Be flippant

David Edgar

  • 1956 and All That by Dan Reballato
    Routledge, 265 pp, £40.00, February 1999, ISBN 0 415 18938 1
  • Collected Plays: Six by Noël Coward
    Methuen, 415 pp, £9.99, April 1999, ISBN 0 413 73410 2
  • Collected Plays: Seven by Noël Coward
    Methuen, 381 pp, £9.99, April 1999, ISBN 0 413 73410 2
  • Collected Revue Sketches and Parodies by Noël Coward
    Methuen, 282 pp, £9.99, April 1999, ISBN 0 413 73390 4
  • Noël Coward: A Life in Quotes edited by Barry Day
    Metro, 116 pp, £9.99, November 1999, ISBN 1 900512 84 X
  • Noël Coward: The Complete Lyrics edited by Barry Day
    Methuen, 352 pp, £30.00, December 1998, ISBN 0 413 73230 4

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.

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