“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 to get Coward wrong: we find the elements that appeal to us, and forget the rest. Coward tends to be played as camp these days; the brittleness of his dialogue appeals to our own desire to appear knowingly world-weary. But emphasizing the cold glitter leaves out the delicate feelings—the sentimentality that lurks in the background of the comic plays, and explodes into the foreground in the 1945 film Brief Encounter, based on one of his 1935 Tonight at Eight-thirty sketches, or his patriotic paean In Which We Serve (1942).
Coward’s estimation of his own talent to amuse was itself characterized by a mix of celebration and deprecation. On the one hand, he had the healthy self-regard of talented people who have achieved success through tremendous hard work. (“I am bursting with pride, which is why I have absolutely no vanity.”) Born just before Christmas 1899—hence the given name—to a lower-middle-class Teddington piano salesman and his strong- willed wife, he first stepped on a stage at the age of ten, and throughout his life he was proud to have been in the business of giving pleasure. When he described his five canonical comic masterpieces—Hay Fever (1924), Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1932), Present Laughter (1939), and Blithe Spirit (1941)—as being “important,” it was because they gave “a vast number of people a great deal of pleasure.”
He himself took unabashed pleasure in the success that his ability to amuse had brought him already at a very tender age. He composed that bittersweet lyric for Bitter-Sweet when he wasn’t quite thirty; by then, he’d been an international celebrity for five years, having rocketed to stardom in 1923, at the age of twenty-four, with his sensational cocaine-addiction melodrama The Vortex, which was followed the next year by a solid comic hit in Hay Fever. “The world has treated me very well—but then, I haven’t treated it so badly either.”
Yet Coward’s satisfaction in what he did so abundantly well (and so abundantly: sixty published plays, three hundred published songs, a multivolume autobiography, dozens of short stories, a novel) was balanced by a healthy lack of illusions about the nature of his gift. “I don’t write plays with the idea of giving some great thought to the world,” he wrote on the eve of his sixtieth birthday, “and that isn’t just coy modesty…. If I wanted to write a play with a message, God forbid, it would undoubtedly be a comedy.” “God forbid” reminds you of Coward’s distrust of weighty messages, his fervent belief that amusement could have nuance and substance; and it explains why, even after the rise of John Osborne and the kitchen-sink drama, he went on insisting, with perhaps pardonable shrillness, that the theater must above all amuse, must be what it surely seemed to him in his Edwardian boyhood, “a house of strange enchantment, a temple of dreams.” “Nowadays,” he wrote in his late fifties,
a well constructed play is despised and a light comedy whose only purpose is to amuse is dismissed as “trivial” and “without significance.” Since when has laughter been so insignificant? No merriment apparently must scratch the set, grim patina of these dire times. We must all just sit and wait for death, or hurry it on, according to how we feel. To my mind, one of the most efficacious ways of hurrying it on is to sit in a theatre watching a verbose, humourless, ill-constructed play, acted with turgid intensity, which has received rave notices and is closing on Saturday.
His characterization of what makes a play bad reminds us of what makes his own best work so good: verbal precision and economy (he declared himself “one of the few remaining guardians of the English language”), merriment and humor, elegance of construction, all of them showcased by an acting style that is gossamer, playful, blithe—a technique that easily reflects the many colors that shimmer across the surfaces of his lines. (“The befeathered sheen of a pheasant’s neck” is how Kenneth Tynan described Coward’s dialogue.) A technique, that is to say, that understands that his plays consist of nothing but surfaces—and that takes their superficiality with, of course, the utmost seriousness.
The difficulty of getting just right Coward’s many complexities—the paradoxical ways in which wistfulness can be entwined with glitter, and meaning can exist in surfaces—is all too evident in two new productions. One of them is easy enough to dismiss, since Coward himself dismissed it: the world première of Long Island Sound, a 1947 play whose value even as a curio is, however, marred by a vulgar, tasteless staging. The other is a shiny new production of Private Lives. The fact that the latter manages to make this finest of Coward’s comedies seem verbose, humorless, and ill-constructed—to say nothing of the fact that it has received rave notices on both sides of the Atlantic—indicates how far from Coward we now are, and how fragile his legacy is.
“Fragile” is a very good way to describe Private Lives. Its plot is as thin as any that Coward concocted—the most tenuous of structures on which to hang his mousseline wit. In the first act, Elyot Chase, an elegant young man of “about thirty, quite slim and pleasant-looking,” is honeymooning at a luxe hotel in France with his second wife, Sybil, a pretty blonde of twenty-three. The adjoining suite, of course, turns out to be occupied by Elyot’s firecracker of a first wife, Amanda, who’s honeymooning with her new husband, Victor Prynne. Storming onto the terrace after fights with their respective mates, Elyot and Amanda catch sight of each other; in the course of some verbal sparring realize they’re still mad about each other; and proceed to flee their nice if somewhat conventional new spouses.
The second act, set a few days later in Amanda’s Paris flat, suggests why Elyot and Amanda divorced in the first place: tart-tongued, volatile, inventive, restless, each is the other’s best audience—but who wants to live on stage? The third act, typical of Coward’s finales, is less a resolution than an escape: Victor and Sybil catch up with their wayward mates, growing to loathe each other into the bargain, and during a furious breakfast-time fracas Elyot and Amanda laughingly sneak off together as Victor and Sybil start hammering away at each other. How they will actually live together is of no concern.
Typically, Coward had few illusions about the weightiness of this work, which was written in four frantic days in Shanghai after a vision of his acting partner and beloved friend Gertrude Lawrence “in a white Molyneux dress on a terrace in the South of France” came to him as he readied himself for bed. (He’d promised to write a play for her while he was traveling in the Far East; leaving nothing to chance, Lawrence slipped a photograph of herself into the Cartier desk set that she’d given him as a going-away present.) In the first volume of his autobiography, Present Indicative, which he published at the tender age of thirty-seven, the playwright, with his usual blend of self-deprecation and self-celebration, characterized his creation as “a reasonably well-constructed duologue for two experienced performers…. As a complete play, it leaves a lot to be desired…. From the playwright’s point of view, [it] may or may not be considered interesting, but at any rate, from the point of view of technical acting, it is very interesting indeed.” And again, later: “a shrewd and witty comedy, well-constructed on the whole, but psychologically unstable; however, its entertainment value seemed obvious enough, and its acting opportunities for Gertie and me admirable….”
It’s significant that Coward always rates the work’s “entertainment value” and, particularly, its “acting opportunities” more highly than he does its structural or psychological coherence. The real hero of Coward’s best comedies is, after all, Coward himself; a lot, if not most, of his oeuvre was composed with himself in mind as the male lead. (You’d think that this would alert directors to the fact that an appreciation of Coward’s performance style is likely to be crucial to the success of his plays.) The repeated characterization of his plays as vehicles for interesting acting is one of the many things that distinguish Coward from Oscar Wilde, that other homosexual British master of crisp wit, to whom Coward is often, and for the most part inaccurately, compared. Wilde’s plays are the creations of a playwright; Coward’s are those of a performer. If the former’s work achieves a hermetic perfection of structure that Coward’s never does, it’s because Coward is ultimately more interested in the performance than in the play.
And yet Coward’s shrewd spotlighting of entertainers was more than a matter of giving himself work; it goes to the heart of what his plays are about. If he couldn’t imagine writing plays with a weighty underlying “message,” it was because in his plays, the medium was the message: entertainment, amusement are our weapons against the vagaries of life. “Laugh at everything,” Elyot tells Amanda, as they plot to abandon their brand new spouses. “We’re figures of fun….” In part, this emphasis on laughter and fun reflected the outlook of a well-balanced person who had an agreeably optimistic view of life. (Of his longtime acquaintance Somerset Maugham, Coward wrote that “he believed, rather proudly, I think, that he had no illusions about people but in fact he had one major one and that was that they were no good.”) But the omnipresent self-consciousness about fun and laughter in his work—his characters’ amused awareness of being performers in a delicious play—was also his “message”: his serious response, as a popular entertainer (and no doubt as a homosexual, too) to what Elyot calls “all the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable.”
The sense that Coward’s favorite characters are performers in some way or another is particularly strong in Private Lives. Anomalously among this playwright’s characters, neither Elyot nor Amanda has a career, and yet there is a sense throughout that the core of their enjoyment of each other (when they’re not fighting) is their dramatic and verbal fantasy. They’re writers, or perhaps playwrights, manqués, and they can’t be together for two minutes without launching into a decidedly theatrical playfulness. Snuggling in Amanda’s Paris flat in Act Two, Elyot starts the gramophone and asks Amanda to dance, and they’re immediately off and running:
Elyot: Are you engaged for this dance?
Amanda: Funnily enough I was, but my partner was suddenly taken ill.
Elyot: It’s this damned smallpox epidemic.
Amanda: No, as a matter of fact it was kidney trouble.
Amanda: Is that the Grand Duchess Olga lying under the piano?
Elyot: Yes, her husband died a few weeks ago, you know, on his way back from Pulborough. So sad.
Amanda: What on earth was he doing in Pulborough?
Elyot: Nobody knows exactly, but there have been the usual stories.
By contrast, the perfectly nice Sibyl and Victor have no “usual stories”—the extent of their fantasy is the awful little nicknames they’ve given their new spouses (“Elli” and “Mandy”). It’s this lack of élan that makes them losers in Coward’s eyes; if what distinguishes the exchanges between Amanda and Elyot is the way in which they so readily pick up each others’ cues, what alerts us to the unsuitability of Sibyl and Victor to their respective mates is their flat-footed inability to recognize good cues when they see them. At the beginning of Elyot’s first-act spat with Sibyl—he’s just caught sight of Amanda on the next balcony, and desperately tries to convince his new wife that they should leave the hotel at once—Elyot roars at his uncomprehending young bride that “if there’s one thing in the world that infuriates me, it’s sheer wanton stubbornness.” Then, the characteristic, deliciously deadpan Cowardian gearshift: “I should like to cut off your head with a meat axe.” To which she can only respond, “How dare you talk to me like that, on our honeymoon night.” This is clearly not a marriage made in Coward heaven.
The marriage between Noël Coward and Howard Davies, the director of the new Broadway Private Lives, isn’t so great either. Davies’s problem is that he doesn’t trust Coward’s belief in the fundamental seriousness of play; instead, he just goes for seriousness.
The irony is that Davies’s heart is in the right place. Too often, Private Lives has been the vehicle for some good-natured camping on the part of middle-aged actresses eager for an adorable vehicle. (The last major Broadway revival was in 1992, featuring Joan Collins; before that, it was Elizabeth Taylor, in 1982, and long before that, Tallulah Bankhead, in 1948.) Coward himself deplored this approach to his work. As early as 1949, he expressed dismay at a revival of Fallen Angels (1925) that was done as camp self-parody, and he elsewhere denounced a production of Present Laughter in which the lead role, a famous, Cowardesque actor, was portrayed as being vicious. And a young actress performing Amanda in what she thought was the approved Coward style he dismissed as “too piss-elegant by half.”1
It’s easy to see why he was so annoyed. Such interpretations fail to see that there are feelings in Coward’s work; they miss the side of Coward that the playwright himself cherished as “the romantic quality, tender and alluring,” which Gertrude Lawrence brought to Amanda. They make impossible anything like what Coward’s close friend and biographer Cole Lesley records in his description of Coward’s and Lawrence’s original performance of the play: “They played the balcony scene so magically, lightly, tenderly that one was for those fleeting moments brought near to tears by the underlying vulnerability, the evanescence of their love.”2
But in his quest to get the feeling back into Private Lives, Davies has grossly miscalculated; he fails to understand just where the feelings are. No doubt there was a superficial allure to the idea of reuniting Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman, the stars of the 1987 Dangerous Liaisons that he’d directed, as his Amanda and Elyot: the vicious, big-cat murderousness of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont is a distant ancestor of what Coward’s leads, “biting and scratching like panthers,” do to each other. Yet Davies doesn’t even let his actors have that feline fun, because he’s too busy having them emote—stretching out their lines, and the spaces between them, with long pauses, giving each other burning glances, and in every other way apparently trying to get behind the characters’ witty repartee and excavate their true feelings.
In an interview with The New York Times, Rickman and Duncan reveal why. Davies, who’d never read the play until he got this job, wanted them to say the lines “without any of the usual stuff that comes with Noël Coward”—to “make these people real.” The problem is that there’s nothing “real” about them. In the stagey worlds of Coward’s comedies, the witty repartee isn’t a cover for feelings, as Davies seems to have felt; it is the feelings, or rather the vehicle for expressing them. In their recordings of Private Lives, Coward and Lawrence delight in their dialogue as if it were a tennis match, speaking briskly, each capping the other’s lines; Rickman and Duncan, by contrast, took so much time delivering their volleys that it sometimes seemed as if they were hoping a “message” would pop up in the pauses, if they could only make them big enough.
One result was to throw the play’s delicate dynamics off-kilter: by making Amanda and Elyot comparatively normal (well, neurotically normal), their mates come off looking like morons, whereas they’re just nice people unlucky enough to have drawn too close to the leopards’ cage. (Preparing to revive the play, John Gielgud hoped to find a Sibyl and Victor as nice as Adrianne Allan and Laurence Olivier, who’d created the roles.) What should fascinate us is the leopards: their danger, their beauty, the way they’re lethal to others but necessary to each other. The other result was what must be the longest Private Lives on record: Act One alone took nearly an hour. No wonder people asked Duncan if the play had been rewritten.
Deprived of Coward’s fizzy pacing, Private Lives does just what an early reviewer of the play, for whom it “hardly mov[ed] farther below the surface than a paper boat in a bathtub,” feared it all too easily could do: become “a shapeless, sodden mass.” (That, incidentally, is a good way to describe Louise, the hapless French maid to whom Davies, presumably out of desperation, gives a distracting series of vulgar pratfalls, as if to compensate for the lack of laughs elsewhere.)
Part of the way in which Coward kept his little boats afloat was, in fact, to juxtapose, with giddy hilarity, his characters’ fantasy with soggy everyday “reality” (which is what Davies is interested in). There’s a wonderful moment in the play, during the extended second-act love interlude, when Elyot starts getting frisky and Amanda rebuffs his advances on the grounds that it’s “so soon after dinner.” Angrily, Elyot accuses Amanda of having “no sense of glamour, no sense of glamour at all.” For all its ravishing décor, this Private Lives is devoid of glamour; it’s so suspicious of camp style that it ends up having no style at all. “I see you’re determined to make me serious, whether I like it or not,” Amanda sulks at Victor toward the end of the play. It’s a line Coward might well address to Davies, if only he were here. That he isn’t is all too obvious.
If Davies’s Coward is rather stodgy and Victorish, the world première performance of Long Island Sound, based on an early short story called “What Mad Pursuit?,” reminds you of no one so much as poor, slapstick Louise. After his friends gave a reading of the new farce a cool reception, Coward had the good sense not to try to get it produced. No wonder: the story of a debonair English writer’s hapless visit to a Long Island country house peopled by vulgar American nouveaux riches and their famous friends is all situation and no plot, and—not least because it assigns all the eccentricities to the frenetic Americans in order to make its victimized British hero, Evan Lorrimer, the “good guy”—inverts the normal and usually successful structure of Coward’s best comedies. (The writer’s own home life was surprisingly domestic and, as his longtime companion Graham Payn recalled, “simple“: but that simplicity, like the “reality” that Davies wants, isn’t a fruitful object of Coward’s dramatic sensibility.) Even so, the play surely deserves better than the crude treatment it gets from Scot Alan Evans, whose idea of Coward style is to have men’s faces shoved into women’s bosoms and to allow the actor playing Don Lucas, Evan’s temporary roommate, to flounce around in a dressing gown emitting high-pitched laughs—and giving a nonplussed Evan a kiss on the mouth.
In response to the first production of Private Lives in 1930, Ivor Brown surmised that “within a few years, the student of drama will be sitting in complete bewilderment before the text of Private Lives, wondering what on earth these fellows in 1930 saw in so flimsy a trifle.” Stagings such as Davies’s and Evans’s, alas, produce just that sense of bewilderment. They remind us in an unfortunate way just how much Coward’s texts were fragile armatures for a very specific sensibility, and in the absence of an appreciation for that sensibility, the student of drama cannot be blamed for wondering what everyone saw in Coward—why we thought him so damned amusing.
Assuming, that is, that the student of drama even knows who he is; and how should he? “Even the youngest of us will know, in fifty years’ time, exactly what we mean by ‘a very Noël Coward sort of person,'” Kenneth Tynan confidently predicted in 1953. Fifty years later, I asked a student of mine what he thought “a very Noël Coward person” was. The student, a Princeton undergraduate who’s very involved in campus theatricals as both a performer and writer, cocked his head and gave it some thought. “Wait,” he said. “Noël Coward—weren’t there two of him? And one was a songwriter?” Talk about bittersweet.
June 27, 2002