‘I’m most frightfully sorry but it’s the fucking awful weather!’ It was the monsoon season of 1944 and Noël Coward was flat on his face in the mud in the Burmese jungle. He was there to lift morale and raise funds for the 14th army, which was engaged in a brutal struggle against the Japanese. Known as the ‘forgotten army’, its predicament was all but ignored by the British press. As well as battle wounds and fever, its members were plagued by foot rot, mosquitoes and rain. They weren’t much in the mood for ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’, still less ‘The Stately Homes of England’. Vera Lynn, who was making a simultaneous tour of Burma, was more what they were hoping for. Coward thought the troops uncouth. One audience member commented loudly that ‘he’s a clever bugger but he can’t sing.’ Coward blamed the microphone for making him sound like Donald Duck and the humidity for putting his piano out of tune. But as the tour went on he got into his stride and the reception improved. The conditions did not. He slept in bamboo huts, keeping one eye out for snakes, witnessed the rudimentary medical care available for the wounded and saw men die. On one occasion he performed so close to enemy lines that he had to raise his voice over gunfire, and when the wind changed the smell of rotting corpses was overwhelming. He threw up in a bucket in the wings and went back on.
Courage and determination were as important as a natural wit and a cultivated urbanity in getting Violet Coward’s favourite son from an end of terrace in Teddington to dinner at Sandringham, where he joined the Queen Mother in a rousing chorus of ‘My old man said follow the van’. By then Coward had developed into the figure known to his staff – at his insistence – as the Master. Interviewing him for the Sunday Times in 1969, Hunter Davies wondered if he had really met Coward or just a facsimile. ‘Is there anything under the cool, charming mask?’ A better prepared journalist would have looked at Coward’s work and found the answer:
Miss Hodge: There’s a gentleman to see you. He says he’s from the Evening Standard.
Leo: Show him in …
Mr Birbeck: (shaking hands) I’m from the Standard.
Leo: Yes, I know.
Mr Birbeck: I’ve brought a photographer. I hope you don’t mind? We thought a little study of you in your own home would be novel and interesting.
Leo: (bitterly) I’m sure it would.
Birbeck proceeds to ask Leo, a playwright who has just had another successful West End first night, what his other plays are called, what sports he follows and his views on marriage and ‘the modern girl’, after which Leo reverses the interview process:
Leo: Don’t you ever feel sick inside when you have to ask those questions?
Birbeck: No, why should I?
Leo: Will you do me a very great favour?
Birbeck: What is it?
Leo: Call in your photographer. Photograph me – and leave me alone.
This exchange happens in Act Two of Design for Living (1932), by which time the audience knows that Leo has just proposed to Gilda and that the couple are two sides of a frantic love triangle whose third member, Otto, has been devastated by the latest turn of their merry-go-round relationship. They, in turn, are miserable at his distress. Birbeck has missed the big story and goes away with a picture and a few garbled notes.
Oliver Soden doesn’t make simplistic deductions about Coward’s life and character from his work but, as he points out, the plays contain many direct statements on questions about which later commentators have claimed to be puzzled. So explicit is Design for Living that it was considered unproducible on the London stage in 1933 and was put on in New York instead. The extramarital heterosexual relationships are openly discussed, the homosexual love between Otto and Leo before Gilda arrived strongly implied. ‘I know all about that!’ she says. ‘I came along and spoiled everything!’ Coward’s first success, The Vortex, which was put on at the Everyman Theatre in Hampstead in 1924, is if anything more outspoken in its exploration of sex, drugs and repression. It tells the story of Florence Lancaster, a married woman whose affair with a younger man is ruined when he falls in love with the fiancée of Florence’s cocaine-addicted gay son, Nicky. The dramatic tension is enhanced by Coward’s need to evade the censor’s blue pencil (a threat until the 1968 Theatres Act) so that, as Soden puts it, unspeakable attractions ‘shiver beneath the dialogue’. The original audience would have been perfectly aware of what Florence’s lover means by Nicky’s ‘effeminate type’ and his initial astonishment that ‘that sort of chap’ is engaged to be married. The climax of the play is a confrontation not between the lovers but between mother and son, a spiral of emotion that draws an Oedipal eroticism into the vortex of the title. The play made Coward’s name, its success due in part to what it caught of the ethos of the 1920s as they began to roar with the frenzied, delayed adolescence of a generation whose teenage years had been overshadowed by the First World War. ‘We strain every nerve to keep young,’ Nicky says. ‘We’re all so hectic and nervy.’ ‘It doesn’t matter,’ his fiancée replies. ‘It probably only means we shan’t live so long.’ The dialogue sets the underlying terrors bouncing off a brightly flippant surface, making no judgment. Coward wanted, as Soden puts it, ‘to have his generation and eat it’.
It’s one of the strengths of his study that while keeping its subject in close focus, telling as much of his story as possible in Coward’s own words and those of his friends from diaries, correspondence and interviews, it sets him in historic context. Born on 16 December 1899 and named for the season, Coward belonged to the very last Victorian generation. There had been an older brother, Russell, who died a year earlier from meningitis, and a younger one, Eric, who was fated, like their father, to play a largely non-speaking part in the drama of Noël and Violet’s long and often troubled relationship. What Noël owed his father was his musical talent, which came from his grandfather, a resident organist at the Crystal Palace, via Arthur Coward’s less distinguished career demonstrating harmoniums for the piano makers Metzler & Co. Violet, whose family had greater pretensions to social status than her husband’s but with fewer means to maintain them, was also musical as well as witty and stage-struck. Having lost her first child she kept Noël close to her, often in the more affordable seats of the London theatres. They enjoyed the musical comedies at which the Edwardians excelled, ‘usually featuring plucky heroines – shop girls, chorus girls – who break into high society’, with catchy tunes that Noël could recreate by ear on the piano when they got home. To what extent he ever learned to read music remains unclear. He certainly had no lessons.
The Cowards’ vacillating finances saw them move to Surrey and then to Battersea, at which point Violet read an article in the Daily Mirror about Lila Field and her new London Theatre for Children. She took Noël to audition and Field, German in origin but now with a ‘devastatingly refined’ English accent and ‘foaming with lace’, accepted him. It was one foot on a shaky ladder. His fellow juvenile, Alfred Willmore (later famous in Irish theatre as Micheál Mac Liammóir), remembered Coward as having eyes that were already ‘amused and slightly incredulous’ as well as the clipped diction for which he became famous. He also had a ‘foul temper’, never entirely lost, and he was not yet suave – indeed, he was notably clumsy and accident-prone. He was an inelegant dancer, excluded from the display which the school put on for a visit by Anna Pavlova after having tripped up his fellow student Edris Stannus (who later changed her name to Ninette de Valois). No model student, he wore a false beard to play truant for shoplifting trips.
Coward was determined, however, to be an actor. After various small parts, including a cameo as a mushroom in An Autumn Idyll at the Savoy Theatre, he got his break. For the last Christmas season before the war he was given the part of Slightly, one of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan. Forty years later, Kenneth Tynan wrote of him that ‘in 1913 he was Slightly in Peter Pan, and you might say that he has been wholly in Peter Pan ever since.’ It was not exactly an insult and it had an element of truth. Soden makes something, perhaps rather too much, of the same point. Pan never grows up, but nor is he a child, and this was in some senses true of Coward, who had little formal schooling. By fourteen he was a confirmed smoker and, in his role as Slightly, he was earning more than his father. At the same time, his job depended on his not growing up. The Lost Boys were regularly measured and any who were found to have become too tall were fired on the spot.
The celebration of idyllic childhood that many Edwardians shared in was brought on by an outburst of brilliant fiction, which has since cast an illusionary glow of golden innocence over the years before the First World War. Between the initial stage production of Peter Pan in 1904 and its appearance seven years later in book form, Kenneth Grahame published The Wind in the Willows, Beatrix Potter produced eleven of her most popular illustrated tales, including Jeremy Fisher and The Flopsy Bunnies, and Edith Nesbit, who had more or less invented the children’s adventure story, published The Railway Children. Nesbit’s work was shaped by memories of her unhappy childhood and in her novels the cheerful Bastable children offer readers some compensation for the inadequacies of their own family. Coward never lost his love for her work. When he died, there were two of her books by his bed.
His other formative literary love was also the product of an unhappy childhood, but one bent on revenge rather than consolation. Saki published his astringent collection of short stories, The Chronicles of Clovis, in 1911. They were epigrammatic, politically conservative, witty and brutal. Saki was to be a model as well as an influence on Coward, one he willingly acknowledged. His discovery of the stories came in 1915 via Eva Astley Cooper (‘a kind of Ottoline Morrell of the Midlands’), in whose undistinguished Victorian mansion, Hambleton Hall, he was recuperating from TB. At Hambleton there were house parties to which Mrs Cooper invited noted intellectuals and society figures, enabling Coward to observe at close quarters the manners and morals of the upper classes. Soden describes Hambleton as opening up like a doll’s house for him the upstairs-downstairs world of the moneyed classes, among whom much of his best work would be set. Thus, by 1915, ‘several aspects of his career were slotting, neatly, into place.’ He was also moving in circles where homosexuality was, if not quite in the open, certainly accepted. Hambleton’s regulars included Charles Scott Moncrieff, who introduced Coward to Oscar Wilde’s lover Robbie Ross, through whom he met Siegfried Sassoon. But Coward wasn’t a bohemian or part of any set that could even retrospectively be seen as countercultural. He absorbed many of the ideals of the lower-middle-class Edwardian England in which he grew up and never repudiated them. Patriotic, enthusiastic about the Empire, mistrustful of intellectualism and deferential to the monarchy – if he made fun of these attitudes from time to time, he held them all the same.
Hambleton was a refuge from the Zeppelin raids on London as the war ground on. Saki was killed on the Western Front in 1916, his body never found. The following year, Coward himself was old enough for conscription. His later claim that ‘I was not in the least scarred by the war’ was in one sense true: he never saw action. A combination of mental and physical illness culminating in a complete breakdown meant that his five months and four days in the army involved no actual fighting. His medical discharge on the ground of ‘neurasthenia’ saved him from the Artists Rifles, commonly known by this stage of the war as the Suicide Club, but he was mentally shattered. His jangling nerves resound through The Vortex. Yet the interwar years were his heyday. The passage of time has confirmed that on the whole his most popular work was his best. Private Lives, Hay Fever and Design for Living are almost always in production. The cabaret songs are staples. There were also flops, but through the 1920s and 1930s it was a fairly steady ascent, professional, sexual and social. The critics were with him: ‘the satisfied grunt of the Daily Mail, the abandoned gurgle of the Sunday Times, and the shrill, enthusiastic scream of the Daily Express’ – the ageing diva Judith Bliss can distinguish them all in Hay Fever.
Privately, his progress through the 1920s and what Soden describes as the decade’s ‘cat’s cradles of laissez-faire sexuality and carefree infidelity’ tends, despite his biographer’s best efforts, to become a list of names of forgotten and unexplained socialites, and there are times when the details of productions weigh down the narrative. Coward’s own character emerges as sometimes hard and often selfish. Soden suggests, plausibly, that in pursuing his own interests he simply did what he assumed everyone else did, only without making much effort to cover his tracks. If he ever doubted his sexuality there is no trace of it. He fell in love often and usually unhappily, hating the loss of emotional control, but he made lifelong friendships with men and women to whom he confessed his feelings. The women closest to him – aside from his mother – were Gertrude Lawrence, Marlene Dietrich and the ‘stylish, hot-tempered’ bisexual Gladys Calthrop, whom he met when she sat in the front row of his show at the English Club in Alassio and disrupted the performance with fits of giggles. As in Design for Living, which he wrote for Lynn Fontanne and her husband, Alfred Lunt, and in which he himself played Leo, Coward tended to form triangular relationships, to ‘belong in trios’. He attached himself to couples and in his last years with Graham Payn formed a threesome with Cole Lesley, who had arrived in his life in 1936, graduating from dogsbody to valet to ‘Noël’s Boswell’. Where, if anywhere, the sex happened in these ménages was often hard to tell from the outside, which was no doubt part of their attraction.
It was perhaps this preference for triangles over circles that kept Coward out of the modernist mainstream. His work was not, Soden points out, so different in its themes. Evelyn Waugh’s take on the Bright Young Things, Vile Bodies, was exactly contemporary with Private Lives. Auden and Isherwood made use of revue, music hall and jazz. Virginia Woolf explored bisexuality in her life and work. Woolf did develop a fragile and unlikely friendship with Coward, but she was wrong in her suggestion that, ‘in search of culture’, he thought of Bloomsbury as ‘a kind of place of pilgrimage’ – or if he did he was disappointed. The disdain of the highbrows for what Aldous Huxley, who liked Coward in person, referred to as a talent ‘out of the 6d box at Woolworths’, ‘an omelette without eggs’, bred in its object an understandable resentment. Waugh thought Coward agreeable enough but with ‘no brains’.
Sometimes he retaliated. T.S. Eliot wrote pompously in an essay on drama: ‘I do not suppose for a moment that Mr Coward has ever spent one hour in the study of ethics.’ ‘I do not think that would have helped me,’ Coward replied, ‘but I think it would have done Mr Eliot a lot of good to spend some time in the theatre.’ Many years later, describing a chocolate pudding that had gone wrong, Coward said it was ‘stodgier than Murder in the Cathedral’. Yet there was hypocrisy on both sides. Eliot was thrilled when a critic compared him with Coward, who himself enjoyed all but the last act of The Cocktail Party. Perhaps Coward’s lack of formal education made him self-conscious among intellectuals. He actively hid any hint of his own erudition from the public, despite the fact that he admired Ulysses, went regularly to Stravinsky’s ballets and quoted Shakespeare and Keats. He was also a talented linguist. There was more than a trace of class snobbery in Bloomsbury’s view of Coward and, as social nuance was one of his principal themes, he must have been well aware of it. Even while she was a little ‘in love’ with him, Woolf was vastly amused by his having ‘rescued his whole family who kept boarding houses in Surbiton’. It’s quite possible that this is what he had told her in a pre-emptive double bluff. Having grown up without the social or financial security of the Bloomsburys, Coward depended on popularity with a public whom he knew better than they did. He spurned alignment with any public cause. His comment in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph in 1966 that the law against homosexuality should be repealed because it was ‘stupid, quite barbarous’ was a rare and late statement. The nastiest attack from the intellectuals was by Cyril Connolly in a review of Present Indicative, Coward’s first memoir, published in 1937, in which he was frank about what Soden calls his ‘patchy and undistinguished’ military career. Connolly described it as the ‘shallow’ account of a man who ‘seldom really thought or really lived’. It was a bestseller.
As the 1930s drew to a close Coward, ‘slightly depressed by the activities of Mr Hitler’ and vehemently anti-appeasement, was determined to improve on his record in the last war. He wanted to be taken seriously and to do more than entertain the troops. From 1939 to 1941 he ran British propaganda in Paris and had some success in light espionage and as a goodwill ambassador to the US. Roosevelt liked him, and William Stephenson made use of him in the newly formed SOE, but Churchill was ambivalent about him, as were many MPs and the press. The Daily Mirror’s anxiety that ‘as a representative for democracy he’s like a plate of caviar in a carman’s pull-up’ wasn’t alleviated when he was spotted roller-skating at Rockefeller Centre. The Ministry of Information opened a file on him. Joyce Grenfell, who had known him since childhood, said no more than many people thought when she wrote to her mother that ‘it is definitely a pity that the man who represents this country [during the war] should be famous as a “queer”.’ Given the cultural climate of the time in Europe and America, she was right.
It was as an entertainer, actor and author that Coward made his contribution. His wartime films, Brief Encounter and In Which We Serve, where he appears as the heroic Captain Kinross, were hits. Even the nightmarish tour of Burma, which was complicated further by Coward’s refusal to work under the auspices of the official forces entertainment department, ENSA, since he insisted that he was fund-raising and not entertaining the troops (the latter to some extent true), had its moments. But he never played in life the heroic role he wrote for himself as Kinross. Although he was only in his mid-forties when the war ended, he felt that his time had passed. His world had gone and the new world seemed to agree. His career floundered. He didn’t like the Labour government, the welfare state or postwar rates of income tax, and moved abroad – to Jamaica and later Switzerland – to avoid it all. His father and brother had both died before the war; Gerty Lawrence’s death in 1952 devastated him and two years later came Violet’s. She was 91. Her son could have ‘no complaints and no regrets’, but it was also ‘the saddest moment of my life’.
Then, gradually, for the second time in his life, a postwar world began to recover its spirits and it rediscovered him. In London, he was asked back to the reopened Café de Paris, though he complained of the minimal décor by comparison with Dietrich’s set: ‘For Marlene it’s cloth of gold on the walls and purple marmosets swinging from the chandeliers. But for me – sweet fuck all.’ Nevertheless it went well and in 1955 he accepted an offer to play the Desert Inn in Las Vegas. His performance as a self-satirising American idea of an Englishman was a risk, but it paid off. Frank Sinatra chartered a plane for the first night and brought Lauren Bacall and Judy Garland with him. It was the beginning of a reprise as rousing as the closing number of any stage musical. There had never, Soden says, ‘been a reversal of fortunes quite like it in the history of British theatre’. The myth that Look Back in Anger marked an absolute breach with all that went before has been dispelled over the years. But Soden points out that Coward didn’t merely manage to carry on, he found himself in tune to a surprising degree with the Angry Young Men, the satire boom and the sexually liberated 1960s. He didn’t like postwar England any more than John Osborne did, and he quite liked Look Back in Anger. For his part, Osborne wanted to put on a production of Design for Living, which, like his own play, dramatises a love-hate triangle. Edward Albee got Coward’s work back into print in America and Coward enjoyed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which the amount of screaming and hurling of household objects is no greater than at the end of Private Lives. Soden also sees parallels with Orton: the dark sexual undertow and the delight in playing with the conventions of farce.
Coward even achieved an amicable relationship with Tynan, who was pleasantly surprised to find that Coward’s wit was unrehearsed. They were together when de Gaulle’s death was announced; a journalist asked Coward how he thought the conversation between God and the general would go, to which he replied that it would depend on how good God’s French was. There were limits to his taste for the new. He thought Beckett and Ionesco ridiculous. But his place as what the New Statesman termed a ‘national treasure’ and ‘demonstrably the greatest living English playwright’ was confirmed by the sensational success of Hay Fever on its revival in 1964 at the National Theatre, the first time it had put on a play by a contemporary author.
This late flowering, however merited, was in part a product of its time and what Soden calls the ‘zig-zag’ of eras ‘alternately permissive and intolerant’. Sensing perhaps another zag in the offing, Soden contextualises but makes no attempt to disguise the irony of Coward’s posthumous reputation. Everything that made him risqué between the wars – the sex, the drugs, the scepticism about conventional family structures – is perfectly acceptable now, while his saving graces in his own day, patriotism, deference and a certain casual racism, never shown in his behaviour but sometimes present in his letters and diaries, are considered suspect. If there were to be a metaphor for his character it would not be a mask but a mirror ball, dozens of facets casting light in opposite directions, all away from the centre. It is a tribute to Soden’s biography that Coward remains to a degree enigmatic. He claimed not to care about his reputational afterlife. Garry Essendine, the actor Coward played in Present Laughter, says the same, adding that he is, if anything, only too concerned with success in the present.
Coward was thrilled by his renaissance. He bought a Mercedes and finally got the longed-for knighthood. His last years, blighted by the effects of half a century of chain-smoking, were unproductive but not unhappy. His character was seen to soften. Cecil Beaton told him that he had got ‘nicer and nicer’ without ‘losing any of your pepper’, and he was lavishly generous to friends. He died in 1973 and was buried in Jamaica.
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