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 says to Tom in The Vortex. "Nothing but the ceaseless din of trying to be amused", Nicky complains as he quizzes his mother about her reckless infidelities. The Vortex establishes an extreme of that kind of irresponsibility which is supported by leisure, financial abundance, social superiority in the English manner, and anxious self-confidence. The pretence of that small social class is clearly exposed, but the play's "vortex of beastliness" amounts to little other than the philandering of idle mediocrities and the courted self-destruction of their nervy offspring. "It's the fault of circumstances and civilization—civilization makes rottenness so much easier." Nicky's generalisation is as wobbly as Coward's attempt to put him on the side of life, almost as if he realised that, if he hadn't, The Vortex would have been as nihilistic as the lives it portrayed. It amounts to a kind of restraint.
Nicky's disenchanted generalisations are like the infuriated condemning of sexual repression, promiscuity, egotism, deceit, and stuffiness which Bunty mounts in The Vortex, Myra in Hay Fever and Larita in Easy Virtue. They are made to look relatively astute in doing so. Yet the censure in these plays does not seem to arise from a passionate concern for reality so much as from the observation that these faults exist and are more or less characteristic. Sometimes it even looks as if "seriousness" has been introduced to lend entertainment a dash of hot-headed concern, or to honour the moral traditions of comedy. Beneath the shallow surfaces of Coward's moralising, there is little more than finger-wagging, an indication that he was out of sorts with stultifying conventions, and excess, but that some show of ethical overview was necessary to guarantee the bona fides of "a serious writer" writing serious plays.
Coward's satires are not satires so much as plays with a certain amount of satirical this-and-that. He served the fashions of the moment by adding style to what, ostensibly, he was criticising. Style is a matter of dialogue more than of the level of society his characters inhabit, their glitter, the decor they move through, or their glamour. It is a matter, too, of his remarkable gifts of pace, discretion and construction, and the inspired creation of surprises.
To what extent, though, does the dialogue of a play like Private Lives mimic a way of speaking Coward had observed? Or is it a theatrical style he invented, as much influenced by the theatre itself as by life? Whatever its source, Coward was the recorder, or inventor, of that quick-witted, snappy speech which has become the vinegar in which the myth of the privileged and disenchanting English 1920s is pickled. Whether in the up-tempo squabbles of Private Lives , or in its tender moments touched with expensive moonlight, the romance of infinite wherewithal, the play is as silkenly mythical as that era of cocktails, transatlantic liners, suave dressing-gowns, and cigarette smoke trailing from long holders among the angular...
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shapes ofarts décoratifs.
Coward's quarrelling couples, their high-pitched silliness, their vindictive affections, their inability to be civil even in love, are among the most amusing spectacles in the English theatre, whether in Private Lives or Blithe Spirit. But what they represent is not real society. His characters live in a world of West-End Englishness, or in a curious combination of the society life which Coward had observed at first hand and the back-firing fairy tales they encouraged his imagination to produce. I am not quite sure if Coward believed in Elyot's principles [in Private Lives], but I suspect that, for the time being, he did. (pp. 46-8)
Elyot's selfish immoralism is preposterous, but it is hardly a serious point of view. Like the sneaky elopement of Amanda and Elyot with which the play ends, and their abandonment of Victor and Sibyl, the view of life which Elyot represents (if that is what it is) is a carefully considered comic thrill. It is outrageously in Elyot's character and not a recommendation of how to behave. At the same time, it is perfectly credible that Coward would vaunt flippancy or anti-intellectualism as serious ideas, or at least disguised as such. Inching close to satire as Private Lives does, it succeeds in being unconventional instead of blatantly critical, as if by arrangement, by mutual agreement with the audience as to how far Coward will take them into seriousness through comedy without ruining their evening. Literary skill in the play is seen to conspire with the demands of Show Business.
Two similar stories are presented in Bitter Sweet …, one from the past, and one that is just beginning. The parallelism is sentimental, but the conventions of "operetta" can survive that, just as they are natural to the boldness of the show's theme—marrying for love, even if it means leaving England and its stodginess, chancing everything on life and leaving the rest to feeling and circumstances. Lady Shayne, formerly the Sarah (Sari) who had run off with her Viennese music teacher, nevertheless finds social prestige and advancement after the love of her life has been killed in a duel defending her honour. Filtered through Franz Lehar as it is, the story succeeds in being pure Coward even to the extent of criticising a conventional code of conduct without being seen to want its entire removal. Moments of affecting dramatic surprise are interspersed with songs such as Footmen's Quartet, We All wore a Green Carnation, If Love Were All and I'll See You Again. There is something unassailably charming about a man whose talents were not only theatrically omnibus but romantically melodic as well. The impression is one of a knowing, worldly-wise uncle of vastly superior experience.
In 1930 Coward wrote Post-Mortem, a savage and passionate denunciation of war. Although it has not yet been staged professionally—its first performance was in 1944, by British prisoners-of-war in Germany—it has moments of anarchic theatrical passion, especially in Scene V (among the best things Coward wrote) where the dead soldier John visits his father, the proprietor of a war-mongering and opinion-raking newspaper. Edification or criticism, plays such as Private Lives suggest, are the curse of the theatrical classes unless the writer's outspokenness is kept closely in check. Yet it is heartening to read Coward when he subordinates his verbal dexterity and lightness of touch to his convictions. Although Post-Mortem has been televised …, it is still maintained that the play is virtually unstageable—an opinion with which I disagree.
As if dissatisfied with light comedy, Coward undertook Cavalcade, perhaps to prove he was more of a heavyweight than his reputation made him out to be. Cavalcade plots the stories of two families, the upper-class Marryots, and the lower-class Bridges who begin the play as the Marryots' servants. It covers the period from New Year's Eve 1899 to New Year's Eve 1930, a span almost exactly the same as Coward's age at the time. With crushing obviousness, he trots through one disaster after another, until it looks as though both families have been as badly served by the 20th century as was possible. (pp. 48-9)
With its cleverly controlled, cleverly squandered writing, tongue in cheek, [Design for Living] is a bright, amusing and droll play. But the contrast between Design for Living and Cavalcade is one of calculated naughtiness, an air of superiority and devil-may-care privacy, against a grand-slam wallow in abject patriotism and the desirability of social distinctions. It is inconceivable that Coward failed to realise that his gaiety and his full-hearted nationalism were sufficiently contradictory to make him vulnerable to intellectual snipers willing to observe the difference between beautifully garmented high-jinks and appeals to national unity on the terms of the old order. He could get away with wagging his finger at wayward individuals, but he could not bring himself to challenge a society whose more earnest, more effective corruptions supported the respectable and the beau monde alike.
A similar contrast of Blithe Spirit and Present Laughter with This Happy Breed emphasises Coward's dual endeavours: to entertain, and to uplift with ponderous incitement. With Private Lives, Blithe Spirit is probably Coward's best known and best liked play. Like the earlier comedy, it dramatises people in love who find it hard not to dislike each other, or, at least, have trouble in keeping their voices down…. Theatrical hokum of this sort was probably Coward's forte. He has a free rein for his comic heartlessness, and for the more "character" comic opportunities of Madame Arcati.
For all his sure footedness as a comedian, there is no getting away from the degree to which he stuffed his shirt with patriotic straw. This Happy Breed is a roast-beef Tory tract. Frank Gibbons, an astute, amiable, allegedly right-thinking little man, is representative of what the play expounds as the best of England. He gives second place to his awareness of injustice and unjustifiable put-down in order to assert his station in life. His Conservatism is decked out slyly with points of view which complicate what otherwise is patriotic wholeheartedness. No doubt Coward felt strongly about Frank Gibbons's type as the backbone of England, but This Happy Breed amounts to sentimental overstatement. Decency is a virtue most of us take seriously, but it is typical of Coward that he must invest it with exclusively yeoman tolerance at one point in the play (in the 1920s) and with public-bar obstinacy later on….
International threats in the forms of Nazism and Fascism don't get much of a mention in Coward's survey. Instead, the play claims that if England's tired, then watch out, for "the old girl's got stamina and don't you make any mistakes about it and it's up to us ordinary people to keep things steady." (p. 50)
[The social vision in This Happy Breed] is made to hinge on Frank's self-conscious approval of where he stands in the pyramid of the social order. His home-spun peroration, with which the play ends, directed at his grandson in his pram, is theatrically effective, and that, perhaps, was all it had to be. Asserting Englishness and human nature as an excuse for everything that happens, it sums up a play which is as consistently ideological as Waiting for Lefty or any other left-wing writings of the 1930s. It is all done on the pretence of being apolitical, of being "decent", of being "English", of speaking "horse-sense."
Coward was not the Mayfair Playboy people liked to think him—for one thing, he was far too hard-working. Nor was he the man of the people, or the spokesman of lower middle-class respectability which This Happy Breed makes him out to be (and significantly, he played the part of Frank Gibbons himself). He lived somewhere in between, in the professional and well-off world of successful writers and players and entertainers and their friends. His success, his style of life, his predisposition towards "serious frivolity" did not allow him to share in the emergencies of ordinariness to anything like the extent that would have made his appeal to middle-class decency earned. It was an appeal from above to above, pretending, by mimetic means, to come from below.
As one more form of West End Englishness, This Happy Breed could be seen as a piece of right-wing propaganda conducted according to the values of Show Business hand-in-hand with literary artifice. It is, I'm sure, less spectacular and less dishonest than that. It seems to me that Coward expected too much of his own abilities in thinking that he could handle his particular kind of light comedy, with its social affiliations, and surveys of recent history as well. His wit was virtually failsafe, his dramatic skills certain, but his mind, when it came to interpretations of the national predicament, was little more than dogmatically commonplace.
What has to be admitted is the brilliance and idiosyncracy of Coward's comic genius. Plays like The Vortex and Private Lives, or Design for Living, now look like fantasies of lapsed gods and goddesses struggling in the aprons of luxury Fast-talking, nervous, always at loggerheads, they look unreal, like puppets, spectacularly inconsequential as they bicker over their intimate secrets and selfish choices while the world goes to pot (although their world has the agreeable sensation of seeming not to exist other than for the provision of pleasure, means of transport, tailoring and the manufacture of cigarettes and alcohol, and a supply of servants). There is something pure as well as disturbingly delightful about their theatricality. That fashionable inverted snobbery which condemns Coward's comedies is surely not so much wrong as beside the point. (p. 51)
Douglas Dunn, "Pity the Poor Philosophers: 'Coward's Comic Genius'," in Encounter (© 1980 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LV, No. 4, October, 1980, pp. 46-51.