The Noël Coward Diaries

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875

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.

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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 ensuring his lasting reputation as an artist and dramatic craftsman. The entries are not mere notations of plays or events or personalities he encountered during these eventful years, but are chatty letters to himself, in which he discusses his feelings about his pilgrim’s progress, agonizes over his failures and those of his friends, and allows himself a little pride when he triumphs. His political views, although seldom expressed, seem rather naïve, and his erratic social commentary veers from reactionary to radical, depending on his interpretation of specific people or events. Like that of most self-educated individuals, Coward’s cultural and intellectual sophistication varies considerably, but it is evident that he possessed a continuing thirst for knowledge and a deep and vital appreciation for beauty in every form. He made it a point to stay informed about what was happening in the arts, even if he sometimes had difficulty appreciating recent developments.

Perhaps it was ironic that a playwright who in the 1920’s and 1930’s was considered an example of rebellious modern youth should have come to represent in the minds of the younger writers of the 1950’s and 1960’s a world that they considered old-fashioned, artificial, and absurd. Coward was particularly disturbed by the turn away from patriotism. He often satirized the British and even poked fun at the excesses of British jingoism, but all of his life, Coward remained unswervingly loyal to the Crown and to the nation. In fact, two of his most successful plays were not essentially comedies but rather patriotic pageants: Cavalcade (1931) and This Happy Breed (1943). His brand of patriotism came to be considered naïve and foolish in the radical, angry era of John Osborne and Shelagh Delaney. Coward sometimes admired the skill of the new playwrights, but he never understood their violent and anti-British attitudes. His struggle to understand and cope not only with plays such as Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) and A Taste of Honey (1958) but also with other aspects of these changing times and the opinions they engendered is vividly—and sometimes painfully—documented in his diaries.

On quite a different level, Coward’s evolving and frequently complicated relationships with other people are documented also in the diary entries. In one sense, the diaries might be read as a novel, as love affairs are born and broken, careers rise and fall, and friendships endure or die. Probably the most poignant story chronicled in this book is that of the love affair and marriage—and dual careers—of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. The gradual disintegration of their once storybook marriage, as Leigh’s mental and physical breakdown came to dominate their lives more and more, is recounted in excruciating detail. Even as Coward chronicles the continuing professional triumphs of the two great actors, he devotes increasing space to the pain they suffer in their private lives, and, because he cares about them as friends, he shares their pain. The tragedy of these lives becomes all the more touching to the reader because these are not the fictitious personalities of a play or a novel, invented by the author, but are real human beings, well-known to generations of theatergoers and filmgoers. Olivier and Leigh’s story is woven into the brighter fabric of Coward’s diaries.

It is important not to make too strong a case for Coward’s diaries as “literature.” They are thoughtful and intelligent and occasionally—when he discusses books or plays or music or acting—perceptive and sensitive, but they are not “literary.” The diaries avoid that annoying self-consciousness that so often infects the letters and diaries of famous and accomplished people. A great deal of the charm of Coward’s diaries derives from their unaffected honesty and straightforward crispness. If he finds Claudette Colbert tiresome when he tries to direct her in a play, he says so. If he is delighted to receive “smash” notices in a performance, he very honestly writes his feelings down. Similarly, if he is worried that he has lost his touch as a playwright, he does not hesitate to put his concerns on paper. It is this candor, as well as the randomness of subject matter—and the occasional silliness that intrudes—that makes it quite evident that the diaries were not intended as a message to posterity. Coward did not rework passages, choosing a precise or fresh expression or word. His innate charm and wit run through the entries, side by side with his very broad sentimental streak and occasionally petulant ill-humor. Taken altogether, these diaries are enormously readable—and worth reading by anyone interested in the history of the American and British theater of the twentieth century—even if they are not “literature.”

Coward’s last years were troubled by worries concerning financial security, a theme which increasingly dominates the entries through the 1950’s and 1960’s. Even more than his concern with his fading reputation as a playwright, his fear for his future livelihood shows with touching clarity during these years. Perhaps because he knew financial insecurity as a child, he could not bear the thought of suffering from need in his old age. (Although, in his case this may well have meant only the inability always to go “first class,” as he preferred.) The fact that he had been one of the most successful dramatists and actors of his time lends a sharp irony to both his very real troubles and his often overwrought reactions. In such cases, diaries can make real, as few other published works can, the subtlety of emotion—the private fears and torments—that the writer suffered at the time. The diaries possess an immediacy and a power that sometimes is quite surprising. The reader actually shares Coward’s concern for his future, knowing full well that the illustrious actor/writer was never in serious danger of starving.

It should be pointed out, however, that Coward never chronicles in any detail his own emotional or romantic life in these diaries. He does enter his attachment to his mother and his pain at her death, but he never hints at any love affairs or personal attachments beyond friendship or professional association. By reading between the lines, the reader often can deduce what may well have been going on, but even in his personal diary, Coward was guarded about such matters. Nevertheless, the portrait that finally emerges from the diaries is quite complete and rich. Noël Coward was a complex man, a great artist, a dedicated craftsman, and a decent human being. The diaries are an entertaining and rewarding visit with this man. Coward did, indeed, possess a “talent to amuse.”

Bibliography

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 43

The Atlantic. CCL, November, 1982, p. 170.

Economist. CCLXXIV, September 11, 1982, p. 85.

Library Journal. CVII, September 15, 1982, p. 1765.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 25, 1982, p. 14.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 3, 1982, p. 7.

Newsweek. C, October 4, 1982, p. 71.

Time. CXX, October 11, 1982, p. 94.

Times Literary Supplement. October 1, 1982, p. 1062.

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