The Noël Coward Reader
edited by Barry Day
Knopf, 624 pp., $39.95
The epigraph for The Noël Coward Reader comes from a speech Lord Louis Mountbatten, the British naval hero and aristocratic charmer, made at Coward’s 70th birthday party in 1969. It runs:
There are probably greater painters than Noël, greater novelists than Noël, greater librettists, greater composers of music, greater singers, greater dancers, greater comedians, greater tragedians, greater stage producers, greater film directors, greater cabaret artists, greater TV stars. . . . If there are, they are 14 different people. Only one man combined all 14 different talents—The Master, Noël Coward.
I assume that by comedians and tragedians Mountbatten meant actors rather than writers, in which case why the omission of playwrights? Obvious as it may be, it is what Coward is most known for, and it brings his talents to a rounder number, 15. He was, quite simply, a genius, even if of a breezier sort; but must all geniuses be heavyweights? Wit, charm, and sophistication ought to count for something, too.
Editor Barry Day’s numerous publications include nine Coward items, written, edited, or coedited. Most recently, there was the compilation of letters from and to Coward, which amounted to something pretty much like a biography, what with Day’s cogent comments. Something not dissimilar obtains here, the Coward works supplemented with quotations from the letters, journals, and autobiographies, not to mention Day’s enlightening observations. Coward packed a good deal of living into his nearly 74-year lifespan, and he wrote just about everything from satirical poetry parodies to a ballet scenario. And here, except for those two genres, everything else is represented.
Day has sagely included both the well known and the occasional misses, and never skimps on his rather extensive excerpts. There are entire ample scenes from the plays, and complete short stories that are very nearly novellas. There are little-known poems and essays, and good bits from two remarkable film scenarios. And of course, anecdotes, tributes, and 89 telling photographs of people, posters, programs, and domiciles associated with the man who basked in the nickname “The Master.”
The book smartly reveals Coward as not merely the bard of the affluent chattering classes. Himself born into the lower middle class, he wrote with empathy about all levels of society, for the most part without patronization or sentimentality. The Reader proceeds, decade by decade, more or less chronologically from the fairly uneventful but not ungraceful Early Years. There are occasional flashbacks and flash forwards, but it is gratifying to see a consistency in the oeuvre from precocious to gracefully aging.
Let us start with the stories. “Me and the Girls” is written from the point of view of a bisexual song-and-dance man who, with a small troupe of girl dancers, has been touring internationally. Now he is dying in a
Francophone hospital (in southern France or Switzerland) of an unnamed illness. Periodically visited by one of his girls and checked on by nurses and doctors—one of whom he has a not-entirely-unanswered crush on—he is obsessed also with the mountains on view from the window ignored by him in the past. The stream of consciousness is superbly rendered: bits of memory, bits of hope, bits of melancholy resignation jostling one another.
In a later story, “The Kindness of Mrs. Radcliffe,” a middle-aged, class-conscious upper bourgeoise is patronizing to her dullish husband, smug with her married daughter, and ambivalent about her son-in-law. She is unduly proud of some charity to a beggarwoman in the park and yet ultimately touching rather than repellent even in her self-satisfaction. In “What Mad Pursuit,” a celebrated British novelist (really
Coward himself) is invited by a real-life American socialite-hostess for a Long Island weekend meant to be intimate, but springing on him party after party. Sundry American types plus a titled English lady—well-known figures including, pseudonymously, Grace Moore, Carole Lombard, and
Clifton Webb—are gently mocked, not excluding the novelist. In “Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill,” a story, and in an excerpt from Coward’s only novel, Pomp and Circumstance, we get close looks at British colonials on Samola, a fictitious island colony he frequently evokes. They are viewed both critically and forgivingly, many of them harboring a touching nobility under their humdrum façades.
We come next to the poetry, which Coward always modestly called verse. Light verse it certainly tends to be, but of great charm. Consider this unpublished specimen, “I’ve Got to Go Out and Be Social,” from the 1930s.
I’ve got to go out and be social
I have to forget
The Bohemian set
And discuss with the flower of Burke and Debrett
The fall of the franc and the National Debt,
I have to regret
That the weather is wet
There’s so much that I can’t afford to forget—
As I have to go out and be social.
Or take this, from the much
’Neath tropical palms under tropical skies
Where equally tropical stars are
The vocal Jamaicans betray no surprise
However off-key their guitars are.
The native calypsos which seem to be based
On hot-air-conditioned reflexes
Conclusively prove that to people of taste
There’s nothing so funny as sex is.
It should be noted that there is little, if any, difference between a Coward poem (or verse) and a rhymed Coward song lyric, and that, accordingly, the rhymed ones come off better than the occasional free verse.
The wonderful song lyrics need hardly be reprised here. Many of them have become common knowledge, safely stored in people’s happy memories. They come in four equally effective varieties: guardedly sentimental, as in “Someday I’ll Find You” and “I’ll See You Again,” satirical, as in “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” “I’ve Been to a Marvellous Party,” and “Don’t Let’s Be Beastly to the Germans” (banned for some time by the irony-challenged BBC), just plain sassily charming, as in “A Room With a View,” “Twentieth Century Blues,” and “World Weary,” or encoded, as in “Green Carnation” and “Mad About the Boy,” with hints of Coward’s homosexuality, a subject more openly discussed only much later in the 1965 drama A Suite in Three Keys.
But then, as Coward declared in a famous lyric that became a kind of signature phrase, The most I’ve had is just / A talent to amuse, a delightful bit of false modesty. Coward’s plays do amuse—except the occasional dramas, and even they to an extent—but they are stylish entertainments rather than crass amusements. Private Lives, the most popular and frequently revived one, is about the age-old problem of a couple made for each other but unable to coexist without bickering that is less funny for them than for us in the audience. It is the ultimate in sophistication with its expert balance of the cynical and the sentimental, its repartee and romance. Day gives us plentiful excerpts for a sense of the enchanting whole.
Coward’s own favorite, we are told, was Design for Living, written for
husband-and-wife duo Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne and himself. It is a celebration of the ménage à trois with a special twist: Not only are the two male members, Leo and Otto, in love with Gilda and she with them; they are also enamored of each other. Thus are heterosexual and homosexual urges equally satisfied. Still other major plays are Hay Fever, about the hilarious goings-on at a weekend house party Coward spent at the home of the eccentric actress Laurette Taylor and her bizarre family; also Fallen Angels, about a smooth Frenchman visiting with two British women friends with whom, unbeknown to each other, he had had affairs, but who are now married to suspicious spouses.
No less notable are the nine marvelous one-acters collectively known as Tonight at Eight-Thirty, some of them musicals, originally performed to great success in London and New York by Coward and Gertrude Lawrence. (A tenth one has since been discovered.) They are wonderfully various, subtly mixing drama and comedy, with one of them, Shadow Play, reproduced almost in full. Of lasting interest, too, is Easy Virtue, about an unsuccessful marriage between a naïve youth and an experienced older woman. More humorous and successfully revived is Present Laughter, about a star actor (once again, really Coward) besieged by various women lovers—one married to a close associate—as well as by a weird aspiring playwright, both reverent and impudently exasperating. Also copiously excerpted is the delicious Blithe Spirit, about the ghost of a writer’s ex-wife brought back in a séance by a wonderfully funny medium. Hard to exorcise, she proves a great danger to the writer’s
There is also This Happy Breed, about the heroism of working-class Londoners during World War II, and Peace in Our Time, about what would have happened if the Nazis had been victorious. Nude with Violin is a jolly satire on modern painting; Waiting in the Wings is a Chekhovian tribute to elderly actresses, including two former rival lovers of the same man, ancient enemies now sharing the same old actors’ home. There is the late musical about cruise-ship imbroglios, Sail Away, represented by two of its riotous lyrics, “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?”—There isn’t a rock / Between Bangkok / And the beaches of Hispaniola, / That does not recoil / From suntan oil, / And the gurgle of Coca Cola—and “Useless Useful Phrases,” about a dated Italian phrase book, featuring such things as This mutton is tough, / There’s a mouse in my bedroom, / This isn’t my cabin, / This egg is delicious, / The soup is too thick, / Please bring me a trout, / What an excellent pudding, / Pray hand me my gloves, / I’m going to be sick! We get also the late trilogy Suite in Three Keys, whose longest item, “A Song at Twilight,” touches—reasonably discreetly—on homosexuality. It is partly based on incidents from the lives of Max Beerbohm and Somerset Maugham (“that scaly old crocodile” to Coward when they were no longer friends) as a former mistress visits a famous older writer, seeking, much to his dismay, permission to publish his love letters.
Less important, perhaps, are the last finished play, Star Quality, about a young playwright’s problems with an aging female star, and the unfinished Age Cannot Wither, about three middle-aged women who were “girls together,” and keep meeting once every year to drink and gossip.
A typical exchange:
Stella: Do you really think that when I’m a gnarled old crone of 95 I shall still fuss about my hair?
Judy: Certainly. If you’ve got any left, and if you haven’t, you’ll fuss about your wig.
It is good of Barry Day to excerpt some unsuccessful, or even unproduced, Coward plays. And then there are the two magnificent movies. First, In Which We Serve, codirected with David Lean, its screenplay hitherto unpublished. A superb tribute to the wartime British Navy, it is the story of the torpedoed destroyer HMS Torrin from building to sinking, told in flashbacks from images of its survivors floating in the water.
Gradually, we concentrate on the stories of some of them, one by one. Coward’s performance as Captain Kinross, based on the experiences of a close friend (Lord Mountbatten), is memorably understated but so is the entire stiff-upper-lipped film, in which every part is played by a splendid actor, such as Bernard Miles, John Mills, Michael Wilding, Kay Walsh, Richard Attenborough, and Celia Johnson as Mrs. Kinross. Never has understatement been more moving than in the final scene, where Kinross says good-bye to the surviving half of his crew, up for reassignment. As Day reveals, Coward was recommended by Mountbatten to George VI for a knighthood—which Winston Churchill scotched. (The honor was bestowed only years later, not very long before Coward’s death.)
The other great Coward film, Brief Encounter, an expanded version of his one-act Still Life, remains one of the screen’s sweetest and saddest love stories. With a screenplay by Coward and three talented others, it is the tale of a man and woman, both married, who have short weekly meetings at a commuter railway station before boarding their respective trains. They fall deeply in love, but do not consummate it, and eventually the man, a doctor, leaves for Africa forever. Against an ironic background of mundane palaver by some lively minor characters, or inopportunely pounced upon by officious intruders, the lovers, sublimely enacted by Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, alternate passionate declarations with British restraint and resignation. Rachmaninoff’s music adds romantic support, magisterially directed by David Lean.
Throughout The Noël Coward Reader we get judicious, incisive, and often witty comments by Day, replete with information about Coward’s life in and out of apartments in London, Paris, a Swiss chalet, and two houses in Jamaica, a beach one and a mountain retreat. Also about his travels and performances, including a stint as a kind of secret agent during World War II. I myself witnessed Coward’s last public appearance in New York at (to quote Day) “a special performance of the review Oh, Coward! . . . Marlene [Dietrich] was on his arm, though it was not entirely clear who was supporting whom. Had he enjoyed the show? ‘One does not laugh at one’s own jokes.’ Then he relented. ‘But I did leave humming
the songs.’ ”
Unlike Coward’s physique, his writings aged well. Some youthfully flippant, some maturely mellow or dazzlingly witty, they retain an easeful, evergreen charm. They can ambush you with astonishing shifts from humor to pathos or vice versa and, for all their pirouetting cleverness, feel inspired rather than contrived. The smart song lyrics are matched with no less brilliant melodies, Coward being, like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, equally good with music as with words. Of how many artists can this be said?
John Simon is the author, most recently, of John Simon on Music: Criticism 1979-2005 (Applause Books).