The Noël Coward Diaries
Noël Coward once remarked that his success was based on a simple “talent to amuse.” These diaries are evidence that he could be amusing even when not writing for publication—although it is possible that one corner of his mind was focused on posterity even as he composed these entries. Whether or not he meant the diaries to be published, they are both entertaining and revealing. They uncover for the reader new facets of a brilliant, surprisingly complex, and often troubled man. The entries published here demonstrate clearly that Coward was far more than a slick stylist with words and music. Some critics would argue that as an artist he suffered from limitations of depth or profundity, but, on the whole, he was far more sensitive and profound than many people in his lifetime recognized. Above all, the diaries show that Coward was a disciplined craftsman and a loyal friend. Dedication to his work and loyalty to his friends are two threads that run brightly through the many pages of this engrossing book.
There is no question that Coward was amazingly prolific as a writer. Despite his image as a playboy and a raconteur, he achieved more than fifty plays, twenty-five films, hundreds of songs, two autobiographies, a novel, several volumes of short stories, and these diaries which chronicle the later years of his life, from 1941 until he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1969. From the diaries, it becomes clear that although he was friend to hundreds and eminently gregarious, Coward spent an enormous part of his life alone, wrestling with ideas, words, and artistic form.
The diaries are brilliant evidence of the manner in which this extraordinary artist refused to rest on his fame or previous achievements. The entries follow Coward’s social life, but to a greater extent they show his constant revisions, his doubts about his work, his labors to perfect, perfect, perfect. He prided himself on his craftsmanship, much as a master carpenter might pride himself on his ability to produce an exquisite piece of cabinetry. He understood the structure of a play, how the length of a scene can affect the audience response, the rhythm of the different scenes working together, the importance of pacing, timing, and dramatic buildup. He might have given the impression to outsiders that he simply dashed off his plays, but he labored diligently over each one—as he worked hard on everything that he produced, whether song, short story, novel, or article.
From his early days as an extra for film pioneer D. W. Griffith to his death, Coward was a friend to hundreds of famous and, at times, notorious individuals. A snob as only those who have risen from poverty can be, he relished his associations with royalty and the socially prominent, yet he could be extremely shrewd in his judgments of people. His wit could slash as precisely in his diaries as in his plays, but he also could show compassion and understanding for the frailties and troubles of the men and women he knew and about whom he cared. The famous names are here, and plentifully, but so are others, less well-known. Perhaps part of the appeal of the diaries is their gossip factor, but it would be foolish to read them only for that. They offer fascinating insights into an important, if uneven, writer, and they provide a social documentary of three decades of great change in the very center of the whirlwind called the twentieth century.
Graham Payn (who was for many years a close associate of Coward) and Sheridan Morley have skillfully edited and footnoted the diaries, although their laborious capsule identifications of Coward’s acquaintances and friends are sometimes unintentionally humorous. Payn and Morley’s general introduction and their prologues to the different sections of the book adequately set the stage for the actual diary entries. Perhaps the editors are somewhat too worshipful of Coward, but as far as can be judged, their loyalty has not led them to unjustified censorship or falsification. In fact, many of the entries in which Payn himself figures illustrate his personal loyalty to Coward and his dependence upon Coward’s career assistance, good nature, and charity.
The diaries carry Coward’s career from 1941, when he was starting out on a series of wartime troop-concert tours, through his efforts to reestablish his career after the war and his professional and private difficulties during the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, when he became a successful cabaret entertainer and finally saw the tide of public opinion again turn, with successful revivals of his great plays...
(The entire section is 1875 words.)