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