Watching himself go by

John Lahr

  • 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.

A star is his own greatest invention. Coward’s plays and songs were primarily vehicles to launch his elegant persona on the world. In his clipped, bright, confident style, Coward irresistibly combined reserve and high camp. He became the merry-andrew of moderation, warning mothers to keep their daughters off the stage, confiding, in Present Laughter (1942), that sex was ‘vastly overrated’ and wickedly pleading: ‘don’t let’s be beastly to the Germans.’ Coward was a performer who wrote: not a writer who happened to perform. He wrote his svelte, wan good looks into the role of Nicky Lancaster in The Vortex (1924), which made him a sensation both as an actor and as a playwright. He was his own hero and the parts he created for himself were, in general, slices of his legendary life. Leo (Design for Living), Charles Condomine (Blithe Spirit), Hugo Latymer (A Song at Twilight) are all smooth, successful writers. Garry Essendine (Present Laughter), George Pepper (‘Red Peppers’ from Tonight at 8.30) and Elyot Chase, a man of no apparent metier in Private Lives who nonetheless manages a dance and a few songs at the piano, exploited Coward’s theatrical past. Even in the Second World War, when he hoped his writing talent could be put to some serious use, it was his presence that was valued. ‘Go and sing to them while the guns are firing – that’s your job,’ Churchill told him. Coward’s massive output (60 produced plays, over three hundred published songs, plus screenplays, volumes of short stories, autobiography and fiction) contributes to his legend. His work was so successful as an advertisement for himself that Kenneth Tynan, I think rightly, observed: ‘even the youngest of us will know in fifty years’ time what we mean by “a very Noël Coward sort of person”.’

Like all great entertainers, Coward knew how to exploit his moment. In the Thirties Cyril Connolly was complaining that his plays were ‘written in the most topical and perishable way imaginable, the cream in them turns sour overnight.’ Coward liked to call himself ‘Destiny’s Tot’, but he was England’s solid-gold jazz-baby who later turned into an international glamour-puss. He swung with the times and suavely teased them. ‘I am never out of opium dens, cocaine dens, and other evil places. My mind is a mass of corruption,’ he told the Evening standard in 1923. Every newfangled idiom found its way into his dialogue, even if he didn’t always fully grasp its meaning: ‘You’re psychoanalytic neurotics the both of you,’ complains one of the characters in Fallen Angels (1925). The Vortex (1924) exploited the clash between Victorian and modern mores, the old and the young idea. Fallen Angels and Easy Virtue (1926) mined the mother-lode of sex, scandal and pseudosophistication. Cavalcade (1931) and This Happy Breed (1942) spoke directly to the political chauvinism of the day. All these plays had great commercial success and the last two were considered serious patriotic statements about England and her fighting spirit. But Coward was not a thinker (at the mere suggestion O’Casey exclaimed ‘Mother o’God!’). His genius was for style. When his plays aspired to seriousness, the result was always slick (O’Casey compares the sketchy characters in Cavalcade to ‘monograms on a huge blanket’); and when he wrote himself into the role of ardent heterosexual lover (‘Still Life’, which he himself called the ‘most mature’ of the one-act plays in Tonight at 8.30) or ordinary working-class bloke (This Happy Breed), the characterisation is wooden. The master of the comic throw-away becomes too loquacious when he gets serious, and his fine words ring false. Only when Coward is frivolous does he become in any sense profound.

Frivolity, as Coward embodied it, was an act of freedom, of disenchantment. He had been among the first popular entertainers to try to give a shape to his generation’s sense of absence. His frivolity celebrates a metaphysical stalemate, calling it quits with meanings and certainties. ‘We none of us ever mean anything,’ says Sorel Bliss amid the put-ons at the Bliss house-party in Hay Fever (1925). The homosexual’s sense of the capriciousness of life is matched by a capricious style. ‘I think few people are normal really, deep down in their private lives. It all depends on a combination of circumstances. If all the various thing-ummys fuse at the same time ...’: thus Amanda in Private Lives (1930). This high-camp style, of which Coward was the theatrical master, worked as a kind of sympathetic magic to dispel both self-hatred and public scorn. ‘Has it ever struck you that flippancy might cover a very real embarrassment?’ someone asks, again in Private Lives. The most gossamer of his good plays, Private Lives is adamant on the subject of frivolity.

ELYOT: (seriously) You musn’t be serious, my dear one, it’s just what they want.

AMANDA: Who’s they?

ELYOT: All the futile moralists who try to make life unbearable. Laugh at them. Be flippant. Laugh at everything, all their sacred shibboleths. Flippancy brings out the acid in their damned sweetness and light.

AMANDA: If I laugh at everything, I must laugh at us too.

ELYOT: Certainly you must.

In Design for Living (1932), the laughter of the ménage à trois reunited at the finale (‘they groan and weep with laughter; their laughter is still echoing down the walls as the curtain falls’) is frivolity’s refusal to suffer. Even as she leaves her third husband, aptly named Ernest, Gilda, like Elyot Chase, insists that she is not serious. The battle in Coward’s best comedies is not between licence and control, but between gravity and high spirits. At least three times in Private Lives people shout at Elyot (Coward’s role) to be serious. ‘I fail to see what humour there is in incessant trivial flippancy,’ says Victor, sounding like one of Coward’s critics. Like James Agate, for instance, who wrote in the Sunday Times: ‘Mr Coward is credited with the capacity of turning out these highly-polished pieces of writing in an incredibly short time, and if rumour and the illustrated weeklies are to be believed, he writes his plays in a flowered dressing-gown and before breakfast. But what I want to know is what kind of work he intends to do after breakfast, when he is clothed and in his right mind.’ Elyot, Coward’s spokesman, lives in the world of appearances, the world of the moment, and he celebrates it: ‘Let’s be superficial and pity the poor philosophers. Let’s blow trumpets and squeakers, and enjoy the party as much as we can, like very small, quite idiotic schoolchildren. Let’s savour the delight of the moment ...’

Coward’s best work follows, more or less, this recipe for chaos. His reputation as a playwright rests on Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Present Laughter, Blithe Spirit (1941) and the brilliant cameo Hands Across the Sea (1936). In all these comedies of bad manners, the characters are grown-up adolescents. There is no family life to speak of, no children, no commitment except to pleasure. The characters do no real work; and money, in a time of world depression, hunger-marches and war, is taken for granted. Monsters of vanity and selfishness, they appeal to the audience because their frivolity has a kind of stoic dignity. Written fast and in full, confident flow (Hay Fever – five days; Private Lives – four days; Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit – six days), Coward’s best work has the aggressive edge of his high spirits (even his bookplates show him winking). And when, in the Fifties, his plays no longer found favour, he took frivolity’s message to the public in person as a cabaret turn, brilliantly mocking his audiences’ appetite for anxiety with such mischievous songs as ‘Why must the show go on?’ and ‘There are bad times just around the corner’:

With a scowl and a frown
We’ll keep our peckers down
And prepare for depression and doom and dread.
We’re going to un pack our troubles from our old kit bag
And wait until we drop down dead ...

‘It’s all a question of masks,’ explains Leo in Design for Living. ‘Brittle, painted masks. We all wear them as a form of protection; modern life forces us to.’ But Coward’s acute awareness (and insistence) on the performing self comes out of a homosexual world where disguise is crucial for survival.

In Present Laughter, Garry Essendine (a successful actor and another Coward star turn) is trapped in his performance. ‘I’m always acting – watching myself go by – that’s what’s so horrible – I see myself all the time, eating, drinking, loving, suffering – sometimes I think I’m going mad.’ Essendine is another of Coward’s irresistible heterosexual postures: ‘Everyone worships me, it’s nauseating.’ Garry is fantastically successful – and success can be the most effective mask of all. The jokes in the play belie concerns of a different nature. Although elsewhere Coward sang about following his secret heart and being mad about the boy, he didn’t push it on stage. His plays tread cautiously around his deeper meanings. The comedies hurry the audience past issues which the dialogue tries tentatively to raise.

Only in Semi-Monde (unpublished, 1929) does Coward find a successful metaphor for the sexual complications thai lie behind his posturing. Semi-Monde is easily the most visually daring of his comedies, and the most intellectually startling. Set in a swank Paris hotel lobby and bar over the years 1924-1926, with dozens of lovers continually making their predatory exits and entrances, Semi-Monde is made up of sexually mischievous tableaux vivants and gets much nearer the homosexual knuckle than Coward’s public image allowed. The play was never produced in Coward’s lifetime, and is also omitted from Eyre Methuen’s four-volume edition of his work. In Semi-Monde Coward’s camp sensibility has a field-day. ‘My dear – where did you find that?’ says Albert to Beverley of his travelling companion, Cyril. ‘It’s divine.’ And when Beverley goes to buy Vanity Fair at the newsstand, Albert pipes up: ‘Do get La Vie Parisienne, it’s so defiantly normal.’ In this play, where everyone is on the make, there is no need for Coward’s statements about role-playing, the transience of relationships, the need to be light-hearted – his usual comic hobby-horses – because here the game is shown in action. ‘I’m going to be awfully true to you,’ says Tanis to her husband Owen on their honeymoon in 1924. ‘I’ve got a tremendous ideal about it.’ But by the third act (1926) she is having an affair with a successful writer, Jerome Kennedy. Owen is smitten by Kennedy’s daughter, Norma. It is to the writer, as usual, that Coward allows a few closing moments of articulate disgust: ‘We’re all silly animals,’ he says, when the affair is finally out in the open, ‘gratifying our beastly desires, covering them with a veneeer of decency and good behaviour. Lies ... lies ... complete rottenness ...’ But Jerome, like the others, can’t and won’t change. ‘There’s nothing to be done, you know – nothing at all.’ The only thing left is to put on a good show.

Coward’s most vivacious playwrighting is about what Preston Sturges liked to call ‘Topic A’. Yet his official theatrical line on sex is not to laugh the issues off the stage, but to treat them with distant superiority. As Garry Essendine admits in Present Laughter, ‘I enjoy it for what it’s worth and fully intend to do so for as long as anybody’s interested and when the time comes that they’re not, I shall be perfectly content to settle down with an apple and a good book.’ Coward’s wit fights no battles in his plays except to endear him to his public. ‘Consider the public’ were his first words of advice to the New Wave in 1961. ‘Treat it with tact and courtesy. Never fear or despise it ... Never, never, never bore the living hell out of it.’ Coward’s laughter is always reassuring, which is why it is still commercial.

Coward has an immense reputation for wit, but unlike the rest of the high-camp brotherhood, Wilde, Firbank and Orton, he rarely essays epigrams, or sports directly with ideas in his plays. Such famous Cowardisms as ‘Very flat, Norfolk,’ ‘Don’t quibble, Sybil,’ ‘Certain women should be struck regularly like gongs’ have the delightful silliness of an agile mind which was never as bold on stage as it was in life. ‘Dear 338171,’ Coward wrote to the shy T.E. Lawrence in the RAF. ‘May I call you 338?’ Not are Coward’s theatrical putdowns (‘AMANDA: Heaven preserve me from nice women. SYBIL: Your reputation will do that’) as bitchy as some of the real-life improvisations like ‘Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow.’

Where Coward’s humour is incomparable is in his chronicling of the strut and swagger of certain society ladies.

It was in the fresh air
And we went as we were
And we stayed as we were
Which was Hell ...

It was not the situations of English life (except for Blithe Spirit his comedies have no substantial plots), but the sound of it, that interested Coward. When, in Hay Fever, Sorel Bliss admits to his mother that he hasn’t washed, Judith says: ‘You should darling, really. It’s so bad for your skin to leave things about on it.’ Coward loves such fluting vagueness and he has left modern theatre a number of cunning pen portraits of this endangered species. In Hands Across the Sea, Claire is faced with the unexpected arrival of two colonials with whom she once stayed while travelling in the Far East. Her own breathless social whirl makes it impossible for her ever to get to know them:

CLAIRE: (at telephone) No, I really couldn’t face it – yes, if I were likely to go to India I’d come, but I’m not likely to go to India – I think Rajahs bumble up a house-party so terribly – yes, I know he’s different, but the other one’s awful – Angela had an agonising time with him – all the dining-room chairs had to be changed because they were leather and his religion prevented him sitting on them ...

In his memorial to Coward, Kenneth Tynan remarked that Coward ‘took the fat off English comic dialogue’. Tynan tried to float the notion that the elliptical patter characteristic of Harold Pinter’s plays originated in Noël Coward’s. In support, he quoted a line from Shadow Play (1935): ‘Small talk, a lot of small talk, with other thoughts going on behind.’ But Coward’s characters live nervily on the surface of life, and say pretty much what they mean. The reticence in the comedies comes not from the characters holding back, but from the author. He defended his artifice to the end. ‘Equally bigoted,’ he wrote in his diatribe against the New Wave, ‘is the assumption that reasonably educated people who behave with restraint are necessarily “clipped”, “arid”, “bloodless” and “unreal”.’

Tynan called Coward ‘a virtuoso of linguistic nuance’. But it is a disservice to the splendid energy Coward gave to his half-century to put him so elegantly on the literary shelf. His triumph was noisier and, thankfully, more vulgar. He was an impresario of himself. He ventilated life with his persona. And it is the frivolity in his plays which has proved timeless. The reason is simple. Frivolity acknowledges the futility of life while adding flavour to it.