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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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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 First, In Which We Serve, codirected with David Lean, its screenplay hitherto unpublished.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).

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