The play takes place in 1925 in the "dining-room/drawing-room of the Sterrolls' flat in London." The script does not specify where in London the flat is located, but we can assume it is in one of the city's fashionable--and expensive--districts. We draw this inference because of the luxurious and comfortable furnishings, the fireplace, and the baby grand piano.
As usual, the setting helps to characterize its inhabitants. We assume that the Sterrolls are well-heeled members of the upper-middle class of the 1920s: tasteful, probably well-bred and decently-educated, conventional, but uneasily aware of--and perhaps susceptible to--the social and moral turmoil that characterizes that "roaring" decade.
Fred Sterroll and his friend, Willy Banbury, have left London to spend the weekend out of town, golfing. The men having departed, Fred's wife, Julia, begins to practice on the piano. Their sharp-eared new maid, Saunders, points out Julia's mistakes, and takes over the instrument herself to demonstrate the correct playing of the song Julia has been butchering:
You'll find that it goes like this . . . (She begins to play and sing lightly.)
The song means something like this, "Even the Angels succumb to love. . ../ Oh God, you're in charge of where we go and when,/ So please grant me another hour of paradise."
At this moment Willy's wife, Jane, enters, deeply flustered. Inexplicably dressed in traveling clothes and carrying a suitcase, she cries out "(In a stifled voice) Stop singing that song!"
We soon learn why this French ditty has such a powerful effect on her, and why she is dressed for the road.
It seems that Jane has received a post card from Maurice Duclos, a Frenchman with whom she had a giddily romantic affair in Italy before her marriage. The song Saunders was singing was “their song.” Maurice has written to tell her that he will soon be in London--perhaps that very day. With her marriage lapsed into comfortable monotony, her husband off golfing, and her feelings for Maurice in a state of inflammation, Jane has decided that the best way to avoid temptation is to get out of town—far out of town. She plans to leave for America. At least her "better self" does, because it wants to cling to respectability and avoid the disruptive fireworks of illicit sex.
But why has Jane come to Julia with this problem? Because, as it turns out, Julia's situation is identical. She too has had a premarital affair with Maurice, also in Italy. Her marriage is also ardor-free, and her passion for the Gallic lover-boy is waiting, like a tulip bulb in spring, to burst back into life.
So Jane has come to take Julia away with her, to engage her friend and fellow fallen angel in a virtuous flight from temptation. After a period of agonized indecision, Julia agrees that flight is the only way to avert the impending erotic disaster. As they head for the door, traveling bags in hand, there is a loud ring and a louder knock. Who could it be?
JULIA. It's Maurice!
And with that instant capitulation to the lures of the flesh, the curtain descends on the first act.
As Act Two begins, it is evening of the same day. Jane and Julia are now both "elaborately" dressed, and the table is laid for dinner. As it turns out, however, it was the plumber knocking at the door in the first act, not Maurice. But having already succumbed to the Frenchman in their hearts, they have decided to follow through with the rest of their anatomies, and they eagerly await their prospective lover's arrival.
As they wait they eat and drink. Especially the latter. Martinis are followed by champagne, which is washed down with brandy. As they get drunker, they swing emotionally between panting desire for Maurice and lurid feelings of guilt toward Willy and Fred. Their nerves on edge from liquor, anticipation, lust, and two false alarms--a telephone call not from Maurice, and another knock on the door, also not Maurice--they begin to grow impatient with the situation and with one another. Impatience leads to jealousy, which leads to insults, which lead to rage:
JANE. I should like to shake you, shake you and shake you and shake you until your eyes drop out. . . . You make me feel like a French Revolution virago. Julia, I'd like to rush up and down Bond Street with one of your tiny heads on a pole.
Rather than decapitate her friend, however, Jane does something nearly as cruel: she tells Julia that Maurice phoned her earlier, that she has known his whereabouts all evening, and that she is leaving Julia's flat and going straight to him. As she exits, promising to "go away with him at once," and directing her friend and their respective husbands to "go to hell," the agonized Julia "hurls herself on the sofa in screaming hysterics." So ends Act Two.
Act Three finds Julia eating a gloomy breakfast the next morning. Suddenly Willy arrives, having abandoned his golfing get-away because of a row with Fred. He is looking for Jane, who is not at home. The only place he can imagine her being is with Julia. And when Julia learns that her friend is missing, she assumes that Jane has indeed run away with Maurice. Vindictively, she tells Willy the whole story of their past affairs with Monsieur Duclos, and of their previous day's vigil awaiting his return. A scandalized Willy demands that Julia join him in a search for his errant wife. She does so reluctantly, leaving the flat to Saunders.
The phone rings, Saunders answers, and takes a message. Maurice at last! She writes his name and number conspicuously on a pad by the telephone, at which point Fred enters, looking for Julia. Saunders goes to an upstairs neighbor to search for her mistress, and Jane enters, still dressed for last night's liaison. She sees Maurice's name and number on the notepad, assumes Julia has gone off to him, and in her own fit of vindictiveness proceeds to tell Fred exactly what Julia told Willy: The Whole Story.
In the course of her recital, Jane loses "all control and burst[s] into hysterical tears." At this moment Willy and Julia return. Jane sees that Julia has not in fact gone off with Maurice. And Julia learns that Jane spent the night by herself in a hotel. Too late both grasp the fact that they have spilled the beans to Willy and Fred for no reason. What to do? As their husbands demand explanations, they begin to stammer out an exculpatory falsehood: it was all a joke, Jane declares. But before she can explain the reasons for such a prank, Saunders enters and announces the long-delayed arrival of Maurice.
The subtle Frenchman instinctively grasps the situation, and without a word of coaching falls in with Jane and Julia's ruse. Yes, he tells Willy and Fred, their wives and he were friends--nothing more--seven years ago. Now, to teach their husbands not to take them for granted, Jane and Julia have conspired with Maurice to create this adulterous charade. It's all been a ruse, rigged up to make the romantically-deficient golfing buddies jealous.
Having for the moment pulled the wool over the husbands' eyes, Maurice, who has taken a flat directly above Julia's for a year, invites the women upstairs to advise him on his curtains. Left by themselves, Willy and Fred review the situation. Fred is taken in. Willy is suspicious. Suddenly they hear music from above. It is the French song about fallen angels that upset Jane at the beginning of the play. As Maurice sings "je t'aime, je t'aime, je t'aime" to their two besotted wives, the awful truth dawns on them: their new neighbor is indeed their wives' once and future lover, and the women are alone with him in his flat. "Fred and Willy gaze at one another with stricken faces," and the curtain falls, ending the play.
Jane and Julia are virtual twins, as are Fred and Willy. Julia's life is essentially identical to Jane's; Fred's to Willy's. Both women have had affairs with Maurice, both in Italy, and both have settled down to respectable middle-class marriages with dull but decent men. Both Fred and Willy love golf, perhaps a bit more than they love their wives. Both marriages have reached a similar pass: "We're awfully happy," as Jane says, "and there's a lovely firm basis of comradeship and affection and all that, but the real 'being in love' part is dead!"
The structure of the plot further emphasizes these resemblances. In Act One, Fred joins Willy for a weekend of golf, while Jane joins Julia to fret about Maurice. The women jointly decide first to run away from temptation, then, as the curtain falls, to surrender to it.
In Act Two, Jane and Julia are similarly dressed, similarly famished, similarly expectant, similarly drunk, and by the end similarly hysterical in their jealous rage at one another.
Act Three may be subdivided into three scenes, two of which are mirror images of each other. In the first, Julia tells Willy about Maurice and Jane; in the second Jane tells Fred about and Maurice and Julia.
Why all this replication? To answer this question, we may turn to Eric Bentley's wonderful essay, "The Psychology of Farce." There he tells us that farce, like dreams, "show[s] the . . . fulfillment of repressed wishes." Now, since our repressed wishes tend to be much the same from person to person--hence the broad appeal of farce--it makes sense that characters in farce vary little from one another. They are all scratching the same itches. Thus Jane and Julia, Fred and Willy, are not sharply delineated individuals but human mechanisms fueled by their identical repressed desires. They show us that we are mostly, and foolishly, alike under the surface.
The two characters who escape this farcical self-replication are Saunders and Maurice.
Unlike her bourgeois employers, Saunders seems to have been everywhere and done everything, and has achieved a perfectly nonchalant cosmopolitanism. Based on her years with the Duke of Cidarington, for example, she can lecture Fred on golf; she can instruct Julia on piano playing thanks to her service with Madame Carmen Granado, the noted soloist. She knows that sucking pebbles cures thirst because of her tour of duty with the Red Cross in the desert. She seems, in short, able to respond to every problem with an arcane remedy gleaned during an exotic experience. Perhaps this adventurous, uncircumscribed life has provided Saunders with a kind of erotic fulfillment. As a result, unlike the conventional, stay-at-home Janes and Julias, she is not controlled and driven by her repressions, but is free to be her own eccentric self.
Maurice is an Englishman's version of a Frenchman: he is without repressions. Instead, he is all suavity and self- indulgence. Whereas Jane and Julia are wracked by conflict between their naughty desires and their respectable habits, Maurice is all of a piece: a ladies' man who never questions the nature of his appetites. As Julia remarks, sex is "almost his profession." In the logic of the play he has therefore achieved the kind of psychic autonomy that the puppets of repression fail to realize.
Further on in the Bentley essay, the author tells us that, "Outrage to family piety and propriety is certainly at the heart of farce." This is clearly the case with Fallen Angels. The "angels" of the title allude, ironically, to Jane and Julia, who have, after an early moral lapse with Maurice, been living lives of exemplary middle-class virtue. The core of that virtue is marital fidelity. Should it be violated, the whole orderly structure of their lives would collapse, or so it seems to them.
On the other hand, they long for the passion they knew in the past, initially with Maurice, then, in the early days of their marriages, with Fred and Willy. Caught between the impersonal demands of society and the irrational demands of sex, they are objects manipulated by forces essentially beyond their control.
Coward is fond of putting characters in this kind of comically hopeless bind. In his most famous play, Private Lives, the main characters, Elyot and Amanda, adulterous lovers, are likewise caught between the compulsions of appetite and the constraints of respectability; moreover, in their feelings for each other they oscillate between lust and loathing. During one of the few lucid moments in their agitated lives, Amanda reflects that they are merely playthings in the hands of cosmic "thingummies," those faceless powers of chemistry and biology that deprive them of any kind of rational self-control. They are merely observers of the clash of their own violent appetites.
Julia makes a similar statement when she declares,
I'm torn between my better self and my worse self. I never realized there were two of me until this moment so clearly defined. I want terribly badly to be a true, faithful wife, and look after Fred and live in peace, and I want terribly to have violent and illicit love made to me and be frenziedly happy and supremely miserable.
And she is constantly being tossed by the ungovernable winds of desire back and forth between these two identities. As Jane says, they are "unhinged by sex."
In Fallen Angels, then, we watch the farcical struggle in the souls of two self-divided women between "family piety and propriety" on the one hand, and the deranging power of lust on the other. As the play ends, however, Coward seems to suggest that the two women have been providentially furnished with a way to have their cake and eat it too. Upstairs for a year will be the object of their erotic fantasies, Maurice. Downstairs, Fred and Willy will pour drinks and chat about golf. Downstairs, marriage, upstairs, as the song says, paradise. In the end, the impossible conflict is resolved by the impossible dream.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. Why are Jane and Julia dissatisfied?
2. Why did Coward choose to have their affairs with Maurice take place in Italy? What would have been the image of Italy in English eyes?
3. Why does Coward put a character like Saunders into the play?
4. What causes the argument between Julia and Jane in Act Two?
5. What do you think Fred and Willy argued about during their golfing weekend?
6. Do you think Maurice is a stereotypical character? What is a stereotype?
7. Which do you prefer: the indirectness with which Coward refers to sex, or the explicitness of modern films and television shows? What is achieved by each appproach?
8. What do you think Willy and Fred will do about Maurice moving in upstairs?