Watching himself go by
- Plays by Noël Coward
Eyre Methuen, 358 pp, £5.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 413 46050 9
Noël Coward never believed he had just a talent to amuse. A man who spent a lifetime merchandising his de-luxe persona, Coward liked to make a distinction between accomplishment and vanity: ‘I’m bursting with pride, which is why I have no vanity.’ A performer’s job is to be sensational; and in his songs, plays and public performances, Coward lived up to the responsibility of making a proper spectacle of himself. His peers had difficulty in fathoming this phenomenon. T.E. Lawrence thought Coward had ‘a hasty kind of genius’. Sean O’Casey spat spiders at the mention of his name: ‘Coward hasn’t yet even shaken a baby-rattle of life in the face of one watching audience.’ J.B. Priestley, as late as 1964, taxed him mischievously: ‘What is all this nonsense about being called the Master?’ Shaw, who prophesied success for the fledgling playwright in 1921, warned him ‘never to fall into an essential breach of good manners’. He didn’t.
Vol. 3 No. 1 · 22 January 1981
SIR: John Lahr is the only critic I can recall having shared a New York schoolroom with in 1948, and on Orton and Pinter I reckon him just about unbeatable. His Coward piece (LRB, 4 December 1980) is, however, destroyed by a number of major and minor inaccuracies which I’d like to get corrected before they end up in anybody’s files for ever.
Shaw didn’t just ‘prophesy success’ for Coward in 1921: he mainly noted – in fact in 1919 – that if Coward was to succeed it would have to be by not imitating G.B.S. the way he was then doing. ‘Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans’ wasn’t ‘wicked pleading’ but an icy and irate reply to the Appeasers. ‘Red Peppers’ had nothing at all to do with Coward’s theatrical past, one never spent in music-halls. He didn’t call himself ‘Destiny’s Tot’, Aleck Woollcott did. Neither Cavalcade nor Happy Breed were in tune with their political times, as can be seen if you consider the dates when they were written rather than those Lahr gives, which are those of first London production. The time-scale given by Coward (and Lahr) for the writing of his plays actually only reflects the rate of his typing: plays were constructed line by line in his head over a long period of months rather than weeks. The character in Present Laughter who gives us most of Coward’s own philosophy is indeed Garry Essendine, but only in the scenes where he’s up against the playwright Roland Maule, none of which are quoted by Lahr. Semi-Monde was a rapid attempt to cash in on Vicky Baum’s success with Grand Hotel: the true key to Coward’s attitude to homosexuality is only really in Song at Twilight. Hands Across the Sea was a Mountbatten parody, no more, no less. Tynan’s point about the link to Pinter was not so much to do with ‘elliptical patter’ as the notion that an audience for the first time with Coward accepted that what a character said to them from the stage was not necessarily what they were expected to hear.
Coward spent a lot of his lifetime trying to correct the misapprehensions of journalists, and it is a little sad that so many should linger on (the misapprehensions, not the journalists). It would be only fair to add that some of what Mr Lahr says is absolutely right, not least the notion of Coward as an impresario of himself.
John Lahr writes: I apologise for attributing to Coward one of the few good phrases Alexander Woollcott ever wrote. But Shaw’s letter, of which only 1½ of 20 lines refer to Coward’s imitating him, was written on 27 June 1921 (Cole Lesley, Remembered Laughter, p. 57). ‘Don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans’ – as its title shows – is a cod plea; and, in fact, Sheridan Morley in his Noël Coward and His Friends (p. 140) uses the word ‘plea’ to explain how the satire partially backfired when it was first aired. Coward, who wrote and worked in revues from 1921 to 1945, was also a song-and-dance man and certainly knew the backstage world of ‘Red Peppers’. He also knew he was Garry Essendine in Present Laughter. ‘Of course Garry Essendine is me,’ he told Edgar Lustgarten on the BBC in February 1972. Both Cavalcade (written 1930-1) and This Happy Breed (written 1939) rode the waves of the patriotic sentiment of their day straight to the bank. Cavalcade opened on the day Great Britain came off the gold standard. At his curtain speech, as Coward reports in Present Indicative, he said: ‘ “I hope this play has made you feel, in spite of the troublous times we live in, it is still pretty exciting to be British.” This brought a violent outburst of cheering …’ Ditto This Happy Breed, performed in 1942, which expounded deeply held patriotic feelings that existed throughout the war years: ‘We ’aven’t lived and died and struggled all these hundreds of years to get decency and justice and freedom without being prepared to fight fifty wars if need be – to keep ’em.’ Coward, who enjoyed documenting his hard work, insisted up to the end that his best playwrighting was a spontaneous eruption of ideas whose time had come. Blithe Spirit, for instance: ‘It was not meticulously constructed in advance and only one day elapsed between its original conception and the moment I sat down to write it. It fell in to my mind and on to the manuscript. Six weeks later it was produced.’ Morley contends otherwise but offers no proof. Not being a mind-reader, one must take Coward more or less at his word. ‘With a play I go straight on until I’m finished. I do it straight on the typewriter’ (New York Times, February 1951). I think Sheridan Morley’s other points are more a matter of opinion than fact. If the readers agree with him, I hope they’ll forgive me. If they agree with me, I hope they’ll forgive him. The day Sheridan and I see eye to eye on theatre, gallstones will be jewellery.
Vol. 3 No. 5 · 19 March 1981
SIR: It was welcome to have a discussion of Coward the dramatist in John Lahr’s article (LRB, 4 December 1980), but I wonder if his lively account of Coward’s stylish frivolity takes us far enough. Sheridan Morley’s comments (Letters, 22 January) resemble the corrective touches on the helm of a seasoned shipmaster not yet satisfied with a new helmsman’s skill. But he fails to note a misquotation (it is the cosmic thingummys that fuse at the same moment in Private Lives) and then suddenly sets a spectacular course saying that ‘neither Cavalcade nor Happy Breed were in tune with their political times.’ True, Post-Mortem, the pacifist First World War play, wasn’t (just too late), and that is why Coward, after consulting with Lawrence of Arabia, suppressed it. But as Lahr says, most of Coward’s plays are of their historical moment, Cavalcade and This happy Breed a fortiori.
The Eyre Methuen four-volume edition is not discussed in Lahr’s ‘review’, which seems strange for the edition omits significant plays, even allowing for a future fifth volume of late plays. The Rat Trap and Point Valaine are not included, while the insignificant Conversation Piece is. The text is a facsimile reprint of the Heinemann ‘Play Parade’ edition: a publishing convenience no doubt, but the opportunity was missed to make a number of corrections that have been waiting on the shelf for 40 years.
Caward was a ‘solid gold jazz-baby who later turned into an international glamour-puss’, but he was also a mellowing playwright whose later work shows preoccupation with classical and universal themes such as the effect of time on human relationships, old age and death (Quadrille, Waiting in the wings, Suite in Three keys). Lahr says that Coward does not ‘sport directly with ideas’. On the contrary, he devoted a good deal of energy from early in his career to persuading the public that he had something to say on, for instance, sexual morality (Fallen Angels), the conflicting demands of professional and private lives (The Rat Trap) and feminism (Easy Virtue). He claimed a place, with some justification, as the modernising successor to the tradition of the Edwardian problem play. Other ‘ideas’ he used were religion (The Marquise and Easy Virtue), Freudianism (The Astonished Heart) and a range of social-political values and references in the four ‘matter of Britain’ plays, Post-Mortem, Cavalcade, This Happy Breed, Peace in Our Time.
Homosexuality did get treated on the stage. The Pretty Boys chorus in Bitter Sweet may or may not be a ‘push’, but it is disconcertingly arbitrary in context. By contrast, homosexuality is a central subject in A Song at Twilight, and one is impressed both by the personal frankness of Coward, himself playing the Maugham-like Hugo Latymer and opening the closet door marked ‘skeleton’ before West End audiences in the mid-Sixties, and by the continuity with his youthful avant-garde audacity in presenting current social-moral problems in the theatre.
Eventually even publishers may recognise the chance afforded them by a subject of more than academic interest. As the author of a book on Coward’s plays, I have found a depressing reluctance on the part of dozens of them to take it on. On the other hand, the American response is very different, and reports from academic publishers there indicate that Coward studies are definitely on the map.