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Mad About the Boy

Remembered Laughter: The Life of Noel Coward

by Cole Lesley
Knopf, 501 pp., $12.95

Noel Coward was “capable of entertaining anybody who would watch or listen to him from the age of three.” By exercising this ability unceasingly, he became entirely unique, for, his biographer asks, “What young man had ever before—or has since—attempted and succeeded in so many branches of theatrical endeavor? No wonder he became society’s hero and so quickly accepted as the darling of the ‘twenties….” Indeed, Mr. Lesley adds, it is true to say that “he was the ‘twenties embodied, writing and speaking for his generation with wit, penetration, and a brave use of sentiment of which he was never afraid, even in that supposedly cynical era.”

John Osborne sums it up differently. Coward, he says, was “his own invention, his contribution to the twentieth century…. To be your own enduring invention seems to me to be heroic and essential. Even if you can begin to make it. It seems increasingly impossible.”

One can take Mr. Osborne’s point. There is something heroic about cutting a shape for oneself that is unlike any other shape and makes one different from the multitude. W.C. Fields had a shape. Groucho Marx had a shape. So had Garbo, so had Dietrich, so had Bogart. So had…. But the list is endless. And it is composed almost entirely of actors and actresses. Why? Because they are always on-stage. Their invented selves are their works, their stage properties, their capital investments. A man such as Thomas Hardy can never make the list, because his contribution to his century is a constant flow of inventions of which he is never one himself. Bernard Shaw comes nearest to the theater folk, because he was one of them himself.

But are we impressed by Shaw’s invention of himself, or do we feel that it is only frivolous compared with his work? Mr. Lesley would seem to be on firmer ground than Mr. Osborne when he tries to show that Coward’s self-invention is, like Shaw’s, an entertaining appendage, but that it is the “wit, penetration and a brave use of sentiment” in the work that matter most. This would be a good argument, if Mr. Lesley could make it stick. But his biography shows, often for pages on end, that the “Master’s” personal shape and invented self are the main things to talk about. The actor overwhelms the playwright.

What makes this tiresome in the end is that the actor cannot play without an audience, so wherever we go in Mr. Lesley’s book we find an audience tagging along to justify the actor. Mr. Lesley, for instance, has a high opinion of Coward’s early (1924) play The Vortex, which was to the Twenties, he thinks, what Look Back in Anger was to the Fifties. Opening in a grubby little Hampstead theater, it was conspicuous by its audience:

Le beau monde, from Lady Louis Mountbatten to the omnipresent Eddie Marsh, turned out in force and in full fig, braving the icy weather, the hazards of the journey to darkest Hampstead and the discomforts of the tiny, hard-seated theater. White ties and jewels abounded and the coconut matting went unnoticed, for it could not be seen, so great was the crush.

And so it goes, all the way. There are dingy setbacks—holed up in the Brevoort without a cent, living on bacon supplied by a trusting grocer—but soon the world of coconut matting is rolled up forever, and any financial troubles that arise are simply due to Keeping Up with the Crush. So are most troubles of other sorts because, with this kind of keeping up, the pains of life come from being neglected or excluded—from what could be called audience failure.

Somewhere in the ancient State Papers there is a record of one shilling being paid from the Privy Purse to a talented fellow who “did dance and fart before the King.” Coward’s story runs just like that. He made old King George guffaw by referring to his own bottom at a garden party; he netted the old Queen Mary by being intimately bold. The future Duke of Windsor, who played the ukelele, kept him up all night providing a piano accompaniment—and then, horror of horrors, cut him dead the very next morning when they met at the tailors, Hawes & Curtis, both buying the fashionable backless evening waistcoats. This “put the lid on it,” as Mr. Lesley says, and when, years later in Paris, the aging Duke cried, “Come on, Noel!” and fell first into the Charleston, then into a sailor’s hornpipe, Coward could only remember “how beastly” the Duke had been in former days. “Had he danced the Charleston and hornpipe with me then it would have been an accolade to cherish.”

Such is the fate of those who dance and fart before kings. But the surprising thing is that Coward was hardly ever snubbed, according to Mr. Lesley’s account. The invention that was himself was more copied than censured, and the trappings that were an essential part of the invention—the superb silk dressing gowns employed for morning wear, the turtleneck, or roll-top, woolens, the shirts with upright collars known as “Nehrus”—went to the secondary inventing of thousands of lesser selves. But, oh, how the inventor had to work! Oh, what people he had to court! Mr. Lesley’s pages are so strewn with kings, queens, princes, princesses, marquises, earls, countesses, that one wonders how room was found for common-or-garden lords. Hardly any of them have anything interesting to say; they are simply “accolades” in themselves, as are their interminable yachts and luncheons. The numberless entertainers who mingle with them, or enjoy a pseudo royal status of their own, come off no better, though the reader who is eager to devour any trifle of stage life will find a thousand sausages on toothpicks. Those who eat jewelry will do equally well, beginning with Michael Arlen’s “pearl and platinum watch-chain” and proceeding through ropes of pearls as big as pigeons’ eggs to the largest sapphires ever seen. It is sad to admit that on meeting Mlle Chanel descending into an air raid shelter followed by her maid “bearing her gas-mask on a cushion,” little men with hammers and sickles take total possession of one’s mind.

The “Master” comes off little better than the rest: the rot begins with him and descends therefrom like Queen Victoria’s hemophilia. “Wit” and “penetration” are two of the characteristics stressed by Mr. Lesley: as to the first of these, everybody knows that Coward was a witty man, in speech, prose, and song. But Mr. Lesley, who was Coward’s companion and secretary for nearly forty years, and lived incessantly in the world of Coward’s wit, has hardly anything to report. Baby talk, and various sorts of double talk and private language are laid out for our benefit, but they are not impressive. “What would you say to a little fish?” “I would say ‘Good-morning, little fish’ ” shows the general standard. His lightning retort to Churchill, who, at the time of the abdication had asked why the King “shouldn’t marry his cutie: ‘Because England doesn’t wish for a Queen Cutie,’ ” is not only an exception but, as wit should be, a glimpse into the speaker’s character: what other man would have been brave enough to sock the old curmudgeon in such a way? But the remark stands out because it is alone.

As for “penetration,” it comes off no better than “wit.” Nobody in the book, Coward included, says anything that is even interesting, let alone penetrating, though there is a short letter from Bernard Shaw that can be described as canny, and one from Maurice Baring that is clearly funny. Part of the invention, it would seem, was to avoid not only profundity but thought itself—which is not the feeling we have when we read the classics of the same period, such as Gatsby or Decline and Fall, where stylized nonchalance is used as a method but not allowed to be an end in itself.

Mr. Lesley has used a method too, which is one of reticence. He knew all Coward’s secret’s and he knows that Coward would want them to remain secrets. So there are no bedroom scenes in his book, no names of homosexual boyfriends, no love affairs—apart from a possible one with Garbo, which is probably mentioned either because it sounds so improbable, or because its achievement would be an “accolade” of stunning proportions. There is no harm in this sort of reticence; considering the incessant stream of naked exposure that we get nowadays, it is a pleasure not to have to pass every page between the sheets. But reticence ought to have its peepholes; we ought to be able to sense the nature of a man by reading between the lines. Between Mr. Lesley’s lines there is only ambition in a silk dressing gown—with kind asides and generous moments, of course.

Perhaps that’s all there was—though a biographer with a wittier and more penetrating mind than Mr. Lesley’s might have made Coward’s character sound more interesting and much less like a second-rate “invention.” But what about the working talent, which is what counts in the end? Mr. Lesley is not a critical biographer, and nothing he has to say about Coward’s plays can encourage one to believe that he was the Congreve of his day (as Arnold Bennett suggested) and that his work will stand up repeatedly to revival in the manner of Restoration comedies. But his songs would seem to be another matter: as each title comes up in this book, the words and the tune come up with it, suggesting an endurance value of a remarkable kind. One reason for this may be that the “brave use of sentiment,” which must have a mind as intelligent as Chekhov’s or Waugh’s behind it if it is to help a novel or a play to outlive its day, finds a natural home in song, where charm and simple emotion set the standard, and where wit and humor ask no more than a good tune.

And, surely, to be remembered for one’s songs for many years to come is an enormous achievement. The kings and queens and the lords and ladies go to oblivion in their mausoleums; the common cemeteries are packed with forgotten stars; the authors of problem plays and serious novels are, as a rule, buried too deep for words. That the singing voice should go on singing, usually with nothing of the slightest importance to sing about, is one of those disgraceful injustices that we dumb ones can never hope to correct.

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