Bitter-Sweet

Private Lives

a play by Noël Coward, directed by Howard Davies
at the Richard Rodgers Theater, New York, opened April 28, 2002

Long Island Sound

a play by Noël Coward, directed by Scott Alan Evans
at the Actors Company Theater, New York, opened May 13, 2002

A talent to amuse”or “just a talent to amuse”? Even before Noël Coward’s death in 1973, the former had become the standard celebratory summation of his contribution to popular culture during a half-century as a playwright, actor, songwriter, diarist, composer, autobiographer, novelist, and cabaret entertainer. A Talent to Amuse is the title of Sheridan Morley’s admiring but judicious 1969 biography of Sir Noël; A TALENT TO AMUSE is the epigraph that adorns the Westminster Abbey memorial stone dedicated to him (and located—appropriately, you can’t help thinking, for this master of light verse—not in, but just adjacent to, the Poet’s Corner).

But “a talent to amuse” is not what Coward actually wrote. Or at least, not all of what he wrote. The phrase that has come to summarize Coward was, in fact, snipped from its context in a song called “If Love Were All” that Coward composed for his 1929 “oper-ette” Bitter-Sweet. It’s sung by a lovelorn café chanteuse after she’s been reunited with a former lover who has since remarried. Here is the entire verse:

Although when shadows fall
I think if only—
Somebody splendid really needed me,
Someone affectionate and dear,
Cares would be ended if I knew that he
Wanted to have me near.
But I believe that since my life began
The most I’ve had is just
A talent to amuse.

In its proper context, then, “a talent to amuse” is not so much a self-celebration as it is something more wistful and self-ironic, and not a little sad. A talent, yes, but a talent for something relatively minor: just a talent to amuse. A gift, yes, but one with limited power: the most she can offer.

The elision of that “just” over the years, the gradual loss of the phrase’s original, piquant context, can be seen as a symbol of our increasing failure to understand just what “amusement” meant for the author of those words. Noël Coward’s distinctive sensibility, as both writer and performer, was, in fact, a particularly complex one. Shaped in his Edwardian boyhood but ripened in his Jazz Age youth, it owed much to the revues of the late Teens and early Twenties, like those of his early producer André Charlot, with their swift shifts in mood and tone. It’s a sensibility that’s poised, we might say, on the fulcrum between “a talent to amuse” and “just a talent to amuse”—between self-assertion and self-deprecation, merriment and melancholy, sweet and bitter. This curious hybrid is difficult to sustain in the present era of popular entertainment, with its effortfully ironic tone, its brittle carapace of postmodern knowingness, and its omnipresent violence and explicitness. To us, Coward’s light touch, like the “light” genres at which he excelled—light comedy, light verse, the latter in particular nearly extinct today, both aiming above all to provide pleasure, gaiety, amusement—is bound to come off as trivial, un-hip.

As a result, we tend …

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