of a discreet gay British gentleman, a subject he explored indirectly in his late-in-life play, "A Song at Twilight," now playing at Hartford Stage through March 16.
But Coward didn't base the 1966 play's central character of international literary figure Sir Hugo Latymer on himself but rather British author W. Somerset Maugham, a closeted man of a decidedly darker spirit than the bon vivant Coward.
In the play, Hugo's long-ago romance with a young man is threatened to be exposed by the publishing of love letters, now in possession by a former female mistress of Hugo's (played by Gordana Rashovich) who comes to visit him and his wife (Mia Dillon) at their Swiss villa.
The plot echos an incident in 1962, when Maugham's gay nephew informed him that he was planning to write a biography of his uncle. Maugham wrote his nephew a check for the same amount of money he would have received from the book and the biography was not published —- until after Maugham's died in 1965 in a villa in France.
`"There's not much Coward in [the play]," says Brian Murray, who plays Sir Hugo in the Hartford Stage production. "He's a nasty old man. And Coward was a very, very kind man with wonderful humor all the time."
Director Mark Lamos says when he first approached the play he thought Coward was "outing" himself "but when I read it I thought, 'Well, this isn't like him at all.''' Though not public about being gay, Coward lived his homosexual life openly but discreetly. "That was very accepted in its day," says Lamos.
"He had an affair with the Duke of Kent in the '20s," says Murray, "and it was kind of known. And the royal family adored him."
"Unless you cross a line," says Lamos, "which was what John Gielgud did by getting arrested in the men's room [in 1953]. Coward even wrote that famous letter to [designer] Cecil Beaton saying, more or less, ''You've got to butch up if you want to get on in the world so stop dressing that way.' He was saying in a sense, 'You've got to play by the rules.' " But Maugham tried to keep his homosexuality hidden so when the character of Hugo is confronted with exposure there is more at stake. It also becomes about the cost of living a life as a lie, both as a man and as a writer.
"The play is not about coming out or even about accepting your gender orientation," says Lamos. "It's about him being made to understand the one person whom he loved and who loved him back, he rejected. It's really about giving up love. The gay aspect is almost secondary."
But understanding the context of the times is also important in appreciating the situation Hugo — and Coward — faced.
"I grew up in a world where it was still illegal for being homosexual, quite apart of what it would do to your career," says Murray, 76., who made his Broadway debut in 1966 and soon followed it with a Tony Award nomination for "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead." "It was criminal behavior and that didn't change until the '60s, after this play had been written."
"I felt very similar," says Lamos, 67, and former artistic director of Hartford Stage. "I felt all stereotypical representations of gay men I saw that were available to me in the culture had very little to do with me." Lamos kept his sexuality private until 1979 when he began his relationship with his partner.
"It just snuck up on me this feeling that I'm not going to deny it any more," he says. "But I didn't embrace it. It was still an issue of not telling, not sharing it with a lot of people at first."
But Lamos says "Twilight," more than anything, is a play about love "and the kind of love that exists outside of the sexual. It's also about a man who is incapable of having that love."
What is Coward saying, at the end, about love?
"There are a lot of different kinds of ways to love and be loved," says Lamos. There's great regret in Hugo at the end of the play, says Lamos, but there's another deep relationship, too, with his endlessly patient wife. "So it's a marvelous ambiguity."
Of course, it's harder to lead private lives now in the age of Facebook, Tweets, Instagrams and a 24/7 news cycle that must be continuously fed.
"Ironically, letters are probably now the most private way you can communicate with someone," says Lamos, "because they can't be hacked."
A SONG AT TWILIGHT opens on Feb. 26 and continues through March 16 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St. The show is 90 minutes without intermission. Information: 860-527-5151 and www.hartfordstage.org.