Cavalcade is a play by Noël Coward. It focuses on three decades in the life of the Marryotts, a quintessential British family, and their servants, beginning at the start of the 20th century and ending on New Year's Eve in 1929.
The play premiered in London in 1931 at the large Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The spectacular production involved a huge cast and massive sets. The play was very successful and ran for almost a year.
Coward began researching the project while appearing in the Broadway production of Private Lives, finding inspiration in back issues of The Illustrated London News he had brought to New York City with him expressly for that purpose. He also drew on his personal memories for many of the twenty-two scenes in the three-act play.
After returning to London, Coward continued to work on the play. Knowing the size and scope of the project would require as large a venue as possible, he and designer Gladys Calthrop inspected Theatre Royal, Drury Lane and found it to be ideal due to the depth of the stage, the width and height of the proscenium, the various lighting and flying effects that could be achieved, and the six hydraulic lifts that could be utilized to move scenery easily. While Calthrop began the task of designing hundreds of costumes and dozens of sets, Coward worked on the script, which he completed in August 1931. Rehearsals began the following month.
With four hundred cast and crew members involved in the production, Coward divided the crowd into groups of twenty and assigned each a leader. Because remembering individual names would be impossible, everyone was given a color and number for easy identification, thus allowing Coward to direct "#7 red" to cross downstage and shake hands with "#15 yellow and black." Extras were encouraged to create their own bits of stage business, as long as it didn't draw focus from the primary action of the scene.
Starring Mary Clare and Edward Sinclair as the Marryot parents and featuring John Mills, Moya Nugent, Arthur Macrae, and Maidie Andrews in supporting roles, Cavalcade premiered on October 13, 1931. Despite a brief delay caused by a mechanical problem early in the first act, the performance was an unqualified success, and the play went on to become one of the year's biggest West End successes. The play ended its run in September 1932.
Opening as it did just prior to the British General Election. the play's strongly patriotic themes were credited by the Conservative Party for helping them secure a large percentage of the middle class votes, despite the fact Coward had conceived the project a full year before the election was held, and the playwright strenuously denied having any motivation to influence its outcome. King George V and Queen Mary attended the performance on election night and received Coward in the Royal Box during the second interval.
Owing to the size and sheer cost of production, Cavalcade has not been staged in anything remotely like its original form ever since its initial production. The few revivals there have been have trimmed a number of the more spectacular scenes, in particular the finale with its multiple lighting and sound effects depicting industrial and social chaos.
In January 1933, the critically acclaimed film adaptation premiered in the United States, and the London premiere followed in March.It won the Oscar for best picture.
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