(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward

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The Times Literary Supplement

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 988

Mr. Coward is, or would have us believe that he is, extremely annoyed by those of his critics who inquire into his motives…. He adds, with the air of injured ingenuousness that has always been assumed by Mr. Shaw when trailing his coat, that "a professional writer should be animated by no other motive than the desire to write and, by doing so, to earn his living." This has a modest, straightforward sound….

But is it impertinent to inquire into Mr. Coward's aesthetic motive? His position in the theatre is by no means that of an entertainer who finds that to scribble is for him a convenient way of earning bread and butter. His work has the distinction of style and often of passion. Even his musical "shows," outwardly frivolous, are different from other "shows." They do not dribble on from turn to turn; they have coherence, direction and impact…. To criticize his work piecemeal, to say of it only "in this particular it succeeds or fails," would be to do him too little honour. Is it vulgar "peering" to ask from what angle an artist looks upon the world, what manner of artist he is, and what is his imagining of himself?…

For falsity of mind, sentimentality, and the practice of begging the question of life by the acceptance of ready-made rules and taboos, are what he loathes and most fiercely condemns in others. Indeed, if one were gathering significant material with which to build up an understanding of Mr. Coward, a sentence of his written six years ago might well be chosen first. In it he speaks of "a distrust of sentimentality amounting almost to hatred" as the "salient motive power" of the plays—Home Chat, Sirocco and This Was a Man—which he was at that time publishing.

Hatred is a strong word; it explains why, even in his best plays, Mr. Coward sometimes gives an impression of having lost his head and started to scream; it explains also why Post Mortem dissipated its passion in hysteria; and it explains above all why Mr. Coward, who, conscious of this tendency in himself to scream, must be determined, as an artist, to resist it, has adopted as a discipline his defensive mask of frivolity. If, as he has said, elderly clergymen accuse him of licentiousness and outraged matrons protest that by his plays their daughers are tempted to "fling aside their guarded virtue," the reason is that they have been misled by his mask. Mr. Coward has nothing in common with Wycherley. His kettle, whose lid came off in Post Mortem, is—or was when he was younger—seething with indignations. His spiritual parentage is Shavian, not in the Restoration. He has Mr. Shaw's love of preaching by paradox. It gives him delighted satisfaction to explain that Design for Living, which, as he says, "must appear to be definitely antisocial," is not a design for living at all except in its application to its three characters, and that the title was "ironic rather than dogmatic." Just as Mr. Shaw conceals his intellectual purpose with buffoonery, so Mr. Coward keeps his emotional enthusiasms in check by dressing them up in the guise by which matrons are shocked. Neither can help it. It is their style, and their style is part of their nature; but neither is unaware that it pays.

"It pays"—the saying is not intended as a taunt. It means only, in its application to Mr. Coward, that he is a man of the theatre, not a detached artist who does not think, while he works, in terms of an audience's response. This is the second key to his work. "The original motive for Cavalcade," he says, "was a long-cherished ambition to write a big play on a big scale and to produce it at the London Coliseum"; and it is plain enough here and in Bitter Sweet that the theatre is for him not an instrument of his writing but an integral part of his artistic process. Whereas other dramatists, perceiving that dramatic art is cooperative, think of themselves, with actors and producers, as collaborating in it, Mr. Coward sees the whole thing as a unity within himself. He does not so much paint a picture in collaboration with others as supply, in his text, an under-painting or design that his own acting and production shall complete. For this reason his plays are extremely difficult to read, even when they are extremely good plays. And there are three other consequences of his unique theatrical completeness: first, that it gives to his work its extraordinary individuality; second, that it offers to him unrivalled experimental opportunity; third, that it makes everything a little too easy for him. One is tormented by the thought that he is for ever drinking his wine before it is fully matured.

He remains the liveliest figure in the theatre. His peril is that his hatred of sentimentality, coupled with a desire at all costs not to find himself entrenched on the side of those whom he used to call the "grown-ups," becomes now and then a form of sentimentality and misleads him. It is, too, a difficult choice that he has, or had, to make between a mask which, however brilliant, obscures his truth while theatrically recommending it, and the concealed face of personal emotion which, if stripped as it was in Post Mortem, cannot be certainly controlled. If he is content to mellow and can by self-discipline reach a point at which he lays aside his mask without losing his head, a great play may be the result. Everything is there—talent, insight, boldness of thought; but he is entangled by a peculiar form of self-consciousness which leads him to distrust the charities of his own mind.

"Mr. Noel Coward," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1934; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 1703, September 20, 1934, p. 633.

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