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 …