Like much of his other writing, Noel Coward’s “Epitaph for an Elderly Actress” is a witty, comic work. Its effectiveness depends, however, less on its plain “meaning” than on the techniques Coward uses to create and emphasize that meaning. Among those techniques are the following:
- Simple, plain language. Nothing about the word-choices used in this poem is difficult, and so the poem is immediately accessible to almost all readers.
- Comic alternation of line-lengths, so that the poem immediately begins calling attention to its own wittiness and clever structure rather than simply to its meaning.
- Focus on a person who is enraged – a situation that can provoke either sympathy or ridicule. Enraged people are often funny if the object of their rage seems minor or uncontrollable (as it does in this poem). Seeing another person out of control can make one laugh, especially if the reason for the loss of control provokes no sympathy, as is the case here.
- Subtle irony, as when the speaker says that the woman was still “fairly pretty” at the time of her retirement (5) – a phrase implying that she was in fact no longer especially pretty. The poem thus manages, here and elsewhere, to pretend to be sympathetic to the woman even as it mocks her.
- Comic personification, as when the speaker says that
. . . rude, inconsiderate years
Undermined her once flawless complexion . . . (10-11; emphasis added)
Years, of course, cannot be either “rude” or “inconsiderate,” but by describing them in this way the speaker gives us some insight into the self-centered, self-pitying perspective of the actress. She seems to think that the entire universe revolves around her; she considers herself the picked-upon victim of a process that is merely natural and inevitable for everyone. She is vain about her appearance, but this is just one of the many ways in which she seems vain. In fact, she seems vain about everything. Her own self-pity (combined with her excessive anger) ironically makes her an object of the speaker’s and the reader’s derision.
- Comic repetition followed by a sudden ironic twist, as in the lines reporting that she
. . . reduced and reduced and reduced
And, at quite an incredible rate,
Put on weight. (19-21)
Here the relentless, unchanging repetition of the word “reduced” comically mimics the very process it describes. Line 20 might lead us to suspect that her efforts were successful and that she actually lost pounds at “an incredible rate,” but then the sudden, comically ironic twist comes in line 21, where we learn that she actually “Put on weight” – an outcome that surely made her even more frustrated than she had been before she began “reducing”!
- Comically crude language in an otherwise witty and sophisticated context, as in the reference to the actress’s “colon” (18).
- Vivid and unexpected verbs, as in the statement that she “sluiced” (that is, drained) her colon (18) – language that makes her intestinal tract sound like a clogged pond,
- Precise and informed phrasing, as in the closing references to all the specific parts she could have played if she were not so vain. Here the speaker shows that there were good options open to her, but he also makes clear that she failed to take advantage of them – a fact that makes her rage seem all the more petty and ridiculous.