(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: 705

Whatever other enduring value [The Lyrics of Noël Coward] may turn out to possess, it will always be a fascinating document for the student of theatrical history of the past four and a half decades. For Mr. Coward has always managed to swim so blandly and with such admirable judgment against the current that his actual position at any given time has remained firmly in the centre of the stream, even if obstinately facing in the opposite direction. By deft manipulation of the journalistic properties of any decade he gives his rhymes a patina of polished up-to-dateness which covers an enduring and unchanging nostalgia. But Mr. Coward is clever enough to realize that nostalgia is not "sophisticated", and goes out of his way to dress it in a mild irony. Over and over again, from the almost unbroken series of shows for which Mr. Coward has written songs, emerges one on the general theme, "Let's get away from it all"; "it all" in this connexion usually meaning London traffic and popular journalism….

This pattern allows Mr. Coward not only to list his current social hates but also to include a wry defensive smile at the "escapism" of the singer. And it is interesting to find that these particular songs are almost as relevant to this decade as they were to the decades in which they were written….

Mr. Coward is particularly adept in the exploitation of sentimental cliché, but this is where the flat printed page lets him down completely in presentation. Without the bland sardonic intonation, the dead-pan emphasized delivery, the reader may well wonder why it seemed worthwhile to anyone to preserve the old "June-moon-tune" routine, and judge Mr. Coward to be softer than he is. For in fact Mr. Coward's underlying nostalgia is not for any other time, or any other place, but for the illusory world of the theatre. All his characters, his attitudes, are of the theatre, theatrical. Uncle Harry, Mrs. Worthington, Lisette, even the Mad Dogs and Englishmen, never really existed on sea or land but they have appeared in one form or another on the stage for many decades. Which is why Mr. Coward's satire is of the kind that makes the purported victims giggle or guffaw. Mr. Coward intuitively realized that the upper-class are inherently masochistic, and has proved himself triumphantly, in his suave Riviera and Las Vegas image, the purger of their guilt. He only burlesques stock theatrical characters in the same way as he burlesques stock theatrical forms. Only middle-aged femininity, in Britain and America, seems to arouse in him a genuine, if controlled, savagery.

To the technical limitations of this volume, the author gives us the clue himself in his introduction. Since music and words are nearly always composed simultaneously (with the tune possibly providing the guiding influence), the perfect rhythmic fusion which he often achieves is lost on the reader without a retentive memory or a musical ear. Mr. Coward very properly calls his innate verbal talent "the compulsion to make rhymes", for nearly all his lyrics formally hinge on a complicated scheme of internal and serpentine resonances of rhyme. He specializes in the cursive, syncopated line suddenly melodically suspended on a heavily accented monosyllable to which a chain of internal rhymes has led up:

              A room with a view—and you
              And no one to give advice,
              That sounds a paradise—few
              Could fail to choose.

That is how he prints it, and of course nobody who did not recollect the melody could possibly appreciate the technical subtlety of the musical pointing. Nor, it must be said, have the words here, or in the greater part of this volume, very much significance without it.

Mr. Noël Coward is a supreme performer, and to extract any one thread from the total texture is to unravel the overall pattern, and make his achievement seem less than it has been. However, the impression derived from the notes is irresistible that one reader at least is going to be wholly satisfied with this volume, and that is the author.

"Opium of the Upper Classes," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3313, August 26, 1965, p. 731.

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