As a playwright, composer, lyricist, producer, director, author, and actor, Noël Coward spent his life entertaining the public. This he did with a flair, sophistication, and polish that are not readily found in twentieth century drama. He wrote farce, high comedy, domestic and patriotic melodramas, musical comedies, and revues. His plays were popular fare in England and the United States for years because Coward recognized that the “great public” for which he wrote his plays wanted, above all, to be entertained.
All of Coward’s plays fall into easily recognizable stylized patterns. Essentially, Coward wrote modern comedies of manners that are as reflective of twentieth century mores and sentiments as their Restoration forebears were of those in the seventeenth century. For the most part, his plays are set in drawing rooms and usually have a couple involved in a love relationship as the central characters. He draws heavily on his theatrical background and populates his plays with theatrical and artistic characters. These temperamental personages allow Coward to involve them easily in the constant bickering and verbal fencing that came to be the trademarks of a Coward play. Each of his characters vies to get the upper hand over the others. Arguments are central to his work, and much of his humor relies on sophisticated insults. Coward’s dialogue bitingly exposes hypocrites and the petty games played by the upper class; his plays parody Mayfair society mercilessly. Unfortunately, his plays involve little else. There is little motivation of character, less development of theme, and what thin remnant of plot remains is swept along in the incessant bantering of the characters. Robert Greacen, referring to Fumed Oak, remarked that “an observant foreigner might sit through the entire play . . . and simply hear people talking and believe that no action was taking place at all.” Such statements apply to most of Coward’s plays.
This criticism reveals both the strongest and the weakest aspects of Coward’s theater. He was capable of writing brilliant, naturalistic dialogue with an astonishing economy. In spite of this enormous talent for writing dialogue, however, little happens in his plays to advance the plot. Most of his plays remain structurally flawed, relying heavily on the use of deus ex machina and coincidence for plot resolutions.
Thematically, Coward’s comedies examine true love, adulterous affairs, and domestic upheavals. His more serious plays focus on a variety of topics, including drug addiction, infidelity, and patriotism. The few patriotic plays he attempted strongly support solid middle-class values and promote a stereotyped image of the stoical Englishman.
Though his works appear to have identifiable themes, they lack a thesis. Coward’s plays realistically depict modern characters in absorbing situations, but the characters are not as fully developed as the situations in which they find themselves. Their motivations remain obscure. Even in the serious plays, his position on his subject is never clearly revealed. Most of his serious dramas fail because he never brings the moment to a crisis, and so his plays end...
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