Coward, Noel (Vol. 9)

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Coward, Noel 1899–1973

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Coward began acting at the age of ten; by the time he was twenty he had seen his first play successfully produced. Coward's career was at its apex in the 1920s and 1930s. Capturing the essence of those decades, he wrote technically brilliant, witty, and refined period pieces for the stage. Coward was knighted in 1970. (See also CLC, Vol. 1, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18; obituary, Vols. 41-44; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)

[Coward's] enthusiastically applauded wit, it saddens me to report, I cannot for some reason or other, despite painstaking hospitality, discover. I can discover, with no effort at all, several amusing little wheezes, but all that I am able to engage in the way of the higher jocosity called wit is a suave prestidigitation of what is really nothing more than commonplace vaudeville humor. This vaudeville humor Mr. Coward cleverly brings the less humorously penetrating to accept as wit by removing its baggy pants and red undershirt and dressing it up in drawing-room style. But it remains vaudeville humor just the same. (p. 207)

Let us … turn to the inner machinery of Mr. Coward's "wit." This machinery whirrs entirely, we find, around the stalest and most routinized of humorous devices. Device No. 1, a favorite of Mr. Coward's, is a character's repetition in a later act, for comic effect, of a line spoken seriously by another character in the earlier stages of the play. Device No. 2, believe it or not, is the periodic use of the "go to hell" line. Device No. 3 is the serio-comic promulgation of specious sentimental eloquence. I quote an example: "There's something strangely and deeply moving about young love, Mr. and Mrs. Carver…. Youth at the helm!… Guiding the little fragile barque of happiness down the river of life. Unthinking, unknowing, unaware of the perils that lie in wait for you, the sudden tempests, the sharp, jagged rocks beneath the surface. Are you never afraid?" Device No. 4 is the employment of a word or name possessed of an intrinsically comical sound. For example, Chuquicamata. And Device No. 5 is—also believe it or not—the causing of a character, who in a high pitch of indignation sweeps out of the room, to fall over something. (pp. 210-11)

Now for the original and profound philosophy underlying Mr. Coward's great wit. I exhibit samples:

No. 1: GILDA: "Why don't I marry Otto?" ERNEST: "Yes. Is there a real reason, or just a lot of faintly affected theories?" GILDA: "There's a very real reason." ERNEST: "Well?" GILDA: "I love him."

No. 2: LEO: "I'm far too much of an artist to be taken in by the old cliché of shutting out the world and living for my art alone. There's just as much bunk in that as there is in a cocktail party at the Ritz." (p. 211)

We now pass to a consideration of the freshness of Mr. Coward's broader humors. Herewith, specimens:

No. 1: LEO: "I remember a friend of mine called Mrs. Purdy being very upset once when her house in Dorset fell into the sea." GRACE: "How terrible!" LEO: "Fortunately, Mr. Purdy happened to be in it at the time."

No. 2: GILDA: "It's very hot today, isn't it?" ERNEST: "Why not open the window?" GILDA: "I never thought of it." (p. 212)

Mr. Coward's "daring sophistication" is still another enchantment of his public and his critics. Let us, in turn, consider this daring sophistication in the light of its most trenchant specimen lines:

No. 1: GILDA: "After all, it [the London Times] is the organ of the nation." LEO: "That sounds vaguely pornographic to me." (Regards to Mae West.)

No. 2: GILDA: "The honeymoon would be thrilling, wouldn't it? Just you and me, alone, finding out about each other." LEO: "I'd be very gentle with you, very tender." GILDA: "You'd get a sock in the jaw, if you were!" (Regards to Michael Arlen.) (p. 213)

In order to deceive his audiences and critics into believing that all this...

(The entire section contains 2074 words.)

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Coward, Noel (Vol. 1)