In the film about Noël Coward that Adam Low made for Arena in 1998, there is a shot of Arnold Wesker watching a recording of a Royal Court fundraising gala in which Coward is marvellous but clearly miserable as the restaurant owner in an extract from Wesker’s The Kitchen. Less emblematic but equally germane is the story, told in Philip Hoare’s 1995 biography, of Coward’s visit to the Court to see David Storey’s grittily realistic Rugby League play The Changing Room. His attention having been drawn to the male genitalia on display in the bath scene, Coward remarked: ‘13 acorns are not worth the price of admission.’
‘Not worth the price of admission’ was pretty much Coward’s verdict on the playwrights who emerged in the wake of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (Wesker included), and largely their verdict on him. And despite a revival of interest in his early work during the Sixties (‘Dad’s renaissance’, he called it), Coward has been regarded since 1956 as being on the losing side of a struggle between the frothy commercialism of mid-century British theatre and a renewal of stern theatrical didacticism which saw itself as descending not from Coward and Wilde but from Brecht and Shaw.
Well, how things change. Last year’s centenary of Brecht’s birth was marked in London by a single revival at the Almeida. Thus far, it looks as though the 50th anniversary of Shaw’s death next year will be celebrated in the capital by the fag end of a National Theatre tour of Widowers’ Houses. Coward’s centenary, on the other hand, has seen new productions of Private Lives at the National, Hay Fever at the Savoy and Song at Twilight at the Gielgud – as well as revivals of Present Laughter at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Nude with Violin at the Manchester Royal Exchange, Easy Virtue at Chichester, Cavalcade at the Glasgow Citizens and Waiting in the Wings on Broadway with Lauren Bacall. And while much of the centenary publishing has just been recladding (both Methuen and Samuel French have produced handsome new editions), there has also been a collected lyrics, a book of quotations and three extra volumes of stage work from Methuen, including several plays and many short pieces long out of print or never published before. Only the BBC has failed to rise to the challenge: issuing a box set of two videos containing a miscast Seventies production of Private Lives and, rather than Adam Low’s enlightening 1998 Arena, a pedestrian 1983 ‘biographical film’ by Laurence Rees, which at £26.99 is not only not worth the price of admission, but not worth the bother of removing the cellophane.
There have been a number of explanations as to why Dad’s second renaissance feels more like a restoration. The first is that the original rejection was based on an underestimation of his seriousness: according to the present-day Guardian critic Michael Billington, Coward’s exploration of ‘the thin dividing line between sex and savagery’ in Private Lives puts him on a par with Strindberg. A rather different reassessment is provided by Dan Rebellato, whose revisionist deconstruction of the Osborne revolution has a photograph of Blithe Spirit on the cover. Mindful of Coward’s 1961 plea to the self-expressive young playwrights of the Royal Court school to ‘consider the public’, Rebellato charts the ways in which the post-’56 Court disempowered the audience, from the abolition of the writer’s curtain call (at which the audience could boo) to the introduction of the authorial programme note and press interview (read in respectful silence). The greatest change of the Eighties and Nineties in the theatre – as in British culture as a whole – has been a shift of power from the producer to the consumer: it’s no surprise that audiences have flocked back to a playwright whose stated purpose was to give them a good time.
Rebellato’s most provocative thesis is that the Royal Court’s mission was to challenge a theatrical culture unhealthily dominated by gay men. At their first meeting, the theatre’s director, George Devine, told John Osborne that ‘the blight of buggery ... could be kept down decently by a direct appeal to seriousness and good intentions from his own crack corps of heterosexual writers, directors and actors.’ In this analysis, what happened in 1956 was not so much a revolution against the establishment as an Arts Council-promoted counterrevolution against ‘the linguistic perversity of a homosexuality which seemed on the point of constituting itself as an oppositional subculture, destabilising the vital unities which seemed the foundation of a strong national identity’. But by attacking the ambiguity, private language, encoding and subtexts inherent in a culture that could not speak its name, Rebellato argues, the Royal Court roundheads were in fact attacking the sources of the theatricality of mid-century drama.
Coward’s own plays are good examples. Semi-Monde (1926) presents gay and lesbian relationships as part of its dance of shifting sexual liaisons in the public rooms of a Paris hotel; Song at Twilight (1965) is about a writer confronted by his homosexual past. But Semi-Monde was not performed in Coward’s lifetime (and is published for the first time in Collected Plays: Six) and Song at Twilight was premiered in the dying days of theatre censorship. In between, Rebellato argues, gay relationships and gayness itself appear in heavy disguise, and can only now – when overtly gay writing is blossoming – come out and into their own.
But while the reassertion of audience power, a new sense of Coward’s seriousness and a restoration of theatricality endorsed by an impeccably progressive political cause have all clearly contributed to the extraordinary revival in his fortunes as a playwright, the plays themselves tell a separate if parallel story. By elevating form over content, his best work provides a bridge between a great dramatic genre in its dotage and the Modernist experiments of the postwar years.
This can be seen most clearly by comparing Coward’s major and minor work. Most of his contemporary plays are either comedies of manners or episodic plays about the events of his time. The first are generally considered good (all the revivals bar one are drawn from this group); the second problematic.
Coward didn’t like propaganda in the theatre ‘unless it is disguised so brilliantly that the audience mistakes it for entertainment’. Yet Cavalcade and This Happy Breed are both conservative propaganda plays written in the Brechtian epic manner: the scenes are set at a number of key moments over a period of 30 and 20 years respectively in which the lives of fictional families are affected by major political events. ‘Peace in Our Time’, now republished in Collected Plays: Seven, is written to the same formula, but is set in a fictional (and when Coward wrote it in 1947, immediate) past in which Britain had lost the war and been occupied by the Nazis. Here, the group affected is not a family but the regulars of a London pub, and as the play covers only five years the gaps are shorter. But the fundamental dramaturgical challenges remain the same, and, surprisingly for someone of such structural virtuosity, Coward never really gets on top of them. In This Happy Breed, a number of scenes consist entirely of characters telling each other what they already know as a way of explaining to the audience what happened during the scene change. Similarly, in Cavalcade, the ooh-er revelation that the hitherto unspecified ocean liner is the Titanic is anticipated none too subtly by the line ‘It’s too big, the Atlantic, isn’t it?’ In ‘Peace in Our Time’, the action stops for a series of six set-piece discussions about why Britain lost the war, the nature of patriotism, the efficacy of democracy and the need to resist, only one of which – the last – is relevant to the current choices faced by the characters.
The most telling problem with Coward’s political plays, however, is the talk. By and large, his best dialogue consists either of insiders speaking in inverted commas to outsiders who don’t understand them, or two insiders playing off each other, picking up each others’ phrases, coding and recoding them, then batting them back. In the political plays, the conversation is generally between outsiders so none of this happens. True, characters take up words and phrases used by other characters, but nothing is coded and the phrases don’t travel. This is not because Coward is writing about people of a different class: Cavalcade is largely about toffs and their dialogue is as leadenly literal as that of the lowlife. And Coward demonstrates time and again in his sketches that he can write effective and funny working-class dialogue: the new Methuen volume includes a marvellous parody of the second act of Private Lives in which Amanda and Elyot’s jagged banter is rewritten for the ‘poorer and less cultured’ Fred and Floss, who retain all of the original’s interactive energy, in considerably fewer words.
What is absent from the political plays is that organic relationship between the elements – within and between lines, scenes and acts – which makes Coward’s best plays work, and which defines his art in relation to those who preceded and followed him. In 1977, Kenneth Tynan claimed that The Young Idea (written in 1921, and sadly not republished this year) ‘contains the first line that distinguished Coward from all his predecessors in English comedy: “I lent that woman the top of my thermos flask and she never returned it. She’s shallow, that’s what she is, shallow.” ’ Tynan was referring to a self-conscious, knowing wit in which insider speaks to insider (on the stage and in the audience). But this self-consciousness goes far beyond the individual line: it is Coward’s answer to the challenge that the 20th century posed to traditional theatrical comedy.
From the 5th century BC until the end of the 19th century, the plot of the vast majority of comedies consisted of a young man and a young woman overcoming parental objections to their relationship and getting married. After the immense social changes of the Victorian era, however, this model no longer had the same dominant contemporary relevance. As often happens at the point when something petrifies, it assumed its most perfect form in The Importance of Being Earnest. From then until after World War Two, comedy had either to rejuvenate other forms (as Jarry and Brecht did in different ways by going back to the folk tale), or to do something new with what was already there.
Bernard Shaw’s answer to this problem was to take the old format and reverse it: faced with parental obstacles, his young people simply defy them, or, more often, one of the two abandons the game, usually for ideological feminist reasons. Although not a feminist, Coward, too, starts out by taking the old structure and upending it: in The Young Idea, The Vortex (1923) and Hay Fever (1924), it’s the parents who behave irresponsibly and the children who complain. But then, suddenly, in the comedies but not the political plays, Mum and Dad disappear.
From Private Lives (1929) onwards, Coward presents a different obstacle for his orphaned couples to overcome: instead of being external and parental, it’s within the couples themselves. Elyot and Amanda’s problem is each other. There is a financial issue in Design for Living (1932), and a parent-figure in Gilda’s outsider husband Ernest, but essentially the contest is between a ménage and its trois. In the later comedies the hero juggles the delights of sex as against solitude: in Present Laughter (1934) he prefers his women absent, and in Blithe Spirit (1941) wishes they were dead.
Coward doesn’t dramatise these conflicts by means of great psychological insights – the issues that pull Amanda and Elyot apart in the second act of Private Lives are the typical ones of ex-lovers: sex, drink and the loudness of the gramophone. The real originality lies in the dramaturgy. Whatever Tynan meant, I think that what Coward does for the first time here is to convey meaning entirely by manipulating our expectations of what happens in the theatre.
In the last scene of Coward’s short play Still Life (later reworked as the film Brief Encounter) we are led to expect a great parting scene between the adulterous lovers, but are denied it by the unexpected appearance of a third party. This is a great theatrical idea, but it is also and primarily something that happens in real life (Chekhov uses the climactic romantic moment that goes phut in both The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard). On the other hand, the fact that neither of the central characters says a word for the last three pages of Private Lives relies entirely for its effect on the fact that it takes place in a play. In the 1924 sketch Class, a couple of nobs improbably located in ‘a squalid room in the East End’ confront the crisis of their daughter’s living in sin. The fact that this is immediately followed by an ’ow’s-yer-father Cockney family facing the same problem in ‘a beautifully furnished dining-room in Mayfair’, makes an argument about the equivalence of family attitudes across classes that relies on the essentially theatrical device of placing them one after the other. In the second act of Design for Living, Coward draws our attention to the only scene between the two male sides of the play’s triangle by the simple device of creating and then denying an expectation that the woman is going to appear. This is satisfying not as an observation of life but as a shared acknowledgment between playwright and audience that the meaning of the play is contained in its geometry: all the possible couple-combinations must be played out to demonstrate their incompleteness before the essentially triangular fullness of their relationship is presented to the audience. As Peter Holland points out in English Comedy (1994), such relationships are notoriously hard to bring into dramatic equilibrium, and Design for Living is perhaps the first play to hold the balance between three sides by pointing them inwards. In the same way, Hay Fever is not just about a game: it is a game. In Act Two, during which every member of the Bliss family enters into a liaison with someone else’s weekend guest, the characters knowingly enact Coward’s dramaturgical mathematics. In Present Laughter the meta-theatricality has gone even further: by having embarrassing female guests shoved through doors into spare rooms in each act, Coward transforms a mechanism into a metaphor; unfortunately, he feels the need to draw further attention to the device by having one character inform another: ‘she feels as if she were in a French farce and is sick to death of it.’
The play that does all this most perfectly is Private Lives. The artificiality of Coward’s project is demonstrated clearly by the binary construction of the first act, in which each conversation within and between the two honeymooning couples on the implausibly adjacent balconies echoes the other one (and is meaningless without it). We learn from the different ways in which the same topics are addressed by newly-wed Elyot with Sybil and by newly-wed Amanda with Victor that the once-wed Elyot and Amanda are people who are happy speaking in code and Sybil and Victor are not. But not only are Amanda and Elyot encoding away, so is the play itself. Of course, playwrights before Coward encoded themes or phrases which they would set up, reiterate, pay off and echo for comic or ironic effect. But no one before Coward had built a play out of them. One example – one of dozens – is the concept of flippancy, which Amanda sets up in Act Two as a call to arms against the puritans. ‘Laugh at them,’ she says. ‘Be flippant ... Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light’: a prediction which is fulfilled when Victor accuses Elyot of flippancy in Act Three, and is delightfully paid off at the climax of the play when Sybil tells Victor that he couldn’t be flippant if he tried. The repetition of the word not only enhances the story, it tells it. In this as his other finest plays, Coward’s plumbing is on the outside.
In his 1925 song ‘Poor Little Rich Girl’, Coward asked what comes after the cocktails and laughter; his own answer, in the final number of Cavalcade, was ‘the 20th-century blues’. His invention of the self-referential as a theatrical technique led on to the time plays of J.B. Priestley, in which the mechanics are even more obviously the message. But Coward also anticipates those playwrights who stretched the form to snapping point, and in doing so created a new dramatic genre. Coward thought Waiting for Godot ridiculous, but a man who wanted his audiences to grasp his meaning from the juggling of theatrical devices should not have spurned a writer who expresses what he wants to say by defying the most basic theatrical convention of all (that something should happen). By doing the same thing twice in different ways in Class, Coward prefigures Godot and Happy Days, as well as Play, in which Beckett does the same thing twice in the same way. It’s no surprise to find that Coward admired Beckett’s leading British disciple: the content of Aston’s huge speech at the end of Act Two of Pinter’s The Caretaker is not Coward-like in content or tone, but its unexpectedness and theatricality is. The Homecoming is about family games, outsiders becoming insiders, and shared and unshared codes. And the reversed time structure of Betrayal addresses a Coward theme through a self-consciously theatrical device, similar to the flash-forward from the Flanders trenches to the England of 1930 which is at the core of Coward’s unperformed anti-war play Post-Mortem (1930).
If Coward was a bridge between traditional and Modernist comedy, why has he come back with such a vengeance now? The reason perhaps is that the genres that have sustained the century (the Western, the whodunnit, the spy thriller and so on) are showing signs of petrification. The bewildering cross-pollination of types of television drama, the increasingly convoluted attempts by writers of romantic comedy to find ever more ingenious ways of postponing the inevitable, the multiplication of each successful movie formula into seemingly uncontrollable chains of sequel and prequel – these are all indications that old genres are failing to speak effectively to the times. Like Coward before them, many of the best new British playwrights are not creating new genres but taking the existing ones and either putting them in inverted commas or turning them inside out. So plays like Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking, Patrick Marber’s Closer and Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life explore disjunction through what happens between scenes rather than within them, and challenge the centrality of the individual in an art form which has traditionally had the individual at its centre.
In this, they are following Shaw and Brecht’s project, but they are using Coward’s techniques. They represent a synthesis of the two traditions that clashed in 1956 – a synthesis which could not have happened without the institutional changes brought about by the Royal Court. Covertly homophobic and misogynistic it may have been, but it was the Court and not the West End which provided a site for the women writers who emerged in the Eighties and many of the young gay male writers who emerged a decade later. And from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America at the beginning of the decade to Ravenhill’s Some Explicit Polaroids at the end of it, contemporary gay writing has been defined not by metatheatrical conjuring, but by a new attempt to synthesise the personal and the political. The ingenious double couplings at the core of both plays demonstrate that these writers have built on discoveries made by Noël Coward about how to write modern comedy.