We are having a bit of a Noel Coward revival. There are readings of some of his plays, a course or seminar at Marymount Manhattan College, a marvelous exhibition at Lincoln Center’s Performing Arts Library, where a lively Coward symposium is due on June 11 at 6 P.M. A lecture demonstration is in the planning. In the two last-named events I am a participant.
Lord Louis Mountbatten, a friend of Coward’s, had it right. There are, he wrote, those who could equal Coward in any of the 14 or 15 disciplines in which he excelled, but no one who could combine all those excellences in his single self. I have always been a Coward fan, but having just reread his two memoirs, Present Indicative and Future Indefinite, as well as the voluminous posthumous Noel Coward Diaries, I am more than ever convinced of his genius.
What must be born in mind is that, along with the manifest heavyweight geniuses, the Prousts and Wagners, there are also lighter weight geniuses who do not produce huge masterpieces, but achieve immortality in less profound, philosophical or epic works. They do not invent new techniques or shed new light on the historic past, but they charm generation after generation with lighthearted entertainment.
It is surely remarkable that Coward wrote serious and comic plays, long and short fiction, both words and music for theatrical and nontheatrical songs, as well as poems and parodies. He was also an outstanding actor and an accomplished stage and film director, notably in that masterly tribute to the British navy, In Which We Serve., which he wrote, directed and starred in. He was also a great traveler, writing admirably about exotic places and people, keenly sensitive to beauty in all its forms.
He was also a dazzling wit, which, while not a profession, constituted a social talent, making him a favorite lunch and dinner companion of royalty, aristocracy, and artists of various kinds. Though almost totally self-educated, he was enormously knowledgeable and a superb conversationalist. He was an unofficial cultural ambassador for Britain in both hot and cold war, and was even a sort of gentleman spy. He seldom if ever wrote a dull page, and was no slouch at epigrams. Although, like most geniuses, self-centered, he carried his self-centeredness lightly, with centripetal as well as centrifugal irony. And he was a terrific letter writer.
He was homosexual, but what with England’s draconian laws against homosexuality, rescinded only by his later years, he never came out of the closet, but spoke up, if only privately, for gay rights, and was, if only platonically, loving toward a good many women. Altogether, he had a gift for friendship with all sorts of people, regardless of rank. But for those deserving of contempt or reprehension, he possessed a stock of both, and was not loath to let it hang out.
I found reading The Noel Coward Diaries pure delight. Over its nearly 700 pages, I felt I was getting ever closer to knowing Coward, and found his company consistently stimulating, expectably humorous but also surprisingly humane.
His favorite epithets for people and things he liked were “sweet” (best) and “dear” (a close second), and often both together. For things and people he disliked, it was a tossup between “idiotic” and “ghastly.” But he could make repetition feel not like redundancy but like a jolly refrain.
He had favorite phrases as well. A person might be “merry as a grig” or “happy as a bee.” Things could be “all over bar the shouting,” to end with “and that is that.” But we do not begrudge such verbal idiosyncrasies any more than we would someone’s characteristic gesture or toss of the head. He had, what Kenneth Tynan called “his hard-core court,” consisting of the actor Graham Payn (co-editor of the diaries and at a time Noel’s lover), the actress Joyce Carey (in many of his works), the designer Gladys Calthrop (who created his early sets), his secretary and as it were manager, Lorn Lorraine, and Cole Lesley, who, beginning as his valet (then named Leonard Cole), became another secretary, manager, and probable lover.
The diaries, doubtless intended for eventual publication, are studded with quotables. Of particular interest are Coward’s twin love affairs with England and America, neither of them free from lovers’ quarrels. The real quarrel was with the (mostly English) press, stunningly unfair to both the playwright and the citizen. Some of it was based on envy of his many successes, and some of it on his setting up residences in Paris, Switzerland, Bermuda and, most steadily, in two homes in Jamaica. If some of it was to escape British taxes, why not, given their exorbitance?
Curiously, Coward had scant use for opera and symphonic music. Likewise for certain literary classics, almost always expressing his dislike with the euphemism “too long.” Thus he would have none of Mozart (like me) or Britten (unlike me). He had grave problems with the likes of War and Peace and Death of a Salesman, which I fully share.
Coward is not only good at snappy witticisms; he can also astonish with his sagacity and good taste in longer passages. Consider the following:
I have plunged firmly through Our Mutual Friend. What a great
writer Dickens can be at moments, and how completely he fails
when he becomes sentimental. Some of the characterization
In O.M.F. is masterly and some, particularly Lizzie and Jenny
Wren, abysmally bad. I suspect that he suffered from a funda-
mental lack of taste. The descriptions of the river and London
and the general atmosphere of the period areal superb, but
why, oh why, those treacly, tear-sodden, pious, noble, com-
pletely unreal scenes which I cannot believe that he believed
This is not only sound judgment; it is also compellingly expressed. Closer to the epigrammatic is this: “When I eventually write my book on the theatre there will be a whole chapter devoted to leading ladies’ dresses and hair. They are invariably the main stumbling-blocks. Leading ladies’ husbands may also come in for some acrid comment.” Unfortunately, that book never got written, but passages in the diaries, letters and memoirs more than make up for it.
But, of course, Coward is better-known for outright epigrams. Thus about Mary Baker Eddy: “She had much in common with Hitler, only no moustache.” Or this: “It is hard to imagine, considering the inherent silliness, cruelty and superstition of the human race, that it has contrived to last as long as it has.” Or this, about posterity: “There will be lists of apocryphal jokes I never made and gleeful misquotations of words I never said. What a pity I shan’t be here to enjoy them.”
And again: “It is a natural enough malaise, this idealized remembering, but should not be encouraged too much. There is no future in the past.” Or this, after a day of auditions “Really felt worn out by the end of it and oppressed by the thought of those legions of unattractive men and women thinking they were gifted enough to entitle them to appear on the stage.” And self-criticism, too: “Other people, less clever than I am, can often be dead right when I am wrong.” More typical is this, about the autobiography of Monica Baldwin, an ex-nun, I Leap Over the Wall: “Very interesting, I must say. It has strengthened my decision not to become a nun.”
That, of course, was frivolous, but other epigrams are not. Thus: “Everything I have read lately has confirmed my long-held suspicion that Christianity has caused a great deal more suffering, both mentally and physically, than any other religion in the history of mankind.” (Written, to be sure, in pre-jihad days.) And this, prompted by a later work of Evelyn Waugh: “I do wish highly intelligent writers would not unconditionally surrender themselves to specific religious dogmas; it really does bugger up the output.”
Nevertheless, Coward’s principal achievement is in his best plays, correctly identified by Tynan as Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter, though I would add the brilliant one-acters of Tonight at 8:30, especially the musical Shadow Play with its rather daring strategy.
About the avant-garde, Coward could be as wrong as about classical music. Thus concerning Waiting for Godot (which, to be sure, he only read and never saw), “pretentious gibberish, without any claim to importance whatever.” But everyone is entitled to some mistakes; why begrudge them to genius? To Coward’s many talents we must add yet another: a great deal of wisdom.