Twice I saw Noël Coward in the flesh, during his last couple of years: once at the National Film Theatre, being interviewed; and once at a Midnight Matinée at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.
His answers to questions in the National Film Theatre interview were simple and accurate and lucid—on the page they would look like nothing at all. But as spoken by him, in those infinitely imitated clipped tones, they elicited gales of laughter from the audience.
At the Midnight Matinée, he walked down the aisle, past my seat in the stalls, until he was stopped by another venerable member of the profession, who cried out, “Darling Noël! How are you?”
“Dying,” Coward replied, with a perfectly judged downward inflection, and walked briskly on.
He was, too. Just in time, really: his world, and most particularly his world of theater, was, to his dismay, rapidly disappearing.
Ironically, at the time of Coward’s death he was enjoying an ongoing revival of interest in his early work, which had started with the appearance, at a small theater club in North London, of a production of his 1930 masterpiece, Private Lives, continued with a stupendously cast production of the even earlier Hay Fever at Laurence Olivier’s newly established National Theatre, and another, in the West End, of his still shocking Design for Living (1933).
Soon there were revivals of his wartime plays Blithe Spirit, Present Laughter, and This Happy Breed. Coward’s postwar work, however, had seldom been successful and was never revived; nothing that he wrote in the last 25 years of his life—plays and musicals galore—proved to have any staying power.
Coward’s fall from grace as a writer was long drawn out and very public, accompanied by a spirited rearguard attempt on his part to discredit the new school of theater, which he perceived to be reducing to rubble everything he stood for.
This sour and censorious Coward, this querulous Coward, is much in evidence in Barry Day’s Noël Coward on (and in) Theatre, a thorough, useful, and handsomely produced compendium of his extensive writing on the medium through which he most frequently and most effectively expressed himself.
Coward explored the possibilities of theater with fanatical thoroughness, writing plays from boyhood and taking in across the course of his long working life revue, musical theater, operetta, ballet, and even, surprisingly but triumphantly, historical epic, in the form of Cavalcade, his 1931 account of British life in the first 30 years of the 20th century.
Throughout his career, and notwithstanding this engagement with history, Coward strenuously insisted that the purpose of the theater was fundamentally to entertain. The words of his song “If Love Were All” have often been thought to be autobiographical:
I believe that, since my life began,
The most I’ve had is just a talent to amuse,
If love were all!
Again and again in Day’s pages, Coward tells us that theater is not a place for ideas, for probing motive, for engaging with the dark or the barely understood in human life—it is diversion, pure and simple. And, indeed, this may be true of his postwar output.
But until then, whether intentionally or not, he had created a series of theater pieces which are crackling and surging with wildness and irresistible urges which seem to well up out of the subconscious, examining, in Private Lives, for example, the borderline between lust and violence, or, in Design for Living (perhaps his masterpiece), the profound complexities of friendship tipping over into sexual desire.
Again and again, Coward tells us that theater is not a place for ideas—it is diversion, pure and simple.
At least three of Coward’s leading characters—Elyot Chase in Private Lives, Garry Essendine in Present Laughter, and Charles Condomine in Blithe Spirit—are on the brink of or actually undergoing nervous breakdowns. Coward himself underwent three full-scale mental collapses and was prone to overwhelming sexual infatuations which deeply damaged both him and the object of his desire, all of which was very much at odds with his carefully cultivated public image of stiff-upper-lipped control and command.
Along with this sense of barely controllable inner life is—to use a phrase of which he would heartily disapprove—an acute sense of Weltschmerz, trenchantly expressed in his song lyrics of the 1920s: “Cocktails and laughter / But what comes after? / Nobody knows”; “Dance, dance, dance, little lady / So obsessed with second best / No rest you’ll ever find.”
All this is summarized in Cavalcade’s great torch song, “Twentieth Century Blues”:
Nothing to win or to lose,
It’s getting me down.
Escape those dreary
Day’s compendium is largely content to take Coward at his own valuation. It tends to repetitiveness—sometimes literally using the same paragraph more than once—and there is rather too much recourse to the term “the Master,” which cannot but feel slightly creepy.
Coward’s militantly middlebrow attitudes are approvingly repeated (“There has never yet been composed a piece of classical music that was not too long”), and we quickly tire of his opinions about acting. He had sensible things to say about it, of course, but they were not of limitless profundity. Over and over again, we are reminded of Coward’s belief in the value of learning lines accurately before rehearsals, the importance of considering the audience and cooperating with one’s fellow actors, the inadvisability of bumping into the furniture.
Coward was deeply suspicious of any analysis of his work: “They—the Critics—search busily behind the simplest of my phrases, like old ladies peering under the bed for burglars, and are not content until they have unearthed some definite, and usually quite inaccurate, reason for my saying this or that.” The truth is that he barely knew himself.
Philip Hoare’s still unsurpassed 1995 biography is a revelation of a complex and often inspired artist stranded by history. Coward was not a great actor, but a performer of genius, a world-beating personality, and a restless explorer of his medium. His tragedy was that the war destroyed the conventional bourgeois world which he had so ruthlessly satirized and provoked.
In his later years Coward became the articulator of the theatrically disenfranchised middle classes and in doing so lost his unique voice. But what he wrote before then will survive as long as we have a theater.
Simon Callow is an actor and director, and the author of several books, including an acclaimed three-volume biography of Orson Welles