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.
SIR: It is perhaps unfortunate that Jacques-Louis David’s erratic passage through the French Revolution should coincide with Professor Hampson’s more specialised knowledge of this period (LRB, 18 December 1980), or indeed that David’s aesthetic intentions and preoccupations should prove in many ways impermeable to a purely political interpretation.
My book, which I would defend only as a general biography of this great painter (and the publishers’ ‘claim’ that it is the first monograph in English is correct), will undoubtedly fall short of the high standards set by the specialist historian. By the same token, I might complain that Professor Hampson’s excellent book on the Enlightenment is short of illustrations.
Courtauld Institute of Art, London W1
SIR: I would have thought that James Joyce deserved, at last, more than being depicted as someone ‘who never joined anything larger than a dinner party in a first-class Parisian restaurant’ (LRB, 20 November 1980). If Mr Sean O’Faolain really believes that art is only ‘magic’ and Joyce never had anything to do with politics, he should have given us more than a couple of ‘trivia’ to prove his point. Besides, it would have been only fair to the reader, and to the author of the book reviewed, to give us at least some information about the content of Joyce’s Politics. We have no way of knowing whether Mr Manganiello has proved his point, but we certainly know that the early reviewers of Dubliners and the Portrait read them as political statements. One of their contemporary critics went as far as to call their author a ‘literary bolshevist’. This might be a trivial example, but it might illustrate – just as Mr Faolain’s grumpy trivia – the danger of dismissing the facts too lightly in the name of magic.
The author of this letter is the editor, with Giorgio Melchiori, of Joyce’s Scritti Italiani (Milan, 1980). Most of the material assembled in this collection is about Irish politics.
SIR: I am grateful to Professor Donald MacRae (Letters, 4 December 1980) for drawing your readers’ attention to an error that appeared in my review of Garry Wills’s Inventing America. The words ‘how closely Hutcheson followed Hume’ should have read ‘how closely Hutcheson followed a line of argument that was to be made familiar by Hume’. The missing words remove the impression that either I or Garry Wills believe that Hume preceded Hutcheson. Unfortunately I had no opportunity to correct the proofs of the review.
Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts
SIR: Presumably it ought to be revisitata (LRB, 4 December 1980).
SIR: For a biography of the American anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901-1978) I would be grateful for the recollections of any of her friends, fellow anthropologists, committee and church associates, students, relatives by birth or marriage, employees and others whose work and lives were influenced by her.
54 Riverside Drive, New York, NY 10024, USA