(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward

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John Lahr

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 961

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 examined his role-playing in both songs and plays. His Twenties lyrics directly expressed the notion of life as charade: "Life is nothing but a game of make believe" ("When My Ship Comes Home"); "I treat my whole existence as a game" ("Cosmopolitan Lady"). The Young Idea … dramatized the power of charm to create harmony; The Vortex … was about the terror of losing enchantment; Hay Fever …, Coward's finest light comedy, was about being as playing a role and the charm of talent that makes monstrous egotism forgivable. Insofar as it hides pain and promotes good feeling, Coward saw charm as a kind of moral courage—an idea he staged in Easy Virtue…. (pp. 64-5)

By the time he was twenty, he'd been earning applause on the stage for a decade. His coming of age coincided with the emergence of Youth as a new, demanding force in English society. Newspapers continually mulled over "the question of Youth."… Coward combined a Victorian work ethic with the high jinks of the young. He was industry in cap and bells. He laid siege to the public as songwriter, actor, and playwright. He wanted to be everywhere. And because of his talent and the changing times, he largely succeeded. He was the young idea of the Twenties—gaiety, courage, pain concealed, amusing malice. In him Youth found a symbol and a boulevard spokesman: someone equal to their elders in sophistication, yet who made their impudent disenchantment a star turn. (p. 65)

Coward ends all his major comedies (Hay Fever, Private Lives, Blithe Spirit) with the image of characters tiptoeing away from chaos. The stage pictures give shape to the mission of his laughter: frivolity aspires not so much to evade the issue as to escape it. But, as the diaries show, Coward never did. The spellbinder is also trapped by the spell he casts.

On rereading his diaries, Coward thought his life "one long extravaganza," like living inside a Fabergé egg. "It's no use imagining that I can escape the consequence of my own fame," Coward wrote. "I am bound to be set on and exploited by people wherever I go." But he neyer tried to abandon fame…. Attention was his fix; and the rich and famous conformed and extended the charm that sustained the illusion of omnipotence….

Coward imposed as sharp and disarming a sense of form on his life as he did on his art. He required his life, as well as his recounting of it, to have an enchanting symmetry. As a result, the diaries are remarkable for their lack of observation and detail about the rarefied world he inhabited. The rough edges go unseen and the raw words go mostly unreported, a formula in keeping with Coward's faith in niceness, which he associated with good taste. "Taste," he said, "can be vulgar but it must never be embarrassing."…

In recording his rigorous work routine, his social whirl, and the endless series of successful public engagements, Coward's diary betrays a man obsessed with being distracted from himself. Inevitably, this led to the attenuation of his spirit and his talent, something that Coward feared as early as 1946, when he reminds himself in his diary: "If I forget these feelings [about the war] or allow them to be obscured because they are uncomfortable, I shall be lost." In the end, shunning change and seeking comfort, he was lost.

In postwar England, where priorities were being drastically overhauled, Coward was flummoxed. Frivolity, which is skepticism on holiday, had little to say to a society obsessed with rebuilding itself. Coward's late work aggressively trivialized the major aesthetic and social shifts of his day. Nude with Violin … treated modern art as just a con. At a time when England was divesting herself of her colonial interests, Coward's South Sea Bubble … was an imperialist fantasy in which a colony eschews independence and reform. (p. 66)

Coward's eleven postwar plays brought home the bacon, but no glory. He was booed onstage after the opening of his musical Ace of Clubs…. The New Wave wanted disenchantment; Coward's charm cultivated reassurance and enchantment, which served the status quo. In the class war being waged, Coward fought with the old guard. The tuxedo and the teacup were his coat of arms….

Coward's best postwar play, Waiting in the Wings …, used the metaphor of an old-age home for former music-hall stars to show off the gallantry of the performers' charm while exploring their fear of losing it. The notion of stars being forgotten, of performers' "magic" no longer being able to protect them from the vagaries of life, touched something deep in Coward. But this shrewd and moving play, like almost all of his postwar work, was dismissed by the critics.

In his last West End offering, Suite in Three Keys …, three one-acts, of which A Song at Twilight was the best, Coward returned to the theme of charm and dissimulation, which for the young man promised harmony and for the old man had created a wasteland. (p. 67)

John Lahr, "The Politics of Charm" (reprinted by permission of the author; copyright © 1982 by John Lahr), in Harper's, Vol. 265, No. 1589, October, 1982, pp. 64-8.

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