Swans Commentary » swans.com October 20, 2008  



The Letters Of Noel Coward


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



The Letters of Noel Coward, edited by Barry Day, Albert Knopf Inc. ISBN 978-0-375-42303-1, 780 pages.


(Swans - October 20, 2008)   My arrival in England in the mid-1950s coincided with the arrival of the so-called "New Wave," the headliners of which were John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Harold Pinter, and John Arden. Brits had recovered from the trauma of the Second World War and harbored a resentment that its tragedy was in some way connected to the class system and that its politics were run by inefficient upper-class snobs who uniformly exploited the working classes. The disenchanted minority grew exponentially and began to demand radical challenges to what had always been referred to as (but now with a certain grim irony) Great Britain.

This sea change produced a climate which it was hard for the elitists to ignore as theatres such as the Royal Court and Joan Littlewood's Theater Workshop established new beachheads that threatened the West End. The so-called "kitchen-sink" drama began to replace those brittle plays set in stately homes encircled by French windows that opened on to well-manicured gardens. Bourgeois playwrights like Noel Coward, Terence Rattigan, and William Douglas Home became "the enemies." Magazines such as Encore and Plays & Players scoffed at their narrow, hermetically-isolated view of English life and demanded something rougher, less tonsured, more in keeping with the working-class enlightenment that would shortly sweep the Labor Party back into power. In the pages of Encore, a new generation of reviewers aimed their weaponry at the Establishment playwrights and unleashed fusillades of bitter criticism. Noel Coward, and everything he stood for (i.e., urbanity, privilege, snobbery), had not only to be censured, but demolished to make way for the rampaging works of the New Wave.

It was in this belligerent climate that my animus against Noel Coward was weaned. I was too young and callow to realize that the denunciation of that "older theatre" was as unfair as the New Wave would turn out to be preachy, polemical, and over-hyped. It took me several decades to recognize that there was as much craftsmanship, subtlety, and genius in the works of that suave Englishman who was pitilessly belittled for having only "a talent to amuse."

To an extent, I am using this review in order to atone for the hot-headed youth who demonized a movement that should never have been indiscriminately savaged; who has come to believe that there is a richness and delicacy in plays like "Private Lives," "Blithe Sprit," and "Design For Living," which are every whit as subtle and laudable as that found in "Look Back In Anger," "The Entertainer," "The Homecoming," "No Man's Land," or "Roots." (If Noel were alive today, I can easily imagine him replying: "No need to crawl, dear boy. We all make mistakes in the stupidity of youth.")

Barry Day's The Letters of Noel Coward has made it virtually impossible for any future biographer even to attempt to set down the life and times of Noel Coward. All the highs and lows of that roller-coaster life, all the events from the frivolous '20s to the daemonic '60s, are lucidly captured in the letters gathered by Day in this voluminous collection. It is through the preserved voices of people such as Gertrude Lawrence, Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Marlene Dietrich, Alexander Woolcott, Somerset Maugham, Lord and Lady Mountbatten, and Winston Churchill that both the milestones and minutiae of the 20th century come zingingly alive.

Many of these letters are from Coward to his mother Violet who emerges from its pages like a kind of sacred goddess to whom Coward regularly made obeisance -- describing his strivings, blights, confusions, and achievements. The maternal lap was regularly sodden with all the vicissitudes that comprised the son's life; an Oedipus complex that would have kept Freud occupied for decades.

The book is somewhat erratic, jumping about in time and preferring to describe the full trajectory of prominent friendships, (Gertrude Lawrence, The Lunts, Marlene Dietrich) causing the reader to jump backward and forward in time. But it is a device that enables Day to record the key relationships with a certain compactness that justifies the oddball sequence. Despite these jump cuts the narrative proceeds in a more or less chronological order and even where it detours provides a pleasant diversion.

There is a heartbreaking exchange of letters between Marlene Dietrich and Coward about her tortured love affair with Yul Brynner that reveals a fragility of feeling on the part of the film star, which one would never discern from that cold, Germanic, self-possessed beauty. Her inability to accept aging (which has been chronicled elsewhere) emerges as a tormented soap opera that is too heartbreaking to be merely sloughed off as a folie de grandeur. Coward reveals a profoundly empathic side to his nature in his replies to Marlene's virtual breakdown and one sees him firmly providing stability as her life is noisily unraveling.

The strain of working with the whimsically egoistical Gertrude Lawrence is caught beautifully in the exchange of letters between the playwright and his most notable playing partner. Much of this dwindles into showbiz chatter but even that, in the hands of a stylist like Coward, makes the pages fly by.

By the time the British New Wave had kicked in, the world in which Noel Coward had flourished for over 50 years had disappeared. Not only had the social issues changed radically in the mid-1950s, there was also a new language (working-class cockney argot), a new music (rock 'n roll), a new politics (the New Left). Coward's blasé, privileged, hermetically isolated society was being assailed by longhaired hippies, protesting students, and face-painted rebels who were repulsed by English gentility and ashamed of what England had become. All the while, Coward was hobnobbing with royalty on Mediterranean yachts surrounded by people who fondly recalled "Bitter Sweet," "Private Lives," and "The Year of Grace" but who found it almost impossible to reconcile themselves to skiffle, strip clubs and raucous, antiwar demos in Trafalgar Square. To Noel and his circle, complacency had become a way of life and they couldn't recognize the riven, vengeful, post-war country England had become.

The period of Coward's rapid descent in the 1960s and '70s is particularly heartbreaking because the ascent had been so dazzling. The reviews were woundingly negative with much of the wartime resentment against the playwright coloring the bad notices. It was as if Coward was being punished for refusing to acknowledge the new world in which he felt very much not at home. It was a tension aggravated by the fact that he chose to live away from England -- in Jamaica, Bermuda, and later in Switzerland -- to escape the crippling taxation in the UK. Whereas the fact was the excessive taxation on artists was punishing and resented by a multitude of actors, writers, and directors who, like Coward, were forced into temporary exile. Although separated from his homeland, Coward never thought of himself as having abandoned either England or English concerns. "Since 1948," he wrote, "I have spent, on the average, less than three months a year in England. This place (Jamaica) gives me peace and time to think and time to write." All of his work in foreign climes were always about some aspect or other of English life and initially performed on English soil.

Barry Day doesn't harp on Coward's homosexuality but gingerly takes it in his stride. The "dandy" socializes with gay stars such as Ivor Novello, Alfred Lunt, Cary Grant, and Randolph Scott, but also rubs shoulders with Lord and Lady Mountbatten and grandees from Europe and Asia. He is treated like a kind of rollicking phenomenon, one who regularly amuses and always displays perfect manners. One feels he is as enamored with aristocrats as he is with theatre gypsies and equally at home with intellectuals such as Alexander Woolcott, G.B. Stern, Somerset Maugham, or Bernard Shaw. If he is a snob -- which he often is -- it is a snobbery rooted in populist principles. For Coward, the only sin is boredom and from that he flees like the hare from the hounds.

The letters from l939 through the Second World War reveals a heroic side which is both uncharacteristic and eye-opening. He was recruited by British Intelligence to be a pair of roving ears in various foreign lands but sworn to silence about the assignment. As a result, he had to endure cavils and insults from the British press who believed the suave, superficial, snobistic entertainer was not really doing his part in the war effort whereas, along with fellow moles Leslie Howard and Cary Grant, he was secretly immersed in useful intelligence-gathering. In this connection, Barry Day reveals two truly horrifying anecdotes about wartime British Intelligence:

They knew, for example, that Coventry was to be bombed on a certain night but to warn the citizens and attempt an evacuation would have been to tell the enemy how they knew. Coventry was bombed, with massive lost of life. Perhaps even more devastating, since it was a personal loss, was the knowledge ...that the plane that Leslie Howard was taking from Lisbon was to be shot down and that there was nothing to be done but let it happen.

Coward's façade was a useful disguise during this period but, being sworn to secrecy, he had to endure the barbs of the British press who persisted in seeing him as an airy-fairy international jetsetter oblivious to the dangers Britain was facing during the war. Quite the opposite from the truth, and one that caused Coward some wrenching heart-pangs during the 1940s. He was dramatically rehabilitated in the eyes of both Americans and the British after writing and acting in his film "In Which We Serve," which was hailed as one of the most affecting, and inspiring pieces of national patriotism to come out of the World War Two.

But once the 1960s roared out of their cradle, all of that was forgotten. Coward was considered passé -- as much by himself as the British public. He couldn't abide the "kitchen sink" dramas of John Osborne and Arnold Wesker but was a quiet fan of Harold Pinter, in whose work he found the same charged economy of means that characterized his own best work. "You cheerfully break every rule of the theatre that I was brought up to believe in," he wrote to Pinter in l965, "except the cardinal one of never boring for a split-second. I love your choice of words, your resolute refusal to explain anything and the arrogant, but triumphant demands you make on the audience's imagination. I can well see why some clots hate it, but I belong to the opposite camp -- if you will forgive the expression."

But Coward firmly believed the current lot of critics loathed his work and it was a prejudice he could not overcome no matter what sort of play he wrote. In one of his letters, reacting to his producer's cool reaction to his ambitious play "Volcano" (which has yet to be given a fully staged, professional production), a piqued Noel complains:

There is also this prevailing idea that the only people worth considering in serious plays are those who either live in squalor or, at the highest, do their own housework and take the washing to the launderette. The slightly more leisured classes are presumed to be acceptable to an audience when in a farce or light comedy but not when their deeper emotions are involved.

Noel had been living for so long in a stratospheric social realm, he was unable fully to appreciate the class breakdown that had transformed the English stage. He construed the lives of people like Jimmy Porter in "Look Back in Anger" as an incursion of vulgarity into polite society rather than what it was: the emergence of a British social stratum which had been excluded from the theatre for almost a century.

Under Olivier's leadership of The National Theatre, Coward's most successful comedies returned to the repertoire and there was a gradual, somewhat grudging, reappraisal of his talent -- followed by a belated celebration of his true stature. The revivals revealed not only "a talent to amuse" but an uncanny grasp of human folly and vulnerability. His later works such as "Waiting In The Wings," "South Sea Bubble," "Suite In Three Keys" never achieved the status of his early comedies but the gold minted in the 1920s and '30s placed him alongside Congreve, Wycherley, Vanbrugh, and Etheridge. There is in Coward, as there was in those l8th century wits, not only brilliant wordplay, but the unveiling of human folly and social connivance which is the very staple of comedy. He, like his Restoration forbears, revealed the guile, frailty and hypocrisy that lurked behind respectable English façades.

By excavating the private correspondence of Coward and his circle, Barry Day has revealed aspects of the personality that could only be suggested in formal biographies. Here, in his own idiosyncratic style, we have The Man Himself and he emerges far more sympathetic and serious minded than he has previously been limned. Snobbish, yes; bitchy, pretentious, supercilious? -- Guilty as charged! But behind all that, an industrious artisan, a patriotic Englishman, faithful friend, a first class playwright and an incorrigible wit.


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Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Published October 20, 2008