(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward

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John Osborne

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

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 diaries confirms, often ludicrously, what I merely suspected. Fear and puny malice abound. Sheer camp silliness and grandiose self deception prevail over every page. And yet the blithe, overblown posturings and evasions, the often successful striving after style, the amazingly naïve parody take over, movingly sometimes, and establish themselves unmistakably as genuine and lived history. A night's frivolity in Philadelphia can seem more becoming and momentous than a week in Westminster or Washington. (p. 7)

It is difficult to be clear or honest about these diaries without seeming sanctimonious. The tone incites priggishness, and Noël himself has a dominating line in governessy structure that is, all and entire, his own, imposing the constant spinsterish ethic of Rising Above It. He challenges heterosexuality as a failure of style … yet his feelings about the grossness of Fire Island queens or those "miserable little tarts," Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, of the Profumo scandal, are passionate in their contempt.

Almost by accident Noël survived what he … saw as the onrush of squalor and despair and the end of "riotous glamour." Like Coriolanus he was author of himself and knew no other kin. The 20th century would be—I can only parody him—quite, quite incomplete without him.

He affected to despise most of the writers in the world. See him on Proust, Greene, Dickens, Pinter ("a sort of Cockney Ivy Compton-Burnett"). "The Three Sisters" "always rather a tiresome play." "Lear" "far, far too long." Strauss, Verdi, Shakespeare all far, far too long. Most of all he vented himself on Oscar Wilde. Noël would never have given himself away under cross-examination. "Did you kiss the boy?" He would never have said, "No, he was far too plain." He would never have given away the world for a witty answer.

However, he was a genius.

You Can't Help Liking Him. There'll Never Be Another. There Never Was. Self-deluded, reviled by an envious and eternally crass British press, he was a consummate Royal clown, poetaster, author of the three best comedies in the English language…. (pp. 7, 31)

Fooled as he was by starry dullards, he may well have been merry. It seems so, in spite of the baffled tone of later years, when his plays were so often poorly received. Self-invention may have disabled him, but curiosity never deserted his talent, that deluding ethic which transported him. Noël's diaries reveal his taste to be often shrewd and ineffably bad, as he would have had it. They are far, far too long but inescapable and potent, like his own cheap music. (p. 31)

John Osborne, "He Was the Author of Himself," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1982 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 3, 1982, pp. 7, 31.

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