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Book Review: The Second Noël

A talent to amuse is celebrated

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By JOHN SIMON
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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
later “Jamaica.”

’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
current marriage.

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