Last Updated on September 16, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1628
Coward, Noel 1899–
English playwright, actor, and composer, best known for Private Lives and Blithe Spirit. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18.)
Though for a while Noel Coward seemed to take a cynical delight in his parade of 'hags who've never surrendered to Anno Domini', he was as conscious a moralist as those medieval writers who paraded the Seven Deadly Sins. Yet, in the manner of his day, he snapped his fingers in the faces of the moralists and tweaked their noses in derision. The immediate popularity of his early plays was due to the 'smartness' of the dialogue (an echo of the conversation that many listeners liked to imagine themselves conducting all day and every day) and to the opportunity that these plays gave for the vicarious satisfaction of anti-social impulses. Until he wrote the first-rate comedy, Hay Fever (1925), his plays were mainly significant as a symptom of the deadly amorality of a section of the community—the cocktail and dance-obsessed section. The febrile brightness of the then typical Noel Coward play—e.g. Fallen Angels (1925), Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1933)—was the author's indictment of a type of person that both fascinated and repelled him, as, in a less intelligent way, Marie Corelli had been fascinated and repelled a generation before. Both these writers could react to vice only through their emotions and could do no more than lodge a protest. The contemplation of vice as a factor in human life demanding a reasoned corrective was beyond their powers…. When he attempted to deal with a wholly serious theme in a directly serious manner, as in Post Mortem (1931), Coward's insufficiency became evident. Bitterness and passionate indignation were not enough to carry this play (which postulates one of the war-dead returning unwelcomed even by those who had most bemoaned his death). The theme required more mental control and a better sense of balance and order than were given to it. But apart from Post Mortem, Noel Coward's flair for 'good theatre' has rarely been equalled. Material that is negligible in print may be irresistibly compelling when spoken or sung on the stage in the highly charged mass-atmosphere of the p'ayhouse: Bitter Sweet (1929) and Cavalcade (1931) bear witness to this fact; many might despise them, but few could resist them. Even though he reached the zone of Mayfair and Monte Carlo, Noel Coward retained for years much of the spirit of the London gamin who is sometimes witty, sometimes wittily and enjoyably vulgar, sometimes merely vulgar.
A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, pp. 131-32.
For more than half a century, Noel Coward has been standing down front, center stage, in the full brilliance of the spotlight, holding the audience entranced with his songs, his plays, his films, his stories, and above all, with himself…. Noel Coward's reputation as a writer and as a performer of great versatility, astonishing productiveness, and marvelous polish is unassailable.
It is difficult to deal with Coward strictly as an author because he is still so very much present as a performer. After seeing him in a play, or hearing him on a recording, or even just watching him being interviewed on a televison program, can one ever again read his works without hearing an echo of that languorous voice with its ironic edge, or sensing, even more than seeing, that slightly curling lip and cool eye? (p. 7)
He has concentrated his energies on high farce, on smart high comedy, on domestic and patriotic melodrama, and on musical comedies and revues. Furthermore, he has usually been content to accept these forms very much in the shape in which the popular theater has developed them; and, when he has introduced his own variations and inventions, they have almost always tended to enhance the elegance and brilliance of the surface, rarely adding to the depths. Thus, beyond synopsis and quotation, the better the plays the more they resist critical discussion: they raise no questions; they provide few critical footholds. They simply ask to be praised for what they are, sparkling caprices. (pp. 7-8)
Coward's themes …, few in number,… are presented with very little variation from item to item, and most important, are not so much a reflection of Coward's interest in morality or society but show instead the traditional interests of the genres: the course of true love in the operettas, the defense of sophisticated adultery in the comedies, the bittersweet rhythms of domestic life in the dramas, and the staunch, stiff-upper-lip endurance of the patriotic plays. (p. 8)
If much of his music, as well as the accompanying lyrics, shows both the influence of and a nostalgia for the music he heard in his childhood, the rest—primarily that of the revues—reflects what he has called the "vital Negro-Jewish rhythms from the New World."… Nonetheless, excepting the comic songs, the Coward music which has been most popular has been that with a strong Victorian-Edwardian flavor, particularly the waltzes: "I'll See You Again," "Zigeuner," "Some Day I'll Find You," and "I'll Follow My Secret Heart." (p. 32)
What is true of the subject matter [of the musical plays] is also true of the writing in general. Except for some reticence about expressing deep emotional feeling, a reticence even more pronounced in and typical of Coward's non-musical plays, the dialogue contains little that is distinctive…. Insofar as story line and romantic music and lyrics are concerned, Coward in his musical plays is at one with the Edwardian operetta writers of his youth; in fact, except for Sail Away and Ace of Clubs, Coward deliberately harks back to older styles instead of using some of the more recent styles and subject matter. (pp. 33-5)
Coward as composer, as performer, and, pre-eminently, as the writer of comedy has overshadowed the writer of serious plays…. It is, however, [the] very narrowness of intention and of subject matter which makes the serious plays less important than the comedies and makes a consideration of the serious plays a logical prelude to a discussion of the comedies. The comedies are not only superior as a whole, but they often show Coward's limitations as a serious dramatist converted into assets. (p. 37)
Although some [of the serious plays] deal with situations that an Ibsen or a Shaw might have used to demonstrate or argue questions of public morality or political philosophy, only Post-Mortem (significantly the only one of Coward's published plays never to have been performed) can be said to have a thesis. And, although all these plays are realistic in the sense of accepting the conventions of the fourth wall, of representational scenery, of careful attention to the passage of time, and of the logical, plausible plot, Coward rarely comes to terms on a deeper level with his characters in the way of the Realistic playwright like Ibsen, Chekov, or Arthur Miller—instead, each character is conceived of in comic terms, that is, two-dimensionally, more as an embodiment of certain premises rather than as an individual with individual motivation. (p. 38)
In the case of high comedy, where pratfalls are rare, the audience shares with the witty people the superiority they enjoy over the fools or even, in a battle of wits, over one another…. [While] aware of the ludicrousness of the situations and characters as a whole, the audience can also, once the new logic has been established, share in the characters' wit, particularly in the battle of wit. Of the many theories applied to comedy, this one certainly fits Coward best…. What is distinctive about Coward's comedy is the extent to which superiority depends not so much on greater sensibleness or on more realistic or perceptive ethics, nor on the ability to turn a phrase, but on a talent for vituperation and insolence. (pp. 118-19)
Coward's comedies are virtually devoid of ideas or serious satire. He of course deflates hypocrites and scorns stuffy and unrealistic conventionality, but his hypocrites and prudes are usually cardboard figures. As for adultery, which plays such a large part in almost all the comedies, it is taken for granted that, after a certain period, usually three years, passion cools and a new attraction is inevitable and justified, especially when the rejected spouse is dull. Most of the comedies deal with the obstacles to a strenuous hedonism; as a result, they mainly consist of skirmishing in which sophisticates are confronted by their inferiors and resort consciously or automatically to insolence and rudeness, or sophisticates confront each other and trade insults.
What saves the best comedies from the cruelty implicit in many of the situations and from the banality of ideas is Coward's theatrical skill and his real, if specialized, wit. His skill is mainly a matter of preparation. Reviewers frequently comment on the slow first acts in Coward's plays, but the thorough exposition of the first act serves as a contrast to the rapidly increasing tempo of the next acts and, even more important, prepares the foundation of character and situation on which the latter parts of the play stand…. Coward's method is most successful when the theme is simple and the exposition can be expedited. (pp. 119-20)
As Maugham has aptly pointed out, one difference between Coward's style and that of the comic playwrights who preceded him is that his dialogue is much more naturalistic. There is very little of the epigrammatic, previously so fashionable. (p. 122)
The entertainer's job is to make time pass pleasantly, enjoyably, while making the audience forget about the time that is passing, to remove the present moment from the flux of time and erase, for a moment, both past and future. The purest entertainment is the perfect escapism, and Coward's high farces are his closest equivalent to the magician's suspension of gravity and logic. (p. 143)
Milton Levin, in his Noel Coward, Twayne, 1968.
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