(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward The Times Literary Supplement - Essay

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 988 words.)