Coward, Noel 1899–1973
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 vaudeville-hall humor and juvenile naughtiness is excessively recherché stuff, it is Mr. Coward's practice, as I have hinted, to have it spoken by actors in evening dress and to intersperse it liberally with worldly allusions to the more fashionable restaurants, hotels, yachts, duchesses' houses, and watering places. (pp. 213-14)
In order to establish beyond all audience doubt the perfect equilibrium of his sophistication and to persuade it that he is superior even to his own highest flights of philosophical reasoning, it is Mr. Coward's habit to disgorge the philosophical pearls reposing in his mind and then to bring another character to offer a facetious remark about, or to chuckle derisively over, each of the aforesaid pearls. Either that or, by way of passing himself off for a magnanimous intellect, to place his most serious convictions in the mouth of a character who is slightly intoxicated. Thus, let one character speak Mr. Coward's mind about some cynical aspect of civilization, and another like clockwork is ready with some such retort as "That is definitely macabre!" Thus, let a character express a sentiment of some delicacy and another is ready with a deprecation of him as a rank sentimentalist. Thus, let the action turn to normal drama and a character is ready with the mocking exclamation: "Bravo, Deathless Drama!" Thus, let Mr. Coward venture what he considers in his heart to be a first-rate and saucy bit of humor and another character is ready with "That was a cheap gibe!" And thus, let a character express Mr. Coward's sober convictions as to Life and another is in the offing duly to jump in at the conclusion with a facetious "Laife, that's what it is, just laife." And so it goes—always the pseudo-philosopher and commentator taking what he writes with perfect gravity and surrounding himself, fearful and feeling the need of ideational protection, with a procession of minstrel end-men to hop up after each observation and minimize it with a joke.
Mr. Coward occupies the successful place in our theatre today that the late Clyde Fitch occupied twenty and thirty years ago. Both are of a playwriting piece, though Mr. Coward has not yet contrived anything nearly as good as Fitch's The Truth. And both have been overpraised and overestimated ridiculously. Where are the plays of Fitch now? Where will the plays of Mr. Coward be when as many years have passed? As in the case of my critical reflections on Fitch in his fashionable heyday. I leave the answer to the calendar. (pp. 214-15)
George Jean Nathan, "Noel Coward" (1935), in The Magic Mirror: Selected Writings on the Theatre by George Jean Nathan, edited by Thomas Quinn Curtiss (copyright © 1935 by George Jean Nathan; reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.), Knopf, 1960, pp. 207-16.
Four of the most fruitful days of 1929 were surely those that Noël Coward, on a lazy holiday trip around the world, spent writing "Private Lives." The first act of the play, which I don't hesitate to call as nearly flawless a first act for a comedy as any in the language, is said to have been jotted down overnight—formidable proof of the fact, repugnant to puritans, that time and effort have no necessary connection with achievement in the arts. Neither, for that matter, does age—Coward was twenty-nine when he wrote "Private Lives," and he was never to surpass it…. [Much] of our pleasure in the play comes from our being allowed to know, from moment to moment, more than the characters themselves are allowed to know. Our laughter springs as much from the sudden glory of anticipation fulfilled as from the witty expression of any ordinary human feeling or—perish the thought!—thought. The first act has a symmetry of word and deed so exact as to be almost uncanny; the two newlywed couples in the swagger hotel in Deauville are made to move through a series of discomfitures as neatly introduced, exhibited, and dismissed as so many magic hoops, cards, coins, and colored handkerchiefs. In the second act, the prestidigitator risks losing control by losing momentum. We perceive that he has time to kill on his way to a third act (in the twenties, a playwright who plotted a comedy in two acts would no doubt have been accused of shortchanging his audience), and we come dangerously close to seeing Amanda and Elyot for what they are—in real life, two of the least delightful people imaginable, with nothing to do but eat, drink, bicker, make love, and congratulate themselves on their isolation from a world unworthy of them. In the third act, the prestidigitator is again in full control; after a flurry of slapstick physical encounters, he rings down the curtain on a breakfast scene that is at once consummately trivial and just the right size. (p. 115)
Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1969 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), December 13, 1969.
Noël Coward's Hay Fever, immaculately revived by the author, has been called a comedy of situation; but it isn't really that at all. It is a comedy of characters who are absolutely impervious to situation. This is one of the clear natural differences between farce and comedy. Farce is about people who are preternaturally alert to the outside world, to the dangers behind bedroom doors or the dragons in boilers; comedy is about people with such massively engrossing and indestructible characteristics that the outside world bounces off them like grapeshot off elephant hide. Oedipus Rex would be a comedy if, with the plague of Thebes running through the drawing room, the royal family remained blind to their people's agony and thought only about being attractive to each other.
This is pretty much the situation in Hay Fever. The Bliss family have invited four wretches for the weekend whom they proceed to wrack with inattention, starting with no introductions, going on to no explanations of a party game at which the theatrical Blisses shine, and ending by leaving them coldly alone with some unpleasant haddock at Sunday breakfast from which the outsiders tiptoe back to London, worn out with histrionics. The Blisses don't notice; they have the survival power of drunks and the hermetic family infatuation of the Greeks. (pp. 242-43)
Penelope Gilliatt, "Coward Revived" (1965), in her Unholy Fools: Wits, Comics, Disturbers of the Peace: Film & Theater (copyright © 1960–1973 by Penelope Gilliatt; reprinted by permission of The Viking Press, Inc.), Viking, 1973, pp. 242-43.
I feel no hesitation in saying again what I've often said before: that the first act of "Private Lives" … is as nearly perfect as any act of any comedy in English [see excerpt above]…. A clue to the nature of the flawless first act of "Private Lives" is offered the moment the curtain rises. We note that the setting is scrupulously symmetrical; a plumb line dropped from the middle of the proscenium arch would split it into halves. Now, set designers ordinarily seek to avoid symmetry, as providing too little to entertain the eye, but in the case of "Private Lives" the stage architecture has obviously been decreed by the playwright; it is a necessary part of the action of his play, and therefore of the highest importance practically as well as symbolically. What we see is, it turns out, precisely what our comedy is about: the hilarious consequences when two people attempt to share equally in a single strong emotion, at no matter what cost to themselves and others.
The setting is the façade of a luxurious hotel in Deauville, sometime in the late twenties. Open French windows lead from a pair of identical suites onto a terrace divided in two by small trees in tubs…. Each of the suites is occupied by a honeymoon couple. Amanda and Elyot, divorced for several years, have unwittingly arrived at the same hotel on the same night for the same reason: to celebrate the beginning of new marriages. Modestly, immaculately, the conversations between each of the couples march toward the moment when Amanda and Elyot, alone on the terrace, meet and discover that they are as much in love as ever. The words they speak come close to having the cadence of music; one's ear is as much ravished by the reverberatory silences between words as by the words themselves. We lean forward in our seats, awaiting a familiar exchange as we might await a familiar phrase in an étude….
Brendan Gill, "From the Duke of Westminster's Yacht," in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), February 17, 1975, p. 84.