At fourteen Noel Coward was performing in a no doubt improbable revival of Peter Pan. Less than a decade later, in a new “lubric and adult’rous age,” after the World War, he rose from Teddington to Mayfair, like Ganymede ascending to Olympus, becoming the spokesman for all that was daring, outré, brash. “I don’t know if I’m particularly complex,” twinkles wicked Amanda in Private Lives, “but I do know I’m unreliable.” Coward’s was the high-spirited imagination passing itself off as high-handed honesty, the poker-faced playboy in the Molyneux dressing gown, now and then hanging from the chandelier and cracking champagne bottles on the heads of his guests. The whipped cream extravaganza (the operettas Bitter Sweet and Conversation Piece), bad egg society melodrama (The Vortex), schoolboy dumpings of the conventions (Design for Living), a batty weekend of bohemians and prigs (Hay Fever), pageantry and pennywhistle patriotism (Cavalcade), delirious asides on the decline of moonlight, marriage, and the Duke of Westminster’s yacht (Private Lives)…. Reading Coward, studying the spectacle—tricks of the trade, changes of tune, strokes of luck—one finds it hard to surpress a smile, harder still not to be impressed.
Performer, playwright, composer, Coward pervades an era. Yet he appears really connected to nothing in particular, except that name, that legend: Private Lives scribbled in a few nights in Shanghai, Hay Fever in four days; “I’ll See You Again” bursting into bloom in New York when Coward was stuck in a twenty-minute traffic jam; Churchill shouting: “Get into a warship and see some action! Go and sing to them when the guns are firing—that’s your job!” In the comedies, pages and pages of clipped, carefree, acquisitive dialogue, unmarred by any concern for a buried appetite, a bruised nerve. In the dramas, a not inconsiderable illustration of Coward’s talent, you’re struck by a heady underplayed flamboyance: the flare-up between Larita and the Colonel in Easy Virtue, the bravura splashes or slinky revelations in The Vortex and Point Valaine.
And the songs. The very best of Noel Coward’s lyrics seem to me the best in the language since Gilbert. Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter are his only competitors. But Hart was a sort of refugee from the Algonquin Club, Dorothy Parker in drag; Cole Porter’s lyrics are usually too well enmeshed with the score, too smooth or too clever, ultimately without an individual stamp, like a society orchestra leader. The best of Coward’s efforts have the canniness of the gambler who stops while he’s ahead. Also a striking singularity and venturesomeness. Imagine creating “I’ve Been to a Marvelous Party” or “Down With the Whole Damn Lot!” or “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” during the days when Harry Richman sang “I cried for you, now it’s your turn to cry for me….”
AS PEOPLE SAY over and over, Coward is “theater.” Theater without morals as in Molière, theater without any of the thumping essayistic exchanges of Shaw. Classically, Coward is closest to Wilde, but much more lax, less grand. The smarty-pants darlings in the comedies of Coward are never the intense showpieces of Wilde; they do not seem to feel the need to regard themselves as the last upholders of insolence and wit. Wilde’s cucumber sandwiches and looking-glass roués were macabre realizations or derealizations of the rules of the day. Wilde reflected, however askew, a fundamental scene: the British Empire in the playroom. In Coward’s day, not only had the rules, and much of the Empire, been shattered, but people had grown bored looking over the damage. The humor of Oscar Wilde is resurgently irreverent, but statuesque. Coward’s humor has a metallic grace, minuets for the jazz age. The strategy is that of seductively stepping back, and then a playing-up-to finesse—a style, incidentally, not unknown to the groovier stretches of Fire Island. From Private Lives: “Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs.” From The Chelsea Girls: “Some women should be tied up, put in a bathtub, and pissed on regularly for hours.” Like Wilde, though, all of Coward’s plays are completely in character, and without “characterization” at all. Everything you ever learn about any of his people you learn in the first act, the second and third acts merely present what you already knew in different shapes and shades. Madame Arcati, in Blithe Spirit, the busy-bee emissary from the Society of Psychical Research, with her bicycle, her can of Ovaltine, her “ectoplasmic manifestations,” is Coward’s one true flesh-and-blood creation, and she, of course, is a caricature, a grotesque, perhaps Coward’s Lady Bracknell done up in the diction of a cheerleader: “My mother was a medium before me, you know, and so I had every opportunity of starting on the ground floor….”
Shaw, you might say, learned all about the human animal in the Reading Room of the British Museum; thereafter, he continued to confirm his findings in the great world outside. The education of Noel Coward commenced when he put on grease paint at an early age and began listening for coughs in the center aisle. His greatest praise, typically, is for those who are “playing true,” actors on a stage who give not so much the role to themselves as themselves to a role (“Lose yourself,” he counsels, wearying of the Method, “and you lose your audience”), who abide by all the steps and stops of a performance, who get it down so well, nuance and gesture, that they can recall it at will. Coward’s is the triumph of the technician who turns the false or studied upside down, so it becomes operative and “true.”
He has given to actors an idyllic idiom. Of the modern playwrights, Noel Coward was the first to introduce the improvisational lilt, the improvisational feel to a speech or mood, the first seemingly to make do with whatever the ear picks up, the eye catches—the quick glossy look (a buoyancy Coward characterized as “brief, short, quick snap”), a drop in tone potent enough to make its effect: “You said Norfolk was flat.” “That was no reflection on her unless she made it flatter.” The success here, and elsewhere, depends not so much on the sauciness of the statement (Coward’s wit is cutting, but hardly fatal), as on a sudden teasing within the rhythm, or the unexpected pivoting about a particular word—a movement, in short, where the proper connection at the proper intersection is all.
Coward, of course, is the exemplar of exquisite timing, and in a number of the plays, especially in those of the Twenties and early Thirties, you get a series of sprightly touches, half stroked, half done, or dextrous displays of small talk, where the protagonists appear to take on the allure and something of the serenely imposing quality of long established stars. A reason, no doubt, why many performers, including the unlikely ones, from Spencer Tracy to Peter O’Toole, Bette Davis to. Kim Stanley, have had, at one time or another, the urge to do “something by Noel Coward.” Or perhaps it’s merely because Coward had always more or less regarded them as figures of fun, as in the affectionate “Louisa,” all about one of those prototypical Hollywood females with Frommian malheurs:
Louisa was terribly lonely,
Louisa was terribly sad.
It appears that the cheers that had rung in her ears
For years had been driving her mad.
She sobbed when men offered her sables
And moaned when they gave her champagne.
She remarked to her groom on their honeymoon night
As he tenderly kissed her and turn- ed out the light,
“If only, if only, if only
I’d thrown myself out of the plane…”
The very next day she was terribly lonely,
All over again.
Coward’s sophistication, needless to say, is not the self-questioning spirit of Bloomsbury or the Left Bank. Though Coward grew up neck and neck with modern literary sophistication, a sophistication grounded in “reality” and high seriousness, Coward’s has all along been grounded in “theater” and high playfulness. Simpish, non-combative sack artists like Elyot in Private Lives, or Coward’s sporty femmes du monde, are really a blend of the dramas of Maugham and Pinero and Jones, the old foggy world of Edwardian footlights (Gilda and Amanda, for instance, are clearly the descendants of Zoe in Mid-Channel), along with the flapper banter heard in the novels of Michael Arlen. The sentimentality of the former mode and the supposed licentiousness of the latter could almost always consort in Coward without conflict. Precisely because he settled for the perfect concentration on the slight, the decadent, the sentimental, he could do so in different ways and at different times. Coward is the magician of minor events extravagantly strung like Chinese lanterns from one decade to the next. Proust pops up for a reference in Easy Virtue, Chekhov in Present Laughter. No matter, Noel Coward is not an intellectual writer at all. Though there’s chatter about “repression” all over the place, he is completely un-Freudian as well.
Consider. Sex is the de rigueur subject matter in much of his work, and Coward himself, to the matrons of yesteryear, the quip-cracking ringmaster of the circus on the couch. Still, it’s a strangely sly, stringent sort of sex. In Coward’s comedies, vice may be virtue’s reward, if virtue’s lucky, but nobody really wants to make love, nobody wants to screw. For Amanda, it’s “too soon after dinner.” The heavy-lidded rake of Present Laughter, Garry Essendine, really gets his kicks racketing his many mistresses from room to room (“You’d better go into the spare room.” “No, Garry, please not the spare room.”) than in coupling with any of them. Lady Maureen (“Piggie”) in Hands Across the Sea studies her toes while ringing up her latest: “Well, I suppose I can paint them blue if I want to!” These people, though no doubt intended as bawdy or farcical types, really revel in the sterile sensual pose, the surface outrage, the way a voyeur revels in keeping his hands to himself. At the end of Present Laughter, Garry’s estranged wife sympathetically takes her temperamental spouse in tow, an obliging mother soothing her high-strung boy. Everything will be better arranged, even Garry’s wild affairs: they won’t be so disastrous, they’ll be better booked. It is perfectly fitting that the most popular, the most elaborate of Coward’s jests, Blithe Spirit, should take as its theme the amorous difficulties of a middle-aged novelist with the two women in his life—the present Mrs. Condomine, a cold fish, and the first, a ghost. “Can you feel anything?,” the revenant purrs prettily stroking the novelist’s head. “Only a very little breeze through my hair.”
Wasn’t it Shaw who approved of George du Maurier mocking an artsycraftsy set which was naughtily sighing over the classic beauty and/or simplicity of Little Bo Peep? Well, the best of the theater of Noel Coward is really Little Bo Peep for adults. Almost all of his characters, certainly in the comedies, seem to be fragments from some devastating domestic fantasy, as perhaps dreamt by a depraved Mother Goose. But not really depraved either, really much more benign, as well as rather chic. How often in Coward’s plays do you discover his people breakfasting, mixing cocktails, telephoning, playing cards, banging doors, talking about headaches (“You’re inconsiderate and cruel—I’ve told you my head’s bursting”), and how often amid the stage business, something “shocking” happens or is said to happen. Noel Coward rarely writes of the family, but the majority of his works, though suavely ensconced in the conventions of the drawing-room play, really partake of the family situation, its clannishness, incestuous familiarity, tiffs (“Now then!” “Now then what?”). His characters always behave as if they’ve known each other for years; he rings up the curtain as if everyone in the audience had known everyone in the play for years. As sensitive members of insensitive families do, Coward divides human relations into those who are charming (exquisite Amanda, with her “gay face and perfect figure,” is charming), and those who are not, such as Victor, Amanda’s husband, her second. “I do hope you’re not going to be pompous now that we’re married,” forthright Amanda says to pompous Victor on their odd honeymoon night in the south of France in the first act of Private Lives, during which, hopelessly and happily, Amanda elopes again with her first husband, Elyot.
THE WORLDLY TYPES of Noel Coward are all idlers who settle into decay beautifully, are staunchly romantic, eternally jaded, and irresistible. These people are always being judged, and always escaping judgment. They enact an elite form of exhibitionism, common room theatrics, and relate to the rest of the world pretty much the way children do whose parents keep letting them know they are making a spectacle of themselves. More often than not you encounter them caught in the act doing something, shouting something, belting each other (Amanda and Elyot roughhousing in the second act), concoting a whirlwind charade (the bohemian family in Hay Fever), or as in one of the delightful sketches in Words and Music, cavorting in a pre-adolescent romp: one rich little girl showing off to another rich little girl her unusual doll house with its “perfectly fitted little cocktail bar,” and her brother demonstrating that “all the extras such as olives and salted almonds” are kept in a little drawer in his “rocking horse’s behind.” (The Lovin’ Spoonful, to bring in the obligatory reference to a rock group, go the whole business one better in “The Younger Generation,” where a “girl friend’s only three…and she’s taking LSD.”)
These splendid creatures could be called Coward’s happy few, surrounded by his tweedy, stodgy, sniveling many, who are always “aghast.” “Myra, Jackie, Richard, and Sandy look on, dazed and aghast.” In Design for Living, the incorrigible Otto and Leo love the incorrigible Gilda, and Gilda loves Leo and Otto, and Otto and Leo love each other. There’s also Ernest (“Ernest hasn’t got a personality.” “Yes he has; but it’s only a very little one, gentle and prim”) marrying Gilda, and Gilda having a go at becoming proper. But she can’t hack it, as they say, and she goes back to Leo and Otto, telling Ernest: “We’re all of a piece, the three of us…. From now on we shall have to live and die our own way. No one else’s way is any good. We don’t fit.”
In “A Dialogue on Dramatic Poetry,” an essay published in the late Twenties, Eliot deplored the early plays of Noel Coward because in reading them he was forced to doubt that “Mr. Coward has ever spent one hour in the study of ethics.” The thought of Noel Coward spending one hour with the Nicomachean Ethics is of the same magnitude as the thought of Eliot spending an hour in a whorehouse. But Eliot is right. “Our Restoration drama is all virtue. It depends upon virtue for its existence. The author of The Queen was in the Parlor does not depend upon virtue.” What Noel Coward depends upon is charm. “I shall write fat plays from now onwards,” he has one of his characters say, answering the perennial complaint about the thinness of his creations. “Fat plays filled with very fat people.” For Coward, art is never a mirror of the self or of the world; for him it’s a role, a mask, something momentary and magical.
What Coward admires are the upper-class gifts of seduction: independence of character, dazzling good looks, independence of means. If the temperament behind the comedies tends toward travesty, the froth of narcissism, Coward’s social chronicles, in turn, idolize myths of another order, authority figures, the civic verities: blue-chip Victorians in Cavalcade, the eternal common people in This Happy Breed, Lord Louis Mountbatten and the entire British navy in In Which We Serve, while the operettas, always set in the past, are clockwork panoramas, tributes to some never-never hierarchical world, or a world well lost for love. Coward’s nostalgia is for fine folk and fine talk, and, beyond that, the upright millions in steerage class, who keep the ship of state afloat. Sentimentality and sophistication are the twin boundaries of Coward’s art—both being, of course, forms of self-love. It is here that Coward has his hold on the popular mind. The sentimentality keeps the perversity evenpaneled; the expertise, the sophistication keeps his fancy in check.
With Noel Coward we see man always in silhouette. That bulky patchwork, the whole man, how far away he is. Not surprisingly, most of Coward’s characters seem to be “outsiders” caught up in a game with “insiders.” In the comedies, those who “don’t fit,” like Gilda and Leo and Otto, grandly unaware of all the rules, win every match; while the others landed gentry, bumpish bourgeois) appear appropriately bemused, dazed, priggish. In the comedies, the game is without consequences; in the dramas, an accounting is made. The dramas have the air of specialized scenarios in which the author lectures himself on some assumed or suspected inadequacy, but without psychological rigor or amplification. Instead, there’s a sort of solemn hysteria about the genuine, about suffering. “A little while ago you were really suffering…I was glad because it showed you were capable of a genuine emotion. Now you’re glossing it over—swarming it down with your returning vanity.” Guilt, an emotion which the characters in the comedies never suffer, becomes everything in the dramas. The matronly Linda, in Point Valaine, has been tortured for years by a secret and shabby liaison with her servant, which one of Coward’s Coldstream Guard innocents happens upon; Chris, the “repressed” psychiatrist in The Astonished Heart, destroys himself in romantic abandonment with Leonora. The hero of The Vortex plays jazz and has taken to drugs. His trouble is his mother, a fluffy society beauty with dyed hair who has taken to lovers. The poignant affair of the aging housewife and doctor in Brief Encounter is thwarted both by the dictates of conscience and by circumstance. (Brief Encounter, incidentally, which Coward adapted from his short work, Still Life, must surely rank among the most sensitive of screenplays. Like all films, however, it is an ensemble effort, and much of its success is also due to Celia Johnson’s glowing performance and the atmospheric direction of David Lean.)
These characters are ill-fated and filled with foreboding. Like most of Coward’s heroes and heroines, what all of them really want is to be left alone. The worldly types, for instance, want promiscuous hijinks, but on stage, watched by others. In the dramas, these same types turn out to be terribly fragile: they stake everything on a lasting private relationship, and lose. The dramas are oddly personal, but not personal enough. The confrontation scenes thicken suddenly and boil over. What was intended to confound, essentially comforts, becomes touching, a “game.” “You might have been a great writer instead of merely a successful one,” says Carlotta in A Song at Twilight, the most adroit and “confessional” of Coward’s plays, presented two years ago in London, and included in Suite in Three Keys. “And you might also have been a far happier man.” Carlotta is an old flame of Sir Hugo Latymer’s, and she is indicting the “Grand Old Man of Letters” for acts of “moral cowardice,” for masking his homosexuality in his art and camouflaging it in his life:
CARLOTTA: You waved me like a flag to prove a fallacy.
HUGO: What fallacy?
CARLOTTA: That you were normal, that your morals were orderly, that you were, in fact, a “regular guy.”
HUGO: Was that so unpardonable? I was young, ambitious, and already almost a public figure. Was it so base of me to try to show to the world that I was capable of playing the game according to the rules?…
Baudelaire, Huysmans, Wilde, Yeats, James, even Chekhov whose melancholy crew daydream in the provinces—the beginnings of modern art are the beginnings of artifice. The repertory has different accents, different programs, but throughout the underlying disgust or disenchantment with the common world is the same. With Coward, with the age of the entertainer, artifice became another aspect of the world, became, in many respects, the world: de-luxe gossip, journalistic “profundity,” scandal. Coward created his mark, his style, but it was also a creation of the day. His was a talent which could only have worked in a seller’s market. What it had was the fortunate moment, the decisive conjunction between performer and audience. Looking at life as fabulous and heartbreaking, creating always without real reference to himself, without vulgar experience, Coward gave us characters who are not so much worldly wise as “world weary,” who have about them something so sleek as to be a little inhuman, an inhumanity that became best expressed with the cult of “personalities” in public life and the press. In Coward, of course, what you observe is the growth of a “personality,” rather than that of a writer, a sort of glittering stasis. That the career, nevertheless, has been unique and exhilarating, that more than one generation of playwrights (including Osborne and Albee) have taken its lessons to heart, that an “evening’s entertainment” by Noel Coward will be on the boards twenty years from now—who can doubt that?
A note on Oscar Wilde: You cannot imagine what happened to Wilde happening to Coward. Wilde, with his galloping sense of self, an Attila of the drawing-room, kept his heart on ice and his speech on fire. Wilde was a great talker in the sense that one says of another that he was a great lover. He was probably his own best listener, certainly he was his own best observer. “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.” Yeats says “that he was a writer by perversity and accident,” that he was a born leader, “essentially a man of action,” and that he had a “voluminous tenderness.” When a leader wishes to be loved, not feared, there’s trouble. He provokes the contempt of his admirers, for he’s shown himself to be like them after all. Wilde could command a dinner table so long as he was solitary, so long as he had a “solitary vice.” Most people will put up with any fault, if they know it’s not catching. With Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde tempted fate: he took himself seriously first as a lover, then as a libertine. When he began to forget the “pose,” he became impossibly vulnerable. He threw away his mask—like saying “he threw away his life.” Great wits must be thick-skinned like bark. After Reading Gaol, all that was left was De Profundis.
March 14, 1968