(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward

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St. John Ervine

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1883

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 unnerved by strain, had to make a living. They looked at the earth, but, unlike God, did not find it good. An immense flippancy pervaded their generation, and they asserted, with a singular lack of happiness and spirit, that they believed in a good time. But their good time would have been any other generation's bad time. They despaired of life. All standards were dropped. (pp. 2-3)

It was this world which Mr. Coward, with uncanny skill and exactness, portrayed in his early plays. His characters were divided into the clever young and the stupid old, the former being free of conventions, the latter being imprisoned in them. These characters, whether they were old or young, skimmed over the surface of life, sneering at it, the young scoffing at the old, the old snarling at the young. Any person in these plays who tried to see under the surface was said to be stuffy, solemn, a prig. One ate, drank, but was not merry, and tomorrow one died. The fact that Mr. Coward filled his plays with the dismally Bright Young caused many persons, otherwise intelligent, to suppose that he himself was dismally Bright. He became a legendary figure…. The early plays are full of juvenile cruelty which effectually disguised the fundamental fact that their author is an embittered Puritan…. [Audiences] perceived in his revues a moral fury that upset them, partly because it was not expected of him, but chiefly because moral fury seemed irrelevant to revues. Moralists who had come to reproach, remained to wonder. Was this the notorious youth whose flippancies epitomized the spirit of the age? Those songs and sketches about the children of the Ritz had a laugh on the wrong side of the face. Mr. Coward was not applauding the poor little rich girls: he was exposing their futility, their emptiness, their pitiful plight. (pp. 3-4)

I shall not, I hope, be accused of inability to realize that Shakespeare is an immortal and that Mr. Coward is a young man of his age when I compare the third act of The Vortex with the fourth scene of the third act of Hamlet. It is, indeed, my intention, to argue that Mr. Coward is, so far as his work up to the present reveals, the representative of his time and only of his time. That understood, we may, therefore, go on in some confidence. The Vortex was the first play in which Mr. Coward showed signs of more feeling and thought than are to be found in a charade. His earlier plays left on the minds of those who saw them an impression of hasty improvisation. They seemed to have been written in a great hurry by a fluent and unusually quick-witted young man whose knowledge of life was considerably less than his ability to laugh at it. One could suppose them to have been thrown together on a wet afternoon to amuse the younger members of a country house-party. But The Vortex was a play of a different sort from those early pieces, and the public was quick to see the difference. It had not given much support to the early flippancies, but it gave a great deal of support to The Vortex, and it may, therefore, claim with justice that its reputation for shallowness was less justified, even in those days, than it was supposed to be. The public seriously supported Mr. Coward's work the moment it saw some signs of seriousness in him. The play has almost every fault. It is shapeless, in spite of Mr. Coward's extraordinary sense of the theatre, and its characters are ill-drawn and insufficiently set out. We do not know them as we know the people in Hamlet. They rush before us and rush away again, and we are left in some bewilderment about them. (pp. 6-7)

There can be no doubt in the mind of any person who has a sense of the stage that this play is theatrically effective…. We now know that Mr. Coward's sense of the theatre is exceptionally sharp. His instinct for situation and scene is sure and unusually fertile. He knows, infinitely better than any of his contemporaries, how to put a play on the stage and make it go over the footlights. But does he know any more than that? The passages quoted from The Vortex reveal an author struggling with stuff outside his understanding. When, for instance, Nicky says to his mother:

It was something you couldn't help, wasn't it—something that's always been the same in you since you were quite, quite young—?

we are left with the sensation that it is not only Nicky who wants to know, but Mr. Coward himself, that the author, like the character, has come on something which he does not understand, that he has not yet found an intellectual apparatus which will enable him to understand it and to convey his knowledge to his audience. Mr. Coward's characters occasionally astonish and dismay him as much as they astonish and dismay themselves and those who watch their odd antics on the stage.

Mr. Coward's dialogue, I am told and can well believe, is not easy to learn. The actors seldom find words which they can seize and hold. Mr. Coward stoutly defends his dialogue because of its fidelity to fact. Contemporary conversation, he says, is composed of short sentences, impressionistic rather than detailed in their nature, and rapid in their delivery. We make leaps and take short cuts in our conversation, and are eager, too eager, to avoid any appearance of highfalutin, with the result that our conversation is continually commonplace and banal and dull. We repeat a single catch word over and over, as if by repeating it we made it true. (pp. 13-14)

Mr. Coward contends that it is the business of the dramatist to reproduce this sort of speech as faithfully as he can. If he were to make his characters talk in the circumlocutory fashion beloved by Henry James, he would be false to the facts of their lives. That, indeed, is true of the sort of people of whom Mr. Coward writes, and true, too, of the rest of us, but it is untrue that we all speak in brief sentences, as if we were telegraphing unwelcome news to our friends. In any event, an author has to do something more than reproduce actual speech: he has to trim it so that he catches the heart of the matter and only suggests its dullness and triviality. (p. 14)

His dialogue, so faithful to its period, will, I fear, defeat Mr. Coward. The language of the moment lives for a moment. Hay Fever, which was a considerable success when it was first performed and is considered by Mr. Coward to be his best play, was a failure when it was revived. I recently tried to read Hay Fever, but failed to stay the course to the end, although I like reading plays and have no difficulty in visualizing them…. If Mr. Coward is to live on the English stage, he must live on something other than his dialogue. On what will he live? Not, I think, his thought, which is of the moment and the surface…. [The characters in Private Lives,] immensely amusing though they were to watch and hear on the stage, scarcely seem real. They flit from mood to mood, at one moment raging and at the next caressing, and they come to nothing. They do not resent anything, because they hardly feel anything. Elyot and Amanda bite and scratch and kiss and fondle each other almost simultaneously. They are like puppies which can be called innocent because they are unaware of guilt. Occasionally a creature cries out that it is hurt, but the other creatures think that is only the injured party's fun, and if he persists in saying he is hurt, he is called a bore. It is stuffy of people to suffer pain: it is stuffier still to draw attention to it. (pp. 14-16)

Gilda, daring to be individual in an age when mankind is becoming more and more determined to live in a mass and be governed as a mass, declares that "from now on, we shall have to live and die in our own way. No one else's way is any good; we don't fit." In those words, she puts the whole argument of Design For Living which is, I think, the best play Mr. Coward has yet written. The victory for which Gilda pleads, the right of the individual to live his own life, has yet to be won, and its winning is delayed by the fact that too many individualists are determined not only to live their own lives, but to make the rest of us live them too. It is improbable, indeed, that the Gildas of the world will ever win the victory they desire, since they have no faith in life even with their victory won…. Mr. Coward clearly perceives his own defects, and, perceiving them fills us with hope that he will presently remove them. We may doubt if Gilda had ever read Pascal, even if she had ever heard of Pascal, but Pascal had a thought not unlike hers. "All the misfortunes of men," he said, "arise from one thing only, that they are unable to stay quietly in one room." Such was the miserable state of the generation which filled Mr. Coward's work, and his incalculable value to the social historian is that he, more faithfully than any other person, has portrayed that generation or at least the noisiest and most evident part of it. Mr. Coward's plays may not live, are probably unreviveable, but no one who wishes to know what the post-war generation was like can afford to neglect them. His despondency is only the despondency of a young man who is fretful about life because he has not yet got hold of it, and is inclined to throw up his hands when he had better clench his fists. The nerveless determination of his infant atheists will not sustain him for long, and as we sit in survey of his work and see that his best play is his latest, we may hopefully conclude that his best is still to do. (pp. 18-19)

St. John Ervine, "The Plays of Mr. Noel Coward" (reprinted by permission of The Society of Authors as the literary representative of the Estate of St. John Ervine), in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. XLII, No. 1, Spring, 1935, pp. 1-21.

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