(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward Essay - Critical Essays

Coward, (Sir) Noël (Pierce)


(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward 1899–1973

English dramatist, lyricist, novelist, short story writer, scriptwriter, and autobiographer.

Coward's long and prolific theatrical career encompassed every phase of the theater from writing plays and songs to acting, producing, and directing. Critics and fellow playwrights acknowledge his stature by referring to him simply as "the Master." In 1970, the Queen of England honored him with knighthood. Three of his plays, Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1933), and Blithe Spirit (1941), are considered among the best social comedies in the English language, and such songs as "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" enjoy enduring popularity. Although Coward wrote serious plays, as well as a best-selling novel and several collections of stories, he is best remembered for his witty dramas featuring the upper class.

Critic A.J.P. Taylor attributed Coward's success to "a perfectly just knowledge of what does and does not work in the theatre." Part of this knowledge stems from Coward's early immersion in the world of theater. He began as an actor at the age of eleven, and his first play was produced professionally when he was twenty-one. Critics have remarked that he writes "theater" rather than "drama," and Coward admitted that he often wrote plays for specific actors and actresses. In his early plays, Coward himself often acted a leading role opposite Gertrude Lawrence.

Coward began as a playwright in the 1920s. Like many young people of the post-World War I era, he had a love of gaiety and a flippant cynicism. For the first time, English youth emerged as a separate and forceful sector of their society, and several of Coward's plays from this period deal with a generation gap. Another theme which appeared in Coward's work was sexual permissiveness, or, as he termed it, "sophistication." Many of these plays were sex comedies or farces centering on a love triangle. Coward's popularity peaked in the period between the two world wars. During the 1950s, Coward's plays were very unpopular with critics and his diaries show that he worked hard to maintain his spirits and his output of plays, revues, and songs. In the 1960s he performed his songs and sketches in nightclubs and regained some of his former stature, although his production as a playwright dwindled. Coward was also a persistent chronicler of his own life and published several autobiographies. The Noël Coward Diaries (1982), which he kept from 1941 through 1970, were clearly intended for publication.

Coward said that "the primary and dominant function of the theatre is to amuse people, not to reform or edify them." However, although his writing reflects his emphasis on entertainment value, critics have also found political and social statements in Coward's plays. In particular, Post-Mortem (1931) reflects the disillusionment of Coward and others of his generation with war as a way to improve the human condition. Nevertheless, his plays of the World War II era were less antiwar, for Coward was a fiercely patriotic British citizen who believed in nationalism and imperialism. While he was conservative politically, his work presented social views considered liberal at the time. Some of his plays were banned for their licentious content; Coward made light of extramarital affairs and was tolerant of homosexuality. But although Coward's plays reflect the sexual permissiveness of his times, some critics contend that he did not sympathize with his characters. Design for Living is an example of a Coward play in which the author appears to say one thing but most likely intends another. The play features a love triangle: a married woman and two men, neither of whom is her husband, who conclude that they must go through life together as a trio. Some critics perceive that Coward was satirizing these characters and, in fact, disapproved of their behavior. Design for Living is a typical Coward play in several ways: it is a comedy with a serious theme, its content is socially unorthodox, and it was written with specific actors in mind, namely Coward himself, Lynn Fontanne, and Alfred Lunt.

Perhaps Coward's most innovative contribution to the theater is his dialogue, which is notable not only for its quickness and humor, but for its naturalism. Coward's characters often speak in fragmented, ungrammatical, and colorless sentences. For this reason his plays can be difficult to read, but come alive on the stage. Some critics predicted that Coward's dialogue was too much a product of its time to endure, but this has not proven true. His plays are still widely performed.

Critics disagree about Coward's value to the literary world. Are his plays more than superficial entertainment, and if not, can Coward still be critically respected? These questions are complicated by the fact that Coward himself was well known as a personality. Because he was in the limelight so much of the time, and because he revealed much of himself in his diaries and autobiographies, many critics have used information about Coward as a person in their criticism of his work. Playwright David Hare, reviewing The Noël Coward Diaries, saw him as a superficial man who was afraid to look deep within himself or at the world's problems and disappointments and was incapable of being self-critical. But Paul Fussell commented, "If Coward was a lightweight, let's have more of the same."

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 9; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-18, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed. [obituary]; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 10.)

W. Somerset Maugham

It is in his dialogue that Mr. Coward has shown himself something of an innovator, for in his construction he has been content to use the current method of his day; he has deliberately avoided the epigram that was the fashion thirty years ago (when an early play of mine, Lady Frederick, was bought by Mr. George Tyler he told me that it was not epigrammatic enough, so I went away and in two hours wrote in twenty-four), and has written dialogue that is strictly faithful to fact. It does not only represent everyday language but reproduces it. No one has carried naturalistic dialogue further than he. (p. viii)

Dialogue has gradually been growing more natural. It was inevitable that some dramatist should eventually write dialogue that exactly copied the average talk, with its hesitations, mumblings and repetitions, and broken sentences, of average people. I do not suppose anyone can ever do this with more brilliant accuracy than Mr. Coward. My only objection to it is that it adds greatly to the difficulty of the author's task. It is evident that when he represents dull and stupid people they will be as stupid and dull on the stage as in real life and they will bore us in the same way. When he exposes his theme or joins together the various parts of his story (and I should think it was impossible to write a play in which certain explanations, of no interest in themselves, can be avoided) he will only with difficulty hold the attention of his audience. The author limits himself to characters who are in themselves exciting or amusing and to a theme which is from the beginning of the first act to the end of the last naturally absorbing. It is asking a great deal…. On the other hand I do not think it can be denied that when a scene is dramatic...

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The Times Literary Supplement

Mr. Coward is, or would have us believe that he is, extremely annoyed by those of his critics who inquire into his motives…. He adds, with the air of injured ingenuousness that has always been assumed by Mr. Shaw when trailing his coat, that "a professional writer should be animated by no other motive than the desire to write and, by doing so, to earn his living." This has a modest, straightforward sound….

But is it impertinent to inquire into Mr. Coward's aesthetic motive? His position in the theatre is by no means that of an entertainer who finds that to scribble is for him a convenient way of earning bread and butter. His work has the distinction of style and often of passion. Even his musical "shows," outwardly frivolous, are different from other "shows." They do not dribble on from turn to turn; they have coherence, direction and impact…. To criticize his work piecemeal, to say of it only "in this particular it succeeds or fails," would be to do him too little honour. Is it vulgar "peering" to ask from what angle an artist looks upon the world, what manner of artist he is, and what is his imagining of himself?…

For falsity of mind, sentimentality, and the practice of begging the question of life by the acceptance of ready-made rules and taboos, are what he loathes and most fiercely condemns in others. Indeed, if one were gathering significant material with which to build up an understanding of Mr. Coward, a sentence of his written six years ago might well be chosen first. In it he speaks of "a distrust of sentimentality amounting almost to hatred" as the "salient motive power" of the plays—Home Chat, Sirocco and This Was a Man—which he was at that time publishing.

Hatred is a strong word; it explains why, even in his best plays, Mr. Coward sometimes gives an impression of having lost his head and started to scream; it explains also why Post Mortem dissipated its passion in hysteria; and it explains above all why Mr. Coward, who, conscious of this tendency in himself to scream, must be determined, as an artist, to resist it, has adopted as a discipline his defensive mask of frivolity. If, as he has said, elderly clergymen accuse him of licentiousness and outraged matrons protest that by his plays their daughers are tempted to "fling aside their guarded virtue," the reason is that they have been misled by his mask....

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St. John Ervine

Mr. Coward, who has often been held up as himself the prototype of the post-war young man, does not fulfil the popular conception of an irritable and irritating person, dispirited and boneless, who drifts about asking people what he shall do to be saved. If anybody has worked in the past sixteen years, Mr. Coward indisputably has. In spite, however, of the profound dissimilarity between him and the young men whose prototype he is said to be, there is, I think, ample warrant for regarding him as their prototype. More clearly than any of his contemporaries he expressed the harsh and impatient cynicism of the young who grew to early manhood in the War. A world was wrecked, and in it they, weakened by malnutrition and...

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John Raymond

Any discussion of the art of Noël Coward must necessarily turn on the distinction between 'Drama' and 'Theatre'—and the value, if any, of pure 'Theatre' considered as an end in itself. Pure 'Drama'—we are not flattering ourselves here?—we can all hope to recognise. Today pure 'Theatre'—thanks to the Arts Council, 'The Method', M. Ionesco, the spirit of the age, the 'comedies' of Mr Eliot and the fact that 'culture', like Honest Doubt in the nineteenth century and rational religion earlier, has become the obsession of the Higher Boredom—is far to seek. Soon it will be as dead as Queen Anne. The best work of our leading 'majority' dramatists—Priestley, Ustinov, Rattigan, etc.—is 'theatre' strongly tinged...

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The Times Literary Supplement

Whatever other enduring value [The Lyrics of Noël Coward] may turn out to possess, it will always be a fascinating document for the student of theatrical history of the past four and a half decades. For Mr. Coward has always managed to swim so blandly and with such admirable judgment against the current that his actual position at any given time has remained firmly in the centre of the stream, even if obstinately facing in the opposite direction. By deft manipulation of the journalistic properties of any decade he gives his rhymes a patina of polished up-to-dateness which covers an enduring and unchanging nostalgia. But Mr. Coward is clever enough to realize that nostalgia is not "sophisticated", and goes out...

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Jere Real

One does not usually think of the late Sir Noël Coward, that ubiquitous eminence of the British theatre for five decades, as being particularly a "political" dramatist…. Even critics and students of the theatre appraising his career generally begin by acknowledging his wide-ranging versatility and then tend to concentrate their attentions on his major, most frequently staged comedies. Those plays (Hay Fever, Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, Design For Living, and Present Laughter) are characterized by their clever dialogue, a lightning-fast repartee, and the sparkling, yet blasé, sophistication with which they dispatch the stylish indulgences of the clever, such little pleasures of life as a...

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Douglas Dunn

Reading Noel Coward's plays encourages the belief that there is a point where Literature and Show Business meet. While it is difficult to know exactly what happens there, these four volumes of his plays [Coward Plays], which take us up to 1941, certainly suggest that it may have provided Coward with the criteria as well as the conditions within which he conceived his work. (p. 46)

Coward's earlier plays prick at the pomposity principles of English life. Modernity, in behaviour, codes of conduct, fashions, and in its encouragement of irresponsibility and self-deception, intrigued him. "One gets carried away by glamour, and personality, and magnetism—they're beastly treacherous things", Bunty...

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John Lahr

Coward's theatrical impulse came from a sense of his persona, not a sense of life. From his first produced play, I'll Leave It to You …, to his last, A Song at Twilight …, his obsession remained his performing self. Where his stage frivolity announced a philosophical detachment, his charm broadcast a craving for affection. It was a potent mix.

The word "charming" appears in the first entry of The Noel Coward Diaries,… and echoes like a lost soul through his day-by-day account of the life he made legendary. (p. 64)

Charm teases boundaries without overstepping them; the delicacy of the dissimulation requires constant vigilance. From the first, Coward...

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David Hare

[The Noel Coward Diaries] record a life largely given over to the theatre and the company of friends. Much time is spent stacking name upon name…. Though his worst contempt is directed against journalists, his own mind is journalistic, taking things at face value.

The editors admit only to minor censorship, but it is hard to believe that any was necessary, for the effect of the diaries is not at all intimate. Coward was clearly writing for eventual publication, and in a style which aims to give nothing away. He is not interested in describing people or events, preferring instead to concentrate on his own variations of feeling. His reaction to most people is to spray them with adjectives like...

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John Osborne

I have been quoting from ["The Noel Coward Diaries"] for three weeks, to an insolent, cowering wife and baffled, jeering friends. I first met The Master in 1959. Tony Richardson, the stage and film director, rang me from Nottingham, where Coward's "Look After Lulu" had opened before coming into London's Royal Court. Mischievous, hectoring, he pleaded: "I mean, you've got to come up. Noël's determined to be WITTY. All the time." I did go, saw what he meant immediately, but didn't fail to be somewhat transfixed.

It is impossible for outsiders to realize what ill feeling, bile and even wayward hatred existed in those days among those who practiced my trade [of playwriting]. Reading these...

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Paul Fussell

At first I thought I wouldn't like [The Noël Coward Diaries], anticipating—correctly, it turned out—yards of theatrical gossip and name-dropping, the unrelenting celebration of great moments in the author's social life, and the general flight from the significant to be expected in an artificer of lyrics and light comedies. But I changed my mind fast when I also encountered the author's pleasure in reading James's The Portrait of a Lady, Wordsworth's longer poems, and Keats's odes, and found him saying that Congreve's Love for Love is "appallingly over-written," a fact that requires intelligence and taste to perceive and a degree of cultural bravery to say, even in a diary. By the time I found...

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Ezra Pound defined literature as news that stays news. Literature is achieved by the sweated labors of a temperament facing the facts. Sir Noël Coward, playwright, actor, director, composer, novelist, diarist and for 30 years a short-story writer, was nothing if not a temperament, and for the better part of a generation, with eyes shaded by gesticulant hands trained in a posture of disciplined Tory salute, he faced great avalanches of limelit factual event in peace and war without once facing the fact of the end of the "modern" world. And then, worn out and fairly blinded in the neon atomic-age glare, he turned his back on the theater and walked out in a slow and stumbling rage, pulling off one of the longest reverse...

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