(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward

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Paul Fussell

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 911

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 Coward observing of the sacrosanct Spoleto Festival that "there is a slight but perceptible smear of amateurishness over the whole affair; earnest, humorless, and very, very American sincere," he had me hooked. Indeed, the big surprise in these diaries is finding what a good critic and acute, skeptical thinker Coward could be, despite such simultaneous vanities as constant supping with the "darling" Queen Mum and having his wattles trimmed off by the plastic surgeon. He was doubtless "an entertainer," with all the pejorative implications. But he was also a shrewd and principled intellect, and that's the astonishment.

These diaries begin in 1941 and go on until 1969, three years before his death. Until the middle 1950s, entries are sketchy—mere annals of parties, opening nights, plays and films attended. And certain leitmotivs recur tediously: Coward's annoyance at critics patronizing his later work; fears of not having enough money in old age; the ruination of theater by the institution of noisy, ignorant theater-parties; the tendency of nice people to die early, leaving bores and horrors surviving in perfect health. But as Coward grows older the diaries begin to fill with ideas and critical reactions and speculations, and it's here that they exhibit an admirable mind. For one thing, his taste, if sometimes reactionary, is often very impressive. Not always, for he thought Waiting for Godot—obviously a threat to his kind of theater—"pretentious gibberish," and considered the Beatles—clearly a threat to his age-group—"talentless." (p. 29)

"I am a better writer than I am given credit for being," he tells his diary in 1956.

It is fairly natural that my writing should be casually appreciated because my personality, performances, music, and legend get in the way. Some day … my works may be adequately assessed.

The intelligence and control revealed in these diaries might prompt just such an assessment. For wit, Coward's dialogue is hardly surpassed in the twentieth century, and probably only by Shaw…. For a person who made the theater his business, like Shaw, he was an extraordinarily literary creature, constantly lamenting the decline of the tradition that in the theater it is words, rather than business, movement, overstatement, mugging, noise, and spectacle, that carry the essential meaning.

It's impossible to read these diaries without saying, at some point, God! How British Coward is! Why would he be unthinkable as an American? One reason, of course, is the automatic affectation of moral and artistic superiority…. Another reason: his verbal acuity, which may strike some as odd, since he didn't go to a university or even study creative writing—he merely was born profoundly aware of the audience and of the way they'd react to what he said. He betrays his Englishness also by his instinct for privacy. Even these diaries reveal just so much—as we move from the exquisite surface in toward Coward's private lives, we get about 30 percent of the way and then stop abruptly, halted less by a person than a figure. Fifty years from now it wouldn't surprise anyone to learn that all the time he was really a criminal or a spy or the illegitimate son of George V or even an angel, sent somehow to do us good. Even in his diaries, he's not telling.

And he has no "identity problem" because, as a constant spectator of the British class system, he knows who he is and the way observers are interpreting him—even when he's frequenting royalty, which he very often is. It's here that we can't help noticing the natural fondness of the British monarchy for theater people, the royal family itself being a part of show business. (p. 30)

Coward had [star quality,] and, being a professional, he worked to keep it glowing. His control and power of will are remarkable. "I've had some bad depressions," he notes, "but very firmly snapped myself out of them." Next to his energy and control, his most conspicuous quality is good sense, powerful enough to redeem much social silliness…. Secular, skeptical, and "unphilosophic," his quiet, "Roman" acceptance of old age and death do him as much credit as his wit. In his late sixties, his friends dying off around him, he observes that his constitution is so strong that he might, like Maugham, hang on till his nineties. But, he writes, "I would prefer Fate to allow me to go to sleep when it's my proper bedtime. I never have been one for staying up too late." There, the wit is an overflow not just of cunning good sense but of something like wisdom. If Coward was a lightweight, let's have more of the same. (p. 32)

Paul Fussell, "Wilde with Cocktails," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1982 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 187, No. 17, October 25, 1982, pp. 29-30, 32.

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