(Sir) Noël (Pierce) Coward

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W. Somerset Maugham

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 726

It is in his dialogue that Mr. Coward has shown himself something of an innovator, for in his construction he has been content to use the current method of his day; he has deliberately avoided the epigram that was the fashion thirty years ago (when an early play of mine, Lady Frederick, was bought by Mr. George Tyler he told me that it was not epigrammatic enough, so I went away and in two hours wrote in twenty-four), and has written dialogue that is strictly faithful to fact. It does not only represent everyday language but reproduces it. No one has carried naturalistic dialogue further than he. (p. viii)

Dialogue has gradually been growing more natural. It was inevitable that some dramatist should eventually write dialogue that exactly copied the average talk, with its hesitations, mumblings and repetitions, and broken sentences, of average people. I do not suppose anyone can ever do this with more brilliant accuracy than Mr. Coward. My only objection to it is that it adds greatly to the difficulty of the author's task. It is evident that when he represents dull and stupid people they will be as stupid and dull on the stage as in real life and they will bore us in the same way. When he exposes his theme or joins together the various parts of his story (and I should think it was impossible to write a play in which certain explanations, of no interest in themselves, can be avoided) he will only with difficulty hold the attention of his audience. The author limits himself to characters who are in themselves exciting or amusing and to a theme which is from the beginning of the first act to the end of the last naturally absorbing. It is asking a great deal…. On the other hand I do not think it can be denied that when a scene is dramatic naturalistic dialogue vastly enhances its effectiveness. You have a very good example in the last scene of the second act of Easy Virtue. Its dramatic value is greatly heightened by the perfect naturalness of the dialogue. In the same play the value of the beautifully drawn character of Marian Whittaker is increased by the absolute fidelity with which her conversation is reproduced. I do not know that Mr. Coward has ever created a personage more vivid, pathetic, abominable and true than this. When the characters and the theme allow, as in Hay Fever, the naturalistic dialogue can produce a masterpiece in miniature. But I have an impression that Mr. Coward has gone as far as anyone can go in this direction. A blank wall faces him…. I wonder if the current fashion to be slangy and brief and incoherent has not blinded the dramatists to the fact that a great many people do talk grammatically, do choose their words, and do make use of expressions that on the stage would be thought "bookish." It has seemed to me that during the last twenty years or so the increase of reading has affected current speech…. The present mode in dialogue debars the writer from introducing into his play educated people who express themselves in an educated way. It may be true that the English are a tongue-tied people but are they so tongue-tied as all that?… Stage dialogue has been simplified out of relation with all life but that of the cocktail bar. It seems to me a great loss. (pp. viii-xi)

After all copying life, representation, is merely an aesthetic procedure like another: naturalism is no more to be preferred to formalism than a leg of mutton is to be preferred to a sirloin of beef. Now that naturalistic dialogue has been carried as far as it can go I cannot but think it might be worth trying a dialogue that does not reproduce the conversation of the day and only very vaguely represents it, but is deliberately and significantly formal. And since the future of the English drama is in the hands of Mr. Noel Coward this … with my blessing is the suggestion I offer him. (pp. xii-xiii)

W. Somerset Maugham, "Introduction" (copyright, 1929, by Doubleday, Doron & Company, Inc., and renewed 1957 by W. Somerset Maugham, reprinted by permission of the Literary Estate of W. Somerset Maugham), in Bitter Sweet and Other Plays by Noel Coward, Doubleday, 1929, pp. v-xiii.

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